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Real Life

Kiwi mum's transformation: Jules from MAFS changed my life!'

Tauranga woman Larissa tells how the beloved reality star has inspired her

The morning after her husband left, Larissa Downey wondered if this was as bad as it gets. Not only did her heart feel heavy, but the Tauranga mum was also struggling with her body image, having "doubled in size" since she was a runner-up in Miss Universe New Zealand five years earlier.
And just to make things worse, the 30-year-old was only just emerging from the "deep dark hole" of the postnatal depression that had engulfed her since the birth of her son Carter, now two.
Too "ashamed" to admit she wasn't coping, overwhelmed with tiredness, working full-time and unable to see "a light at the end of the tunnel", Larissa recalls her worst moment when one morning driving to work, she toyed with the idea of driving her car into a concrete barrier.
Although now recovering with counselling, her relationship was a casualty. "It's difficult to live with a person with mental illness," she confesses. "I wasn't the same person."
As she pondered her future on her first day as a single mum, Larissa's phone suddenly rang. The caller was none other than Jules Robinson, the biggest success story of Married at First Sight Australia, who now has a eight-month-old son named Oliver with the husband she met on the show, former Kiwi cricketer Cam Merchant.
Larissa's daily goal is "discovering the beauty in myself".
Jules, 38, now runs successful shapewear company Figur, inspired by her experience of being trolled on the show for being "fat" because she wasn't a size 10. Shocked by the body-shaming, she wants to help women feel confident in clothes and to love their curves, telling Woman's Day, "Sexy is a mindset – not a dress size!"
A fan of MAFS, Larissa had written to Jules months earlier, when Figur was seeking everyday women as brand ambassadors. When she heard Jules' voice on the phone, she was stunned.
"I took it as the universe's way of lifting me up," Larissa smiles. "I'd written to Jules in the middle of the night, spilling my struggle with bullying and postnatal depression. I've always admired her positive outlook.
"I couldn't believe it was her, telling me she was flying me to Sydney. I told her I had just split up with my husband. She replied, 'Pack your bags and when I see you, I'm going to give you a big cuddle!'"
Thanks to counselling, Larissa is loving being a mum to livewire Carter.
Jules found Larissa's letter "inspirational". She adds, "Her battle with self-image and the bullying directed at her weight really resonated with me – and I'm sure it resonates with a lot of women."
New Zealand holds a special place in her heart, says Jules. Cam's mum is from Mount Maunganui and he still has a Kiwi passport. He also played cricket here for Northern Districts, and is still good mates with Black Caps stars Kane Williamson and Trent Boult.
After their onscreen wedding, he and Jules honeymooned in the Bay of Islands, renewing their vows on the wharf in Russell. But it was on that romantic trip that Jules had her first experience of "vicious trolls", reading cruel online comments about how she looked in her bridal gown.
"I was shaken by the whole nastiness of it all," she admits, but it helped build the resilience that became the foundation for Figur's body-positivity philosophy. Now outspoken against bullying, Jules says, "It has to stop. If you can't be kind, be quiet."
Larissa learnt to put on a confident front for the camera, but it was a mask.
Jules' journey struck a chord with Larissa, who tells us her own experience of relentless bullying had derailed her self-esteem and was a factor in her developing postnatal depression.
"I was bullied all through school," she recalls. "I used to eat lunch in the toilet. It never stopped from the time I was five to the time I was 17. I was picked to shreds for every aspect of my body and my personality. It was my dream to be a model and actress, but girls used to mock me, calling me tubby and worse."
Through modelling, Larissa learnt to put on a confident front for the camera, but it was a mask. "I didn't love myself," she confesses.
Even when she became runner-up in Miss Universe NZ, then a size 10 and just 58kg, she was told by professionals she was a plus-size model.
"They said if I lost weight, I would be more successful. People called me 'Fatty' and told me, 'You're too big to be in Miss Universe.' It isn't just words but the way people treat you or isolate you, which is an awful feeling."
People told Larissa, "You're too big to be in Miss Universe.
This sense of isolation returned after she gave birth to Carter. Exhausted as a round-the-clock new mum who worked full-time, Larissa reached for "crap food" for energy and comfort. "Chocolate, chips, takeaways… I was the heaviest I'd ever been. I hung out in pyjamas."
Her experience modelling in Sydney with Jules and the other nine Figur ambassadors was "life-changing", says Larissa. "We had a whole day on a shoot wearing the shapewear. At first, I was nervous with major insecurities around my tummy. We were all vulnerable, showing parts of our bodies that we didn't like. But I came out feeling super-empowered and loving my body. Being my real self was healing."
Now back in Aotearoa and armed with Jules' whole range of figure-hugging garments, Larissa is wearing it "around the house and to party in", but her newfound joy in life is fuelled by more than what she is wearing.
Becoming an ambassador for Jules' company Figur has been empowering for the Kiwi.
"Jules is inspiring," she tells. "Unapologetically herself, she has a genuinely kind nature. I'm so proud to be doing our part to change society's perception of what is beautiful. We all have something special to give. Women's size, looks, race or age shouldn't be a deciding factor. That's the world I want my son to grow up in."
No longer afraid to speak out about her depression, Larissa has found a support network and is once more enjoying motherhood. She's started an all-female screen production company and is working every day on "discovering the beauty in myself again".
"I now realise there is no shame in seeking help. If I have one message for other women in similar circumstances – whether it's mental illness, bullying or just feeling bad about yourself – it is to seek help. It's out there. I've found my light at the end of the tunnel. Jules was there, shining it for me."
The MAFS star is thrilledto play a role in reshaping Larissa's life. Transformational stories like these are why she created her company.
"I'm hopeful this will open the doors to me connecting with many more of our tribe members from across the ditch," she says. "Figur is about diversity and appreciating beauty in everything – it's about working with what you have. "At the end of the day, all I really aim to do is empower women to be themselves, to show up and to kick arse."
HELP IS HERE
If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, phone Lifeline on 0800 543 354, text a trained counsellor on 1737 or visit depression.org.nz. In an emergency, always dial 111.

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