Conversations with… Danni Shepherd AKA Pandora Belle (Subject: Acting, Modelling and Body Image)

At a family wedding when I was younger, I was scouted a a model. I was an incredibly shy, awkward child, conscious of my birthmark and the fact that I had hit puberty young. My mum politely said no, but I have always wondered what would have happened if she had said yes. Would I have been successful? Would anything really have come of it? Would I have been confident or would my insecurities have become even more crippling than they already were?

Modelling has always been something that interested me. Flicking through pages of glossy magazines or scrolling through Instagram felt like looking into another world, a world where everyone was tiny and impossibly beautiful. Models didn’t feel like real people – they felt like something else entirely.

After being introduced to model and actress Danni Shepherd, also known as Pandora Belle, I couldn’t wait to read Danni’s answers and find out more about those two intriguing industries. There is no denying that Danni is incredibly beautiful, that her portfolio is daring, diverse and varied and full of the most stunning shots, but interviewing Danni showed that she is so much more than the photos. She is a cheerleader of other women, a self confidence advocate and someone who has overcome a lot to stand confidently in front of a camera and create the stunning images that she does. Danni’s interview gives an insight into the worlds of acting and modelling, a world we don’t usually see, but also into the strength it takes to be a model and an actress. I finished reading it feeling pumped and ready to take on the world – I hope you walk away with that same feeling too.

How did you get into a career in modelling and acting?

Acting has been something I have done from a young age and I always wanted to pursue it as a career. Whilst I was studying, I found acting extremely rewarding. I had the chance to fly to a different country to work on a movie as well as being cast in a feature about bullying. This year, it has been difficult to maintain my acting alongside modelling and working full time in a bar. I do love acting but I am quite picky with the characters I want to portray now. I won’t just accept any “movie” to work on – it has to be something that is going to reward me and my career.

I originally started modelling about 4 years ago as a hobby to increase my confidence shortly after leaving a not-so-nice relationship. I had recently beat an eating disorder so I wanted to gain back the confidence I had taken from me. It’s been a very tough journey but I wouldn’t change a thing about it because if I didn’t go through what I did, I wouldn’t be where I am now surrounded by amazing friends, photographers, filmmakers and having the chance to network with people all over the world.

You model under the alter ego Pandora Belle. How would you describe her and how does ‘becoming’ her help you when you are modelling?

Pandora Belle is almost a character I escape to whenever I am in front of the camera. I found having a stage name was important because it gave me an escape when I need one. Most importantly, it gives you that little extra push in front of the camera because you are no longer riddled with self doubt because you left that person at home. I thought people would laugh at me for creating a stage name but they didn’t. Everybody has always been understanding and even if they weren’t, it’s none of their business. Your art is your craft and if you want to make it work, you will figure out ways to do that. I find having her helps.

From what is known of the modelling industry, it is very competitive and models are often subjected to harsh criticism about their appearance, especially about things such as their weight. How do you deal with negative appearance based feedback?

This was always the biggest downfall for me. People telling you to look a certain way when you are already struggling feeling like you are not good enough is not a healthy combination. I spent years of my life trying to battle with my own demons as well as listening to other people and their expectations of me. I have suffered from eating disorders in the past and even now I still struggle. I always checked calories, counted how many I’d burnt off at the gym and if I didn’t reach a target by the end of the session, I’d do it again until I did. I never rewarded myself after with food but with water. I relied on water when I didn’t eat a lot and it made me incredibly ill.

The fact that someone’s negative comment can leave an imprint in your brain just goes to show how dangerous unkind words can be. I have learnt to deal with that a lot better over the years and whenever someone has insulted my appearance or said I wasn’t good enough, I laugh. I look at the pros of my life and the pros of their life and it makes you realise it is all down to jealousy. People do not like seeing people succeed so if one hurtful comment can bring someone down a notch, they will do that in relation to feeling almost as though they have “won”.

The best thing I do is write a journal and keep a track record of how I am doing. It really has worked for me. You almost become your own counsellor once you know your worth and that is all it takes for you to pull through.

It sounds like you have learnt to appreciate your self worth which is a really important lesson to have learnt, even if it is not easy. How has having a career so focused on appearance impacted your mental health?

It’s real tough, there’s no sugarcoating it. I am quite a weak person when it comes to my appearance. I try not care but it’s something I have always and will always struggle with. The best thing I ever did was focus on self care and I’d give that advice to anyone. Give yourself that little bit of time a week to make yourself feel good and focus on your wellbeing. I know that I will be no good to anybody if I don’t love or care for myself. Nobody is perfect, even the people we find fascinating and look up to. The biggest fault you could have is not giving yourself enough credit. It’s not about who is the “skinniest” or who has the “best body” because that isn’t what modelling should be about – it’s about who is the most confident, who tries the best and who is glowing the most. Always be you. Nobody is ever going to be able to replace you as you are your own person and nobody has the same wonderful traits you do.

Have there ever been any moments where you have thought ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’?

Yes, lots of times, especially when I have been trying to battle with my mental health as well as trying to earn a living on top of trying to build a career. It’s all about your support network – if you don’t feel you are surrounded by people that support you then you need to find a new circle because support is the one thing that keeps a model and actress going.

It is one of the toughest industries to work in because you find yourself back at square one a lot. I always remain positive now. If something negative happens to me, I keep my head above water a lot better than I use to. I feel like I have grown an extra layer of skin since working in these environments which is what you need.

A thick skin is definitely something I would argue that anyone in creative industries needs because there are so many knock backs and unnecessary criticisms, such as the stereotype that models are vain and ‘airheads’, a stereotype that still remains even though many models have proven a million and one times that that is not the case. What is your thought of this stereotype and how do you combat this negative stigma?

I have no doubt that a lot of people’s thoughts on models is that they are vain because we can stand in front of a camera and pose confidently. What people don’t realise is that we have built up over the years how to be “self appreciated” and it isn’t necessarily a negative thing – if anything in my opinion it’s good to appreciate yourself and show to the world “if I can do it, so can you!”.

I have been called vain and an airhead at least once since I started my career but you have got to ignore it. People will make you feel like you are arrogant because they don’t have the same level of confidence. It takes time to build an empire and if I can celebrate another person who is doing that then I will stand by their gates waving my pom-poms because that stuff ain’t easy!

Your attitude to yourself and to other people becoming their best self is really refreshing – it’s so positive! Working in such a competitive industry like modelling must be tough, especially one when women are pitted against other women in casting and compared to each other constantly. Why do you think it is important for women to celebrate each other?

It’s incredibly important to be on each other’s sides instead of against each other because it’s so emotionally draining otherwise. As women, we naturally feel we aren’t good enough when we look at other women around us. It’s really strange but it’s just how it is sometimes. I think being kind is the best way to be. I find that commenting on people’s work can make someone’s day and always try to be be supportive. If you celebrate how wonderful we are, how beautiful our bodies are and how amazing we do in our work, it can have a huge positive impact on somebody. Luckily for me, I am surrounded by models and actresses that consistently support one another. We have each other’s support and that’s the most important thing.

It sounds like you are surrounded by a strong group which I think it reflected in the fact that your shoots always look so confident, comfortable and like you have really enjoyed participating in them. To date, what has been your favourite shoot to work on and why?

Oh man! That is a very hard question to answer because every single shoot I have worked on has been incredibly different. I really love art nude, I find the shapes you can create with your body make an image look like it belongs in an art museum! If I can create something that spectacular, it makes me feel like I’ve achieved something. I really don’t have a favourite! You can check out my work via Pandorabelleofficial on Instagram to find what yours would be – everybody’s opinions are different and that’s extremely interesting!

What advice would you give someone who wanted to enter the world of modelling?

REMAIN HUMBLE. Always be kind, always be sincere and always be your best self. Don’t listen to anybody else, do what makes you feel comfortable and don’t exceed to do anything you don’t want to do. Always listen to your gut, always be supportive of yourself and never see anything less in the mirror than someone who is going to do well. Ask questions if you aren’t sure of something. I am always happy to help anybody so don’t hesitate to contact me either! Be realistic with your goals and build your confidence up – you will do amazing.

After battling through insecurities and eating disorders, have you reached a point where you feel confident in your own skin?

I feel the most confident in my skin than I ever have before. It’s all about self care, confidence building activities, writing down your good traits, understanding that you are your own person and nobody could ever replace you. You will leave a mark on anything no matter what direction you take, so just make sure it’s positive one. If you feel some images or some acting footage wasn’t to your standard, write down what you could potentially do better and try it out. Surround yourself with “feel good people” – the people that flood you with positivity are people to be around.

It is brilliant that you now feel like that about yourself. If you ever have an ‘off’ day, how do you boost yourself back up again?

There are one hundred things I do now than I would never have thought of doing before, like writing, taking up a hobby, calling a friend, going for a long walk, doing makeup or planning another shoot. I am forever trying to keep busy, even when I am not having a bad day, because I find it useful and it makes me feel like I have accomplished something with my day.

When I have had incredibly bad days with feeling unattractive or really down, I talk to someone. Sometimes it’s better to let things out rather than keep them inside. Taking vitamin supplements can help, too, and exercising. You can do absolutely anything once you push yourself!

If you could sum up your outlook on life in one statement, what would it be?

Life is made up of a million jigsaw pieces. We spend most of our time piecing it together to make it a picture of what our life means, but during this time we won’t be able to piece anything together if we do not believe we can do it. ‘Believe’ is a word most positive influencers use but it’s because it is the only thing we can do to trick our brains into having a positive influence on our lives. Believe that you piece your life together, fit together the pieces that are meant to go be in place and let the rest do it for you.

If you know in your heart what you want to do with your life – and let’s face it, everybody has something they want to do before they die – fixate on that one goal and bring your dreams to reality. We can sit and daydream about things we want to achieve but there is no time like the present. If you’re going to do something, act upon it sooner rather than later so you can get a head start. You will look back and be proud you pushed yourself. You will find yourself facing the toughest obstacles but seeing the most beautiful outcomes. Keep going – you get a choice whether to be a star in a galaxy or the sun in the galaxy. Keep growing and become your own leader. You will go further than you think.

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