Meet a 74-year-old who became a model in retirement: 'You don't have to fade into the background'

Courtesy of Ashley Batz
Key Points
  • After a long career in telecommunications and marketing, Carolyn Doelling started modeling in her early 70s.
  • Doelling wants to redefine what beauty and living a fulfilling life looks like.
  • "I felt that I was being underestimated and I was being overlooked," she says of her life in retirement. Now, "my goal is to make sure I'm observed."

When Carolyn Doelling graduated high school in 1963, her parents gifted her a suitcase: a "pretty standard" graduation present in the small, rural, North Carolina town where she grew up. "The idea is to leave town, because there weren't many opportunities," says Doelling.

Since then, Doelling's career path has taken many twists and turns and, at 74, she is pursuing what is, arguably, one of the most exciting opportunities of her lifetime: modeling.

When she retired at the age of 70, Doelling had no experience being in front of a camera. Now she frequently flies between New York City and Los Angeles, modeling for brands like Tibi and Rachel Comey. "I'm working harder than I've worked in my whole life," she says.

This unexpected career pivot has provided her with a platform to communicate that you deserve to be seen and heard regardless of your age. "I wanted to dispel this myth that you have to fade into the background," she says.

As a young person in San Francisco, 'life was very good'

As a teen, Doelling gained professional experience working in a tobacco field, a common job in her town for folks her age, she says. North Carolina is the largest exporter of of tobacco in the United States.

After graduating high school, she enrolled in North Carolina Central University and earned a degree in psychology. Then she tried law school for a year before going to work full-time in telecommunications.

The job eventually took Doelling to San Francisco where she pursued an MBA at Golden Gate University and was hired by Bank of America to develop marketing strategies for their own telecommunications.

"This was the era of the first ATMs," she says. "Before then, you had to go into a branch to do anything." At the time, banks wanted customers calling in and using services that didn't require an in-person banker, and they needed Doelling to help make those services more approachable.

"It was a good-paying job and allowed me to be in San Francisco at that young age," she says. "Life was very good. We were creating new approaches [to banking] and it was kind of an exciting time. They were hiring people who were good, strategic thinkers and I liked it."

Doelling's success in her role at Bank of America gave her confidence to start her own consulting firm, offering advice to a number of banks on how to push their telephone services. She ran the firm until she started a family and became a full-time, stay-at-home mom.

"I was doing volunteer work and was the president of the PTA and did that whole route," she says.

Deolling, who had no modeling experience, is now signed with a modeling agency in New York City.
Courtesy of Kola Shobo

While serving on a community board, she was recruited to work for a local philanthropic foundation. Her job there was to get wealthy individuals to donate to local initiatives. "Even though it's philanthropy and a different product, it's still relationship-building and really getting to understand peoples' values and making recommendations," she says. "I loved that job."

She worked there until retiring in 2017.

As a retiree, she felt 'underestimated' and 'overlooked'

This could have been the end of an accomplished career, but Doelling found herself unresolved in retirement. She realized that, like many people, she tied her self-worth to her career.

"So much of our identity is tied with what our titles are and what our work is," she says. "I am a development officer. I am a marketing strategist. Then when you let that go, you have to find a different 'I am.' But saying 'I am retired,' well, that's really not work. Both internally and externally you begin to feel like a different person."

She felt herself being viewed differently, or not at all.

"I felt that I was being underestimated and I was being overlooked," she says. "Just walking down the street going to the grocery store. People use this term, they say they feel 'invisible.' I just felt like I was not being observed. I had much more to offer even though I was 70 years old."

I just felt like I was not being observed. I had much more to offer even though I was 70 years old.
Carolyn Doelling

Doelling turned to fashion as a way to be seen again. She started wearing brighter colors and bolder outfits. She attended an event at McMullen, a luxury boutique in Oakland, and told the owner, Sherri McMullen, her new mission: "My goal is to make sure I'm observed and to inspire other women to add more style and swagger to their life," she said.

McMullen asked Doelling to come in for a photoshoot.

"I did a shoot with one of her employees and she posted it on their Instagram and the response was terrific," Doelling says. "I had never modeled before in my life and never had the intention to do it."

Other designers noticed and started booking her too. Now Doelling is signed with a modeling agency in New York City.

"I very quickly realized that this was the platform that I could use to send my message, a visual message, to women my age and to others who are assuming that to be a model you have to be 25-years-old, 5-foot-10, straight hair, light skin, the whole thing we see all the time, to reconsider beauty," she says.

'I could let modeling go tomorrow'

At age 74, Doelling has never been busier. And although she is happy with where she's landed, she says the act of pivoting was as enlightening as the career she pivoted to.

"I feel so confident now that there are ways to re-imagine yourself and reboot yourself, now that that's kind of been proven," she says.

If she never modeled again, her 'I am' wouldn't feel so compromised, she says. Along with modeling, she has picked up new hobbies and says she is "always listening and open" to new opportunities.

"I write, I did a piano recital, and am taking piano lessons. I'm just making a well-rounded life," she says. "I could let modeling go tomorrow and be happy doing something else. Being a cyclist, maybe."

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