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Fashion and People with Disabilities

Christine Balaguera - Diversity in Fashion

Christine Balguera Doesn’t Let Being Deaf Hold Her Back!

The latest Australian Fashion Week seemed to tick more boxes for diversity in fashion than ever before. Yet for people with disabilities, there is still a way to go. Although Sydney-based model Christine Balaguera was born deaf, she’d always dreamed of becoming a model. At 15, she was spotted by an agent who wasn’t concerned about her disability. Modelling before she arrived in Australia, she experienced success and positive exposure by entering beauty pageants in her country of birth, the Philippines. We had loads of questions to ask her about how she broke into the industry and what it’s like to be modelling as a person with a disability. Here’s her story.

Tell us about your experience at Miss World Philippines.

I entered Miss World Philippines on the advice of my manager and won the title of Miss Friendship. That win allowed me to participate in the biggest pageant, Miss Binibining (which has been won by Miss Universe Pia Wurtzbach and Miss Universe Catriona Gray). It’s also the feeder event to Miss Universe Philippines. The event organisers did their best to cater to my needs. There was an interpreter present that would interpret what the MC and event staff were saying and also relay my words. It went smoothly and it’s a testament to them as in 2014 there wasn’t the awareness we have today.

And you also entered Miss Manila?

Similar to Miss World Philippines, Miss Manila is an important pageant on the calendar for Filipino pageantry. Manila is not only the largest city in the Philippines but also the capital of media and the arts. The pageant is another big opportunity for launching careers in showbiz and modelling. Although I didn’t win I was so so happy to be crowned 1st Runner-up and it really helped push my image. I think my Miss Manila 1st Runner-up result really got me out there and had people interested in this deaf girl coming out of nowhere.

Tell us about your modelling career before coming to Australia

After my pageants I was doing modelling work in the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand. Modelling in Asia while being deaf was very challenging especially when not everyone can speak English and it’s their first time dealing with someone that is deaf. 

Why did you come to Australia?

I hadn’t planned to live in Australia. I originally came as a tourist in 2019 to finally meet my partner’s family as he was constantly flying back and forth for a year to see me. Then COVID-19 started and everything became so uncertain. We decided to make things permanent which turned out to be the right choice. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been able to see each other for two years or more if we hadn’t made that decision.

What have been your biggest hurdles breaking into modelling?

As a deaf model in Australia, the biggest hurdle has definitely been the stigma associated with being deaf in the eyes of those that are ignorant. There are still many people that believe in “Deaf & Dumb”. Sure we are deaf, but we certainly aren’t dumb! In the past I have had jobs booked but then when the client hears that I am deaf, suddenly the job is cancelled. It got to the point that I stopped being excited before a job and only had joy once I was sitting in the makeup chair and preparing for the shoot. 

Congratulations! You’re now under management with Bella Management. Who found who and how?

When I found out I was allowed to work in Australia I contacted a few agencies about representation. I told them who I was and that I am Deaf. BELLA was the agency that chose me and believes in working with people with disabilities. I met with Jason at their office in Sydney and I really believe his love for representation of those without. I know it’s not an easy job and there’s so much to navigate but every step is noticed and appreciated and BELLA is really trying to lead the way.

What are your biggest highlights so far?

Aside from pageant work, the biggest highlight is definitely having a docu-movie made about my life by ABS-CBN the biggest tv network in the Philippines. People recognise me from that all over the country and it warms my heart. 

Do you see yourself as the Public Face of people with disabilities working in fashion?

I don’t see myself as the public face of people with disabilities in fashion, mainly because my disability is not seen. But I would love to be the face because I am truly proud of who I am and want others to be proud of their disability. It’s one reason I always note on my social media accounts that I am deaf. It’s to show other deaf people that I am not hiding who I am and that they can be proud of their deafness, or disability, too.

In your opinion what can be done to make fashion more inclusive for people with disabilities?

I think the industry is improving with its inclusion but it’s targeting more people with disabilities that can be seen with the eye. Yet people with disabilities that cannot be noticed at a glance make up the vast majority. The industry needs to recognise there is a great untapped market for them that could also benefit the disabled community socially, emotionally and ethically and also potentially open up greater opportunity for business. Really, everyone can benefit.

Tell us about some of the attitudes you have faced where people have failed to give you opportunities because of their own ignorance about your disability.

As I said earlier I have had a job cancelled when the client has realised that I am Deaf. I have had events where they think that because I can’t hear I can’t participate in dancing aspects of the event. There have been instances where photographers have said that communicating to me is “too hard”. However, I think in Asia there is greater ignorance in regards to people with a disability and Australia does a lot better in this regard from my experiences so far. 

What would you tell those people who are ignorant about people with disabilities?

I would tell them to open their minds and see that we are in 2022. We are in an era of acceptance of those who are different and a time of improvement for minority groups in society. I would tell them to give people a chance.

What advice would you give hearing people about working with you?

Treat me like you would anyone else. Remember that I can’t hear, but I can still laugh and would love to know the joke you just told! But seriously, I am patient with those who can hear and I just ask that you are patient with me and we can help each other.

Tell us about what you’re focussing on at the moment.

At the moment with the help of BELLA I am trying to build a profile for myself in Australia. I am attending as many events as I can so I can meet people in the industry here and show myself. I’ve already met so many amazingly kind people and it really gives me big hope that I’ll have the success I crave so much!

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