Retirement Redesigned

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Friday, May 7, 2021

Retirement Redesigned

HomeProfileDeborah Darling: You're never too old and it's never too late

Deborah Darling: You’re never too old and it’s never too late

In the first of a series of profiles, we get to know Deborah Darling, a late blossoming silver hair model and pro-age advocate at 58 with a message that we are never too old, and it's never too late.

Johann and Deborah met up over zoom.

Johann: Deborah, you reset your life in your 50s, tell us a little about how did it?

Deborah: I had worked all my life in and around IT departments as a technical writer and software tester. And the change came when I allowed my hair to be silver. I started getting a lot of interest from people about that change. Friends then encouraged me to see if I could try modelling which I did. Late one night, I googled agencies for mature models and uploaded a couple of photographs and pushed the “apply” button. I always tell people that you should never leave a granny with an internet connection unsupervised because you never know what will happen!

And that’s how I got started. I did some TV commercials and other modelling jobs. I was finding my voice and I started talking to women about it not being too late. Being over 50 or over 60, or any age really, is not a death knell. It’s not all over.

And that’s what I consider my job to be now. I call myself a pro-ageing ambassador. The great thing is that I get to tell women that it’s OK to be older and I hope that message is empowering for them.

I always tell people that you should never leave a granny with an internet connection unsupervised because you never know what will happen!

Johann: So, the change in your hair was a type of trigger. The question is, should other people who are trying to reset their lives also have a kind of trigger or motivation? What do you think?

Deborah: Well, I also made a change in terms of my fitness as I was leading up to 50. A young male colleague of mine at the time made a throw-away comment that I was past my ‘sell-by date’. He didn’t mean it to be unkind, but it still cut. Suddenly, I felt the pressure of turning 50 because it was this looming spectre of the end of things. I decided to take hold of my fitness, and became a lot more active. That really did help a lot with my transformation. I took a few other radical steps. I left the job I’d been at for 20 odd years and went overseas for a few months. So I suppose I did take steps to make changes, though I never imagined that I would be doing this.

The great thing is that I get to tell women that it’s OK to be older and I hope that message is empowering for them.

Johann: What element of your personality would you say made this happen? 

Deborah: I’ve always been a good communicator. That was always part of my job. At the time, I was practising it in the IT space with writing articles and documents. The fact that I can communicate well is probably the key thing. 

When I first joined Instagram, I had no idea what it was. I was prompted by a friend to post some of my photos. So having communication skills came in handy when needing to present myself to people. I’m all over social media now, and this is what has catapulted me to the front of people’s minds.

Johann: There’s no college or training program or course that will teach you how to be able to do the things you’ve done

Deborah: Or to guide you! People say I’ve had a radical transformation and it’s true, I have, but when I look at the things I’m doing now, it’s really a culmination of all the things I’ve learnt and experienced. I’ve always loved dressing to express myself. I’ve always loved talking to people, and I’ve always been around technology. So I’m just using the skills I’ve been working on all along.

Johann: I think you’ve done that quite well.

Deborah: Yes, Accidentally! But I think you’re right; we need something to help people, to say that it’s not too late. To assist them in uncovering that power that they can use in the next phase.

Johann: One of the things we talk about is that when people retire, they lose the structure and routine that they are used to operating in. How do you maintain productivity and output outside of the structure of the job you worked in for 20 years?

Deborah: It’s not easy because I am used to being in an office all day. Although I do go to a place where I can sit and work, it is difficult. It’s very different. I never thought that I’d be working for myself and I’m still learning new skills all the time. At the moment I’m in the process of starting an online shop. So I’m learning a lot to get that right.

Johann: While I was reading your blog posts, I came across the bit where you talk about the need to be brave. Tell me about that.

Deborah: For years, I was in my comfortable life, a comfort zone. And when I did my reassessment of things around the time of turning 50, I realised that I hadn’t extended myself and stepped into the fear. I thought that if you were nervous about something, it was an indication that you shouldn’t be doing it.

Whereas now, I’m constantly terrified. Constantly! People say to me, ‘you’re so confident’, but I’m actually terrified by the things I do, but I do them anyway. I’ve learnt that you have to be frightened. If you’re not a little frightened, you’re probably falling short of what you should be doing. When you’re doing it, it’s hard. It can be easy to let the opportunity slip by and say, “I can’t do that. I’ve never done that before.” I’m learning to step into the fear because I know that on the other side is where the good things are.

If you’re not a little frightened, you’re probably falling short of what you should be doing.

Johann: You come across as a confident person. Is this a true reflection of how you feel?

Deborah: I don’t know that I’m as confident as I appear. I wracked with self-doubt, which might be surprising to people. I’m not shy or nervous, but I’m not always confident. I just know I have to put on a brave face sometimes and do it. 

Johann: I guess this is where your good communication skills come in handy again. So many people fear making small talk at cocktail parties.

Deborah: One of the misconceptions about me is that people think I’m very extroverted, the life and soul of the party. But I’m more of an observer. If I’m at a party, I’m more comfortable if I can chat with one person. It requires a deep breath to go to unknown places.

Johann: I’ve realised working with mostly men, heading towards 60 and towards retirement that they have a sudden need to pass on their knowledge to others and a need to give back somehow. Are you involved in anything like that?

Deborah: I think that what I do is mostly that. What you see of me on social media is not even 50% of what I do. People reach out to me all the time, and I’m always in conversation with someone who is asking for advice. My job isn’t looking pretty and saying you can be nearly 60 and you can still look good. My job is really about encouraging women to believe in themselves and to find the beauty and possibility in themselves. That’s my job, that’s what I do. I have very high engagement on my social media, which isn’t something you might see. It’s behind the scenes. I spend hours each day answering questions, emails and talking to people.

My job is really about encouraging women to believe in themselves and to find the beauty and possibility in themselves.

Johann: When people reach out to you, what is the sort of thing that they ask?

Deborah: Well, there are a lot of questions about how to do their hair! And 

then people also say things like, ‘I’d like to change my life.’, ‘I’d like to be a model.’ ‘I don’t have confidence, what can I do to gain some’. I get asked all sorts of things.

Johann: What do you say to them?

Deborah: I say more or less what I’ve said to you. We have to be brave, and we have to do that thing we want to do. Take one small step toward the thing you have in mind – the job you want, the town you want to move to – take that first step. I’m not a coach, so I’m not qualified to give real advice, but I can encourage people to take one small step in the direction they want to go. I’m here to listen, to be a sounding board and to encourage people. 

What I find is such a shame is that as women, we are taught to feel bad about ourselves the minute we develop a wrinkle. And it progresses the older we get. I make sure my wrinkles are visible – I don’t smooth them out, and I don’t use filters. Because my message is that it’s OK. It’s OK to have wrinkles and silver hair and to be older. That’s a big part of my message. 

We really do feel bad about ourselves and the ageing process. It does affect men too, but it’s more prevalent amongst women.

Johann: Is it about low self-esteem?

Deborah: My mum covered her grey hair religiously every two weeks. You could see the panic when she spotted a silver hair – putting stuff on to hide it. As surely as she did it, I got the message that it’s a bad thing to have grey hair. It’s a terrible thing to look older. 

Is it? These were messages we received as youngsters to say that ageing isn’t accepted. I’m here to send a different message. 

Johann: We are much involved with Baby Boomers – the generation born between 1946 and 1964. In America, data shows that Baby Boomers are retiring at a rate of 10 000 people per day. I’m sure some of them would be interested in making the type of transformation that you have made. What would be your overall piece of advice to Baby Boomers?

Deborah: Well, I am a baby boomer myself. I was born in ’61, so it applies to me too. I’d say, re-evaluate what you’ve been told and what you believe to be true about ageing. There’s life in us yet! We still have much to offer because we have lived life and have experience.

It’s an old chestnut, but it’s true.


You can learn more about Deborah Darling and her story by visiting her website  here.

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