Wilmslow model Sophie Hughes tells Jade Wright how she gave up her career to save her nephew’s life, and unexpectedly gained a new role as a body positivity champion and fashion influencer

When Sophie Hughes got the call to say her six-month-old nephew Oscar needed a life-saving liver transplant, her first thought was how she could help. She instantly volunteered to be a living donor, and give up part of her own liver. As a professional model, working in Australia, that meant potentially ending a successful career, but it was a sacrifice she knew she must make. 

Sophie was told the surgery would leave a large scar, and could lead to weight gain as her body reacted to the changes and to the mediation she would need to take. 

Great British Life: Sophie HughesSophie Hughes (Image: Pomelo Bakes)
‘I knew that the donation was the right decision,’ says Sophie, now aged 32. 
‘When I first found out about my nephew's condition, his dad – my brother – declined my offer to come back home to test whether I would be a match for a donation. We were holding out and hoping he might be able to receive a donation from a deceased donor.’

Oscar, who is now aged six, had biliary atresia, a life-threatening illness, which causes the bile ducts outside and inside the liver to become scarred and blocked and was getting worse by the day. After surgery failed and a transplant became the only option, Sophie flew back to the UK for testing to see if she could donate part of her liver.

‘I had an MRI, cat scan, mental health review, pap smear... you name it they tested every inch of me to make sure I was a match and also healthy and stable enough to donate,’ she says.

Great British Life: Mid-size model Sophie HughesMid-size model Sophie Hughes (Image: Logan Gray Photography)

As they waited for results, Oscar was getting more ill every day and the family came close to losing him when he suffered a major blood clot. ‘We knew it was time,’ says Sophie.

That was in 2016, and together aunt and nephew were operated on by a specialist in Leeds, in an eight-hour operation. There were fears Oscar might not survive surgery, or that his tiny body might not accept the donation.
‘I was petrified I’d wake up from the surgery and find out he hadn’t made it,’ recalls Sophie. ‘My first question when I came round after surgery was “is Oscar OK?” and I was so relieved to hear he was doing well.’

Great British Life: Sophie Hughes shooting for Australian brand Bras N ThingsSophie Hughes shooting for Australian brand Bras N Things (Image: Bras N Things Australia)
Oscar recovered from surgery, but for Sophie it was an uphill struggle. 
’It took me a week before I was able to get out of bed to do a lap around my hospital ward,’ she says. ‘For the first month I was averaging 18 hours sleep a night, I was absolutely exhausted. Once I was home it was the first time I was able to examine the surgery site, my scar felt huge – so much bigger than I expected.’

As a side-effect of the surgery, Sophie’s body started to gain weight. Despite eating the same foods and quantities she always had, she went up four dress sizes. 

‘Studies show the average person gains 10kg to 20kg after donating their liver, which is exactly where I landed,’ she says. ‘Having never dealt with weight gain before I felt taken aback.’

Sophie had been modelling since she was just 15. Growing up in Alderley Edge and Marple, she went to Marple Hall High School, part of a very close family, she recalls a happy childhood, with three siblings. On a trip to London, she was spotted by a model scout.

‘Back then things were different, to say the least,’ she says. ‘The industry was quite toxic. There was very little regard for models' health or mental health, drugs were rife and I was regularly on 12-hour photo shoots without being offered food. There was no education or awareness for young models, just to be skinnier, that was all that mattered. And at 15 that was tough.’

Great British Life: Sophie HughesSophie Hughes (Image: Jodie Morris Photography)

When she turned 21 Sophie decided to travel and see what the industry was like in other countries. ‘I initially went to Australia for a three-month trip and nine years later I was still there,’ she says. ‘I built my life there, I was with my then partner for close to nine years and had built up my career and a really solid friendship group. 

‘Working in Australia was great, they have a really solid focus on work/life balance. Aussies leave the office at 5pm and head to the beach. Working as a model I did some incredible shoots in stunning locations and I feel truly grateful I had that opportunity.’

Sophie returned to Australia after her surgery but struggled with her new shape, and the size of her scar.
‘I took a break from modelling for a while,’ she says. 'I had to stop due to my weight gain and ended up levelling out at a size 14.’
Then, unexpectedly, she was spotted by another model agency, this time on Instagram, this time as a mid-size model.
‘I even secured a campaign with an underwear brand specifically because of my scar, something I never would have thought would happen,’ she says. ‘From that I went from strength to strength, shooting window campaigns for some of the biggest brands in Australia.’

While Sophie loved working in Australia, she missed her family in Cheshire, and returned home six months ago, where she’s been working as a model, as well as supporting the Children's Liver Disease Charity.

‘I’m in Wilmslow and loving it,’ she says. ‘I’ve got a lovely little cottage and I’m leaning back into Cheshire life, it’s so lovely having all my family on the doorstep. It’s a great base for my career as I tend to work between Manchester and London so being on the train line for London is perfect.

'I also shoot a lot of my social media collaborations from home so it’s nice having a beautiful homely space to work from. 

‘Next for me is carving my name here in the UK modelling industry. You’ll also see heaps more from me in the body positivity space and my main focus is to continue encouraging women they are worthy, exactly as they are.’

Follow Sophie’s journey at instagram.com/sophwithlove/ 

Great British Life: Sophie HughesSophie Hughes (Image: Logan Gray photography)

The rise of the mid-size model

Much more than just an Instagram hashtag, mid-size models reflect average-sized women in the UK. Despite most clothing sales floating around size 10-16, the majority of brands traditionally show their designs on a UK size 4-6. The theory has been that most women aspire to be slim and would rather see the smallest size in magazines and catalogues, and then choose their own size in-store but, an increase in online shopping means seeing the clothes as they really look is more important than ever.

Sophie explains: 'The average woman in the UK is a size 16 and a 36DD bust. I'm a 14/16, 36E. I am her! I’m the average-sized woman and yet we don’t see bodies like mine in advertising campaigns as standard.’

While there were previously some plus-sized models, mid-size models are few and far between, although now, model agencies are reporting a spike in demand for models in sizes 10-16.

‘Brands either wanted size 8 or size 18,’ says Sophie. ‘Within the modelling industry there is no such thing as mid-size, you're either “mainboard” or “curve”, that's it. 

‘While brands often focus on straight-sized and curve representation, many fail to realise the importance of mid-size representation. I now make it my mission to promote the importance of mid-size representation within the modelling industry.’