A model, designer, and single mom makes a difference in women’s lives
At the tender age of 18, designer/model Jill Sorensen made the move from Sweden to the United States where “everything was possible.” The small-town beauty took a job as an au pair and within 10 months was modeling for the likes of John Casablanca at Elite Models and the Ford Agency, ultimately becoming one of the world’s top models of the 1980s and ’90s.
But it wasn’t until Sorensen met her former husband and moved to Washington, DC, that she would find her path to emotional fulfillment. Past her modeling days and working as a designer, Sorensen soon observed women within the DC culture being relegated to a “less than” role. “Just like countless women who arrive in DC as a political ‘appendage,’ I was expected to support my husband’s corporate career and let my goals and dreams be secondary,” she says. Upon learning that two of her close friends had been abused by their seemingly “normal” boyfriends, Sorensen was motivated to shift gears and become more proactive. Leaving the invitations to flower arranging and tea behind, she dedicated herself to reducing violence against women.
Together, with friend Cheryl Masri (owner of a DC-based advertising agency), Sorensen founded Knock Out Abuse (www.knockoutabuse.org), a charity to raise awareness and funds for victims of domestic violence and their children, “ . . . not only with shelter and education, but we also wanted to be a voice for women to speak up and draw attention to the subject.” Knock Out Abuse is committed to giving women a voice and work toward a society and culture that are 100% free of violence against women.
Knock Out Abuse was launched in 1993, and Knock Out Abuse West was founded in Los Angeles in 2018. Since its inception, Knock Out Abuse has raised more than $11 million to provide transitional support to more than 25,000 women and children whose lives have been shattered by abuse, poverty, and homelessness. Sorensen dreams of a society free of gender discrimination, with true equality between men and women.
Credit: Richard Corman
Q: How and when did you become a single mom?
A: My son, Luke, was 10 when his father died of brain cancer. That’s how we ended up moving to Los Angeles—for a new start.
Q: How was it raising Luke solo?
A: There is a big difference raising a child as a divorced mother versus raising a child as the sole surviving parent. Besides feeling a huge sense of responsibility, you also work the early-morning shift, the day shift, and the late-night shift every single day. In my case, I’ve been Mom, Dad, sister, and brother. I think because it’s been just him and me, it’s allowed us to be super close and communicate openly. Although it was hard, I feel lucky I got to spend every day with him and watch him grow up. He is a beautiful, funny, intelligent human being.
Q: What is one of your single mom cheats?
A: When Luke was younger, I was always sleep deprived because he would sleepwalk every night. To be able to sleep a few extra minutes in the morning, I would make him eat the pancakes in the car—“carcakes!”—on our half-hour commute to school. Today we always laugh about the carcakes!
Q: When you became a single mother, did you notice a shift in your community? I did, and I know your mother experienced this in Sweden as well.
A: I was actually happy I didn’t have to go to the shallow social and business events I was only invited to as the wife of my husband. It was kind of good riddance. The people who stuck with me were my true friends and the people who mattered. I always knew who my “real” friends were. I also completely changed my lifestyle afterwards.
Q: Did your experience as a model affect your desire to help women?
A: Although [modeling] gave me financial independence, it was an industry inundated with sexual harassment and objectification. Your options in those days were to choose to ignore it, pretend you didn’t hear it, or deflect it with humor. If you didn’t have a strong level head or a good role model, at such a young age you would surely be compromised because deep down, whether we are smart or strong, we all somehow fear we are not good enough.
It was Washington, DC, that really made me want to speak up for women. DC has always been a man’s town, where the women came to follow their husband’s career. I wanted to rally women together and do something for other women instead of them being an appendage to their men.
Q: Knock Out Abuse is growing by leaps and bounds. Recently, you launched a series of Lived & Learned salons, evening gatherings in intimate settings designed to provide attendees with advice from leaders in a variety of fields on the topic of women.
A: I wanted to create a community for women in LA with meaningful evenings where we can learn from the triumphs, challenges, and wisdom of women we admire. If women can learn and make friends with one another while raising money for women in need, I thought it would be a win-win situation. We’ve had [three] salons so far, and they have been very successful, really resonating with the women and men who attended. We are building an amazing lineup of women speakers that we will announce soon. To be invited, you have to be on our mailing list, which you can sign up for at www.knockoutabusewest.org, or you can also just buy tickets via our website. They sell out quickly, as we cap all events at 60 to 70 people. The salons will also be available as podcasts on The New Feminist, an online global women’s forum that I’m currently developing.
Q: Tell me about Design Angels.
A: With my online design company, Room-FIX, and the internet makeover company One Room Challenge, we are going to make over an entire shelter apartment building. One designer per room will completely remake it with donated furniture from brands, individuals, etc. We did it a number of years ago in DC, and the result had a huge impact on the well-being of the women and children living in the shelter. We plan to do one shelter makeover a year and make it a community volunteer event.
Q: How can Knock Out Abuse help ESME moms in direct need—those currently in abusive households or facing homelessness?
A: We have a Get Help page on our website with national hotlines and national organizations that can help direct them to a shelter in their hometown. We have info such as warning signs to look out for to determine if you are in an abusive relationship. For anyone living in DC or LA, we can help via any of our beneficiary shelters.
Getting help starts with breaking the silence of abuse. Our mission at Knock Out Abuse is to get people to talk about domestic violence and to raise awareness. We are working on community outreach with corporations and businesses via mini events, cobranded products, etc. We want to reach women in their everyday lives: at the dry cleaner’s, a local café, perhaps the local gym has a display with the warning signs of abuse. Anything—a word, an encouragement—can be the thing that saves someone’s life or emboldens a woman to take the first step toward leaving her abuser.
Q: What’s next for Knock Out Abuse?
A: We are gearing up for our second annual Knock Out Abuse LA event in the fall and launching another fun, unusual speaker series. We are working on a video campaign, #tellmeyourstory, where women can make and upload their own videos and share their stories of abuse and survival. We are always looking to reach out to and engage as many women as we can. We have our shelter makeover. We’re doing an event in Sweden. We’re in full swing!
Q: What’s next for you?!
A: There are a lot of new things in my life currently. I’m getting more involved as a women’s advocate, engaging in global women’s issues, giving speeches, writing op-eds, etc. I’m setting up The New Feminist, a blog/forum/podcast for women globally. My company is branching out into a production side with some really exciting women’s projects in the works. Plus, my design company just launched Room-FIX [part of Design Angels mentioned earlier], an online, affordable design service that will help people create a dream home that truly reflects who they are. I’m staying very busy!
Q: Of what, about yourself, are you the proudest?
A: That I raised my sweet son who is now graduating high school! He is a grounded, happy, talented kid who starts film school at Loyola Marymount University this fall. As a single mom going through divorce, then the death of my son’s father, a cross-country move . . . some days I just prayed that I would be strong enough and be able to create a warm, loving home for him. It turns out I was strong enough.
Did you know we have a resource section dedicated to supporting women experiencing domestic violence?
Kathleen Laccinole, ESME’s Dating Resource Guide, has penned numerous films and parenting books but is best known for producing the highly lauded Greta, age 20, and William, age 16.
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