Words by Nicola Kalmar Photography by Eddie Tran
For more than a decade, iconic leadership program Kimberley Girl has transformed the lives of hundreds of young Indigenous women by giving them the wings to fly and the confidence to chase their dreams.
The grassroots initiative, which celebrated its 12th event this year, was founded in 2004 by former model Kira Fong who harboured a desire to reach out to Aboriginal girls she saw walking the streets of Broome and help them realise their self-worth.
The concept of Kimberley Girl was designed to boost self-esteem and empower individuals to overcome personal barriers and social problems using modelling as a hook.
“It is about giving young women the tools to realise their potential, to empower them in their endeavours, to give them the confidence to dream big and reach for the stars,” Ms Fong said.
Since its genesis, Kimberley Girl has grown into a phenomenon and an institution of the region through the positive impacts it has made on participants, changing them from shy, sometimes damaged spirits to confident role models.
Graduates have gone on to seize countless opportunities, modelling and otherwise, as a result of going through the program, including rising stars Hannah Collard from Chadwick Models, Marlikka Perdrisat and Stephanie Heil from Scene Model Management who are currently making waves in the industry. Just recently, they were spotted strutting down the catwalk during Perth Fashion Week.
Other girls have seized modelling opportunities on their doorstep and appeared in high profile events such as the Cable Beach Polo, which has given them an international platform.
A lot of graduates have returned home and focused on becoming leaders in their own community, such as Yawuru woman Tonii Skeen, a passionate youth advocate from Broome.
Due to its growth and accomplishments over the years, the program expanded in 2010 and Pilbara Girl was born.
Despite its success, the program is often labelled as a beauty pageant. But Kimberley Girl teaches much more than beauty and modelling to the scores of young women aged 16-25 who walk through the doors each year.
Ms Fong and facilitators at Goolarri Media Enterprises, which runs the program, take entrants through a series of intense personal and professional workshops based on a whole spectrum of topics including grooming and deportment, public speaking, sexual health, nutrition and wellbeing.
During this process, the girls form close bonds as they embark on the life-changing journey of self-discovery together, sharing stories and opening up about their experiences and challenges but also their ambitions.
While they are expected to work hard and commit fully to the program, the girls also get a chance to enjoy a bit of pampering when they climb into the makeup artists’ and hairdressers’ chairs for a professional photoshoot.
Ms Fong said this was often the moment when the transformation of each participant took place – the moment they blossom and embrace their inner Kimberley Girl and shine in front of the camera with their heads held high.
Entrants participate in heat events before a number of girls are chosen to go through to the finals. The program culminates in a glittering fashion show where the young models put everything into practice and storm the catwalk in front of hundreds of spectators. Throughout the evening, the audience is taken on a whirlwind and awe-inspiring journey as they get a glimpse of the girls’ remarkable transformation during their time in the program.
At the end of the night, one hopeful is crowned the Kimberley Girl winner. But even when the glitter settles and the cameras stop rolling, Kimberley Girl doesn’t end there. In fact, for most participants, it is just the beginning as they embark on an exciting new chapter in their lives, ready to face the world with newfound strength and confidence.
Broome resident Eugenia George is one example of a Kimberley Girl who has gone through dark times and come out on top since enrolling in the program.
At 18 years old, the Broome beauty has the world at her feet and is on the cusp of achieving her modelling dream. It is hard to fathom that only three years ago, this same girl hit rock bottom, plagued by a personal tragedy and thoughts of suicide.
Just five days after her 15th birthday, Eugenia’s mother died following a battle with leukaemia. The devastating loss left a dark void and plunged her into a deep depression.
“It changed my whole life…I rebelled against my whole family,” she said. “I turned into this mischievous kid.”
Life quickly spiralled out of control for Eugenia, a former Presbyterian Ladies College student and rising young athlete, who abandoned any hopes and dreams of a promising career and turned to drugs and alcohol to blot out the pain.
But before she reached breaking point, something amazing happened.
“Someone dared me to enter Kimberley Girl and that just changed me,” she said. “I went in a week before, asked for an application…and Kira made me feel like I was worth something – because I felt like I was nothing.”
On the final night, Eugenia showcased her newfound confidence and braved the catwalk in front of cheering crowds. To her amazement, she was crowned second runner-up and Miss Photogenic 2014. But the surprise didn’t end there. That same night, she was chosen to be the face of a new Willie Creek Pearls campaign.
Since then, the aspiring model has only looked forward.
“I actually see myself in the future now,” she said. “Three years ago, I couldn’t see a future; it was just blank. But now I actually see myself doing modelling or having a stable job and my own home.”
Another program advocate is 2013 Pilbara Girl winner Teresa Moore. Two years on since taking out the title, the 20-year-old is still actively working as a role model in her community and beyond. But Teresa’s journey to success wasn’t always easy.
While growing up and studying in Karratha, she excelled at netball. By the time she was 16, Teresa scored a spot in the State team and was competing in championships. But despite recognising her own talents, Teresa copped harsh judgment and criticism from her peers.
“People would put me down because they didn’t like seeing what I was doing for myself,” she said. “I got bullied for how I looked or the way I was… they thought it was not harming me – but it was.”
Determined to succeed, Teresa moved to Darwin to pursue her passion – but the pressure of being the youngest player in her team started taking its toll on the 17-year-old, and the bright spark she felt began to diminish.
Off court, Teresa got involved in the Miss NAIDOC Perth program in 2013 and learnt about leadership, which renewed her self-worth and identity. It also helped forge friendships with the other participants.
After her positive experience with Miss NAIDOC, Teresa was inspired to sign up for Pilbara Girl, which also had a profound effect on her.
“The workshop here was extraordinary,” she said. “It was a great atmosphere, the girls were amazing – I still talk to them to this day. In the end, you gain friends, you gain sisters, you gain family and you gain yourself as well.”
Teresa admits she was shocked to be crowned Pilbara Girl on the final night, but equally delighted at having the chance to be a role model for others, including her little cousin who is following in her footsteps on the netball court.
Since Pilbara Girl, Teresa has thrown her energy into pursuing her two main passions: modelling and acting. She is currently studying at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts and last year was selected to participate in the 2014 IF Foundation International Leadership Program for Regional WA Youth in New York. It was a significant opportunity to hear from other young leaders from other parts of the world, which enlightened her to the fact that everyone faces challenges in life regardless of their background.
“No one’s perfect, everyone goes through a tough time and you don’t know their story until you get to know them.”
Back on familiar turf, Teresa recently returned to Pilbara Girl to help mentor this year’s participants – a role she has thoroughly enjoyed.
When it comes to imparting her own pearls of wisdom, Teresa said it was important for girls not to judge themselves too quickly or limit themselves.
“If you believe in yourself and have faith in yourself and know you’re good enough for anything or anyone, do it,” she said.
“You’re only stopping yourself from following your dream.”
Models: Marlikka Perdrisat, Elesha Marie, Shania Hunter & Stephanie Heil (modelling at Cable Beach Polo Fashion Show 2015) and Eugenia George captured by photographer David Broadway. Make Up by Javanese Beauty
Models: Teanne Brown & Darrylin Gordon captured by photographer Eddie Tran.
Nicola Kalmar is a journalist at the Broome Advertiser.