Career

Dancing With The Stars' Jess Quinn: where my inner strength comes from

The Kiwi amputee model and social media star opens up about her journey.

By Judy Bailey

Dancing With The Stars contestant Jess Quinn, who has taken an early lead on the show with partner Jonny Williams, was just nine years old when she was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent groundbreaking surgery to remove her leg and save her life. Here, the Kiwi amputee model and social media star explains how she's using her traumatic experience to help others.

Jess Quinn never planned to be a big thing on Instagram – it "just happened", as have so many things in her life. Beautiful, tall and with a mane of dark wavy hair, the camera loves her. She moves with a slow, easy grace. She is so graceful, in fact, that you'd be hard pressed to tell she walks with the aid of a prosthetic leg.

Jess lost her right leg to bone cancer when she was just nine years old. "I was fooling around with my sister, trying to stand on a ball when I fell off and fractured my femur."

The femur is the largest, strongest bone in the body. It doesn't fracture easily. In excruciating pain, she was taken to hospital, little realising this would be the beginning of a life-changing journey. The break wouldn't heal and four months later an MRI scan revealed cancer.

A gruelling round of chemotherapy followed and still the cancer remained. Eight months after the accident, she weighed just 18kg. Emotionally and physically exhausted, she was about to face an even tougher test.

Jess with her dog Charlie
Jess with her dog Charlie

Doctors decided to perform a rare "rotationplasty" on the youngster. It was one of the first times such a surgery had been performed in this country. In a 14-hour operation, surgeons cut out the cancerous section of thigh bone, including the knee, then rotated Jess' shin bone and foot and attached it to the hip. The heel then became a working knee. It was an extraordinary medical achievement and one that has allowed Jess to embrace life to the full because her new "knee" allows her a vastly improved range of movement.

The surgery, though, wasn't the end of it. She still had to endure four more months of chemo to make sure the cancer was truly gone. She remembers Christmas Day of that year as her absolute low point. She was in hospital, surrounded by family and presents, but just didn't have the strength to be interested in anyone or anything.

Jess undergoing treatment in hospital on Christmas Day
Jess undergoing treatment in hospital on Christmas Day

Throughout the whole nightmare, her parents, Debby and Jim Quinn, remained relentlessly positive. "I have the most amazing parents. My friends often say, 'I wish they were my parents,'" she tells me proudly. "My mum is very creative and caring. She was a stay-at-home mum for most of my childhood. [She is now an event stylist and florist.] Dad is incredibly smart. [He is currently Chief of Strategy at the Auckland City Council.] They're both lots of fun. Dad is a secret rocker, he's at a concert every second weekend," she laughs.

Positive thinking

The Quinns are a close family. Jess, now 25, is the middle of three daughters. Abby is two years older and Sophie Rose four years younger. Her sisters, Jess says, are her closest confidantes.

She believes very much in the power of the mind. "What got me through was a positive frame of mind. "Mum would always say 'positive thinking!'"

Summoning the constant upbeat message for her daughter can't have been easy, says Jess, as "both my grandfathers had died of cancer".

"I now have so much appreciation of what my parents were going through," she says. "Dad was always there [in the hospital], asking the questions that needed to be asked." But it was Jess' own determination that saw her through. "I'm stoical and very stubborn." She has often said she's glad her cancer occurred when it did. "If it happened now, I know too much. I didn't know any different then. I believe 100 per cent in the inner strength of children. There is huge power in naivety."

She now mentors children going through the same experience. "Kids have amazing resilience, they bounce back. I often take my leg off and show them what it looks like. Mum and Dad play a huge part in the mentoring too."

Jess confides that the toughest time for her mentally was going through puberty. "At 10, I didn't care what I looked like, I just wanted to get back to school and be with my friends. But at intermediate, when my friends were all wearing miniskirts, I didn't want to leave the house. I think it's then that the implications for my future hit me – that, and my body image. That was tough."

She concedes that those closest to her may well have been unaware of her internal struggles. A naturally private person, she says she likes to keep those struggles to herself.

"I've always hated sympathy. I prefer people to let me get on with it and [for them to] get on and do their thing. It got to a point, though, where I could only be down for so long. I realised that dwelling on things wouldn't get me anywhere."

Her prosthetic limb helped her mindset enormously, giving her a sense of normalcy. But the process of adjusting to it was long and painful.

"For five years Band-aids and blister blocks were my best friends."

Always a sporty child, Jess was keen to play netball but took a while to get into team sports. "People assume people with disabilities can't do stuff."

She was determined to prove them wrong and set her sights on the goal-shoot position, where less running is required. Despite being extraordinarily accurate, able to shoot goals from all parts of the circle and beyond, she was constantly put in the lowest team.

"It was so frustrating," she says. Eventually she gave netball away and discovered the gym. In her determined way she says, "If I couldn't do something, I'd find a new way of doing it."

Jess swaps her prosthesis out for a blade when she runs, although she's had to limit how much of that she can do for the moment. She was training for a 10km run but suffered shin splints in her good leg. So any running is off the cards, for now. "There comes a point where you have to make a decision as to how much you're willing to put your body through in order to achieve something. In my mind I achieved that main part of my goal, which was to be able to say I can physically run. Maybe not 10km, but I can put one foot in front of the other and run – which for now is enough."

Her prosthetic leg removed
Her prosthetic leg removed

Her right thigh, though, remains a problem. Self-conscious about it being so much thinner than her other leg, she would wrap it in T-shirts to "flesh" it out when she was younger, only to find they would slip or make lumps under her jeans. It was dad Jim who came up with the idea of asking the prosthetic geniuses at Weta Workshop to make a thigh cover for her. It worked a treat. But as Weta has moved to computer-generated work, replacing it has become difficult. In typical Jess fashion, she has a plan. She has an honours degree in design and, on graduating, went to work designing prosthetic limbs on a 3D printer. She's thinking of applying that knowledge to create something for her thigh.

Huge following

Meanwhile, her social media platform has become a full-time job. It was a general dissatisfaction with how the media portrayed beauty and young women in particular that prompted Jess to organise her first photo shoot for Instagram. "I wanted to help people feel better in their own skin," she explains. "I wanted to change the conversation. Two years ago [when she did the shoot] there wasn't much of a conversation out there about diversity."

Jess got her friends to style and shoot a series of photographs of her wearing her blade. She decided to wear Nike sportswear because Nike sponsor the blades. It wasn't intended to be an ad. But perhaps it should have been, she grins ruefully, as it turned out to be a brilliant piece of marketing, not only for the sportswear giant, but for Jess too.

"We posted the shots on Instagram… and they went mental. After a week I had 10,000 followers, then almost overnight it grew to 50,000." At last count there were more than 160,000 people following @jessicaemilyquinn.

One of the photos posted to Instagram
One of the photos posted to Instagram
Jess performing in Dancing With The Stars with partner Jonny Williams. The pair have taken an early lead on the show.
Jess performing in Dancing With The Stars with partner Jonny Williams. The pair have taken an early lead on the show.

"When I first started modelling I was worried people would only see me as 'the disabled model', but I believe I can help anyone with insecurities. It's easy for me because I don't have a choice. I can't hide… I want to use that vulnerability to help others. It's all about what you can do, not what you can't."

How does she remain so resolutely positive? "One of the strongest things is your mindset. I've only recently learnt that. Give everything a go. We all have something going on in our lives. It's how you push through that counts." And on "down" days? "Don't put pressure on yourself to be strong. Go where your emotions take you. Know that when you break down, that's okay too."

Her Instagram following has caught the eye of major companies and she is currently a brand ambassador for Samsung and Clinique.

2018 promises to be a year of change for Jess. She has just signed with a Los Angeles agency, Natural Models. She will move there mid-year. "LA is open-ended. I'll just go with the flow. I've always had a feeling there's something there for me."

The LA move is a punt, admits Jess, but she is following her own advice.

"Don't be held back by your insecurities. Life's too short."

Appropriate words from a woman whose Instagram account reads: "Jess Quinn, showing cancer who's boss since 2001."

Follow Jess Quinn's wellness journey on her website, beplanbe.com.

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