Jess Quinn had her leg amputated at the age of nine so that she could survive aggressive cancer. At 28, she now has a huge following on social media, has appeared on Dancing With the Stars and is outspoken on the subject of body diversity. She has written a memoir called Still Standing: What I’ve Learned From a Life Lived Differently.
Congratulations on your new memoir. Tell us why you wrote it.
I’ve always wanted to write a book since I was in hospital as a little kid, and after Dancing With the Stars, the opportunity arose, so I took it up. The publishers offered me a ghost writer to help me write it, but I really wanted to write it myself, which is why it took two and a half years! My goal is to get my message out about normalising “different” as far and wide as possible.
You found out you had cancer at the age of nine and lost your leg. What would you tell your nine-year-old self?
My simple, short phrase is “you’ve got this”. I use that in everything I do, but I think just trusting in the process and knowing that things are going to be okay. I don’t think I would ever have imagined that I would be able to go on and live the life I have so far, but I also wouldn’t change anything. Also, don’t let anyone tell you no.
What is the best thing about your life at the moment?
I’m very lucky to have the job and the life that I have, given what we’re all going through. Social media is my main job. I have 188,000 followers on Instagram, so that is a lot of people watching. I partner with a lot of brands who share my message, but the largest part of my job is advocacy work, which doesn’t pay anything, but it means I am speaking my message over and over again. My modelling work has slowed down a lot since Covid, but the best thing about my life is that I can pivot with what is going on in the world. I was living such a strange life before Covid. I was constantly on aeroplanes and I was never really settled. It’s really nice to be staying in one place and able to get back to the things I couldn’t do in the last couple of years. It’s making me very happy at the moment.
Sport has always been a big interest for you and you were a Dancing With the Stars contestant in 2018. How do you keep active?
I was really athletic before I lost my leg and played every sport under the sun. A lot of people thought that I was a Paralympian because I had a running blade on Dancing With the Stars. I wasn’t, but I definitely loved sport and I was training up to three hours a day at the gym, then for Dancing with the Stars I was doing 14 hours a day. But the last couple of years went a bit haywire. I have never been disabled by my disability, but during the past two years, I had to cope with my prosthetic causing pain and swelling in my body. I went from training 14 hours a day to being stuck on my couch some days or not being able to get out of bed. It was such an extreme change of lifestyle that I’ve understood more why movement is so important for me.
When things get tough, how do you keep yourself centred?
You can have a bad day, just don’t unpack and live there is how I think about it. If things are really rough and I just need to throw my leg across the floor and stay in bed, then I’ll do that, but I know tomorrow will be better. I think it’s just really learning how to slow down and be okay with not being okay. The last few years have been the biggest challenge with my mental health, but I just knew that everything was going to be okay and it was okay. I look back on all the hard times I’ve had in my life at different stages and they don’t seem so hard now, so I remind myself of that. It always seems worse when you are in the moment. Forget about the depth of what you are going through and just have a bad day.
How has this lockdown affected you?
It’s been very different this time because I live with my partner Todd and our nine-month-old puppy Scout. It’s a very different pace to the first lockdown when there were eight of us at my parents’ house, which was pretty hectic but amazing. My dad talks about it all the time – it made his whole life having us all in the one place at once. This one has been a bit quieter with just the two of us. I’m really close with my family and it’s really hard as I now have an 11-month-old niece who comes and sees me, but because we’re socially distanced, I can’t hold her. It’s only been five weeks but that’s a lot in an 11-month-old’s life. My family are just five minutes down the road, so we’ve been able to do drive-bys, which is nice.
What is the nicest thing you’ve ever bought or done for yourself?
I’m a real facial girl. Whenever I’m having a bad day, I go and get a facial – that’s my treat. The most expensive thing I’ve bought myself would be my prosthetic leg, which has been very beneficial in my life.
What qualities does a good friend need for you?
Trust and loyalty, which are pretty much the same thing, and just fun – I need that. My best friends are my two sisters.
Is there anything you would like to happen, which hasn’t happened for you, in the future?
I’d really like to be able to travel again because I haven’t been to Japan and it really appeals to me. I was supposed to go do some work for the Paralympics, which didn’t happen, but I’ve always wanted to go to Japan. There’s something about their culture that looks amazing.
What books are on your bedside table?
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig. It is really good and very slow-paced, but I really like it. I like self-help books, so I’ve got You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay. I recently did a course because of everything going on in my body, and it looked at the neurolinguistic programming of your brain and knowing that chronic illness comes from our mind most of the time. This book was recommended as extra reading and I found it really interesting. I also have The Universe Has Your Back by Gabrielle Bernstein on my Kobo. Oh, and I loved This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay, who was a doctor in England. One moment it is really hilarious and the next moment really heart-breaking. And also When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, which is a memoir about his life and illness. Everyone should read that.
Have you got any Netflix/Neon recommendations?
We have been in lockdown, so I have so many. I admit we’ve been watching some trashy stuff like Love Island, but on Neon we’re watching The Flight Attendant, which is quite weird and quirky.
We’ve just finished Clickbait on Netflix, which everyone is talking about and we were a bit gutted by the ending, to be honest. I’m also liking the new season of Good Girls and my favourite Netflix watch is Brené Brown’s The Call to Courage. If everyone was to watch one thing in their life, it should be that one. I put it on all the time. Oh, and New Amsterdam is good – it has a Grey’s Anatomy vibe, which I love.
You’re cooking for friends – what is your signature dish?
I do really good crispy potatoes. I’ve got it saved on my Instagram. It’s a delicious mashed potato with a lot of butter, then you put it in the oven and it goes crispy. I’m aware that is a side and not a whole meal, but put that with some fish and I’m done. I would also go Mexican and do tacos. Tacos or crispy potatoes – we love carbs.
Tell us something we don’t know about you.
I’m an open book and I share my whole life online, but no one knows that I’m a terrible singer and I’m also quite a terrible dancer, even though people think I am great because of Dancing With the Stars. What they don’t realise is I just got really good at certain dances – I’m not genetically good at it. I love music and I love to sing, and can keep up with the beat, but I just sound like I’m drowning. When I got better after my cancer, I couldn’t go straight back into sport because I couldn’t move very well, so my parents tried to find me some hobbies I would enjoy and I dabbled with the guitar. The thing is after you’ve had cancer, everyone is really, really nice to you, so for about two years I thought I was good at guitar, but I just found out at a recent family dinner that I was terrible and my whole family would hide away while I played because they didn’t have the heart to tell me.
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