Soul Survivor

How An Abandoned Child Went From Nothing To Everything

Robert Ian Bonnick grew up in a children’s home, yet, when so many of his fellow orphans ended up in jail or dead, he overcame his difficult start in life to achieve success in sport, modelling, hospitality and as a motivational speaker…

A natural born entertainer Rob had an enviable career and glamorous life rubbing shoulders with the famous and elite. Back in the day he danced for big name acts like Womack & Womack, recruited for Madonna and modelled alongside Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista. The talented performer has also travelled the globe living in destinations such as London, Sydney and Milan and he is easily recognised as the main promoter for Australia’s most iconic venues and parties, having hosted events for the world’s biggest stars.

Throughout his life, it would be easy to dismiss Rob as one of the “lucky few” but in reality – luck has had nothing to do with his success. In fact, Rob started out with almost NOTHING. He suffered a tumultuous childhood, abandoned to an orphanage before his first birthday. For the next 18 years at the orphanage, Rob was faced with a choice – would he choose to reflect and follow the path of fellow orphans who ended up in jail or dead, or instead choose to step into his greatest potential as a human being? And after 20 years studying with some of the key educators and thought leaders on the planet — the sum of his experiences provided him with the opportunity and purpose of finding ways to bring together vastly different groups of people by inspiring them to learn more about themselves and each other.

In his inspirational book, and first memoir, Soul Survivor, he provides the keys to unlocking your own potential using self-reflection, self-empowerment, dream activation and tips for overcoming adversity. Here’s an edited extract…

In the summer of 1996, after two years in London where I think I had just had enough of just getting by or surviving, I decided if I was going to do this modelling thing I needed to go to Milan! So true to the can-do attitude for any escapade that I undertook, I proceeded to tell anyone that would listen of my intention, as if it had already happened. I consulted my foolscap folder of business cards for the two that mattered, Franco, the photographer and Vijay, the fashion designer. Then I checked my friend network and came up with a great friend and find, a tall, ginger-haired lad called David Townsend. I grew up with him through virtually all of my formative years at school and we played in the same sports teams too. I asked him if he knew anyone in Italy. He told me he had a great guy there called Riccardo, who worked in the coffee industry. Within a short period it was all organised and I could see it all unfolding in my mind: I’d go to Milan and stay with Vijay, see Franco to check up on modelling opportunities and catch up with Riccardo. Off on another adventure, I said goodbye to my sister and thanked her for letting me stay. A short flight later I found myself in Milan.

Before I left London Vijay told me to bring my ‘funkiest’ wardrobe, so you can imagine how excited I was – Milan, modelling, fashion, funky wardrobe! “I’ve got this” I told myself as I unpacked my suitcase at Vijay’s apartment in Milan. It became rapidly apparent that I should have acquired ‘his’ definition of funky before packing. Immediately upon opening my case and setting an eye on what was inside Vijay quickly made two piles of clothes, an ‘absolutely no way’ and a ‘possible’ pile of clothes to wear in Milan. I think it was the pink shirt made for me for a very different purpose by then student designer and my girlfriend for a time, and a person I truly admire and respect, Genna Smart. It was a bright reddish pink with ruffles, exaggerated almost oversize sleeves and collar! If she’s reading this (she’s now a very successful designer on the world stage) she will laugh, as I am. Back to Vijay, I guess you could say I became more alarmed, teetering on the brink of embarrassment as nine-tenths of my specially selected funky wardrobe were in the first, to be destroyed, pile. I think I was left with one white, round neck T-shirt and a pair of pants! Vijay lent me one of his dark, V-neck jumpers to complete the ensemble and now I could set foot out in Milan!

I was meditating now, without a candle, not able to stop my thoughts but I was able to quieten my mind by focusing on my breath. I would sit comfortably, in a position which would not cause my knees to feel like they were about to pop! The only real rigour I committed to was to maintain a straight back. I would follow my breath in through my nose and all the way down into my lungs, pause, then slowly release it out of my mouth (or nose). I would practise as many mornings as I could and Vijay, a keen, lifelong meditator, also gave me advice and tips. I think I managed 20 minutes a sitting. Out of one of these meditations, after I’d been in Milan for a few days, came the direction to go see Franco, the photographer.

After navigating the confusing tram system in Milan (including getting lost numerous times) I chanced upon the address on the business card. As I pushed open that gate which opened out to a small piazza no more than five metres square, I couldn’t help but think that I didn’t remember what he looked like and self-doubt crept in: what was I thinking? I’m not a model! He probably won’t even recognise me! Quite suddenly my thoughts were pierced by the sound of a door at the far end of the small courtyard opening to reveal a tall, well-dressed man carrying a suitcase. Was this Franco? I thought he was shorter. Time was running out as he was walking toward me and fairly soon he would be past me, out the gate and off to who knows where! I searched for empirical evidence, which was not forthcoming – I couldn’t make out the number on the door he had come from and thus couldn’t cross-check it with the number of where I was going. As he approached me he made no acknowledgment that he recognised me, let alone had spoken with me for half an hour. At least a year had passed since that trade show had taken place. Damn it! I had no choice, it was now or never, so in my best Italian accent I said, “Ciao, Franco?” Have you ever experienced that uncomfortable moment when someone doesn’t speak to you, they just look you up and down, then up and down again like you are not supposed to be there? That’s what I felt, a sense of horror! Finally he conceded, “Si, sono Franco.”

I had no response except to garble something in English about ‘not speaking Italian’ and worse still fumbled for the business card he gave me over a year ago in London from my foolscap folder! I wonder how this would have looked from the outside looking in. It was a warm Friday in Milan, I was wearing pants and a singlet. My body was in good shape due to all the boxing and kickboxing I had been doing. Little did I know, which he would later divulge, he was looking at the shape of my body when he was scanning me up and down. What I also didn’t realise was that at that time male models had great bodies, as opposed to being waif like and androgynous. A man by the name of Marcus Schenkenberg was the embodiment of this look. More synchronicity!


As it turned out, Franco was leaving his studio (which is where we were) to fly to New York on Monday, but importantly wasn’t due back at his studio until after the trip. I still don’t think he remembered me but we were now under a time pressure. I showed him my portfolio from Manique in London. He whipped through those pages in a flash, momentarily halting on a few body-shot type pictures. In his broken English I understood that we were going to do a shoot or a test – modelling shots for my book – right now! Then I was going to come back on Monday before he left for New York to look at the shots and basically go from there. He flung a series of wardrobe items at me to wear and intimated that I should be naked – no underwear. There is every chance the next sentence is going to come out wrong and you’ll have an incorrect summation of me, so here goes. As a model, I was used to stripping off in front of people, but usually there is some thread of comfort with the person or group watching. Not here; but I could sense synchronicity at play and it was my break, so I didn’t hesitate. Some of the pics are in this book.

As instructed, I returned on Monday to see Franco, who was in the final stages of developing the pictures from our shoot in his dark room. He asked for my book (portfolio), took pictures out, added pictures of our shoot in and sent me off to see a contact of his called Marco at Gay agency – I only caught the end of the name. The address he gave me wasn’t far away and in a short period of time, I had got a much better handle on the Milanese trams (that is, I became lost less often than before!). I arrived at this Gay agency, a large, organised structure with a great deal of glass (I think – these details are failing me now). I walked in without making eye contact with any of the male models I saw milling around talking; I was scared of the impending doom awaiting me. I was thinking of all different scenarios, each one worse than the next. What would I be prepared to do to make it in Milan? How far would I be prepared to go? The ‘get naked’ shoot with Franco was just the beginning, I thought! I was not confident, and even that was an understatement, fearful is more accurate. I found my way to Marco in the quickest possible time.

I sat down in front of Marco, a handsome mixed-race man, and told him Franco had sent me. Marco was the men’s booker – the person who finds you work. I sat down in front of him, still nervous but acting cool and con dent. I handed over my book which he tore through at a rate of knots, just like Franco did. I thought I’d be shown the door soon enough. To my surprise a few pieces of paper were placed in front of me that I was asked to fill out and sign.

Seemingly at the speed of light, in my mind I summed my situation up: I was broke, in a foreign country where I had only spent a short period of time and didn’t speak the language, I was staying in a share apartment with a guy who didn’t really like me, I just got my kit off for a weirdish kind of man and now I was in an agency called Gay something or other and an induction form was being put under my nose for me to fill in the detail and join the agency!

Unashamed, I did what any other model looking to make it would do – I signed everything straight away without delay! Marco, gave me details of where to get the composites (model business cards) completed and to call him every day for castings first thing in the morning. I got up and probably shook his hand (I don’t remember – still in shock about what I’d just potentially said yes to) and left.

It was on the way out that my eye wandered up one of the walls filled with magazine covers – Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire and so on – of the models’ work who were with the agency. I almost fell over when I saw Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Eva Herzigová, Christy Turlington, Marcus Schenkenberg and more. They were the supermodels of that era who were being represented by the same agency that I was now part of! It wasn’t ‘Gay’ it was pronounced ‘Guy’ as in Riccardo Gay – it seems that a mix of, not really paying attention and the Italian pronunciation got the better of me. I was now being represented by one of the best agencies in Milan, in arguably one of the most crucial fashion hubs in the world…I couldn’t believe it!

In other words, if I hadn’t attended that trade show/exhibition and met Franco, had I not met Vijay (who offered to put me up for a short time) so decided not to go to Milan, if I hadn’t left that day to see Franco, or spoken up whilst walking across that little piazza, and been willing to get even more uncomfortable by doing a shoot or test there… well then, it is very unlikely this would have happened! Try to calculate the odds of that synchronicity!

In one year with Ricardo Gay – Model Plan, I worked with the supermodels on various fashion shows. Amongst many others I worked for Romeo Gigli, Bata, Versace, Allen Cox Underwear and in television on I Guastefeste as the lead protagonist. I was on the front cover of Pellicce Moda, in a billboard campaign throughout Italy for Mueller yoghurt and many more.


SOUL SURVIVOR by Robert Ian Bonnick, published by New Holland Publishers RRP $27.99, is available from all good book retailers or online For more on Robert check out:


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