Dunja Knezevic – Model, activist & survivor.

Posted on January 23, 2010

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We’ve all faced challenges in our lives, but it is how we face up to them that define our character. As the adage goes, what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger.

This is certainly true of Dunja Knezevic, a model and activist who has faced her fair share of adversity, and continues to go from strength to strength.

Her story is a fascinating one that stretches from war torn Iraq and Bosnia, to the catwalks of Milan and the co-founding of the first models’ union.

Although born in Bosnia, Dunja spent her early years in Iraq where her father was working as an engineer. The conflict between Iraq and Iran had already broken out and made life very difficult for her and her family.

“We lived near the Iraq Iran border and every morning we’d be woken up by  fighter jets and bombings; to this day I get very stressed by the sound of jets…”

Eventually the escalation of the conflict forced her, her brother and her mother to return to Bosnia, whilst her father remained to finish his contract. Her father returned from Iraq three months later and they spent the next eight years living in peace.

“Yugoslavia during peace time was heaven on earth… In 1992 war was around the corner for Bosnia. Only a few were able to imagine what would happen next.”

At this time Yugoslavia was starting to crumble. Slovenia and Croatia had already successfully declared themselves as independents, and many assumed that Bosnia could do the same with relative ease. However tensions between Bosnia’s three constituent peoples, the Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks meant that this process was never going to be easy. The country was divided on whether to remain with the Yugoslav Federation, or to seek full independence from Yugoslavia.

“My dad was an activist for the first democratic party of Yugoslavia, but didn’t  suspect that his family would be hunted for this.”

A referendum for independence was called and shortly afterwards Bosnia declared itself independent from Yugoslavia. This sparked a number of sporadic military actions as tensions escalated to open war.

“Snipers shot at our apartment a month before the siege of Sarajevo whilst my brother, my mum and I were at home. We all came out of it changed forever.  My brother and I grew into adults in a matter of seconds.”

It was time to leave Bosnia. Her family fled the conflict to Libya, leaving behind nearly everything they owned. However, this move was to be short lived, when, after a series of threats from locals, they found themselves forced to flee once again.

Eventually the family found their way to Malta, where they spent the next three and a half years. Dunja began to feel increasingly isolated as she was moved from school to school, finding herself ostracised by the other children. At the same time, her parents became more and more distant, worrying about their family back in Bosnia. With no one to confide in, Dunja had to learn to cope with her problems on her own. At the same time, the financial situation had become extremely difficult for the family, but this was the least of their worries.

“We didn’t have a nationality and needed to live somewhere where we could gain citizenship. When the war started we lost our Yugoslavian nationality, since Yugoslavia, as we knew it, didn’t exist any more.”

Dunja’s family were eventually accepted into Australia, and they moved immediately. Things were no less difficult. With no home of their own, very little money and, with her father’s qualifications not recognised in Australia, little prospect of finding work, they moved in with her uncle’s family in Melbourne.

Dunja went to a further two schools in Melbourne and found the same difficulty being accepted by her fellow pupils. Her depression that had been developing over the years deepened.

When Dunja was fifteen, she was approached by the director of a modelling agency.

“I had always had a little dream that I tried to push away of becoming a model,  but I never thought it could actually happen. I didn’t go into the agency for another two years because I believed I wasn’t good enough.”

Just six months before eventually joining the agency, Dunja’s depression and lack of confidence lead her to develop anorexia. Her weight plummeted dramatically, she began fainting and her periods stopped.

“My mum and dad stepped in after a year or so and started force-feeding me, and  it helped!”

The intervention of her parents and her determination to conquer her disorder meant that by twenty-one Dunja was able to leave Melbourne and move to New York to pursue her modelling career. So began a hectic couple of years travelling between New York and Milan. She was living the life of a successful model, however her life was to dramatically change once again when, at twenty-three, she moved to Israel with a man she had met just three months previously.

Dunja lived in a small town in the north, Migdal HaEmek. She couldn’t work and didn’t speak the language, so she became a housewife, taking care of her partner and his brother and sister, cooking and cleaning for the family whilst he worked at the local petrol station. This couldn’t have been further away from the catwalks of Milan, but they were in love, and after just six months of living together, they decided to marry.

In an effort to help cope with Dunja’s deepening depression, they decided to move back to Australia. Despite this, their relationship broke down and less than a year after returning to Australia, they were divorced.

It was around this time that things started to change for Dunja. She met Will, an Englishman living in Australia.They had met through work, and, needing a date for a wedding, he called her. It was just the kind of spontaneous romance she needed. They gelled immediately, and four months later they were living in London.

It was whilst living in in London that she ran into a friend she had not seen in four years; Victoria Keon-Cohen. Victoria and Dunja had modelled together in the past, and they shared their stories of mistreatment within the industry. They resolved to do something about it, and together they formed the models’ union.

Dunja & Victoria Keon-Cohen

Both Dunja and Victoria understood the need for the modelling industry to be unionised. Until they decided to start the union, the modelling industry had no regulation. Models had no minimum wage, no maximum working hours; an animal used in a photo shoot would have more working rights than the models. When you consider that some of these girls might be as young as fourteen, living away from their parents and in a country where they don’t speak the language, it is imperative that there is somebody there that they can turn to and who will protect them.

Soon after their decision to start the union they were in talks with Equity. However, the establishment of the union has been no easy task. After years of negotiations, Dunja and Victoria have only recently convinced Equity to allow models to join, and it is only now that Equity has created a section dedicated to purely to models.

“We’ve had kept everything under wraps for the last year, in fear of being rejected by the industry, but now we had to break the news. It’s been a struggle at times, but it has all been worth it.”

Recently the production and consulting agency KC&K was registered with Dunja and Victoria as directors. They aim to provide a first class service to their clients whilst remaining fair and ethical.

A year and a half ago, Dunja and Will married. Whilst Dunja has managed to conquer the adversities of her past, she still struggles with chronic arthritis, which has made her day to day living as demanding as anything she has faced before. Despite this, she meets her illness with the same strength of character and resolve that she brings to any challenge, and she’s not about to let this one stop her either.

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