‘I was invisible for the first time in my life’
ELLIE Gonsalves has spent half of her life in front of the camera.
Starting her modelling career at the age of 13, the Brisbane native has travelled the globe with some of the world's biggest fashion brands.
On her 26th birthday, more than 110 million viewers saw her confidently walking down the beach in a white bikini in Yellow Tail's Super Bowl ad.
Last year she added a Hollywood film to her credits, starring opposite Dwayne Johnson and Florence Pugh in the wrestling biopic Fighting With My Family.
But just a few months after her feature film debut, Ellie was camped out in a tent in an alleyway in Wollongong. It was cold, rainy and she'd never felt so alone - or so invisible.
The Instagram star, who boasts more than 1.3 million followers, is one of five high-profile Australians who took part in the new season of Filthy, Rich and Homeless.
The acclaimed documentary series shines a spotlight on the plight of Australia's homeless through the eyes of familiar faces who swap their privileged lives for 10 days living rough on the streets and in crisis accommodation.
"The first two days and two nights we just get thrown out on to the streets by ourselves - no phones, no money, no ID. We got a sleeping bag, a pair of shoes, second-hand clothes and a big bag. We have a cameraperson but they are not allowed to speak to us. I could not believe how much that isolation over the 10 days affected me," Ellie says.
"I was invisible for the first time in my life. I've spent the last 13 years in front of a camera, always being the centre of attention.
"I was covered in bruises from sleeping on the ground. I think I showered twice or three times over the 10 days. It was one of the hardest experiences I've had in my entire life."
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Even though she'd never seen the show, Ellie was given an insight into how difficult the experience would be from friend and fellow Aussie export Alli Simpson.
"I'd spent most of the past three years over in the States, so I hadn't seen it at all. Alli did the last season and she said 'I'd never do it again but it was the most life-changing experience. Just do it'," she says.
"To be honest I was completely closed off to the idea at first. It was legitimately terrifying to think I'd be on the street for 10 days, but after a few days of thinking about it I thought I have this voice to create changes in our society and I knew it would be an opportunity to change the circumstances of homeless people.
"Ninety-five per cent of women who are sleeping rough are sexually assaulted. Someone told me that early on and I was gobsmacked. That scared me sideways."
Surprisingly, the scariest moment of experiment for the 26-year-old was when she had a roof over her head.
"They put me into a boarding house with nine other men," she says. "It was the filthiest place. I was being bitten by cockroaches in my sleep and what was on the walls looked like it came out of a human being, if you know what I mean.
"The men were up until 5am drinking and fighting with each other. I laid in the bed, which was just a mattress, and sobbed. I felt so exposed and vulnerable - that was my breaking point during the show.
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For 10 days in the middle of winter in Sydney, Australia, I was stripped of ALL my belongings (phone, ID, money, clothes yes even my undies) & wasn’t allowed ANY outside communication; I was homeless & ALONE... For me, this is when I am fortunate enough to share with you that this was for the 3rd season of the award winning intense documentary ‘Filthy Rich & Homeless’ on @SBS_Australia. Sadly, for over 116,000 people every night in Australia, being homeless is not apart of a docuseries, it’s their life! Until this experience, homelessness & people who have become homeless wasn’t something I was really exposed to. Even though I had ‘experienced’ a degree of what homelessness looked like while living in LA, I can honestly say, I knew NOTHING! The professionals I spoke with who work tirelessly on these issues & the people who actually live their life sleeping rough, who go without money, shelter, food, support, communication & as I found out, even things as simple as eye contact & a smile, absolutely broke me. And as you will see, it broke us all, day in, day out, for 10 days straight. To find out first hand that there are not nearly enough solutions in place to help people get back on their feet, especially if they are running from domestic or sexual violence left me in tears as you’ll see on the show. Yet while it brought me to tears, I also felt moments of reassurance & motivation in knowing that we live in a world where we can possibly influence positive change by our ability to connect with hundreds of thousands of people through our digital footprint by sharing these experiences. I really hope that by watching & by all of us sharing our own personal journeys, we all get to better understand these situations & become a bit more compassionate, a bit more generous & a little less consumed by things that maybe don’t matter so much. THIS, I believe, will go a LONG way to making change within our political infrastructure. All change starts with US first & if we can spread that change, it WILL reach the right places. I would love it if you tuned in to watch us #FilthyRichHomeless AIRS June 9th -11th on @SBS_Australia at 8:30PM
"I went to the park on my last night to sleep because it was so bad. That was such a pivotal moment because it reflected the reality of women going into some form of permanent housing. They're put into these situations that are impossible to live in."
Emotionally, her lowest point was after she'd spent two days buddied up with a homeless transgender woman named Eden. Ellie admits she felt ashamed to be Australian.
"I was not proud to be Australian because of the really horrific things I'd seen," she says.
"Eden gets abused day-to-day on the street by everyday people, which is something I was so shocked by. The people I had to watch out for and be diligent around were normal people, working class people; it wasn't the people sleeping rough.
"It's so un-Australian to turn our backs on people who are struggling while not giving them the proper resources to take their lives back. People are thrown into this circle of chasing their tail and having no way out."
Visiting a shelter for domestic violence survivors, she was reminded of the trauma she experienced losing her father to suicide five years ago.
"A lot of people on the show had to deal with the trauma of losing someone close to them - 90 per cent of rough sleepers have suffered at least one traumatic event in their life," she says.
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Nothing can or will prepare you for the loss of someone around you to suicide. I know because 5 years ago I lost my dad, I was overseas & got a call to say he was gone. Just like that.. no more ‘just one last hug’ or ‘just one more I love you’. He was hurting, he had enough of what some people around him were continually putting him through, I know this because he told me. But I never thought he was capable of taking his own life, not only because he was strong, but still to this day I am surprised because he was such a fun, masculine, protective & loving man but also a very sensitive & caring person. But no matter how strong you think someone is, unfortunately you do not know the full extent of what they are going through. Especially a parent who is trying to protect you. I myself have gone through some of the toughest days I believe I will ever face since losing my dad. He was my absolute world. But I didn’t want to ever feel like taking my own life was ever an option to end what I was going through. So I got help from the people around me & a professional counselor. It’s a common misconception that if you speak to a counselor you are weak or have a problem. But talking to someone who is professionally equipped to help you deal with your emotions & situations is not only tremendously important but also the best thing you can do for your mental well-being & there are many places that offer these services, a lot of them are even for free. I KNOW there are so many people suffering out there especially at this time with everything that is going on in the world but we have so many resources around us we just have to utilize them. If you or someone you know is doing it tough - please speak to someone, don't retreat to silence and being alone (as much as it may feel comfortable), you have the strength to change your situation, day by day. I’ve said this before, change does not and generally can't happen over night, it's a journey, but a journey worth having because you are just as loved and as important as anyone on this planet. ❤️ I love & miss you tremendously. We’ll be shmokin the Cohibas & listening to the Bob Marley with ya daddy bear❤️
"But the difference was I had a support network. It showed me how much I rely on the people around me. I can go home and speak to my partner Ross about the day I've had and my dog Daisy is all over me and instantly I feel better.
"I've always been a grateful person but the show gave me a new-found gratefulness for the small things - to lock my door at night and have a safe place to sleep."
Ellie understands that for most Australians, homelessness is an invisible issue.
"I grew up in a rural area in Brisbane and I was never exposed to homelessness. It was not until I moved to Los Angeles the first time that I saw how bad it was," she says.
"I'd just booked my first big campaign with Guess and we driving to their headquarters when we passed Skid Row. I said to my partner 'What is that?'. You can't walk on the sidewalk. It's tent-to-tent with people laying in the street on drugs. I could not come to terms with why there was a place like that.
"The last census showed 116,000 people in Australia are homeless. A lot of them are given move-on orders so they're pushed to the outer suburbs or backstreets. A lot of people don't realise how big of an issue it is."
Alongside her ambassadorship for Australia Zoo's Wildlife Warriors, Ellie now campaigns for our homeless.
While more support is needed at an institutional level, she says even something as simple as a smile or a coffee can make a difference.
"Don't ignore them. It makes a difference when people don't feel invisible. They feel like they can change their lives," she says.
"A lot of them said 'I just feel like this piece of trash on the road that nobody looks at'. They don't think they're worthy or deserve it, which speaks to why they might not have the motivation to get out there and get something. Honestly, it can happen to anyone. Especially with COVID-19, a lot of people are struggling."
Filthy, Rich and Homeless airs Tuesday through Thursday at 8.30pm on SBS.