Inspiring the next generation

There’s a difference between being a model and being a role model, but Samantha Harris has them both covered.

The Tweed girl was catapulted into the modelling world at just 13 when she was a finalist in Girlfriend magazine model search competition, the launching pad of many Australian modelling careers.

By industry standards she has reached great heights, appearing on the cover of Vogue Australia at 19 and famously being booked for a record number of shows at Australian Fashion Week in 2010. She has been a brand ambassador for David Jones, Westfield and Priceline.

In a notoriously fickle industry, Samantha has emerged a gracious stayer and, at 27, is using her platform to promote her people, and her charity work and to encourage other young women to pursue their dreams. This year she was named in Who Magazine’s annual “Women Who” list for her work in inspiring others.

Samantha is still bemused as to how she became a role model and mentor but it’s a mantle she’s happily taken up.

“I still really don’t know why that happened,” she laughs.

“I thought ‘why me, I’m not that exciting’ but then I thought if I could give anyone some positive to hold on to, that’s a good thing.”

No doubt many young girls saw something of themselves in the shy, unique looking girl with op shop clothes who put herself out there in an arena seemingly the domain of polished, blue-eyed blondes.

“I always wanted to be a model,” Samantha says. “I liked the idea of it but never in a million years did I think I would ever be on the covers of magazines.

“I would have been really happy just being in Target and Kmart catalogues.” Such earthiness has undoubtedly played a part in Samantha’s success, particularly at a time when no one in a Target or Kmart catalogue would have looked like her.

Samantha’s mother Myrna is a Dunghutti woman, from the Kempsey area, a member of the Stolen Generations removed from her family as a baby. Samantha grew up with her mother, father and three brothers in a modest house at Banora Point.

“It was my mum who took me to modelling competitions,” Samantha says. “I was the only girl and it was the thing we did together.

“She is still one of my biggest supporters.” Samantha moved to Sydney nine years ago to pursue a modelling career, determined to chase her dream despite her crippling shyness and the market for Aboriginal models being decidedly untested.

“When I first came to Sydney, I would go to castings, sometime four or five a day and I wouldn’t get any jobs,” she says.

“At a young age, it was hard. You think ‘they don’t like me’ but as I got older, I understood it was because the client has a vision of what they were after and I just wasn’t the look. And I learned that was OK.”

She has weathered bigger knocks along the way including vicious and racist trolling on social media and the jailing of her husband for two years over a car accident that resulted in the death of an elderly man.

But Samantha proved herself to be made of strong stuff. Somewhere along the way she lost her shyness but it was never replaced by that icy modelling veneer. She is natural and chatty, the quintessential grounded Aussie girl, who is happy to lend her time to good causes and share what she’s learned with other young people.

“I tell them it isn’t a walk in the park,” she says. “So what I pass on to young women especially, whether they want to be a model, a nurse or anything at all, is that it isn’t going to be handed to you.

“But if you work hard and persist, it will pay off.”

Samantha visits schools and indigenous groups to spread the word. She regularly receives messages from young women on social media telling her they are following their dreams because of her and it makes her feel good inside.

She is an Ambassador for the Barnardos Mother of the Year Awards — “that’s really because of my mum”, she says — and last year took part in the Twinings Tea Challenge where she was asked to design tea packaging, with a portion of sales going to her chosen charity.

Again she called on her mother and they came up with an Aboriginal dot painting inspired design, depicting the colours of the sea and sand of the Gold Coast.

Her chosen charity was another she is an Ambassador for, the Make A Wish Foundation. That partnership was forged through her meeting with a chronically ill 12-year-old indigenous girl some years ago who’d always been told she looked just like Samantha Harris. One of the girl’s wishes was to meet Samantha.

“I was contacted through a friend so of course I went to meet her,” Samantha says. “She really was the spitting image of me. She could have been my little sister.

“I spent quite a few hours with her and I always kept in contact with her. Her family said it really made her day. She thought I was like Angelina Jolie or something but really it was my privilege so I’ve supported the Make A Wish Foundation ever since.”

And this is no stock story for the media it seems.

“Actually, tomorrow will be three years since she passed away,” Samantha adds. “I still think of her.”

During NAIDOC Week, she will travel to Canberra to sit on a panel for the Girls Academy, a government initiative to keep indigenous girls engaged at school, through in-school mentoring, well-being support and sports programs.

As for the future, she simply wants to keep working, a level-headed ambition in a profession known for its limited lifespan.

“Maybe one day have a product or my own business,” Samantha says. “And just continue being a positive role model.”

It seems she’s got that last one in the bag.

“So what I pass on to young women especially ... is that it isn't going to be handed to you. But if you work hard and it persist, it will pay off."