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Iconic model Elaine George on nurturing the next generation of First Nations fashion talent

PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARLEY MORGAN

WORDS BY PHOBE MCILWRAITH

“It’s still a shock that all the young models knew who I was after 30 years and they even bring their parents to rehearsal to get a selfie.” 

Fashion Journal is proud to continue an ongoing partnership with First Nations Fashion and Design aimed at highlighting and amplifying First Nations voices, talent, culture and stories across the industry. Fashion Journal acknowledges the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the first Australians and traditional custodians of the lands on which we live, learn and work. We pay our respects to their Elders past, present and emerging. 

Sitting in front of my laptop on a cold afternoon during NAIDOC Week, Elaine George joins the Zoom call from Meanjin/Brisbane. She is tucked up in her heated bed, while I’m in a suburb near Muloobina/Newcastle, feeling the chill in my lounge.

As she figures out the Zoom app on her phone, I realise it feels like I’m on a video call with a family member and not about to interview a model I’ve admired since my teens. 


For more fashion news, shoots, articles and features, head to our Fashion section.


“I’m not tech-savvy. I didn’t even have an Instagram page so they had to set me up one… I had to go to my son and say, ‘Baby I don’t know how to set anything up I need you to set up a profile for me’,” she tells me. “He was asking what pictures I wanted and all that. I don’t know, we didn’t have any of this 30 years ago!”

Elaine first entered the industry thirty years ago and the beginning of her modelling career is well-documented. She was discovered after a model scout noticed her while she was waiting in line for a ride at Dreamworld, and shortly after she took part in her first photoshoot. Incredibly, this shoot ended up on the cover of Vogue Australia in 1993, making her the magazine’s first-ever Indigenous cover model, and all at only 17 years old.

She continued modelling until she was 18, even going to the United States for it, before exiting the industry and going into child protection work. Generations of Blackfellas know who Elaine is and feel immense pride in her success. As a teenager, I recall being awestruck that she was not just Aboriginal but from the same Nation as my family. 

Elaine is an Arakwal woman from Bundjalung Nation, which is around Byron Bay, and my family is from the west in Casino. Although she grew up north in Meanjin and I grew up south in Darkinjung Country, our chat was a yarn Bundjalung to Bundjalung about supporting the next generation of First Nations creatives in fashion.

Elaine tells me she remembers preparing for her second Vogue cover and thinking, ‘Once this comes out I’ll be right to come back and just keep working [in child protection].’ But that was not the case. “During fashion week I got invited to other shows as a VIP guest and I’m like ‘Okay, sure’… It was just different, I would walk in and have people walking me to my seat and I was like ‘This is a bit shame job’.

“I thought it would die down. I’m nearly 48 – I didn’t think anyone would be interested but I just keep getting contacted for interview after interview, by agencies, clothing lines and I had no idea what to do. Back 30 years ago you had to actually go for a casting with 100 other models and stand around for a 30-second interview, now people kinda see you on Instagram and book you that way. That’s very new for me,” she says.

Elaine’s comeback into fashion has mainly been facilitated through First Nations Fashion and Design (FNFD), and Elaine has been an ambassador for the organisation and a mentor to the creatives coming through its community. 

“[FNFD] really drew me in with the mentoring, it wasn’t just getting a bunch of Black models and putting them out in the world without support and training… It’s a platform for them to go work on big shows and photoshoots… [It] gives them the basics on what to expect because we taught them the proper way for the industry,” she explains.

“I also loved this year having [the FNFD] show at Afterpay Australian Fashion Week emphasise the Torres Strait. They’re literally losing their land due to climate change, [so] how do we incorporate that into our show as well? In our staging we referred back to the Torres Strait all the way down and then across to the West, [and] then we were able to have a Torres Strait Islander father and son start our show.

“It’s a performance, a storyline, it’s not just a catwalk show… I want to give credit to Afterpay Australian Fashion Week, they let us close and they let us open, which is amazing. Watching the smoking ceremony from Uncle and having that moment, it brings tears to your eyes knowing full well that this is a world event.”

Elaine refers to herself as an ‘old school’ model and she takes every opportunity to share her knowledge with the ‘kids’. “I should really call them younger models. I just call them kids because I’m the oldest… They call me Aunty. At first I went ‘No, you’re making me feel old’ and [they] went ‘No, you’ve paved the way for us, like you did all the hard yards, so we gonna call you Aunty Vogue”… It’s still a shock that all the young models knew who I was after 30 years and they even bring their parents to rehearsal to get a selfie.” 

Hearing Elaine talk, it’s obvious she has a passion for sharing her experience in the industry, and as she says, “I’m pretty much an open book, I just tell it how it is. I don’t have a filter!” With this in mind, I ask what advice she would give her 17-year-old self about entering the industry for the first time.

She laughs and pauses before approaching the answer. “Maybe I shouldn’t have gone walkabout back home. Maybe I should have stuck it out for a little bit longer, but when you’re in another country, and they don’t know who the First Nations people are in Australia, it hit me that maybe I should go back home and educate [people] in Australia that we have First Nations people.

“Because if we don’t talk about it in Australia then how is the rest of the world gonna know about us? I also love child protection and have a passion to break that intergenerational trauma and if I could use my modelling platform to make change in First Nations children’s future that’s what I’m gonna do.”

Elaine still works in child protection, and our interview came right after she completed a five-hour stint on a NAIDOC Week stand, painting boomerangs with kids in care. No wonder she needed that electric blanket in order to talk to me – people who’ve done a NAIDOC Week stand before know that type of cold all too well.

She details to me the excitement kids get when they realise Elaine works for their care provider. “They come up to me going, ‘Wait you do child protection? We thought you quit’. We’re there getting selfies and like I’m in a beanie, rugged up. I had ugg boots on and I was like no makeup, no nothing.

“I had one young girl come up to me today saying, ‘Aren’t you Elaine George? Do you work for [child protection agency]? I’m cared [for] through you guys!” I was able to say, ‘Yes I know baby, I know all the Murri kids with us’. We ended up taking a selfie and she sent it to her mum. Her mum was so excited and the girl asked if we could Facetime with her, she couldn’t believe that I was one of her daughter’s care workers.”

There’s a clear tenderness and a classic tough Black love when Elaine talks about her ‘kids’: her son and daughter, the young fashion creatives, and the children in care. It’s evident she has a foundational passion for Blackfellas coming through after her; she wants to ensure they have the tools and spaces to strengthen their identity and presence in the world. 

Spaces like FNFD are fantastic and there have been positive changes when it comes to the empowerment of First Nations identity and culture, but where is the industry still lacking and where can it do better by Blackfellas?

“If we look at all the major magazines [and] retail stores, they need to have a really clear reconciliation action plan around employment and engagement. Instead of doing a one-off, why not employ an Aboriginal makeup artist in your organisation?

Vogue for the second cover did a good job getting [a] First Nations crew to shadow all the crew on set. They were able to get exposure and experience… [First Nations people] are very creative. We have this vision, we know our land and we know our identity, it doesn’t always have to have a Blackfella in it [in order] to have a Black feel to it.”

Elaine brings up an initiative she did with her workplace during Reconciliation Week. “We had a morning tea but it wasn’t during that one week. Why? Because [non-Indigenous people] need to reconcile with me every damn day. I say this at work too because I’m Black, I don’t leave my Blackness at the door.” 

The link to NAIDOC Week is obvious without having to verbalise it – if you must reconcile with me every day outside of Reconciliation Week then you must also celebrate and empower me every day outside NAIDOC Week. 

We could be doing this any time of the year, celebrating people like Elaine who give back to their community, fostering the power of Black folk in front of and behind the camera, and, for a more equitable environment in fashion, we must be doing it.

The meeting ends abruptly with Elaine getting a call – one of her kids in care has run off and she needs to help locate them. “They know if they don’t call us back in halfa Aunty Elaine is coming after them!”, she tells me. The cadence of the sentence is so jarringly like my family; I get the most intense sense of deja vu.

I wish her well in locating the child and with the rest of her day, and leave the Zoom with a complete understanding of why Elaine has confidently gained proper Aunty status. 

Being an ‘Aunty’ is, in essence, showing care and a willingness to share knowledge. It’s displaying honesty and openness to questions. Above all else, it’s knowing that even though you might be the first in a space, you’ll try your best to make sure you’re not the last. 

You can keep up with Elaine here.

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