In the June edition of Australian Vogue, the cover girl Samantha Harris wears a yellow Pucci gown with a gold trim slit all the way down to the navel. Her fingernails are short and painted red, her dark hair is tousled, and she purses her bee-stung lips as she stares down the lens. It's an extraordinary picture, not least because Harris is the first Aboriginal model to grace the magazine's cover in 17 years.
In an industry where indigenous women are largely invisible, Harris is a rising star. "She has got a quiet elegance that sets her apart; she's top drawer," says Vogue Australia's editor, Kirstie Clements. Locally, fashionistas are rhapsodising after Harris strode the catwalk for no fewer than 18 designers at Australian Fashion Week in Sydney this month. Internationally, she has reportedly piqued the interest of Balenciaga and Prada after her spread in Glamour, by top fashion photographer Patrick Demarchelier, hit news stands last year.
A shy and softly spoken 19-year- old, Harris is still pinching herself. "I was at Sydney Harbour the other day and some teenage girls looked at me from about 200 metres away and they started running towards me; they recognised me and wanted my autograph. It was hard to believe," she says. By now, Harris's long and difficult trajectory is well known to many Australians. Her mother, Myrna Harris, belongs to the "stolen generation" and as a child was taken away from her parents to live in a state-run institution for no other reason than she was black. She raised her own four children in a housing estate on Queensland's Gold Coast.
She entered Samantha, a painfully shy child, in her first beauty pageant when she was only six, despite fears that she would freeze on stage. Instead she shone. "I told Samantha, 'You will be big one day; you will be living in a three-storey brick house while the other girls are pushing prams.'" Money was tight, but they made do. "We would hear the other girls talking, they would say, 'My mother bought me a $300 dress and should have bought me the $400 dress', and Samantha would be sitting there in her op shop [second-hand] clothes.
"For a while she kept coming second. Put it this way, it was all blonde hair and blue eyes," Myrna Harris says. Samantha Harris had her first break as a 13-year-old finalist in the Girlfriend magazine model search. Shortly thereafter, she signed up with Chic, the modelling agency that represents Abbey Lee and Miranda Kerr. Chic spokesperson Kathy Ward recalls seeing Harris for the first time six years ago. "She was mesmerisingly beautiful; it was very exciting for us to have a model like Samantha."
As a high school student, Harris would stay with Ward and her family in Sydney when she came down from the Gold Coast for modelling assignments. "She was a homebody, not interested in partying; we like that in a model," Ward recalls. Clements says that Vogue kept an eye on Harris while she was still at high school, waiting for her to mature as a model. The wait ended after Harris graduated and her agent sent out a new portfolio of pictures. "We looked at them and said 'She has that thing, that intangible thing when girls have that Vogue look,'" Clements says.
A decade ago, when the British supermodel Naomi Campbell visited Australia, she lamented the dearth of Aboriginal models and noted an irony: that not even designers inspired by traditional Aboriginal art engage Aboriginal models to show their wares. It was an astute observation. Since Elaine George became the first Aboriginal woman to appear on the cover of Vogue in 1993, only a handful of indigenous models have cracked the industry. Kirstie Parker, editor of the indigenous newspaper Koori Mail, says that this is due to a combination of factors, including a lack of opportunity for young Aboriginal women to take up modelling and an unwillingness on the part of the fashion industry to embrace them.
Aborigines are also grossly underrepresented in other media; indigenous television journalists, presenters and actors working in Australia today are few in number. "If you looked at Australian TV, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a monoculture," Parker says. Clements says that the decision to put Harris on the cover of Vogue was not politically motivated. "Samantha is just extraordinary, and it's a happy and wonderful coincidence that she's indigenous.
"At fashion week, people behind me were saying 'That's Sam Harris, the indigenous model'; everybody is so proud of her." Harris, whose father is German, says she does not think of herself as a role model for young indigenous women, but she acknowledges that her Aboriginal blood contributes to her celebrity. "It gives me an advantage; there is no one around who looks like me," she says. Harris says she decided to become a model when she was three years old, and her mother helped her realise her goals. "She had a hard time; sometimes I get upset hearing her stories. She always wanted us to have the opportunities that she never had."
The National spoke to her just after she had wrapped up her second Vogue shoot in Sydney - this time for the August edition. On a chilly late autumn morning in Sydney, her brief was to look as though she was languishing in an outdoor sauna. Just over a year ago, Harris moved to Sydney with her boyfriend from sub-tropical Queensland and they are still acclimatising to cooler climates. In London this winter, she saw snow for the first time. "I didn't hear the rain, and then I saw water on the ground; I didn't figure it out immediately that it had snowed," she says, allowing herself a laugh.
There's more travel on the horizon; later this year, Harris plans to work at New York Fashion Week. Eventually, she says, she'll base herself in the US to raise her international profile. "I want to be Australia's first Aboriginal supermodel."