“My father is African-American and Spanish. My mum’s Aboriginal, Malay and Mauritian. My father was in the marines and met my mum in Perth. It was a whirlwind love affair. At the age of three, we moved over to the States and lived there till I was nine. It was an interesting experience, getting to know my African-American culture, but I felt very insecure, because over in America, a lot of people said, ‘You’re mixed,’ because I have mixed ancestry. I didn’t understand what that meant. I knew I was black and identified as black, but never quite fit in anywhere I went. So of course that gave me a lot of anxiety. I didn’t know who I was.
“Mum took me to a modelling course when I was nine, because I was super-shy. I’m still shy – hopefully I mask it well – but it was to build up my confidence. Once I hit the stage for the first time, it just made sense to me. It was the first time I could be a totally different person. Beyoncé talks about how she’s got this alter-ego, Sasha Fierce, and she just transforms into a super-confident, super-sexy character. I felt the same way as soon as I hit the catwalk; I just became super-human. I loved collecting all the magazines with Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks and Veronica Webb, to see beautiful strong black women in the pages of magazines was everything, let alone on a cover. So I aspired to be a black supermodel; that’s what I was going to be. And then reality hit.
“I came back to Australia and started modelling here, but there’s just not the market, absolutely nothing. I would always be told, ‘The reality check is you’re a black model, so you might not get as much work as the other models on our books who are Caucasian or Asian.’ It was frustrating. All I wanted to do was model. I got a few jobs, but it just wasn’t enough.
“I always thought women with lighter eyes were more beautiful, so growing up, I’d wear blue contact lenses and feel like, OK, I’m getting that much closer to being more beautiful. Then I discovered hair straightening. My god, it was over then. Being a former model, I never felt my body type was good enough. I had an ass and hips when I ate certain foods. There was this obsession to keep a skinny frame. And then, because of my hate for my nose, I wanted to get a nose job. I didn’t, thank god, ’cos I couldn’t bear going under the knife – that’s what stopped me from ever doing it. And I’m so glad I never did, because this nose is my ancestry, thousands and thousands of years of ancestry, and it tells a story.
“I was 12 the first time someone told me, ‘You’re too pretty to be Aboriginal.’ As a kid, I didn’t know how to take it. And I’m just a polite person by nature, so I would internalise what I was really thinking and feeling, instead of coming out and saying, ‘What the hell does that mean?’ Around 15 or 20 years ago, I was in a bar with some other Aboriginal girls that I know. There was about six or seven of us and we were all looking amazing. A group of guys came up to us and were like, ‘Oh my god, you women look amazingly stunning.’ One of them asked, ‘So, what’s your background?’ And we all piped up, ‘Aboriginal.’ Some other guys moved forward and were like, ‘Aboriginal? You can’t be Aboriginal, get the fuck out of here.’ And that’s when all hell broke loose. We were like, ‘How dare you?’ There were a lot of other words exchanged and then we just left. We were all different – we had one sister girl who was Aboriginal-Dutch and me, Aboriginal-African-American, and another one who was Greek and Aboriginal – but we all identify as Aboriginal. To have that beautiful moment ruined, it was disgusting.
“It’s mindboggling that Australians don’t know what they’re saying. When someone tells me, ‘You’re too pretty to be Aboriginal,’ I hear: you’re not good enough. You’re ugly. You’re a boong. You’re filthy. You’re dirty. You’re less than human. You’re not even human. That bloodline, that beautiful culture that means everything to you and your existence, it doesn’t even matter. It’s like being massacred again with that statement. They’re saying, “Don’t identify as that, are you fucking crazy? Why would you do that? Don’t speak of that ever again. I’ll give you a pass, but no one should know about that.” It makes me think: what did Aboriginal people do? Why do you hate us so much?
“Five years ago, my brother died. That just shocked me to the core, so I started to reflect: what am I doing? Who am I? I’m not doing the things that I love. I’m a creative person and I’m working in government and that’s great, that’s security, but that doesn’t make my heart sing. So I went on this spiritual journey, if you want to call it that, to find myself. I started to slowly get back into everything I love: fashion, writing and culture. I wanted to get back to working in the Indigenous community a lot more, and then I had the epiphany for Ascension. I realised there’s no publication in Australia specifically for women of colour. It was really inspired by celebrating my diverse ancestry, making it a platform for women to self-identify.
“I became educated in how the system is, how colonisation works, how I was playing into the system, how I was looking through that lens. Once I dismantled that, that’s when the whole sky just opened up. I always feel my grandmother’s spirit with me very strongly, and when my perspective shifted, I just felt like she stood next to me for the very first time and gave me her blessing, saying, ‘You’ve got it. I’ve always been here, waiting for you to finally realise how beautiful you are. You have a destiny. But of course you needed to learn for yourself.’ I have many moments when I’m meditating and I see a circle of ancestors and beautiful elders from around the world, saying, ‘Keep going. Because what you’re doing, that’s what it’s all about.’ It’s not just a magazine. It’s a contemporary medium to help heal, connect women to their ancestors, to their ancestry, to the way that is was. It’s not lost, it’s never lost. It’s in your DNA – you just need to activate it.”
Image: Heather Lighton
This article first appeared in frankie magazine issue 76 (Mar/Apr 2017).