Every morning without fail Maggie Tabberer fixes her make-up, dons her favourite jewels – currently the lush string of pearls with a boulder citrine clasp and matching citrine earrings that she is wearing in one of the poses for our photo shoot – and dresses for the day.
The latter, she admits, comes with a little help from one of the two beloved carers who are with her for a couple of hours each day, and she accepts as a necessity in her autumn years.
But at 86, while not as spritely as she once was, Maggie T still radiates the glamour, beauty and luminous presence that made her a household star for decades from the mid-1960s.
It took some persuading for The Weekly favourite to agree to shades of pink for this shoot; Maggie’s wardrobe is famously monochrome – “black for the winter, white for the summer”, she quips – but she is surprised and thrilled with the results.
Maggie, of course, knows the power of a great photo. It launched her career and the man behind the camera was the brilliant Berlin-born photographer, Helmut Newton, who came into her life when she was a naïve 23-year-old married mother-of-two and later became her lover.
“Newton was perhaps the most famous and certainly the most controversial fashion photographer working in Australia at the time …known to be demanding and difficult,” Maggie wrote in her 1999 memoir.
“His work had a very different look from the other top Australian photographers. Melbourne’s Athol Shmith’s work was romantic. He used frail untouchable girls in strapless evening gowns, urns of full-blown roses, archways and elaborate wrought iron gates. Sydney’s Laurie Le Guay favoured healthy, cute outdoor girls. They ran, wore gingham, sailed boats and caught buses.
“Newton was different. He liked big, tall girls who had knowing looks. Newspapers, cigarettes, black limousines, half-hidden men and dark rain-soaked alleys. His photographs had an edge, a hidden threat.”
After her first meeting with him at his Melbourne home, Maggie – who was known as Margaret May then – wasn’t sure she’d be called back. Helmut was casting for a swimwear shoot and after consideration decided “Margaret” didn’t suit the brief and she was summarily despatched.
Despite long slender legs, “I was never a swimwear girl,” Maggie agrees. But no sooner had she left than she received a phone call and was called back … immediately!
In the ensuing test shoot Helmut was mostly silent, offering the infrequent “good … very good” as he snapped away. Maggie struck simple poses against a plain wall in a room in the house.
“I had a big soft beige coat on,” she tells me. “And when I looked at the shots I thought ‘My God, is it me?’ They were absolutely marvellous. Very quickly I knew that he was very gifted and he took wonderful photographs of me. We had an incredibly special connection, which I think came out in the pictures, and I absolutely adored him.”
The bond was instant and the duo went on to create a portfolio of work that rocked the fashion industry and catapulted her to near supermodel status in Australia. Margaret May also had a new identity.
“He renamed me. Helmut coined Maggie and it stuck,” she laughs. “I had worked with a couple of other photographers and they were all good, but I don’t think any of them touched Newton,” Maggie says.
“Mind you, he used to put me quite often into really very dangerous situations. I remember we did a photograph with Australian wool and Helmut had discovered that they had a truck that was piled high with these great big bales of wool out the back. He said: ‘Can you get up there?’ pointing to the top of the pile.
“I said ‘Oh come on, are you mad?!’ But of course, two minutes later I was crawling up there until I was on top of the wretched bales, utterly terrified. I’m not good at heights. He stayed on the ground, naturally. He was always on the ground, looking up. But the photos were fantastic.”
Maggie regularly found herself in perilous scenarios in pursuit of the perfect shot. But she says she never refused. “I’m not stupid. I was looking at these shots compared to what I would have looked like otherwise, and I thought ‘Oh well, I’d better be a good girl and do as I’m told’.”
Maggie learned a great deal from Helmut, not just about photography, but about styling, accessories, clothes, putting together a look. She was evolving way beyond the world of modelling, and she put those lessons to work when she moved into fashion journalism, PR, and creating her own clothing label, Maggie T, later in her career.
For the moment though, Maggie was entranced while also juggling motherhood with the pressures of an extremely busy job. “Modelling was bloody hard work,” she recalls, chuckling. “But Helmut was great fun. They are very, very happy memories.”
The partnership ended when Helmut decided he had to pursue his career in Paris, the home of fashion in the heart of Europe. “I was very upset,” says Maggie with a sigh. “But then he introduced me to Pross.”
Ettore Prossimo was the charismatic, dapper restaurateur who became Maggie’s second husband. “Helmut said, ‘When we’ve finished work, I’m going to take you to dinner and I’m going to introduce you to the most handsome man in Australia’. That was Pross. I was smitten from that first meeting, that was it. Eventually we got married but it didn’t last because he was a naughty boy. It was a very tempestuous relationship.”
Another turning point in Maggie’s career came again with a phone call. It was 1981 and at the time Maggie was working for the Daily Mirror newspaper writing the ‘Maggie Says’ fashion column.
“Kerry Packer rang me and I thought: ‘What on earth does he want?’. I was doing the Beauty and the Beast show on TV and working on the newspaper. I was going well and was happy. But Mr Packer said ‘How would you like to work on Women’s Weekly?’. ‘Doing what exactly?’ I asked. ‘Well, fashion editor,’ was his immediate response.
“I was pretty taken aback. But this was The Weekly. Kerry Packer was a bit daunting because he was a big man and he had a big reputation, but he was always very sweet to me. So I went into the Park Street offices in Sydney to talk to him and I said, ‘Mr Packer, I’m interested but you’ve got to talk to my manager.’ ‘Who the hell’s that?’ he replied pretty gruffly. ‘Harry M. Miller’ [the late famous celebrity agent, who became a great friend to Maggie]. ‘Well I’m not going to bloody talk to him,’ Packer said.
“As a woman at that time, having a manager to negotiate for you to get the best deal possible was crucial. Kerry Packer didn’t want to talk to Harry at all, but I said, ‘Well, if you want me, you’re going to have to talk to him. He’s my manager.’”
Needless to say, Mr Packer spoke to Harry M. Miller and cut a deal. Maggie was coming to The Weekly, and became the cover star for her first issue. “My mother [Molly Trigar] loved The Women’s Weekly. It was the Holy Grail in our house. She was absolutely thrilled,” says Maggie.
She was nevertheless “scared s***less” on her first day, she adds. It was pretty terrifying walking in there. “I had my own office and the first thing I did was to have a big wire mesh rack built onto one wall so my assistants could bring in the garments. I would hang them up so I could see everything for one issue together before I shot them.
“I had a very clear idea of what I wanted … I loved it. It was a great period for me,” says Maggie, smiling. “As a model I also knew what I was looking for. First of all you start off with looks, of course, but then their behaviour at the shoot and prior was important. I did have favourites, but I won’t reveal who they were. I used to call them ‘my girls’, particularly when I did big parades through my PR firm. Carla Zampatti became one of my clients. She was very pivotal in Australian fashion. I think simplicity was her look and beautiful tailoring, and my mantra today is still ‘keep it simple’.
“The best thing that I think happened in that period of fashion was that the sack dress came in, and having had two children I didn’t have a waistline anyway, so I thought it was fantastic and I gave it a big plug,” Maggie laughs.
“I made sure my mother, Molly, got her own copy of the magazine and she was so happy. She had the worst handwriting you have ever seen but she would thumb through it and write ‘Margaret’ in this terrible handwriting on all my pages.”
Maggie says she never tires of reminiscing about days at The Weekly. She stayed for 15 years and afterwards became a regular on the cover. “I think I’ve been very lucky and privileged to find myself in the right place at the right time and that’s what happened with The Weekly. I loved the job.”
At the same time Maggie was also creating her own fashion label, Maggie T, aimed at larger women who wanted to dress stylishly. “It was for women like me because people always loved what I wore and there was nothing out there for them. There were crossover bodices, and wrap dresses and skirts, and they looked really bad. Maggie T was a success pretty much immediately.”
Maggie was everywhere, her fame reached new heights and she was regularly stopped in the streets. “Most people were charming and would come up and say ‘Maggie, I’m a fan, I love what you’re wearing, where did you get it?’ There was even one woman who came up and said ‘Can I give you a kiss?’ …she was very sweet.”
But while Maggie was enjoying the spotlight, it had its pressures for her two daughters. “It was a pain in arse, because you had to share her with the rest of Australia,” her youngest daughter, Amanda Tabberer, explains. “Most children don’t like sharing their parents.”
“For me, it was about just trying to become your own self,” adds Maggie’s elder daughter, Brooke. “After a certain amount of time you’d like to be your own person, not always Maggie Tabberer’s daughter. So, I left home very early and joined a band …”
“And I left the country and moved to Italy,” laughs Amanda. “To try to get away from my famous mother. I think it’s the same story for all kids of famous people to go somewhere to find their own identity. It’s normal. It’s human nature.”
Today, the three women are super close. Amanda lives with Maggie and Brooke is a stone’s throw away.
Maggie is still very much an Aussie icon. Her career advice to young women wanting to follow in her footsteps is simple. “Do something you love. You can’t give your whole spirit into something unless you really love it.” Maggie is still loving it!