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New threads: Model Elaine George talks family, fashion and mentorship

In 1993 Elaine George made history as Australia’s first Indigenous cover star. Thirty years later she’s back in front of the camera with her daughter, Taylor, to showcase First Nations designers and artists.

On the hottest day of the year Arakwal woman Elaine George and her daughter, Taylor Tanaka, are in the Palm House in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens as the fierce sun beats through the ceiling. Elaine gaily declares she can easily handle the heat as she flips through a rack of clothes in bright yellows, soft corals, and scorching reds created by First Nations designers. Taylor is more tentative, on the set of a fashion shoot for the first time ever.

Elaine gently encourages 25-year-old Taylor while joking with The Weekly team. She has a maternal aura and the sort of disarming beauty that would compel a talent scout to approach her in the street and say: “You could be a model.”

It’s how she got her start in 1993, when she became the first Indigenous Australian to feature on the cover of a glossy magazine. Racism, isolation, and falling in love caused her to give it all away 30 years later, however. And though she’s back modelling, and mentoring First Nations creators, for many years her two children had no idea that their mother had been a history-making cover star and international catwalk model.

“I think I was around seven or eight,” Taylor says thoughtfully. “We used to go to my great-grandmother’s after school. I must have been walking around the house one day. She had this massive Vogue cover, laminated, on the wall. I was looking at it and I was like: What’s this?”

Elaine chuckles. “Most people expect [children] to take after their parents. I didn’t want that for Taylor and [my son] Dremayne. I wanted them to grow up and be safe and be whoever they want.”

Elaine now works full-time as a child protection officer while modelling part-time, and is proud to have Taylor on set. Australian fashion has changed and Elaine is playing an important part in that.

Elaine was just 17 and working as a secretary when she was discovered. She’d taken her younger sister to Dreamworld, where she caught the eye of photographer Grant Good and his partner, Diana Finke.

“It was actually quite scary because back in the ’90s there was still a lot of racism, so for us to have this tall blonde lady following us, it was more frightening than anything,” Elaine says. Diana wrote her number on a napkin and told Elaine to call her.

Elaine wears Lee Mathews dress, $999. Helen Kaminski hat, $295. Taylor wears Kaninda top, $80, and pants, $110. ELK earrings, $59.

Elaine was flown to Sydney where she was photographed, before returning home to Queensland. “When they said they were going to send the photos to Vogue I didn’t even know what Vogue was,” Elaine says.

The image was selected for the fashion magazine’s 1993 September cover and Elaine became an overnight sensation. She signed with a modelling agency and found herself in demand, but the tumult of shoots and fittings was far from the glamour she’d expected. Plus, she was lonely. There were no Indigenous designers, and hair and make-up artists had trouble finding products that worked with Elaine’s complexion and hair. “There was no one else I could talk to,” she says.

She walked runways in Milan and Jakarta and eventually moved to the US, where the industry was even more alienating. “They didn’t even know who Aboriginal people in Australia were,” Elaine says.

“They were like, ‘Aren’t you all blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbies?’ No. Some of us are kinda born with a tan. You try and joke it off but after a while it just gets so tiring, mentally, that you have to keep explaining we’re the First Nations people in Australia.”

Taylor wears Aje dress, $455. Helen Kaminski X Bábbarra hat, $495. R.M. Williams boots, $649. Lindner socks, $47.

She came home for the opening of a shopping centre in Cairns in 1995, where she met the man who would become Taylor and Dremayne’s father, and decided she was done with the modelling game. That was, until 2021, when she made an unexpected return.

“I was just going to be an ambassador for [non-profit] First Nations Fashion + Design,” she says. When a model didn’t turn up for one of their shows, “I was chucked in after 28 years to fill in.” Elaine’s last-minute appearance was a hit and she was asked to model at Sydney Fashion Week.

“That show had all Aboriginal designers,” she says. It’s hard to put into words what that evolution means to her. “You listen to the aunties who made that design and how they do the storyline from their country, then you put it on and you’re passing on that journey.”

During Elaine’s first tour of fashion duty, she felt like an outsider. But now when she drapes herself in a piece by a First Nations designer – as both she and Taylor have done on our shoot – she’s proudly sharing that story. And as a lover of fashion, “What better way to do it than through design,” Elaine says.

Styling Assistant: Lilly Veitch.

Hair by Djahmu Claxton-Amini.

Make-up: Elsa Morgan @ Reload Agency.

Art: Tiarna Herczeg @ Curatorial and Co.

Model: Elaine George, Blaklist Agency, and Taylor Tanaka.

Location: Palm House @ Botanic Gardens of Sydney.

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