Fashion is full of fairytales but probably none as enchanting as that of Magnolia Maymuru, who has grown up in the remote community of Yirrkala in East Arnhem Land hunting and fishing and watching out for crocodiles.
The model scout who discovered Magnolia believes she has the grace, beauty and poise to join the ranks of haute couture models in Paris, the girls who wear the most expensive dresses in the world by designers whose names are fashion royalty.
But until about a year ago Magnolia whose traditional name is Maminydjama hadn’t even considered it. She only got her first instructions on how to walk a catwalk just over a month ago. Now it’s full steam ahead.
“At the moment I’ve got fire in my belly to carry this on,” she says. “I want to make a name for myself and my people and my country.”
Magnolia was born just outside of Yirrkala 19 years ago. The community is famous for its music and art. But none of its people is probably more famous than Magnolia’s great grandfather, the late Dr Mandawuy Yunupingu, who was the charismatic frontman of rock band Yothu Yindi.
Magnolia says her childhood was “very adventurous” and the traditional life she lives at Yirrkala will always be at the heart of who she is.
“A lot of women like to hunt here,” she says. “Hunting is a part of our life and a part of our culture as well. We have to respect the land that we are on and the land will look after us as well.
“I still live a traditional life. I come home and I put a skirt on and I look like an everyday normal person when I come back home. People treat me the same.”
Still, hunting didn’t preclude childhood games of dress-up.
“When I’d go outside and play with my friends we’d play in the rain and in the mud and then we’d come inside and put lipstick on, putting on my Nanna’s heels, doing dress up and acting like models,” she says.
Magnolia was 17 when she was first spotted using an ATM in Darwin (she was studying at a boarding school) by Mehali Tsangaris, the founder of the annual NT Fashion Week.
Tsangaris was just two weeks out from staging the 2014 event when he was running down a Darwin mall with two assistants in tow when the site of Magnolia stopped him in his tracks.
“She was wearing denim shorts and a white top and it was just the motion of how she pulled her wallet out of her pocket and then put the card into the machine. It was like a lesson,” he says.
But when Tsangaris approached Magnolia and asked her if she’d like to appear on the fashion week catwalk, she politely turned him down because she was studying for her Year 12 exams.
It wasn’t until a year later that Tsangaris spotted Magnolia again — in the fruit and vegetable section in a Darwin supermarket. This time Tsangaris was four weeks out from the 2015 NT Fashion Week and again offered Magnolia a spot in a show.
Magnolia accepted and made her fashion debut modelling crocodile and feather headwear by Northern Territory designer Maria Koko.
In May Magnolia was named as the NT’s finalist for the Miss World Australia pageant and will compete for the national Crown in Melbourne from July 18 to 22. A win would see her go on to compete in the international pageant in Washington in December.
Tsangaris thought it was time he gave Magnolia some formal catwalk training.
“It was two days before we announced her as Miss World NT,” he says. “I said to her ‘We’re going to have to do some runway training because you’re going to have to walk in heels the whole night. I need to see how you walk’.
“Some girls it can take them a long time to get it. It’s not an easy thing to look that relaxed. So I sat her down and I said ‘I don’t want you to be hard on yourself. You might not get it straight away. Just be calm and it will come to you. Relax’.
“I really prepared her so that she wouldn’t have the confidence knocked out of her if she didn’t get it right the first time. Well, she stood up and she gave me Naomi Campbell her very first walk.”
Tsangaris says regardless of the outcome of the Miss World competition, he believes Magnolia could have a career on the international fashion catwalk and would be a good choice for the high-end world of couture.
Already Magnolia is in big demand for fashion shoots and interviews in Australia. She has just shot a big campaign — but says she can’t talk about it yet.
The countdown is also on to the Miss World Australia pageant and the final touches are being made to her wardrobe. NT designer Sarina Coucher is making Magnolia’s gown for the event.
And Magnolia will be the star of a catwalk show at the giant Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair on August 5 at a From Country to Couture show which will feature garments that are the result of collaborations between art centres and designers from the NT, WA and Queensland.
It is the first time a fashion show has been part of the fair, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary and attracts buyers from overseas.
“I’m so grateful they asked me to be a part of it,” she says. “I have a lot of artists in my family.”
Magnolia says so far, so good.
“I’ve had so many photo shoots and interviews, everyone I’ve met so far is wonderful,” she says.
“They have respect for my culture, they are very understanding, very polite. I love being around those type of people I can relate to. In my culture, respect, manners, body language and personal space is a big thing.
“A lot of these people have shown me those things. It’s made me feel very comfortable.”
Magnolia is also determined to hold onto her traditions and culture and won’t model swimwear. “I don’t feel comfortable showing so much skin for cultural reasons,” she says.
“I’m happy either way with this, regardless of whether I win Miss Australia or not I’m happy to come home and live or carry on with modelling,” she says. “Fortunately I’ve got a great family that grounds me and supports me and they are always a hundred percent behind me and have always given me the support I’ve needed.
“They’ve always been there for me. I feel confident in myself if I were to go out and do these things overseas or in Australia I would always have somebody to turn back to.”
- The From Country to Couture fashion show will be held at 8pm on August 5 as part of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair at the Darwin Convention Centre. Tickets are $45.