After suffering severe facial burns, Sophie Lee encourages Instagram to look beneath the filters

“I haven’t told people the full story publically, yet…” braces Sophie Lee; a local influencer, dancer, model and fire performer.

"I was fire breathing in a large club in Chicago on April Fool’s Day this year. They had put the air-con up too high. When I blew the fire, it blew back on to me. I was literally on fire.”

In what was a tragic twist of fate, the 23-year-old was rushed to intensive care with severe burns to her face and chest. The accident would dramatically change both her physical appearance and her outlook on life.

There’s a lot of beautiful lies on Instagram

“This accident opened me up to a whole new life and a new me. Before this happened I was at the peak of my career and my life depended on my appearance: as shallow as it sounds, looks made me money and a living. As a model and dancer you get judged on what you look like,” she explains with a sigh.

“Beauty was the be all and end all for me. But then the accident happened. I thought would people still accept me? I had to get a grip and learn to love myself, as myself."

Just four months after the accident, Sophie Lee made the decision to reveal her new scars to an Instagram audience more used to seeing her at glamorous parties and jet setting. With the help of Manchester makeup artist Sean Maloney, she posed for two pictures: one without makeup and one with a full face. The picture now has had close to 7000 likes. 

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Beautiful before and after - Sophie Lee revealed scars on Instagram

Sophie is being praised for her vulnerability and her vocal message of acceptance. She’s now campaigning for ‘real images on social media’ – pictures that embrace flaws rather than mask them with clever editing and filters.

“There’s a lot of beautiful lies on Instagram - what are you editing yourself for? You’re lying to yourself!” she exclaims, passionately.

Lee, who has 16K followers, is no stranger to the world of Instagram influencers and the pressure to live a curated life. Scars, burns and imperfections are often erased from sight on the platform. She believes this is causing a generational epidemic of low self-image.

“The more I became an influencer, the more I had to question whether my looks are on trend – are my lips full, is my makeup perfect, is my bum big etc.?

“Think about it, in this Instagram game you’re in competition with the likes of Kylie Jenner. So you put pressure on yourself to present that perfect life. Fuck that, it’s not real.

“You slowly start to forget you really are. Never forget who you are."

I want to promote that makeup is not just for vanity, it’s about confidence.

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Sophie Lee before the accident
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Sophie on the night of the accident

For someone in the Instagram spotlight (especially those forging profitable careers advertising for big brands), Sophie’s frankness and vulnerability would be considered career suicide. But Sophie has found her willingness to be open is leading her down a more empowering career path.

With a TV appearance pending, Sophie now counts Katie Piper as her role model and plans to put on makeup workshops for women who have also suffered from burns and facial scarring.

“I want to promote that makeup is not just for vanity, it’s about confidence. For some women, wearing makeup helps you get out the door, go to work, live your life.  I’ve worked with a few creatives recently, I’m excited about what’s coming next."

Like most models and dancers, Sophie still depends on Instagram to promote her work. Admirably, in a few short months she’s back on stage and appears very much the sassy, unencumbered model she used to be. Has she found the industry has re-embraced her?

“Yes - I was recently booked on a job in Manchester. I didn’t need to cover up and I felt accepted. After, all it’s about what I bring to the table as a dancer. It’s about talent. Looks will only get you so far.”

I’ve not gone through all this pain for nothing

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While Sophie has found her peers supportive, she still calls for the fashion and beauty industry to embrace imperfection as new perfection.

More companies should take the risk and hire imperfect models  - the more normal and visible we are, the more it’d become sellable,” she urges.

Sophie’s emotional growth has been inspiring people both on and off the Internet. In what have been four months of healing, what did she want people to learn from her personal tragedy?

“There’s a lot pain behind the screen. My emotional pain is not seen on Instagram. The physical pain is indescribable – I was on painkillers stronger than heroin. I’ve not gone through all this pain for nothing.

“I was in hospital for a month on my own,” she adds. “The experience did break me emotionally. But the solitude made me face challenging questions about my life.

“I know I’m very lucky to still have my sight, that it could have been much worse and I’m still alive.

“I just want to remind people that life can change drastically in an instant. On that awful day when I was lying there - I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t see -  it really humbles you. I still have my life and life is much more important than having perfect skin.”

Find Sophie Lee on Instagram