So, when did it happen? When did the genetic anomaly in the microscopic Dion Lee white dress in front of me morph from woman to brand? Perhaps it was in 2006, when she became the first Australian to pull on a suspender belt as an orb-breasted Victoria's Secret "Angel". Or in 2008, when she signed up to pocket more than $1 million a year to be the face of David Jones. Or was it after film heart-throb Orlando Bloom slipped a ring on her left hand in an "intimate ceremony" in 2010 and the newlyweds delivered a cherub of a thing, Flynn, a naughty six months later? Kerr-bloom! A textbook "it" family.
Whatever, now everyone wants a piece of the girl-from-Gunnedah phenomenon. In January, Qantas announced it was taking a bit, showing off its new model ambassador at a fancy party at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. Lipton grabbed a chunk; before returning to Sydney to walk in David Jones's glittering winter 2012 fashion launch, Kerr shot a television commercial for them, warbling in Japanese, "Lemon tea, this is delicious." In early February, she popped up in a cameo role in a Samsung smartphone Super Bowl ad.
A lot to juggle, you'd think, what with her own skincare range, Kora, and regular modelling commitments. "Well, I mean," Kerr says, sighing just a little, her blue gaze drifting off to the harbour through the Sheraton on the Park's club lounge windows, "that's why I have an agent and a manager and they kind of make sure that everything works together and also, you know, the priority now is to make sure I have enough time with the family as well."
I'm trying, with little success, to detect the warmth-for-one-and-all that, legend has it, is integral to the Kerr persona. Perhaps she's missing her baby. "It's funny, because I just still want to be with my son all of the time, like, I miss him for a minute." Or maybe she's just had it with journalists (in December, New York magazine skewered her as "less a person than a production") and with photographers of the paparazzi kind. Earlier in the day, after a hen's-party lunch at The Winery in Surry Hills where baby Flynn "was quite a flirt with all the girls", Kerr was "papped" on the footpath with her mother, Therese, holding Flynn. And she'd like to know how they always know when she's landing at an airport. "I'd like to know the answer to that because the last thing you want to do is be photographed when you get off an aeroplane, you know, it's like, you feel disgusting enough as it is."
It's not just her family and the people who pay her who want a piece of her; no amount of Miranda is too much for the blogs, the papers, the magazines: "Sexy Miranda is a Christmas Kerracker" (The Sun), "Here's to you, Mrs Bloom" (Harper's Bazaar), "Watch Miranda Kerr & Julia Stegner Play with Puppies for Bally" (The Fashion Spot), "TOPLESS! Miranda Kerr strips for Victoria's Secret" (Hindustan Times).
And around the globe, around the country, girls want to be like her. "I love Miranda Kerr she's completely 100 per cent my idol and I just admire her so much," Maddison Brown tells me in one low, flat, unpunctuated sentence. "To have a career like her would just be so amazing, it would be a dream come true, I think that she's the ultimate dream now, every girl wants to be like Miranda Kerr, every girl in Australia I know."
Maddison Brown is 14 years old. She has translucent skin, narrow eyes, a massive mouth and, sometimes when she gets bored at home in Dural, she practises her pout in the mirror. She has no doubt that one day she'll be a top model. Her agency, Chic Management, thinks so, too. "She is extraordinarily beautiful and has a huge career in front of her," says Chic's Kathy Ward.
This is a story about beautiful girls. About Miranda who has it all and girls like Maddison who want it all - and a little about all those beautiful girls who will never have it. But you can't tell these beautiful girls' stories without at least some mention of the industry that has grown up around them.
"Some people sell shoes. I sell girls," says Daniel Kulik, scouting director with Germany's biggest model agency, Hamburg-based Modelwerk, which has more than 800 beautiful girls (and boys) on its books. Kulik is sitting at a big table in the centre of Vivien's Model Management's open-plan office in Double Bay and checking out girls. Thirteen of them. Thirteen tall, slender, beautiful girls, all in treacherous high heels, all hoping that he might like them enough to take them to Hamburg.
Kulik, a compact, slightly cross-eyed heterosexual inked with galleons and mermaids, knows beautiful girls. For two weeks every month he's on the road looking for them, in Brazil and Bratislava, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic (Eastern Europe is a rich hunting ground), visiting partner agencies, combing the streets. In Sydney, he hopes to find one or more special girls between 176 and 181 centimetres tall (179 is perfect) for Modelwerk's "board". (Just think, even a couple of centimetres shorter and Miranda-the-brand might have been Miranda-doing-tuck-shop-duty in Gunnedah.)
The lucky girls will spend 90 days or so in Germany and, if they're even luckier during the tedious, sometimes bruising, merry-go-round of casting calls or "go-sees", find a market for their particular look and win a coveted magazine fashion spread or a runway outing, a catalogue shoot or even a spot on the side of a bus.
Laura, Halcyon and Steph, Olivia, Eli and Britt ... one at a time the Australian beauties submit themselves to Kulik's scrutiny. He flicks impassively through their portfolios, asks about any overseas experience they've had, then takes some quick snaps - face front on, profiles, hair up, hair down. Next! No, says the former private banker, he no longer sees any sexual appeal in the product he trades in. "Like, how many girls can you see in bikini in your whole life, you know?"
Mike Zafaranloo might beg to differ. "I could get used to this," he whispers to me the following day. I'm back at Vivien's, this time watching another set of beautiful girls, some repeat performers from the previous day, trying to impress Mike's wife, Jen Rubinetti, a scout from Women Management in New York.
Zafaranloo, handy with a camera, is helping Rubinetti during her demanding work trip and taking shots for her. "You know, I used to be a model, too - a 'before' model for diet pills," jokes the cuddly real-estate broker with the back-to-front baseball cap, adding that he was expecting to see the Pamela Anderson-esque today.
Sorry, Mike, not these girls. Not with their skyscraper legs and hand-span waists (61 centimetres is perfect) and swan necks and other-worldly, pelvic-thrusting, feet-crossing walks. And not Paris, a gawky new girl on Vivien's books who has come down from Coffs Harbour with her mother for the day and is as nervous as anything. Asks Rubinetti of the 16-year-old, "Is your mom able to travel with you?"
"I felt like I was kind of working with children"
In one way or another, the modelling industry is obsessed with age. Late last year, a largely unknown Sydney modelling agency, Gear Model Management, had some in a tizz after it announced that models of 16 were too old. Attention-seeking hyperbole for sure, but nevertheless, Jen Rubinetti doesn't flinch when she tells me that girls in their early 20s have often passed their prime. "It's very rare that a girl gets anywhere big when she's already past her teen years. It happens, but it's rare." (Perhaps she's thinking of Miranda Kerr, who was 23 when she became a Victoria's Secret Angel and now, at 28, shows no signs of fading appeal.)
It's a blank canvas that clients need, a blank canvas on which to impose their message, to sell their frocks, perfumes, lipsticks, toothpastes. "When they're young and impressionable, it's easy to get them to sort of open up to, basically, what's expected of them in this business," says Rubinetti.
A few days later, over a glass of wine in a Surry Hills pub, one Sydney model lets slip that she's really 24 but her agency touts her as 20. She begs me then not to use her real age. Another model emails me after our interview to say she doesn't want to be in my article if I intend to mention her age (a decrepit 25).
It's the other end of the model-age spectrum, however, that has, historically, attracted all the attention. After Miranda Kerr won the Dolly/Impulse model competition in 1997 and, at the age of 13, appeared on the magazine's cover, the outraged emerged from every corner. It sent a sexual message to teenagers, Liberal senator Jocelyn Newman stormed. The contest depicted girls as "little Lolitas" and was "near pornographic", other politicians said.
In the years since, teen modelling competitions have become the norm but, still, it's an evergreen cause célèbre that the industry has not been able to ignore. During New York Fashion Week in September 2011, models were, for the first time, asked to show ID proving they were 16 or older.
And there are buzzwords now to appease the critics: Vivien's has an "in development" category on its site for girls transitioning from dress-up boxes to casting calls, while "age appropriate" is the expression used to describe the types of jobs under-16s can do.
"Nothing too sexy, because they want to market me in the most age-appropriate way," says precociously aware Maddison Brown of her work thus far, including ads for McDonald's and Allen's lollies, and work for Girlfriend and Russh magazines. Nevertheless, her Chic website portfolio, which includes one alluring shot of her only in knickers and a little buttoned shirt, adds at least a few years to the date on her birth certificate.
It's a strange business - and gorgeous, sparky 20-something model Tiah Eckhardt has some strong opinions on it. "Even at 16, you're not mentally equipped to deal with being objectified or to deal with having people make personal comments about your body," says the Perth-born, eastern-suburbs-residing redhead. "I started to find it odd when I started to do jobs with girls who were younger than my little sister ... Standing in line with them ... trying to have a conversation with a 14-year-old, you know; what am I going to talk to them about? Justin Bieber?! I felt like I was kind of working with children." She finds it remarkable that the modelling industry is completely self-regulated: "There are not even the guidelines in place with underage models that there are for child actors."
Eckhardt stands out - and not just because of her striking blue eyes and pretty 81-centimetre bust (82 is perfect). On her blog, "The Light of God and Girls", and in person, she says what she thinks. And few in this paranoid industry, most especially the models themselves, will say much at all. "Welcome to the house of staying mum," says one industry observer. "It's quiet and cold in here."
Let's count: three model bookers ask me if my story will be positive or negative ("I don't know, I'm still researching it") before two decline to give me access to the models I have asked to speak to about their careers; two agents say they will need to sign off on my article before it is published ("Sorry, no"); two public-relations executives demand to know what "the tone" of my story will be and ask that I email a list of questions I want to ask their models; one agent tells me no, I can't speak to a former Australia's Next Top Model runner-up on her books - "She doesn't do press"; another former ANTM runner-up agrees to have coffee with me, then pulls out at the last minute; four models I contact directly tell me I have to get permission to speak to them from their agents; another five models ignore my Facebook messages altogether.
Perhaps that's what happens after years of being under siege; you pull up the drawbridge - or do your damndest to control the message. Perhaps that's what happens when supermodels such as Brazilian Adriana Lima reveal dumb things. In November, she told The Telegraph in London that for nine days before a Victoria's Secret show she only drinks protein shakes - no solids.
Miranda Kerr likes to eat solids. "I love to do a big roast chicken and I slow-cook it for about six or seven hours and you just put it in there with coconut oil and I stuff the chicken with garlic and onion and sometimes I even put a bit of Vegemite in." Sweet potato and green beans on the side, and she and Orlando are happy.
She sings the benefits of an organic diet and in her book Treasure Yourself, which has sold a very healthy 37,000 copies in Australia to date, she writes that she has been drinking Tahitian noni juice daily since she was 13.
I ask Kerr if she has any food vices, or cravings. "Hmmm," she ponders, doing this thing with her hair, patting it down on the crown, lifting the dark tresses and then letting them fall back on the orange velvet of her Sheraton armchair. "The only sweet thing I crave is chocolate Lindt balls and then, um, I mean, if I see someone eating french fries I'm like, 'Oh, okay, maybe I'll have some french fries'." Barely a chink in her wholesome-image armour.
"You have to be really skinny to do Vogue"
Young model Olivia Donaldson readily admits to her indulgences. "I'm a real big baker. I bake cupcakes all the time and melting moments and, like, slices and cakes." Donaldson is 17 and, after New Year, left her family and boyfriend in Perth to come to Sydney. Both scouts liked her look during the Vivien's castings but, one confided, she's "a little too voluptuous".
A few days after the castings, I meet Donaldson on the footpath outside a Surry Hills rag-trade building. She slips her Havaianas off and straps on serious heels before heading in for a casting call at Tluxe designs. Creative director Rebecca Powell is looking for a girl with "curves and dark hair and a quite exotic look - no smaller than an eight" for her summer 2012 lookbook. Donaldson strips down to her underwear beside racks of samples and pulls on a simple dark dress while Powell flicks through the model's iPad portfolio.
Hands on hips. Chin down. A toss of dark, wavy hair. One foot slightly forward. Snap. Then Donaldson tries on a pair of striped shorts and a white singlet. Snap, again. Two shots for Powell to ponder and Donaldson is done. As we leave the design studio we pass another model on the way in. Powell will see 15 beautiful girls today; the one who scores the job will take home maybe $1000 for a day's shoot (as opposed to about $120 for a half-day magazine editorial shoot or nothing to $300 for a prestigious runway appearance).
Over coffee, I study Donaldson. This industry's language takes some getting used to. No, I can't see it. I can't really see the "voluptuous" in this slender creature sipping water across from me. Donaldson is used to her body's limitations, though. She loves the excitement of catwalk work but she's too short for it, and although she'd love to be in high-end magazines, "you have to be really skinny to do Vogue".
So she gets largely commercial work, "like smiley, like selling a product" (which, if she excels at it, might pay her anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000 a year). Look out for her holding a tomato in new ads for an Elle Baché skincare range. "It doesn't get to me or anything," says Donaldson. "I just think, 'Live a happy, healthy lifestyle', you know, exercise regularly, eat well and then, as long as you're happy with yourself ..."
For many, especially the less level-headed, it's not so straightforward. You've heard the stories and seen the pictures. The cigarette-butt-strewn path of international modelling walked by child-women of scant flesh, prominent bone and sufficient space between one upper thigh and another to drive a tractor through; the eating disorders, the self-harm and the suicides (Wikipedia has a page titled "models who committed suicide" and another "list of deaths from anorexia nervosa"; more than half the names on that list belong to models). For some, perhaps, collateral damage in a thousand-billion-dollar annual global industry.
But even girls who can eat three solid meals a day and the odd french fry without too much guilt or weight gain can flay themselves with self-doubt. The rejections, the uncertain income, the pressure to meet a certain ideal. Even Miranda Kerr. "I had a lot of rejections throughout my career," Kerr says. "Models can be some of the most insecure people that you meet because they're consistently being compared to other people and they have to face a lot of rejection and, you know, they do get told, 'Well, you need to be more like this, you need to be more like that.' "
"If she's got boobs, that's going to stick out and sort of interfere with [their] vision"
Sydney fashion photographer Sonny Vandevelde is waking up in a Montmartre apartment when I call him. "I think if you're going to get into modelling, if you have really weak self-esteem, you're not going to last very long," says the Belgian-born Vandevelde, in Paris to shoot backstage at the haute couture spring/summer 2012 collections for the edgy American fashion title V magazine.
Vandevelde, who dated Dutch supermodel Lara Stone for two years, says he's "more a T&A guy" than a skin-and-bones fancier. Tits and arse. There's not too much of that at the couture shows. Designers don't like curves. "They want the clothes to hang off the body ... it's all about the fabric draping and flowing off the body," he says. "If she's got boobs, that's going to stick out and sort of interfere with [their] vision.
"It's really sad in a way because I see these girls that I've known since they were 16 and they're now like 19 and they would've normally sort of matured and you can see that they've, whether it's consciously or subconsciously, they've maintained their figure to what it was when they were younger." (Perhaps they're more scared of the competition than ever before: the latest international modelling sensation is a 21-year-old androgynous male model from Melbourne, Andrej Pejic´, who has walked in both men's and women's collections and, late last year, was hired to model a Dutch brand of "mega-push-up" bra.)
Vandevelde admits to some qualms about the industry that pays his invoices. "Am I supporting this by taking photos of it?" he asks himself. "Well, you know, I need to earn money andI love shooting fashion."
Tiah Eckhardt loves fashion, too, especially lingerie (with one eye on life after modelling, she has designed a lingerie collection for Paddington-based brand Elegantly Scant). But still, having her body dissected ("You're too short, your boobs are too big, your face isn't that special") has, at times, messed with her head. "It used to really upset me ... until I just kind of like said, 'Screw you, I'm just going to be who I am,' " says Eckhardt, scooping into a voluptuous serving of eggs Benedict at a Surry Hills cafe. "This is an industry where there's a very particular narrow ideal, down to the centimetre measurement of what is perfect. So it's, like, I'll look in the mirror and see a couple of inches that are off and go, 'Urgh'; I have to then go to work the next day or a casting the next day and stand next to someone who is that perfect ideal."
Then there are the times when someone compliments Eckhardt on a photograph. "And I go, 'Yeah, I'm Photoshopped [to] within an inch of my life in that picture; like, you know that's not real, right?' I find myself comparing myself to pictures of myself! I'm like, 'Oh, I wish I looked like that picture taken two years ago', and then I'm like, 'Hang on, you didn't even look like that at the time - what are you talking about?' "
"It's going to be the ride of your life."
Twenty years ago, US author Naomi Wolf described fashion models as an "elite corps deployed in a way that keeps 150 million American women in line". Her argument still carries weight for the more than nine million Australian women over the age of 15 fed a constant diet of model imagery - in magazines, on billboards, in television commercials - reinforcing the way they should look. (In 2011, body image was a major concern for 42 per cent of young Australian women, according to a Mission Australia survey.)
Chelsea Bonner, owner of the plus-size agency Bella Model Management, has seen first-hand the results of this drip-drip-drip-effect. In the 1990s, her sister Hanna dropped to 47 kilograms as she battled anorexia nervosa and bulimia. "The absolute worst part for me was that ... her girlfriends would say to her, 'You look amazing, you look so fantastic.' And every time I heard that, my heart would break a little more and I kept thinking to myself, 'My God ... complimenting [her] and she's literally starving.' It scared me that we can be reinforcing to each other as women that that is the ideal."
Although more than 50 per cent of Australian women are a size 14 or above, says Bonner, the plus-size sector is only a minuscule part of the modelling industry. But thanks, in part, to the international success of Australian plus-size model Robyn Lawley (size 14 top, size 16 bottom), Bonner is optimistic. Lawley was the first plus-size model to grace the cover of Italian Vogue, in July 2011, and Bonner alludes to other "world-firsts" for Lawley ahead.
When Lawley first walked into Bonner's Manly office in 2008, Bonner immediately handed the model a contract to sign. "I said, 'Hold on to your hat, girl, because it's going to be the ride of your life.' "
And that, all other issues aside, is what the modelling experience can be for a beautiful girl - a wild ride. A model has almost certainly scored a seat on the ride if at any point she earns the industry's equivalent of a gold star: the aeroplane symbol posted under her face on her agency's website to indicate that she's working abroad.
It's a symbol that Mosman-raised Alexandra Agoston-O'Connor, the face of Moschino fragrance Toujours Glamour, knows well. A scout from a top French agency spotted the Queenwood girl when she was 15 and holidaying with her mother in Paris. "This lady came running after us; we thought she was trying to sell us something," says Agoston-O'Connor. When she returned to Australia, Agoston-O'Connor signed with Chic Management and, after school, moved to Paris, learning the language of fashion - pantalon, fermeture, proche - and how to "walk". "I remember a stylist giving me a pair of heels and she was like, 'Take these home and never take them off.' "
She's only 23 but already has some wicked memories to share with her grandchildren one day: the Fendi show on the Great Wall of China in 2007 (designer Karl Lagerfeld took off his sunglasses and drank red wine backstage); the three weeks she spent as designer John Galliano's muse as he created a collection for the 60th anniversary of Christian Dior haute couture, which was shown at the Palace of Versailles. Film stars, royalty, the super-rich watched. The supermodels walked - Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Gisele Bündchen, Alexandra Agoston-O'Connor. "Naomi Campbell was, like, two people in front of me. But I didn't really chat to her." Agoston-O'Connor, willowy, unaffected, laughs and tosses her hair, and it's not hard to see why Sydney playboy Justin Hemmes might have wanted to spend time with the New York-based model (the two reportedly had a summer romance last year).
Central Coast-raised Rebecca Victoria can tell some stories, too: the bleached-blonde 21-year-old who carries a tattoo on her inner left wrist saying "Precious" has for the past few years been a modelling gypsy, moving between Sydney, Tokyo and London. There have been times when she's had to prop up her income with bar work but still, "It's exciting," she says. In Toyko, she lived in a "model house" near the Imperial Palace and was chauffeured to up to 12 castings a day. Hard work but, she says, "I had the best time of my life ... models in Tokyo get treated like queens". She was feted in restaurants and shimmied with Paris Hilton at a club. "She came over to me and she was like, 'Oh, you're Australian. I love Australia.' " Victoria arrived In London in 2009 to see herself rolling down the street on the side of a red bus - in an ad for Japanese outfitter Uniqlo.
"It's an easy way to make good money and it's a fun way to make good money most of the time," says Tiah Eckhardt. One day she'll tell her toddler daughter, Finley, about the time she was flown on a private chartered flight from New York to Vienna - a planeload of "models, celebrities, drag queens, crazy New York club kids, the most insane mash-up of people" - to perform in the huge AIDS charity event, the Life Ball.
And then there's Miranda. Her wild ride is one that, among beautiful Australian girls, perhaps only Elle Macpherson before her can really understand. Estimated annual earnings of $4 million and more. Nearly 650,000 fans on Facebook. The fourth-sexiest and the eighth-richest model in the world, according to industry bible models.com. The apartment in Manhattan, another in Los Angeles and two places in London. The shoots in every corner of the globe.
And the cherry on the top, that rare thing for a commercial "sexy girl", success on the high-fashion runway, the domain of ice queens and waifs, the strong, the edgy and the androgynous. In early October, Kerr was everywhere in Paris for the spring/summer 2012 collections - on the runway for Chanel, Stella McCartney, John Galliano, Loewe, Viktor & Rolf, Lanvin and Christian Dior (which she loved because Orlando was in the front row and because of the make-up - "I quite like a red lip"). By the end of the month, there she was in Manhattan, rocking a $2.45-million diamond-encrusted "fantasy treasure bra" for Victoria's Secret.
Miranda Kerr, the consummate saleswoman, the walking brand, having the wildest ride of all. And perhaps she's really making a comment about her own life when she says of Victoria's Secret parades: "It's like a whole different world; it's not really like a fashion show, it's like a spectacular."
Pick up a copy of the(sydney)magazine with today's edition of The Sydney Morning Herald.