Ollie Henderson
Ollie Henderson

When Ollie Henderson answered the phone for this interview, she had just arrived home from an asylum seeker protest in Sydney, Australia.

“All different religious groups were there. People are fed up with the government’s immigration policies,” she says.

Campaigning for refugee rights—and many other things—is common for Henderson. The fashion model who hails from rural Victoria became worldly at a tender age. She was scouted in a shopping mall while looking for a dress to wear to her school formal, Australia’s equivalent of a prom. At the age of 15, she moved to Milan, Italy, where she began an international modelling career. But what she’s best known for these days is founding the grassroots, not-for-profit social enterprise, House of Riot.

“I was living in New York at the time and was feeling really embarrassed to be Australian. Our treatment of refugees and asylum seekers was absolutely atrocious,” she re- members. “We were destroying the Great Barrier Reef through inaction on climate change. There was also talk about university fee deregulation and cuts to [Australia’s universal health care system] Medicare. I felt like our country was getting a bad reputation,” she says.

The inspiration for “an extended art project” came on a trip back to Melbourne for Fashion Week. Henderson hand-painted various political messages on 100 white T-shirts, which she gave out to “literally anyone that wanted one.” They were then asked to wear the T-shirts during Fashion Week. The idea was to start conversations about things that mattered—and it worked. The project was far more successful than she ever imagined. Publications all over the world ran stories about the event. Shops also started contacting Henderson, asking if they could buy T-shirts to sell.

Henderson now heads House of Riot, which uses creative projects to empower young people like herself who “have political feelings and political thoughts, but don’t really know what to do with them,” she explains. “You might be angry about immigration policies, but not know who the immigration minister is. We find ways for people to express themselves politically.”

House of Riot is currently collaborating with Amnesty International, planning a series of parties for LGBTQ young people. When Henderson came out to her family years ago, she had their full support, but she recognizes not everyone is that lucky.

A passionate activist for LGBTQ rights, she also champions feminism, and cites androgyny as a positive trend in the fashion world but says the focus is too often on feminized men, instead of masculinized women. “It’s a big gap that needs to be filled, and maybe lesbians will be the ones to lead the way.”