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Indigenous Australian models on their experiences within the industry

WORDS BY CAIT EMMA BURKE

Seven models share seven very different takes.

This week we welcome a guest editor to Fashion Journal, Rona Glynn-McDonald. Rona is the founder of Common Ground, a not-for-profit organisation educating Australians on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Rona is joining us for Reconciliation Week, which runs from May 27 to June 3. Read more about Common Ground and Rona’s work here.

Way back in the year 2000 while on a trip to Australia, supermodel Naomi Campbell asked why there were so few Aboriginal models on our runways. In the 20 years that have passed since she made this comment, change has been slow coming and Indigenous Australian models have remained heavily underrepresented in our fashion industry.

But very recently, it’s beginning to feel like tangible change is happening, however small. There is still a very, very long way to go, but the increasing amount of Indigenous Australian models finding work in the industry both here and abroad is heartening to see. We spoke to seven of them about their experiences and where they hope the industry goes next.

Nathan, Vivien’s Model Management


Image via Vivien’s Model Management

What made you want to get into modelling?

A new creative experience. I wanted to try something different for myself coming from a professional sporting background and relocating from Perth to Melbourne. I felt modelling and fashion were great ways to expose myself to the Australian fashion industry where Indigenous faces are extremely underrepresented. It gave me an opportunity to meet other creatives and work within the fashion industry.

Do you recall seeing Indigenous Australian models as you grew up? How did this impact your self-image?

My sister Shannon McGuire who was one of Australia’s first Indigenous models. She started on Season One of Australia’s Next Top Model back in 2005 placing in the top three. Her achievements during this period and her career modelling made me proud to see someone make such a major positive impact on the Aboriginal community around Australia but especially in our home town of Perth, within our Noongar community. This impacted my self-image in a positive way seeing herself being celebrated for her heritage within the fashion industry and uplifted in our Indigenous community. My sister Shannon has been a big inspiration for me and showed me that there is a massive space for Indigenous models in fashion and that we should be at the forefront of the fashion industry in Australia.

How did you get started in modelling? What barriers existed for you?

In 2015, I did two test shoots which led to being cast for an editorial with Oyster Magazine. The photographer Jo Duck saw the potential in me and sent the photos to my agency, Vivien’s Model Management. My first week of being signed I was booked by Target which then led to campaigns with David Jones, Cotton On, Myer, and I have been working only as a full-time model to this day. I had limited barriers early on, yes there wasn’t other Indigenous male models at that time but I had peers like Samantha Harris inspiring me with her voice and journey.

Every now and again I had some people say they didn’t know what to do with my look, however, it didn’t take long for me to be embraced by the industry. As an industry, we have so many great photographers, creatives and brands that believe in what I represent as an Aboriginal man and as a model who [are] always there to embrace and push to elevate Indigenous Australians.

Has your experience within the industry been positive or negative?

My experience has been positive, I’ve always worked, been professional and created a space for myself within the industry, I understand that it’s a business and you have to adapt to that mentality. Modelling does have its ups and downs, but this isn’t race-related. As Indigenous people, we grow up with a pressure to work harder for acceptance in predominantly “white” spaces.

Culturally and historically in Australia, Indigenous voices aren’t heard until the pendulum swings our way, [and] I feel Indigenous faces and fashion has made major leaps in the last couple of years. I feel excited and positive to a part of this current wave and establishing Indigenous models and fashion into the mainstream of not only the Australian fashion industry but also the world stage of fashion. Having worked in London, Europe and Asia does help one’s career locally as the industry seems to embrace you more with this experience and portfolio under your belt.

Have you ever found yourself to be pigeonholed or treated differently to other models?

As models, we all have a personal brand that is relevant to our look and the type of work we book. There are jobs I’ve booked because I am Indigenous and there are jobs I’ve been booked because I have a strong look and great portfolio of work that proves I can do the job. When I’m booked because I’m Indigenous it usually has a brand message of empowerment, diversity or [a] focus on Aboriginal people. Then there are jobs I do because it’s not a factor for the brand but just my look being in sync with the brand’s identity. My hope is that these lines blur a little more and Indigenous faces front campaigns and brands because our presence is necessary for the Australian market. I feel we are moving towards that space because we can do the job and just happen to be Indigenous. We have a major space within the industry and I feel it’s picking up pace.

What do you love about the industry?

Indigenous fashion has evolved so much over recent years. Right now, there is a great movement with Indigenous fashion taking up more of a mainstream space within the industry. It’s exciting to see and be a part of. The number of Indigenous models is apparent and there are more creatives across all areas of fashion. This is great because as Indigenous people we carry our culture with us and are so proud to share that with the rest of the world. Fashion is an empowering force that reflects the culture and connects people to one another. Our stories and artwork translate so beautifully with fashion and makes it our culture more accessible to bridge the conversation and cultural gap between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people.

What do you think needs to change?

The stereotype of what an Aboriginal person is “meant to look like” by non-Indigenous standards needs to change. For example, in my own personal experience, micro-aggressions occur on a regular basis by people within the industry questioning my heritage. The conversation usually goes something like this: “What’s your background?” “I’m Aboriginal” “Oh! But not like full Aboriginal? Like you don’t look that Aboriginal.” That microaggression is very offensive. The reason this is offensive is that someone like myself has been brought up very proud, aware and knowledgeable about my culture and a two-lined conversation like this is unprofessional and disrespectful.

This conversation is quite regular when someone questions my heritage to decide in their mind how “Aboriginal” I am to them. Aboriginal people have been told to grin and bear these types of offensive conversations because we should be grateful for a seat at the table and not cause waves. As we make strides in representing ourselves through our own fashion and more Aboriginal people being part of the industry, we have a place and a community to support each other. We need non-Indigenous people to understand, learn and uplift our stories and be allies to Indigenous people in the industry.

What else should our readers know?

I believe it’s important to have this bridge between fashion and culture. It helps non-Indigenous people understand and experience our culture in a way all people can understand and take in. This can lend itself to engage everyone in educational conversations about Australia’s real history and can unlock strong themes around self-determination, treaty and how Indigenous Australia has a voice and a place across many fields within the scope of our country.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Indigenous fashion is the future of Australian fashion.

 

Savannah, IMG


Image via Pride Models

What made you want to get into modelling?

I love how modelling creates unpredictable opportunities all the time. It’s so exciting to be presented with amazing opportunities at the drop of a hat and it’s what I love about the industry.

Do you recall seeing Indigenous Australian models as you grew up? How did this impact your self-image?

No, I don’t recall seeing or hearing of any Indigenous fashion models. I grew up in the Northern Territory [and] there’s a large Indigenous population here so it didn’t really have any impact on my self-image personally, but now that I see a lot more diverse-looking girls appearing in the shopfronts and in ad campaigns it definitely feels more like we are all one in this world. 

How did you get started in modelling? What barriers existed for you?

It was such a fluke! I met Christabel from Pride Models at my local markets here in Darwin. She was here on a one week holiday with her family. The market was just about to close and I was looking at bracelets, Christabel was getting a drink a couple of stands away, she noticed me and introduced herself to me. My agency Pride Models organized test shoots in Darwin for me with an awesome photographer Kellie Mastwijk. Kellie taught me so much.

Then other photographers wanted to collaborate with me in Melbourne, [it] was such a privilege that all these great people saw something in me and wanted to give me their time. Not long after my trip to Melbourne IMG reached out to say they were excited to sign me which was awesome! The main obstacle for me was getting myself to Melbourne for a week from Darwin. Lucky for me my family were really proud of the opportunities that had come my way so they helped me get there and back.

Has your experience within the industry been positive or negative?

Everyone that I have worked with so far has been so lovely and kind from the moment I met them and they honestly all feel like family to me! 

Have you ever found yourself to be pigeonholed or treated differently to other models?

No, not at all.

What do you love about the industry?

It’s fun to work with creative people because they have amazing vibes!

What do you think needs to change?

The change is already happening at this present moment, there is a general demand for different and unique natural beauty. It’s a very exciting time.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’d like to thank all the people I have worked with to date, they have taught me so much and I am so thankful!


Zeppelin, Chadwick Models


Image via Chadwick

What made you want to get into modelling?

I suppose I saw it as an opportunity to meet people and support my passions.  

Do you recall seeing Indigenous Australian models as you grew up? How did this impact your self-image?

To be honest… I don’t recall seeing any Indigenous models growing up but I definitely had a lot of Indigenous role models. That was probably better for my self-image anyway. 

How did you get started in modelling? What barriers existed for you?

Well, I actually moved to Sydney to pursue acting, modelling was always secondary to that – though I’m always very grateful (and shocked) when I land a job haha. I was extremely lucky to land a role on ABC’s Cleverman, alongside an incredible cast of Indigenous actors, directors and writers. To be among so many inspirational people with the same dream that I had was a very important experience for me. I cherish it deeply!

Has your experience within the industry been positive or negative?

My experience has been mostly positive thankfully, although I know other people would have something different to say. 

Have you ever found yourself to be pigeonholed or treated differently to other models?

My father has European descent and my mother is Aboriginal. As a result, I don’t look like what most people understand an Indigenous man to look like. Therefore, I’ve never been pigeonholed because of this, but I have been told that I “don’t look Aboriginal enough” for jobs.

What do you love about the industry?

I love connecting with other people from other places. I’ve made a lot of friends through modelling and I’ll take that away with me when I’m a plump old man haha.

What do you think needs to change?

Within the industry, or in general? There needs to be a complete systemic reconstruction within our education system for starters. Indigenous people in all industries would benefit from that.  

What else should our readers know? 

I’m a Wiradjuri man!


Perina, Jira Models


Image via Imago Photography

What made you want to get into modelling?

Since childhood I’ve always enjoyed dressing up, I think this is where the idea of modelling started for me. I grew up surrounded by women in my community who could sew and embroider etc, [so it was] a natural pathway into the industry.

Do you recall seeing Indigenous Australian models as you grew up? How did this impact your self-image?

I don’t recall seeing any Indigenous models growing up until Sam Harris. I grew up with the likes of Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks on the catwalk and that was inspiring to see a person of colour have so much confidence and being celebrated for her beauty. It was great seeing Sam Harris enter the industry, and still seeing her around today is a treat! There is a lot more confidence in Indigenous communities around Australia and for younger talents to consider modelling as a career pathway having role models like Sam still shining.

How did you get started in modelling? What barriers existed for you?

Modelling started as a hobby, playing around with a camera with friends. I didn’t take it up professionally until much later in my career where I got signed to an agency. Being a person of colour was a definite barrier for me. I had agents explain to me how much Australia is a ‘whitewash’ industry, and that if I wanted to succeed, I would need to travel overseas to New York etc.

Has your experience within the industry been positive or negative?

My experience in the industry has been a mixture of both positive and negative, all of which have led me to start an Indigenous modelling agency in 2017 – Jira Models.

Have you ever found yourself to be pigeonholed or treated differently to other models?

All the above. I’ve been pigeonholed and have been treated differently to other models, tokenism. I’ve lost jobs in the past because I identified as an Indigenous person. Through Jira Models, [the] majority of the castings are specific to being an Indigenous or Pacific Islander person. This has been very welcoming and the castings are increasing each year which is really exciting to see. I’d love to see more general castings come through as being an Indigenous person is not a skin tone, shape or size.

What do you love about the industry?

What I love most about the industry is the opportunity to change. There are so many us out there who want and push to see the industry change to be more culturally inclusive and safe for Indigenous talents to enter the industry.

What do you think needs to change?

I believe the change is happening now in the industry. More importantly, we need to continue having our conversations about diversity and inclusivity and continue to change our practices in the industry. The agency has been a great point of contact for clients and talents to have conversations about cultural safety and appropriation in the industry. I feel this has been a great outcome for the industry and agency so far to grow in the right direction.


Keisha, Kult Models


Photography by Kaitlin Bosnjak

What made u want to get into modelling? 

I was always interested in acting and modelling from a young age, so I always wanted to give it a shot when the time was right. My family were also really into photography while I grew up so I always modelled and showed off for them whenever I could, I loved the camera. 

Do you recall seeing Indigenous Australian models as you grew up? How did this impact your self-image? 

Yes! When I was growing up I remember seeing Samantha Harris’ face up in the windows at Westfield when I would go shopping with my mum.  She inspired me so much, I knew from the day I saw her photos in Westfield that I could and I was going to do something like that with my life. Being older and looking back, I’ve realised how important it was for me to see an Aboriginal model in the shop windows especially growing up in a predominately white community because seeing her face always reminded me to be proud of who I was. 

How did you get started in modelling? What barriers existed for you? 

My modelling journey began at one of my lowest points when I was going through homelessness, I had no job or income so I decided to dive into the industry head first. Shortly after I was fortunate enough to be introduced to my beautiful manager who has developed and mentored me and who also works closely with the incredible agency I’m with now. Trying to become a model whilst homeless was one of my biggest barriers, it required a lot of resilience and tough skin but it was all worth it and I absolutely love doing what I do.

Has your experience within the industry been positive or negative? 

For me, modelling has always been about representing my culture so going into the industry I was expecting some challenges. Since being in the industry for a bit over two years now I have never felt more accepted for who I am. I really love my work and overall the industry has helped me embrace my identity and culture even more than I could have thought as well as embrace other Indigenous cultures from around the world. 

Have you ever found yourself to be pigeonholed or treated differently to other models? 

Not necessarily, but I have noticed while attending shoots that majority of hairstylists will rarely ever touch my curly hair for styling, they will leave it how it was when I walked in. I have seen this happen to a number of other BIPOC models not having a hairstylist who understands how their curls work so the model quickly styles her hair herself. Although curly hair is currently receiving more visibility than ever, hardly any styling or effort ever goes into someone who has curly hair even though it looks beautiful naturally. 

What do you love about the industry? 

I love that I never have to work the same day twice, I am constantly meeting new people and travelling around. I love working with a creative team and being able to express myself through images, words and fashion. And I love that I am able to represent my culture, stand proud in my own skin, and speak up for my ancestors through what I do for work.  

What do you think needs to change?

I think the representation of Aboriginal people in the mainstream media needs to change. We are far more than the stereotypes that have been painted for us which is why I have such a strong passion to be in this industry. I want to show everyone a side of Aboriginal people that the mainstream media won’t. 

What else should our readers know? 

Black is the future.


Bella, Azalea Models


Image via Azalea Models

What made you want to get into modelling?

Since I was a young teen fashion was always an interest to me but I never actually thought of being a model. Everyone always said I had the potential but I never saw it in myself, as I always thought I had more potential in different avenues such as sport. It wasn’t until after my contract with Azalea that I realised I have a passion for modelling/the fashion industry.

Do you recall seeing Indigenous models as you grew up? How did this impact your self-image?

Growing up there wasn’t many Indigenous models until recent years. This intrigues me because I have always been fascinated with the Indigenous culture and to see them modelling is just amazing and creates such a large positive impact on myself and the community. I love seeing Indigenous woman achieving goals and reaching their full potential.

How did you get started in modelling? What barriers existed for you?

I was mostly interested in sport until I decided to give modelling a chance by attending one of the Azalea workshops and I was lucky enough to have been offered a contract. Modelling so far has been amazing and my biggest barrier is self-confidence. I’ve always been a shy person and modelling gave me a chance to [get] outside of my shell and taught me to be myself.

Has your experience within the industry been positive or negative?

As I am new to the industry so far I haven’t had any bad experiences, I’ve been made aware about past bad experiences within the industry, [but] I believe the industry has evolved and become fair to everyone. I always like to keep the environment I’m surrounded with and work in positive and do my best work.

Have you ever found yourself to be pigeonholed or treated differently to other models?

No, I have never felt myself to be treated differently to other models. I haven’t had much experience working with other models but I’ve had many photoshoots and all my photographers, makeup artists and stylists have always provided a healthy, positive, and productive environment to work in.

What do you love about the industry?

The fashion industry is absolutely capturing. I love the uniqueness and creativity that it holds and you meet the most inspiring and outgoing people who produce stunning pieces. It is always changing – no piece and photoshoot are similar to the next. You never know what you will get next, as new trends come and go all the time.

What do you think needs to change?

I feel like the industry is always changing [and] since I have had no bad experiences with the industry I don’t really have anything that I want to change, but I definitely do believe that Indigenous and many models with different ethnicities are overlooked and should be given more hype.


Aleisha, Vivien’s Model Management


Image via Vivien’s Model Management

What made you want to get into modelling?

As a young kid growing up, I’d always have family members saying I should be a model or I should get into modelling but I didn’t think anything of it because I was more of a tomboy. I’d always have my two cousins wanting to do my make-up, my hair and take pictures of me when I was about 11 or 12 years old, I used to love it! But modelling wasn’t something that I really wanted to do growing up, I was more into sports. When I made the move down to Melbourne two years ago, I thought well maybe I should give modelling a try. I ended up getting in contact with Vivien’s, I then went in for a casting, and they ended up signing me. I’ve been modelling for a year now and I absolutely love it!

Do you recall seeing Indigenous Australian models as you grew up? How did this impact your self-image?

The only Indigenous model I remember growing up was Samantha Harris. I thought she was absolutely stunning and I wanted to be just like her. I don’t think it ever affected my self-image because being young, I didn’t care about what I looked like at all.

How did you get started in modelling? What barriers existed for you?

I emailed a few pictures of myself to a few different agencies in Melbourne. Vivien’s got back to me first, but I held off a bit because I started having second thoughts about wanting to do modelling. They ended up emailing me again, so I thought alright, I’ll give it a try. I went in for the casting and ended up signing. I didn’t have much confidence starting off and growing up out bush, I had visible scars that I was very insecure about. I’d always have other models looking at my scars or make-up artists having to put products over it, and I never liked people seeing them. But I guess, the more shoots I did, the less I cared about it. It made me more confident in my own skin and I think modelling really helped build my confidence with that.

Has your experience with the industry been positive or negative?

Being new in the industry, I didn’t know what to expect. But I caught on pretty quick that not every client is going to book you or like your look. You kind of have to have that “it is what it is” attitude and not take things to heart. Other than that, everything has been pretty positive so far! I love working with different people and I love meeting new faces!

Have you ever found yourself to be pigeonholed or treated differently to other models?

Yes, I have. When working with other models you definitely know who the client likes better. But I think being a new model and working with models who are well-known in the industry, you kind of already know what to expect.

What do you love about the industry?

I love that I can be myself! I’ve made a lot of new friends through modelling and I get to work with some amazing people.

What do you think needs to change?

I don’t think I’ve been in the industry long enough to make a comment on what needs to change.

What else should readers know?

That I am a proud Jaminjung woman from Kununurra, Western Australia, and I love representing my people.

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