Jessica conjures Rita Hayworth in this stunning depiction of her style and smile.
Jessica Kellgren-Fozard is a self-described deaf and disabled activist and content creator with 835K YouTube followers as well as over 300K on Instagram @jessicaoutofthecloset. She and her wife, photographer Claudia Kellgren-Fozard, also have a shared Instagram account, @jessicaandclaud, with 165K of its own followers, while more of Claudia's work can be found at @cloudfoz. Their joint bio tells you much of what you need to know about the beauty and humor of this fabulous working marriage: “Loving lesbian life when one wife is deaf and disabled and the other is a massive dork.” Enjoy Jessica's open-hearted interview with our founder, Sara Banks!
SB: It such a genuine pleasure to be speaking with you. We have been an Instagram fan of yours for years, and it has been wonderful to be privy to your stunning images and life vicariously through this lens! In preparation for this interview, I had the pleasure of watching some absolutely delightful videos on your YouTube channel. Your personality just SHINES—you are so charming, funny, and such an infectious good-humoured personality. You said in one video your main motivation is to spread joy, love and kindness and it would be an understatement to say how contagious your positivity is. Even in a lot of your comments, people remark on how much you SMILE—what a gorgeous compliment! You mentioned in one video that you have always been upbeat. Do you have a role model who shares this trait with you? Obviously your wife Claudia, who is also so cute in funny, in such a wonderful complementary way!
JKF: Oh! Thank you so much for your very kind and generous words, it is very sweet of you to say. You’ve already mentioned that my wife Claudia brings me so much joy and we have great fun together on and off screen! But my innate joy and zest for life probably comes from my Nanna who always had great fun with everything and enjoyed entertaining people. Even though my grandparents lived in The lake District, a seven-hour drive from us growing up, we spent every summer holiday with them and it felt like a second home. I could always trust that upon our arrival, Nanna would have a freshly baked lemon drizzle cake, knowing it was my favourite, on the kitchen table waiting for me. This kind and thoughtful act is just one of the little examples of how she inspired me to be.
SB: Can you talk about your family and growing up? I know you spent so much time in and out of hospitals with a litany of diagnosies (and misdiagnosies—readers, I recommend watching her charming and instructive video here), but you shared that growing up in a Quaker family made it very easy for you to be expressive about being gay at an early age. (I love that your niece recently said, ‘No, no, Jessica is NOT gay…she is a lesbian!) You talk in some of your videos about Quakerism that one of the core values is inclusion so your sexual orientation was never a hurdle of communication with your family or community. It sounds like the values for a wonderful upbringing! Would you tell us a little how your religion—maybe family values is more appropriate—informs who you are today?
JKF: My mother, and subsequently my father, were introduced to Quakerism through my Nanna who was helped by Quakers as a child whilst growing up in New England. Quakerism is a relatively new religion founded from Christianity in the 1600s in England, its main core principle is that all humans are equal. This being such a core part of my upbringing ensured that I didn’t grow up believing that one way of being was superior to another. This gave me the wonderful opportunity to grow up with an open mind about what I would discover about myself and I try to encourage the same in my audience, not only that they be accepting of themselves but also of others.
SB: In addition to the motivation to “spread joy, love, and kindness,” you are an educator, teaching your followers about concepts like ableism and breaking down the forces behind it. Is this what activism means to you? You educate in such non-polarizing and entertaining ways, it seems you are uniquely able to reach across the aisle and inspire positive change. What is your approach to communicating with those who might feel ignorant or offensive in ways that diffuse/disarm and ultimately win over even the most unlikely of candidates?
JKF: I like to do what I call ‘soft-activism’. The best media representation of any marginalised group is always something where the character/person being portrayed just happens to be part of that group but it isn't the central focus of the story. I don’t think LGBTQ+ narratives should just be relegated to 100 coming out stories and then it just stops there. I want to see narratives in which people go on to live their lives in interesting ways and have adventures; it's the same for portrayals in which a person has a disability. It's far more empowering for me as disabled person to see someone being a bad-ass superhero who just happens to have a disability than to watch them ‘overcome’ their disability in a way that is defined by the non-disabled viewers' gaze. I follow these ideas through to my own videos.
Whilst I'm making things for the enjoyment, fulfillment and upliftment of people with disabilities and those who love people with disabilities, I also want to make sure I’m reaching those who haven't even considered different types of bodies and minds before. And the easiest way to do that is to make videos that are approachable, that everyone whatever their knowledge level, can enjoy, and even if these issues do not directly impact your life, they can be things you will become mindful of in the future. After all, I am a person who just happens to have a disability, just happens to be gay, and just happens to like vintage fashion. We all have multiple facets to our identities.
When I first became officially disabled as a teenager, I lost most of my friends. At the time I thought there was something wrong with me and/or they were mean people, but looking back I now know that they were scared and misinformed about chronic illness/disability and would have benefited from tools like this.
"We all need to be educated on these issues even if we don’t believe they apply to us, as, after all, 10% of people are born with a disability but 90% of us will die with one."
SB: That is a profound statistic, and a perspective I had never considered, thank you. So speaking of being born...you and Claudia have an incredibly big adventure coming up ahead of you! Congratulations!!! I was thrilled to see this news and found your pregnancy announcement video so moving. It has indeed been a long road, and often can be for people, and I really respect your honesty about your process of family planning and fertility treatments, and love that you refer to it all (alongside your home renovations!) as an adventure. And again, your mix of humor and lighthearted beauty chat within serious topics is so uplifting. What advice would you give to others that are on this long path?
JKF: We are absolutely delighted, excited, and terrified all at the same time! Our lives, we keep being told, will never be the same again. But we are looking forward to embracing the challenges and discovering and learning what having a child in the world teaches us about life. We are just one of many couples who struggled on the road to enlarging their family. It is emotionally draining, and depending on your circumstances and where you live, can be financially draining too, but we hoped by documenting and sharing our experience, we would help others who are also planning to feel less alone.
Packing up bébé. SteamLine goes hospital bag as Jessica and Claudia prepare for the big day!
SB: And now you are shedding light on so many unique questions you have as someone with hearing loss, such as your questions about baby monitors! One of the most beautiful things about all the work you put into sharing your perspective and experience is the new world it opens up. This is what travel has always done for me. You have lifted the curtain on the culture of your family and life in ways that must expand the worlds of so many others. Is there a culture—either that of another country or that of a specific community—that has dramatically changed your perceptions in profound ways?
JKF: My wife is half Chinese-Malaysian and sharing in the culture of her wider family has been a great honour. Before meeting her I’d never travelled to SouthEast Asia, but we’ve since been out for two long visits—once for two months—and she delighted in showing me all of her favourite places from childhood trips and introducing me to her family. I think being out there helped us reaffirm what matters most to us: spending 24 hours a day together and eating delicious food!
Among statues in the Secret Buddha Garden, Koh Samui, Thailand
SB: When we were about to have our first child, we asked four couples we respected for advice, and they had the same advice so that we only came back with two answers! 1. When your child can do it for themselves, let them do it for themselves. As soon as they can tie their shoes, make them tie their shoes.... the other was 2. Never let your child get in the way of your relationship. Both pieces of advice have been valuable over the years—that we revisit usually after failing to implement! Have you received any good advice yet—or any parents you would lean on for advice? Do you have “theories” brewing on how you might parent? (I say “theories” as we all know our world tends to get shaken first before we ever find our parental footing.)
"The main parenting advice we’ve been given is 'children don’t read the parenting books', from my mother!"
JKF: The main parenting advice we've been given is "children don't read the parenting books," from my mother! And in all fairness, yes, perhaps we’ll start with one idea and it won’t work out when the baby actually arrives BUT we are very keen on raising our children following Montessori principles and have been doing all the research we can. I believe we have exhausted the list of books one can purchase online! We also follow Montessori Instagram accounts, read all the blogs and of course have looked into local Montessori nurseries and schools.
The Montessori Method is an approach to raising children that emphasises independence, cooperation and active learning in harmony with the child’s unique pace of development. It’s about giving your child the tools to do as much as they are able, and that is definitely something we want to focus on. I was raised in the Quaker faith and I still identify with the religion so the aspects of Quakerism that relate to parenting, like respecting the child’s autonomy, which are also found within Montessori, really speak to me.
SB: I suspect you and Claudia will be on the same parenting page, which is so key to staying strong as a couple through the challenges of parenthood. You and she really are such a match! She is equally infectious in her warmth and humour. And also when you met, you expressed how unphased she was by your disabilities and wanted to know more about your interests and likes. Will you share with our readers how you met and was there a moment you knew she was “the one”?
JKF: Claudia and I actually met on a dating app. For our first date we went to a pub in Brighton and I always like to arrive early so I can get adjusted to the room (is it bright enough to lip read? Is it too loud for my hearing aid?). She sat down, we ordered drinks and we hit it off right away. We talked for hours and lost track of time to the point that the pub staff had to come and remind us that they were closing down and we had to leave! She walked me home and we talked for a couple more hours at my doorstep and I just knew that same night that she was “the one”.
SB: That is beautiful. And as for your career calling, I know you say you always wanted to be in television. But the speed wasn’t conducive to your energy, you jest but you have absolutely succeeded in pursuing this medium anyway as a vlogger. You also write books but haven’t published anything... yet! What kind of books do you write? What genre? Give us a glimpse into your literary world! I’d say you’ll be gracing bookshop shelves soon enough…
JKF: First of all, thanks again for your incredibly kind words! It is a dream of mine to ‘grace bookshop shelves’ with my own stories.
I think people probably expect me to write non -iction, such as a memoir or historical books. However, all of my books (finished and unfinished) are fiction, generally aimed towards young adults but I would hope they are enjoyable to a range of readers! I enjoy writing about complex characters who deal with tricky situations and just happen to be queer or have disabilities. I know that when I was particularly struggling with my identity as a disabled teenage lesbian I didn’t want to just read the same coming out story over and over again… I wanted to know what happened after that! I wanted to see those characters then go on to have adventures AND get a girlfriend. I wanted to read about people who had dealt with the ‘oh no, I’ve become disabled’ drama I was going through and gotten over it- I needed to know that I could come out the other side!
I’m very drawn to superhero stories and science fiction and they just have the most amazing overlap with disabled stories.
Jessica in character as Julie d'Aubigny, a 17th-century opera singer and "bisexual badass," whose tumultuous career and flamboyant lifestyle were the subject of gossip, rumor, and colourful stories in her own time.
SB: And in your style, you often do seem to be playing a character, not just a fashion plate. I like how you describe “how vintage found you.” Because of severe eczema you were unable to wear store-bought clothing so you were dressed in clothing your grandmother made—from 1950s era patterns! Including the occasional smock? I think it’s incredible that this became the blueprint of your style today, over which you say has been the one thing you have control—which couldn’t be more eloquently stated. In the early years of your Instagram account or vlogging (and which came first?), were either born from your sense of beauty and style?
Or what was the major motivation (impetus) for sharing your life with the world? Tell us about this journey if you can.
JKF: Even though I started doing both YouTube and Instagram almost at the same time, I think from the start it had a more clear division. Instagram is where I share more about my fashion and style and YouTube is amazing for spreading awareness about LGBTQ+ and disability issues. But both quickly became the way I share my life with the world because representation matters and I wanted to be the role model I didn’t have growing up. Representation in the media can deeply influence public opinion and establish societal norms. But even when disabled people are represented it’s often with negative stereotypes: we’re objects of pity, villains or just inspiration for non-disabled characters. Such stereotypes reinforce negative attitudes towards disabled people and ignorance about disabled lives. And if there wasn’t a place for me in traditional media, I was going to use new media as my tool. I resolved to become the role model I’d needed and the educator my friends had needed.
"Instagram is where I share more about my fashion and style and YouTube is amazing for spreading awareness about LGBTQ+ and disability issues. But both quickly became the way I share my life with the world because representation matters and I wanted to be the role model I didn’t have growing up.
SB: I can't imagine using social media more effectively or purposefully to educate others than yourself. Travel has always been my greatest educator, and my husband and I (and now kiddos) have always traveled whenever we can. We thrive on the experience of getting out of our bubbles, something we’ve missed dearly this year. But I admit that with four little kids, every time before we go I experience days of insomnia and anxiety running through the “what ifs” in my mind. You have a vlog on travelling with disabilities, which I can’t imagine is easy considering that you are prone to paralysis and that might get an onset of migraines for days on end, to say the least of the symptoms you might endure regularly. So much walking, so much jet lag! I could totally empathise with how emotional you felt about not being able to understand Claudia’s family in Malaysia. Communication gaps are overwhelming when you really want to understand! How do you feel about international travel?
JKF: Travelling is one of my absolute favourite things to do. Up until 2021, I was abroad somewhere for my birthday each January so my latest was… different to say the least. Travelling while being disabled and/or chronically ill is not impossible but it surely comes with its own challenges. Not all countries have good legislation that protects disabled people and since my disabilities are invisible it can be really rough to have to explain why I really REALLY need that wheelchair after the plane has landed. And then of course there are the obvious language barriers that come with being deaf.
The best advice I can give is to prepare ahead as much as you can, travel with someone who is close to you and WILL advocate for you and take as many breaks as you need to be able to recuperate. And of course, do not hesitate clicking that box that says you need special assistance. You matter, you deserve the accommodations.
Beach bound in Langkawi, Malaysia.
SB: Whether or not one is able to physically travel, I firmly believe that travel can also be experienced as a state of mind by anything that lifts us from our normal bubbles and routine. Do you have any highlights or go-tos of things where you might get to adapt this spongy curiosity of ‘travel,’ even when there is nowhere to go?
"Not all countries have good legislation that protects disabled people and since my disabilities are invisible it can be really rough to have to explain why I really REALLY need that wheelchair after the plane has landed."
JKF: Being part of the at-risk population I’ve obviously been shielding for basically an entire year at this point. I didn’t get to leave my house a lot before the pandemic but having those taken away from me has had a really big impact. That said, one of my go-to trips that eases cabin fever is fun car journeys around the neighbourhood and…back to the house. I can’t drive so I make Claudia take me out to see the houses I haven’t seen in a while and stare at people’s gardens, get ideas for garage doors, think about which flowers look prettiest... sometimes all you need is to not stare at the same walls for half an hour!
SB: Yes! Local "motoring," to use a vintage term, has saved us this year, too!
I would love to talk a little about sign language. I understand why you stopped signing in your videos. You said that you wanted to make them more universally appealing and cause you were getting so many comments from people questioning what sign language you were using, because they didn’t understand some of the words. And for those who don’t know, there are over 300+ types of sign language! It has always struck me as such a shame sign language wasn’t THE universal language! Imagine if we could waltz into any country and speak with the locals using our hands, never mind the fact that it would significantly help the hearing-impaired community! It is such a confusing etymology that even in Ireland, Irish Sign Language is used in Northern Ireland alongside BSL (British Sign Language) but has more similarities to French Sign Language. I mean what??? Even the boys school and girls school for the hearing impaired in Ireland alone had different forms of the language! Can you believe that? But I digress! Will you teach sign language to your child?
JKF: Yes of course we’ll be teaching SSE (Sign Supported English) to our child! That way they would be able to talk to us before they can actually verbalise words. Did you know children can sign before they can speak? How amazing is that?
SB: You live so openly and honestly on public platforms—which for a social media phob, I really admire! Your video on FAQs was really intriguing because it made me realise how much you have to vet in terms of comments about your life—from your disabilities and countering the stereotypes people have about deaf people and being gay. It must be exhausting. By and large, your comments are so positive and supportive. But how do you wade through negative comments and handle ignorant or difficult questions (besides making them into hilarious and endearing videos) without letting it get the best of you?
JKF: Not many people know this but, just like many other creators, I have people moderate my comments because it’s so important to me that I make sure my channel is a safe space. I’m a very resilient person and I’m able to see past the ignorant comments, but I’m also incredibly positive and choose to focus on the good ones instead.
I get messages from people who have been in a school class with someone who has a disability for three years and have never spoken to them because they worried about saying the wrong thing. But after watching my videos they now know they don’t have to panic and can confidently go over to chat.
I have comments on my videos from teachers who use them as a learning resource in schools.
Parents leave messages to say that they didn’t understand their child’s illness but they now do and they’ve shared my videos with the rest of their family.
And most heartbreakingly, there are the messages from bed-bound teenagers who say: I didn’t think I could do anything, but now I’ve watched your videos, I know I have a future too.
Those are the comments that deserve my attention.
Picture perfect with her SteamLine Sweetheart.
Further Fascinating Reading (& Viewing!)
- Be sure to check out Jessica's YouTube channel, and follow her, Claudia, and their joint account on Instagram!
- Read more of our Inspired By series, conversations with editors, ambassadors, and long-time friends of SteamLine.
- Explore the SteamLine Effect, the irresistible phenomenon surrounding SteamLine Luggage.
- Follow SteamLine on Pinterest for more travel inspiration.
- Shop the SteamLine Luggage Best Sellers.