Samantha Harris

Samantha Harris

Dream time
(Credit: The Bullentin)

An Aboriginal girl is being groomed as a future supermodel - but first she wants to finish Year 12. Julie-Anne Davies reports.

Samantha Harris is potentially going to be Australia's first Aboriginal supermodel. At just 16, this fawn-like teenager might also be the way out of poverty for her struggling Tweed Heads family. And
then there are the possibilities her struggle-town story offers as an inspiration to other indigenous kids. That's a lot of potential and a hell of a lot of pressure. There's more than kilometres between a New York photo shoot and the modest three-bedroom housing commission home in northern NSW that Samantha shares with her three brothers, two cousins and parents.

Discovered in a magazine model search when she was just 13, this is the girl who is routinely being described as the ubiquitous next big thing.

Famous French photographer Patrick Demarchelier literally plucked her out of nowhere last year and flew her to New York for a half-day shoot for US fashion bible Glamour magazine. Its premise was the world's most iconic beauties. And that's the catch. For an industry that is always trying to re-invent beauty, Samantha Harris has a touch of the exotic. Her indigenous bloodline is her X-factor. And her family's journey makes her story all the more compelling.

Her mother Myrna and her grandmother, too, were part of the Stolen Generations, removed from their families as young children and placed in children's homes in NSW. Myrna lived in a tin shed with no electricity for some of her childhood and by 17 was a single mother. "I had a step-dad who couldn't stand me and a mother who didn't notice, so I did what lots of Aboriginal girls did back then, I just took off." The weight of her mother's past must hang heavily on Samantha's coat-hanger slim shoulders. And it explains a lot about the expectations being placed on her. "Yes, I do want to be the first Aboriginal model to make it big," Samantha says. "I spent my childhood wondering why you had to have blonde hair and blue eyes to do well in modelling competitions so I'm proud that a girl with my looks might make it." Hearing her mother's history makes her feel lucky, she says. Frankly, it also makes Samantha a better story and her prospects even more promising.

Of course, none of this would amount to much if she weren't absolutely beautiful. It must be hard, though, being one of her brothers. Samantha's face dominates the family living room with whole
walls plastered with newspaper clippings and magazine photos of their indisputably gorgeous looking sister. Her agent Kathy Ward, from Chic Management, has had the job of nurturing Samantha since she was discovered. It is a carefully plotted course and one, you suspect, that
takes some handling. After the Glamour assignment, which Ward describes as unique, "She was booked and flown half way around the world for a half-day shoot. That has never happened to any of our girls before. It is unheard of," Chic's New York affiliate agency has been keen tobook Samantha for more jobs. But Ward says the answer is no. "She's not ready, she's not mature enough yet and she just wouldn't cope being out there on her own, so it's not negotiable until she's
finished school. But there's no doubt, the opportunities for Samantha will be endless, she's on the radar, she's out there."

Locally, Samantha has already done 12 shows at the recent Australian Fashion Week in Sydney and has also modelled for David Jones' winter and spring fashion launches. She has been chosen by the department store as one of its two youth ambassadors.

And, by the time this story is published, Samantha will be in Fiji on another assignment. But last week she was shyly subjecting herself to this interview, and you could sense it was a stretch. It's not that she doesn't like doing media; it's just that she is not a precocious super-brat. She is shy, naive and still likes to sleep with the light on. No wonder her mother worries every time she drops her at Coolangatta airport for a modelling job down south. Handing your only daughter over to the fashion industry must seem like some risk. But it is a calculated one. Myrna insists it is all Samantha has wanted to do since she was eight years old. Eight? "Absolutely," says Samantha.
"I started doing beauty contests when I was five and by the time I turned eight I'd made my mind up."

Her mother says she knew her girl was destined for modelling before she was born. Sounds scary, but Myrna doesn't come off as your average pushy modelling mother. Sure, she entered her daughter in beauty contests when she was only four - and has the photo albums to prove it - but, paradoxically, she also seems genuinely concerned that her child should not grow up too fast. "I have issues with my kids leaving home. I don't want them to go, I have this feeling of abandonment that I guess might stem from my own past. So you know, it is difficult with Samantha. I want her to be successful, but sending her overseas on an assignment is always really difficult for me."

Myrna says people assume too much because of her daughter's exposure."They think we're rolling in money but nothing has changed for us yet. I have to remind myself that it takes time, but it is hard when you've already spent years running your daughter around trying to get her that big break." Samantha's father, Andrew Harris, is unable to work because of ill-health.

"Sam has received a lot of media attention," explains Ward carefully. "But that doesn't mean she's making a lot of money yet. Look, we look after all our girls but if it was any other 16-year-old we probably wouldn't have invested the same amount of time and money that we have so far with Samantha. Her potential is so great, it will be worth it in the long run." The nurturing process
eats up a lot of what Samantha earns. For instance, Ward flew up to northern NSW to sit in on this interview not so much to act as a minder but because Samantha needs a lot of hand-holding. It is surprising -and comforting - to hear that the agency takes its job as this girl's protector very seriously indeed. One of their conditions is that Samantha finishes year 12 (she's in year 11 now) before they start really pushing her face overseas. Ward has seen too many modelling casualties - girls who drop out of school at 15 but find themselves burnt out only a few years later.

"We lost a 14-year-old not so long ago because we insisted she stay at school," says Ward. "She went to another agency." Samantha is seen as especially vulnerable partly because of where she comes from but also because she is a very reserved, young 16-year-old. Some girls her age can confidently jump on a plane and fly overseas, but Samantha is not one of them. She is chaperoned everywhere. She needs reminding to make sure her mobile has credit and that she has lunch money. The fashion industry might be at her feet but she is a far from worldly
teenager. She doesn't date, is studious and says there's no way she'd do a Sports Illustrated-type photo spread. Tellingly, she feels much more comfortable doing modelling jobs than photo-shoots like the one for this story. "When I have the beautiful clothes on, the make-up, my hair done then I'm like someone else. I'm not the little girl from Banora Point."

Kelvin Harries, one of the Australian fashion industry's most influential stylists, first spotted Samantha two years ago. His first impression was of rabbit pinned in the spotlight. "She was a young schoolgirl, shy, reserved and totally bewildered by the industry but who was being thrust forward. She wobbled her way down the catwalk on impossibly high heels. Two years on, she glides down the runway." But, Harries says, no one in the industry wants her exploited.

But back to the expectations. She has been nominated for a Deadly - the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Music, Entertainment and Community Awards - to be announced later this month at the Opera House. She's up against Cathy Freeman and Deborah Mailman. She gets
asked to speak to teenagers at schools, particularly those with a lot of indigenous students. As one 13-year-old blogger posted recently, the three people she would most like to meet, in no particular order, are Johnny Depp, Keira Knightley and Samantha Harris. What does Samantha
make of this? "I don't know - it's weird, but I guess I do want to be a role model for Aboriginal girls."

But speaking publicly is an adult thing, and Samantha is still growing up. She says that doing interviews like this one are the hardest part of her job and who could blame her. When I ask about body image and dieting, she just shakes her head. "I eat healthy but I don't try and lose weight," she replies. "What else can I say?"

"When I get older I want to be able to say I am a successful model, hopefully Australia's first indigenous supermodel; but I also want to be able to hold my head up and say I finished year 12." Her mother agrees. "I say to my kids, if you want to be top shelf, then you've got to look on the top shelf. And that means walking through every door that opens for you. I want Samantha to have everything I didn't - and that's a lot."