Sophie Vouzelaud works as a model, and she wears hearing aids made by Sonova brand Phonak. Thanks to being fitted with hearing aids since her earliest childhood, she has learned to speak and make her way in the world – which has even taken her to the podium of the Miss France competition. The French celebrity and model now campaigns for greater acceptance of people with hearing loss in society.
“Sorry, is that Sophie Vouzelaud?” The young lady with mauve hair cautiously approaches the team clustered around a model in a red dress. The production manager answers the question with a mute nod, just as the photographer lowers his camera. The make-up artist immediately springs into action to comb the model’s hair, even as the stylist is pulling the dress straight and swapping the handbag for another one. The photographer indicates that he has to check the lighting and review the snaps he has taken; this is the cue for everyone on the set of the Sonova Annual Report photoshoot to take a five-minute break.
The young woman with the mauve hair immediately spies her chance: “I’ve been a fan since day one and I follow Sophie on all her social media channels. She’s an idol of mine. Could I quickly ask her for an autograph – please?” Of course she can. Sophie also wastes no time, obligingly pulling out a pen and signing her name before posing with a smile for a selfie with her fan. The pretty, young woman with long, chestnut-brown hair is not fazed by people coming up to her on the street – it happens to her more and more these days as she is well-known the length and breadth of France.
When Sophie was born, there was little to suggest that she might one day make her name as a model. At the screening test for newborns, the doctors had established that the baby did not react to sounds or noises. The little girl from the Limousin region of Western France did not have to come to terms with this diagnosis on her own, however. Her whole family was right behind her, especially her mother. “My mom gave up work soon after I was born to look after me. She definitely wanted me to learn how to speak and have the same opportunities as other children.”
Sophie got her first hearing aids at 13 months, and these were replaced with newer models at regular intervals over the following years. “My first devices seemed enormous to me back then, although that changed over time. But as a child, I refused to have pigtails and preferred to hide my hearing aids away under my long hair.”
Today, the young woman, who hails from Saint-Julien (population: 11,000), wears instruments by Sonova brand Phonak that are barely visible. “I can now hear sounds that I never knew existed and I’m discovering a whole new world around me. It’s incredible, and a major victory for me.” Even entirely mundane sounds are a revelation to Sophie thanks to her hearing aids. “I was recently walking through town with my mother and I heard a new noise in the distance. I asked my mom what it was and she said, ‘those are church bells’.”
A new universe of sound has opened up for Sophie, and she is encountering unaccustomed noises all the time: “I can hear the fridge humming and my cat meowing – or people talking when they’re standing behind me.” Every expedition into unfamiliar surroundings has become a new adventure for her: “As I can hear people better, it has got a lot easier for me to recognize individual words. And my own speech has improved. I’m very proud of that and I notice that others can understand me more easily as well.”
At the beginning, it was like parts of my world were hidden away behind a thick wall. It was very hard for me to learn to speak and understand other people. Now I can hear sounds that I never knew existed and I’m discovering a whole new world around me. It’s incredible, and a major victory for me.
Sophie’s childhood and schooldays were not easy: “At the beginning, it was like parts of my world were hidden away behind a thick wall. It was very hard for me to learn to speak and understand other people.” She was teased by her classmates – they said she talked like a monkey. No one wanted to be the little girl’s friend. Sophie was lonely and going to school was a torment. She refused to give up, however, stayed at her ordinary local school, and passed her baccalaureate. She also learned sign language, which helped her find friends for the first time. Looking back, she says: “I always had to struggle – but I have proved that I can achieve the same as anybody else.”
This strength and determination has also helped Sophie in her later career. In 2007, her mother suggested she enter a regional beauty contest. Sophie had blossomed into a beautiful young woman: at 5’11”, with long legs, a graceful figure, and delicate features, she had all the attributes required to be a model. Although the application was initially rejected because of her hearing loss, her mother wouldn’t take no for an answer and Sophie was allowed to take part in the competition. Against all odds, she took first prize, winning the title “Miss Limousin” and qualifying to compete in the “Miss France” contest.
There may have been only about 70 spectators at her first competition, but now there would be no fewer than 12 million viewers watching Sophie hold her own against 37 other contenders. “For the contest, I had to walk in time to music on 5-inch heels. I practiced for weeks and weeks, precisely working out each step every evening after my choreography lessons and drumming the pattern into my head.” Although only 18 years old at the time, she toughed it out, ultimately surprising everyone with her polished, professional performance.
When she made it through to the final round, the moment came that was to change her life completely in just a few seconds: “At first, I wasn’t supposed to be interviewed directly or talk myself, because of my hearing loss. But then I reached for the microphone and spoke.” In just a few sentences, the beauty queen won the hearts of those millions of television viewers. The audience voted for Sophie as their “Miss France”, but the jury, who held the casting vote in the contest, had other ideas, and “Miss Limousin” only came in second, as “the first Dauphine to Miss France 2007”.
I definitely wanted to take part, to break down prejudices. I wanted to show that people with hearing loss can dance just as well as anybody else.
The outcome of the vote made Sophie an overnight celebrity throughout France, and the young woman with hearing loss will always be the real winner for the people of France. The fame this has won her has opened new doors for her: Sophie went on to win supporting roles in feature films and take part in a range of TV shows that are very popular in France. Her appearance on the 2015 edition of “Dancing with the Stars”, for which she had to learn how to dance, has become a must-see TV moment. “That was the best experience for me. I definitely wanted to take part, to break down prejudices. I wanted to show that people with hearing loss can dance just as well as anybody else.”
Sophie has been actively campaigning for greater acceptance of people with hearing loss in society since 2007, and the fact that the new programs broadcast by French TV station TF1 now have subtitles for people with hearing difficulties is entirely down to her involvement. She trains staff at job centers to ensure that applicants with hearing loss are treated with greater understanding and receive the support they need, and her work has prompted a major French bank to introduce a mentoring and guidance scheme for staff with hearing loss. With commitment to social issues playing an ever more important role in brand marketing, Sophie has also come to the attention of Christian Dior, the renowned French luxury goods maker; the project they put together in mid-2018 saw her promoting a perfume as an ambassador for the fashion house.
The shy and reserved little girl of yesteryear has turned into a self-confident young woman who has also found happiness in her private life. In the summer of 2018, Sophie married Fabien Boutamine, her boyfriend of many years, who is not affected by hearing loss himself. “I’ve made many new friends since knowing Fabien. I feel much stronger than before and I’m leading an entirely normal life in a world that I’m constantly exploring and discovering, thanks to my hearing aids.”