Words by Sasha Sarago Photography by Olivia Lorraine Tran
Scrolling through my Facebook timeline, the headline Magnolia Maymuru: From Yirrkala to the catwalk brought me to a sudden halt. Madly skimming the article, it took every ounce of me to contain my excitement.
It wasn’t long before Magnolia’s historic news spread like wildfire across the globe, reaching the shores of the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Greece, Spain and Italy. It signified the start of Team Magnolia, and in record time Australians crowned her an Aboriginal supermodel.
Fashion diversity advocates such as myself pray for stories like this. I soon found myself composing an email to the director of NT Fashion Week: ‘Dear Mehali…’
I meet Magnolia and Mehali at China Bar in Fitzroy. After warm introductions we all relax, inspect the menus, then place our orders. Patiently waiting for our food to arrive, Magnolia giggles, showing Mehali an assortment of pictures from Instagram. As I silently observe their manager and model relationship – Mehali jokes that Magnolia’s newfound love for fashion may require close monitoring on his part. We all laugh when Mehali announces he gives store clerks permission to confiscate Magnolia’s cards if spending gets out of hand. Kidding aside, the vision of Magnolia’s generously long arms embellished with Prada and Chanel, Dior eyewear shielding the paparazzi’s flashes, is conceivable.
Inconspicuously glancing in her direction, it’s hard to mask my growing fascination with Magnolia Maymuru. It’s the way the windows to her soul peer into yours, the simple elegance of her picking up her mobile phone and passing cutlery – you begin to comprehend the X-factor everybody talks about, the behaviour that compels modelling scouts to stalk from afar, appearing from thin air in front of star potential.
Our evening of delirious shenanigans comes to an end. After a quick chat before leaving the group, I give
Straight off a flight from Darwin, Magnolia heads to Melbourne-based haute couture designer Con Iliopoulos’s boutique in South Melbourne – an appointment every model should have in their lifetime.
Launching his debut collection Con Ilio earlier this year, dressing Australian celebrities and dominating red carpet glamour is a fraction of Mr Iliopoulos’s impressive portfolio. Notably, it’s Con’s passion and creative ethos that inspired me to approach the designer to feature his stunning masterpieces in our fashion editorial.
“I celebrate women in all my designs. I look to strong, glamourous and iconic women. Women that stand out not just for their fashion sense but for their attitude, talent and personality. These wonderful women are behind the label’s vision and guide my creative process. I am inspired by global opulence, different design eras and impeccable tailoring.”
With that said, it was only fitting that Magnolia should make Con’s acquaintance.
Upon her arrival, Con recalls Magnolia feeling comfortable from the moment she walked into his boutique, openly praising his artistry:
“She was eager to try on different styles, rocking each one like she was on a runway. It was an incredibly joyous fitting with Magnolia. I just wanted her to try the whole collection on!”
Fashion speaks a language audible enough for its muse to hear. Stepping into couture for the very first time, Magnolia confesses that a profound dialogue occurred: “The dress made me do it.” Naturally swaying in a manner once unfamiliar to her, she was “getting the dress to speak.”
I wasn’t the only one enthralled with Magnolia’s heavenly aura. Con Iliopoulos says:
“Effortlessly beautiful and elegant. She really did take my breath away when she entered the boutique. I immediately knew that she was a gentle soul with a colourful story – she really was magnetic!”
It’s 5.30am, a call time a self-confessed night owl wouldn’t wish upon their worst enemy. Scanning the empty studio, a wave of exhilaration engulfs me.
Collectively, our team has orchestrated an exquisite ensemble of haute couture, Parisian sophistication and bespoke glamour. Cue waterfalls of silk, intricate beading married with delicate embroidery … did I mention bountiful layers of tulle?
My moment of solitude is interrupted as the team trickles in. Everyone prepares their stations, meticulously revealing the tools of their trade. Racks are decorated with Ae’lkemi, Pamela Usanto and Con Ilio’s, The Charlotte and The Anastasia. The Mode Collective footwear is carefully unboxed, aligned with symmetry.
For those who don’t know, fashion shoots inspire unpredictability. Cute moments like Magnolia’s introduction to Palmer’s Cocoa Butter, the staple beauty product for all melanin-rich women. This is followed by a short tutorial on the product’s powerful ability to eliminate the intolerable appearance of ash.
Childhood snaps materialise, and the story of ‘first clap’ finds its way into conversation. When Magnolia started modelling she was still learning the fashion lingo, such as ‘first face’. Stepping on the runway for the first time, the audience erupted with cheering. Coming offstage, Magnolia gleefully informed everyone she got ‘first clap’, oblivious to the fact the actual term is ‘first face’, inadvertently creating her own fashion vocabulary.
Her adorable nature is refreshingly intoxicating.
Our shoot is Magnolia’s first fashion editorial. With any first, there are tummy butterflies. There’s nothing like a dose of positive vibes and a warm hug to alleviate ones’ nerves. Everyone takes their positions. Exhibiting a cool exterior, Magnolia listens to the photographers’ directions, learning the mechanics of her body as she goes – she interprets the editorial brief into a story only she can deliver.
Out of nowhere, Magnolia strikes a pose, and I feel a pinch of emotion overcome me. Quickly exiting the set to collect myself, Caroline, our make-up artist, is by my side. She smiles knowingly. I whisper, “She’s got it!” It is the moment when the star from inside emerges for the world to see; the butterfly breaks free of her cocoon. “Where will her beautiful wings take her?”
With her great-grandmother’s artwork finding a home at the Louvre in Paris, it’s not far-fetched to imagine Magnolia may too one day command her own audience in the City of Love.
Exhausted, we wrap up the shoot. Still abuzz, Magnolia pipes up, “I wonder who’s playing?” A footy fanatic, Magnolia is trying to catch a game while she’s in Melbourne.
I laugh when she asks me, “Who do you barrack for?” I admit I’m no AFL enthusiast, though if pressed I’d cheer for Geelong or St Kilda. But I refuse to endure Melbourne’s unforgivable winter to watch a mere game of footy.
“That’s why you need to sit in the corporate box,” she beams. “Touché,” I say, and smile in agreement.
Before we retire for the day, Magnolia and I chat some more. I explain to her my diverse ancestry: my mother is Aboriginal and my father is African-American. In her best southern American accent she drawls, “Tell your father I said … waaater.” Her cheeky cherub grin appears, clearly taking the piss out of the American twang Aussies love to mock. And this is one of the reasons she is so lovable.
Sure enough, the next day on my Facebook newsfeed I see Magnolia has secured a corporate box seat with her Aunty Leila. Even though it’s not her favourite team (Hawthorn) playing, she’s at the footy just the same.
Magnolia’s demeanour is one of an old soul; when she talks you listen, eagerly searching her eyes as she pauses, waiting for pearls of wisdom to release fresh meaning to the topic at hand. I begin to realise this more after each moment I share with her: “This young lady has something to say.”
The next morning over her quick order of porridge and hot chocolate, Magnolia and I talk introversion and the paternalist attitudes towards Yolngu peoples.
She shares her observations: “We don’t like people to speak for us … we don’t need a translator.” She tells me Yolngu peoples’ reserved nature means they humbly conceal their real thoughts on issues in order to avoid a commotion. Magnolia remembers a fashion rehearsal where she noticed her peers’ yearning to come out of their shells: “You can just read their body language.” – an indication of their enthusiasm to venture into the unknown and try something new.
Magnolia then confides how nervous she was prior to our fashion shoot, and how she prepared for her big day: “I closed my eyes, lay in the bed and envisioned everything I wanted to achieve, listening to my favourite song.”
I ask, “What’s your favourite song?”
“‘This Is What You Came For’. It’s a Rihanna song.”
A Rihanna fan, I hadn’t heard the song. In my notepad I scribble a reminder to listen to it when I get home.
Our conversation is cut short. Landing the face of Chadstone’s Spring/Summer 2016 campaign beckoned the duo I now refer to as M&M (Magnolia and Mehali) off to Melbourne’s fashion capital.
Later that night, I forget to search for Maggy’s favourite song. Instead I hunt for a new web series on YouTube. In true universal form, I notice on the right-hand side of the screen Maggy’s song staring back at me … “Thanks universe.”
Seated next to Magnolia’s partner Dale, I could tell he was keeping his jitters under control by telling humorous tales, and the story of how the lovebirds met. Dale openly admitted he cried watching Magnolia on the catwalk in her Sass & Bide dress during rehearsals.
Magnolia’s grandmother, Banbapuy Ganambarr, arrives just in time. Between breaks I share with her behind-the-scenes snaps of her granddaughter’s fashion shoot.
The moment arrives – the evening gown competition. An enchanting Miss Maymuru takes centre stage, donned in 1920’s glamour; a Parisian bob, her earrings glistening like chandeliers. Magnolia’s statuesque beauty is adorned in a Sarina Cowcher custom-made gown. Amongst cascades of lavender silk, a bedazzling cluster of embroidery decorates her arm as it traverses across her body to her waist. In golden frosted stilettos, she glides down the runway, each step calculated yet graceful. Her radiant smile catches the ballroom lights. With a glorious swirl of silk, Magnolia’s half-turn seals her last opportunity to impress the judges.
Overwhelmed with pride I too want to cry, my mascara the only thing standing in my way.
Even though Magnolia isn’t crowned Miss World Australia that night, Team Magnolia know this isn’t the end – it is only the beginning.
“I feel sad that she didn’t get the crown, but … she’s famous anyways … she’s still famous. And I am very, very proud of her because I know that she’ll come back. She will come back,” says Banbapuy Ganambarr.
Indeed, she will come back.
Disappointment evaporates when Magnolia appears from backstage. Dressed in a red silk Pamela Usanto evening dress, precious beads fall down her slender spine. Captivatingly beautiful, she mimics the allure of a starlet stepping off the set of an MGM studio. Arms open wide, her dazzling smile welcomes the embrace of her family.
Our eyes meet and she shimmies over to hug me. “How are you feeling?” I ask.
“Oh my god! I think I had the loudest family here. And I’m so proud that everyone made it down. Without my family I wouldn’t have had the confidence and the motivation to do my catwalk, do my speech, just knowing that everyone was here, so proud to even get this far as a finalist, to make it into the top thirteen … I was like, whaaat! I could not believe myself.”
“What was it like wearing your evening gown?” I ask, dying to know.
“I loved it! I felt like a princess. When I was a teachers’ aide at Marrara Christian College, I dressed up as a princess and all my students called me the princess of Arnhem Land – that’s how I felt. I felt like the princess of Arnhem Land just walking and doing my walk … showing them that I made it this far. We all fought so hard, but I think I fought the hardest for my people.”
Graciously, she bids me goodbye to join her family.
The next morning, I lay in bed ruminating on the night before. In retrospect, it wasn’t about the ‘crown’. In fact, no competition existed. Miss World Australia fortuitously brought the world to Magnolia’s feet. Like all things destined, an illustrious title awaits; it is a self-defining legacy she must forge.
Reading the media headlines, ‘She’s created a conversation’: Magnolia Maymuru ends Miss World Australia finals with chants of Arnhem Land, confirmed Magnolia is the people’s choice – our winner. Her breathtaking presence alone is reshaping Australia’s concept of beauty. Our nation desires a new discourse; it needs an authentic harmonious balance of two worlds, beautifully articulated in Magnolia’s grace and nobility.
Maminydjama Magnolia Maymuru leaves a piece of her with you. I really can’t remember the last time someone had this effect on me. Maggy taught me about the Yolngu way: her peoples’ values are universal, guided by integrity and respect – home is truly where the heart is. We are all the same – different, but the same.
Fashion is fairytale and fairytale is fashion – there is no destination out of reach for a young Yolngu woman, no fashion narrative off limits. The ‘girl next door’ lives in a small community called Yirrkala, 600 kilometres from Darwin in the Northern Territory; so too does the Princess of Arnhem Land.
Check out our fashion editorial with Magnolia Grace & Grandeur: The eternal beauty of East Arnhem Land.
Sasha Sarago is the editor of Ascension Magazine. She is a proud Aboriginal woman of the Wadjanbarra Yidinji and Jirrbal clans ‘Rainforest People’ of Cairns, Far North Queensland. She is also of African-American, Malay, Mauritian and Spanish descent. Sasha’s dream is to savour the breathtaking views of Positano; Moscato in hand as the founder of a globally inspiring lifestyle and media company.