As a young Indigenous person I never believed I could become a model, but here I am



“It wasn’t an industry I could see myself represented in… back then, we pretty much only had Samantha Harris.”

Fashion Journal is proud to continue an ongoing partnership with First Nations Fashion and Design, launched this NAIDOC Week. It follows past mistakes by Fashion Journal that caused hurt to the First Nations’ community (you can read our apology in full here), and we are proud to be moving forward collaboratively with such talented Australian creatives. 

If you asked me at 16, “Perry, what do you want to be when you grow up?”, I would have answered “I don’t know. An actor, I guess.” If you told me, “Perry, you’re going to be a model,” I would have laughed at you.

I might have crossed my arms, furrowed my bushy brows and been very confused. A model? Me? Never. Not because I didn’t like models, I just didn’t ever see that happening for me. As a young Indigenous person, it wasn’t an industry I could see myself represented in, not in the way we are now. Back then, we pretty much only had Samantha Harris and that was it.

I had little to no actual confidence when I was a teenager, similar to many people, but I made up for it by unnecessarily overcompensating with fake confidence. I was loud, nosy and at times, very annoying.

I went through school dreaming of this and that, aiming for wild goals but never really knowing how to achieve them. I just kind of floated along, expecting to be scouted at the shops or on the street. Don’t lie, you’ve probably thought the same would happen to you. It’s fine to admit it.

Nervous little one

It was a few years after school had finished when I met Grace Lillian Lee. It was 2015 and I was a baby-faced 19-year-old with no real modelling experience. Grace at the time was 26.

She had finished studying at RMIT in Melbourne and had been curating the fashion performances for the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF) for a few years prior. We met through my boss. She put me forward for a small shoot that Grace had organised with The Courier-Mail. It was a promo shoot for the CIAF.

On the way to the shoot I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to be the shortest model there. They’re all gonna know I’ve never really modelled before.’ The stress and panic settled in. Once I got to the shoot, I found out that I was the only model.

It was just me, Grace and the photographer. I was so stiff in the outfit and so stiff in the pictures, but even through all that stiffness, I realised that I could do it. After the shoot, Grace and I hung out. She invited me along to the next show but I didn’t think I was quite ready for it.

Grace and I kept in contact and two years later I was flying up to Cairns to be a model in the CIAF Wandan fashion performance. Back then, I was working full time in administration but was still modelling on the side.

By the time I got to Cairns, I’d been in the modelling industry in Brisbane for a year and a bit. Freelancing, of course. Safe to say I’d learnt a lot in that time. I said yes to pretty much anything and everything, paid or not. I was no longer stiff – I was truly confident.

The experience was one that shaped me as a model and reminded me what I actually care about. Representation of our mob, by our mob, in proper style.

First-time mentor, first-time responsibility

About a year later, Grace had reached out to me asking whether I’d like to be a model mentor for the Intertwined fashion performance for Festival2018 – think the Commonwealth Games but on the Gold Coast.

I agreed but had no actual idea of what it would be like. I’d never mentored anyone before – not that I knew of anyway. Being in a position where you have to mentor people, in this case, models, in a field that you really only have your own experiences to pull from, does sometimes make you feel like you’re not qualified enough to do it.

Sometimes impostor syndrome would start to creep up on me and I’d convince myself I wasn’t doing a good job. 22-years-old and mentoring models for a show. I remember thinking to myself, ‘Is this how parents feel when they see their kids doing well? Or is that a reach?’ It was so wild to me that the models were taking direction, from ME.

I did get used to the responsibility eventually. I started to fine-tune my mentoring style. I went into this mentoring position knowing that not every model is the same. Everyone’s got a different walk, different levels of mobility, different comfort levels.

I noticed that by taking the time to help adjust their walks individually, their confidence improved. Confident models equal a very good show. It was around this time that Grace started to get me involved in First Nations Fashion and Design.

Full circle

After a successful show in Darwin, I got a call from Grace asking whether I’d be free again for a show up north later this year. This time we’d be doing it on Gungganji country, Yarrabah and in Cairns City. It didn’t take much for me to say yes. This show, Walking In Two Worlds, was inspired by this year’s NAIDOC Week theme, Always Was Always Will Be.

To me, this show means that we as First Nations people will never let go of culture. It doesn’t matter how far away we are from it, it’s always with us and always will be. Celebrating our culture on country, and in an urban setting, is a constant for our mob. Balancing the two worlds is a hard task, but we make it look good.

‘Walking in Two Worlds’ will air on NITV on December 12. 

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