This article features in issue 40 of Collective Hub, which is out now.
“I get a bit self-conscious,” says the woman touted as Australia’s next supermodel, while a make- up artist lightly primps her face. Despite having walked for international fashion luminaries Tome, Dion Lee and Ellery (to name a few) and possessing and inexplicably configured, otherworldly kind of beauty, Samantha Harris, 26, self-effacingly admits, “I’m only human,” as we chase a patch of sun around Sydney’s open-air Ivy Pool Club.
She’s off-the-cuff, candid and cool – the antithesis of what one might expect from a person who wins their bread in haute couture – as she regales us with the tale of how she and husband, builder Luke Hunt, recently managed to trap themselves in their own bedroom, and had to call for a locksmith to come to their rescue. Her demeanour is more in kilter with a modest upbringing and a perspective that spans beyond fashion’s capitals to remote communities in places where the population barely
tops four figures.
“Obviously it’s great that I do runway shows and I do photo shoots, but I love going out and meeting young kids,” says Samantha, who has worked with the One Laptop Per Child initiative on the Gulf of Carpentaria’s Mornington Island and, for the last three years, has travelled to Uluru to mentor aspiring Indigenous models. “It makes my job…” she pauses. “I’m not just your standard model, which I do like.”
The five-foot-ten talent broke out as Australia’s first international Indigenous model at 19, when she was the second Aboriginal model to grace the cover of Vogue Australia (Queensland-based Elaine George was the first, in 1993).
“I am Aboriginal,” says Samantha, whose mother is a member of the Stolen Generation from the Dunguddy tribe near Kempsey, New South Wales, and whose father is of European heritage. “But the girls and boys out in these communities ask me, ‘Do you go out bush and get kangaroos?’ And I’m like, ‘There’s no bush where I am,’” she smiles. “It’s a completely different scenario, but if I can give them a little bit of hope – even if they want to be a doctor, not a model, just something that they want to do in life – they can see that if you work hard and stay focused, you can get where you want to be and do what you want to do.”
Samantha grew up by the beaches of Tweed Heads, New South Wales, “a relaxed, beautiful part of the world”, in a three-bedroom social housing home with her parents, three brothers and two cousins. “In that time my brother had a baby, so his girlfriend and my niece lived there [too],” she says. “We just shared rooms. It was a really busy household, but I didn’t know any different.”
She entered her first beauty pageant at age five, outfitted in ensembles her mother had foraged from the local op-shop. “Because I’m the only girl, it’s something that we did together. It was like mother-daughter bonding time.”
Samantha’s mother, Myrna, and her grandmother were forcibly removed from their families as children and placed in state-run institutions. Myrna became a single parent at 18 when she gave birth to her first child, Michael. Her second, Andrew, came five years later with husband Andrew Harris, followed by Samantha and Christopher. Having spent some of her childhood in a tin shed with no electricity, Myrna was determined to provide a better life for her own brood.
So in 2004, she bundled up her then- 13-year-old almond-eyed daughter and Christopher and headed to Brisbane for the Girlfriend magazine national model search – a competition that saw finalist Samantha signed by Chic Management, despite not taking out the top spot.
“So many great models have come out of this model search. And it’s a nice way to get into the industry and not be pushed into anything that you would be uncomfortable with,” says Samantha, who would make her first catwalk outing the following year. Soon after, she began appearing in shows for department store David Jones, for which she later became an ambassador.
At 15, she caught the eye of French photographer Patrick Demarchelier (the former personal photographer of Princess Diana), who flew her to New York for a shoot with US Glamour magazine. At home, then-Vogue Australia editor-in-chief Kirstie Clements featured Samantha in a story coinciding with her London Fashion Week debut in March 2010 – the same year she walked a record 18 shows at Australian Fashion Week – before putting her on a cover.
Over the years since then, Samantha has noticed a positive shift in the industry. “When I first started, I didn’t know of any other Aboriginal models, but now, as years have gone on, I’m seeing a lot more. Probably not as many as there could be, but we’re moving in the right direction, which is good.”
The recent success of Yirrkala-born model Maminydjama Maymuru, who was scouted while withdrawing money from a Darwin ATM before becoming the first Indigenous model to represent the Northern Territory at Miss World Australia, suggests as much. “There are also other ethnic models on the runway, which is nice, and not just Aboriginal,” says Samantha. “So I think we’re moving forward.”
The fashion industry as a whole, though, can still be disordered, as South Sudanese model Nykhor Paul pointed out on Instagram in 2015, sharing her frustration at having to bring her own dark-complexion make-up to shows.
“Fashion is art, art is never racist it should be inclusive of all, not only white people,” she wrote.
And Sudanese-Australian model Ajak Deng – who has been vocal about brands lacking diversity in casting – got so fed up this year she toyed with retirement.
But for the majority of Samantha’s professional career, she says she hasn’t encountered racial bias. “Ever since I started modelling in Sydney,” she says, having moved straight after finishing high school, “the fashion industry has been very welcoming. I haven’t experienced any racism.”
Yet it wasn’t always easy. “When I was doing the beauty pageants, I was on the Gold Coast, and what does the Gold Coast typical girl look like? Beachy, blonde hair and blue eyes. I didn’t fit the brief at the time. As a child it’s really upsetting knowing that you always come runner-up but you don’t actually win.”
At school, Samantha sometimes struggled with being teased about her full lips and height. “Kids can be nasty. Really nasty. And they’ll pick on anyone for something that is, I wouldn’t say unusual, but probably not as common.”
Last year she posted a picture of Cindy Crawford, with her legendary beauty spot, and the supermodel’s quote, “Isn’t it ironic that the very thing that made me most insecure turned out to be my trademark?” to her 68,000 Instagram followers.
“Girls these days, they want to be models,” says Samantha. “They want to be super fit and really healthy but it’s [only] realistic to a point. So it worries me [that] with social media these young girls are getting an unrealistic kind of image… Like, I would love to look like Miranda Kerr, but I’m not Miranda Kerr, I’m Samantha Harris. There’s just a point in time in your life when you’ve got to realise, well, just be the best version of yourself you can be.”
This is the kind of message Sam imparts at Uluru’s Tjungu Festival, an annual Indigenous celebration that closes with a fashion show featuring women from surrounding communities.
“These girls are shy and you’ve got to build their trust. As far as they know, I’m an uptight snobby person, so I just chat to them and they talk about their families. Because I’m genuinely interested in where they’re from and things like that, I think it’s easier for them. I don’t class it as mentoring because I’m having fun, I’m hanging out with them, I’m getting to know them.”
Back in Sydney in 2015, Samantha put her face to a decidedly unglamorous, but vital cause – crusted scabies, the skin disease affecting 70 per cent of Indigenous Australian children in remote communities – through supporting One Disease during her turn in 2015’s Dancing With The Stars.
“I’d never heard of it,” she says of the non-profit that has plans to eradicate the disease. “I picked this one because it’s something so simple… these kids get scabies, which you can go to the chemist and get a cream [for], but out in remote communities there’s nothing there… Kids can be bullied because they’ve got sores and at the end of the day it can lead to death if it’s not treated for a long period of time. It’s not right.
“For something so minor, it’s unbelievable that there are children out there dying, over a little tube of cream.” Barnardos Australia and Make-A- Wish Australia are also amongst the organisations with which Samantha is aligned. Children are a recurring theme.
“I love kids. If I can help a child or a teenager, I’m more than happy to,” she says. When asked if her own are on the cards, she replies, “One day. Not any day soon, but one day.”
Samantha married long-term fiancé Luke, who she met at a Gold Coast shopping centre when she was 17, in a secret ceremony in March 2014. The low-key occasion was bittersweet in the couple’s knowledge that two months later, Luke would be imprisoned.
On the morning of Saturday, May 12, 2012, Samantha and Luke were involved in a car accident that took the life of 78-year-old grandfather Kenneth Lay. The pair had been on their way to the gym, Luke behind the wheel, when they sped through a changing traffic light and collided with the other car. Samantha suffered from cuts and bruises, while Luke suffered spinal injuries. Kenneth was rushed to hospital where, tragically, he died.
“It’s just something that could happen to anybody, which is concerning…” says Samantha. “Something in a split second can turn your life upside down, inside out.” Luke was charged with dangerous driving occasioning death, to which he pleaded guilty. In May 2014, he was sentenced to four years jail with a minimum of two years before parole. He served the majority of his time at St Heliers Correctional Centre in Muswellbrook, New South Wales.
“I visited him every weekend. You can buy clothes and they can buy little luxury items. You can put money into an account. I tried to make it as painless – even though that’s a stupid way to put it – as comfortable as I could, you know?” The experience, she says, forever changed her. “I’ve grown up a lot. I feel like I’m wiser. More mature I guess, maybe not wiser,” she shares. Luke was released in May 2016. “Obviously the time couldn’t come quick enough,” she says of their reunion. “But now that I think back, it’s kind of, did that happen? It’s still a surreal kind of moment…”
Her work has long been a source of strength (“When I did the little runway shows, I wasn’t shy, for some reason,” she says. “But when I was an everyday kid, I was really shy. It’s odd.”) and when looking to the future, Samantha has her sights set on the business end of the beauty space.
“I’d like to make a foundation range, or something like that. But make it affordable, for everybody, you know? There are dark foundations out there, but I’d like to make MAC-quality [but] cheaper. Because I know my mum doesn’t like spending $60 or more on foundation, and she can’t. So that’s my aim. And then I can give her all the free foundation she wants.”
Her ascension to international stardom sees her following in the footsteps of her idol, Naomi Campbell, though Samantha is yet to take a tumble on the runway (Naomi famously fell while walking Vivienne Westwood’s spring 1994 show).
“I’ve slipped, my dress has been caught, my heel has broken, but I’ve never actually fallen, yet…” she says, leaving me with a grin. “If I slip, it’s funny. If I was in the audience, I’d laugh. I’d think it was hilarious. So you just laugh it off and keep going.”
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