When Australian supermodel Gemma Ward rocketed onto the fashion circuit, photographers, stylists and magazine editors preferred to think of the doll-like, pale blonde as being from Pluto instead of Perth.
“Gemma is one of the very, very few models who look as though they come from another dimension,” said revered photographer Nick Knight, after capturing Ward for her first British Vogue cover in 2004, when she was 16 years old.
The “alien” image continued to shadow Ward as her unique features snatched the industry’s gaze away from the original glamazonian supermodels, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer.
Close comparisons of the third kind were further fuelled by Ward’s other-worldly beauty on the runway for Prada and in her early advertising campaigns for luxury labels Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent and Versus.
Nearly 20 years later, striding gracefully this year at Australian Fashion Week for Aje and Cue, it was clear something was different. Ward’s magnetic beauty continued to captivate the front row but something had shifted.
At the beachside photo shoot for Sunday Life, where Ward laughed between outfit changes and gossiped with a familiar team of creative professionals, the difference is clear. Ward’s humanity is now front, centre and in focus.
“I’m not intentionally trying to exude something,” Ward, 35, says matter-of-factly. “When you’re a model no one knows much about you, beyond what you look like. I couldn’t get my head around it when I was starting out and there’s still a little part of my brain that resists. The first time I came home to Perth from modelling, I remember friends telling me I was famous. I told them it wasn’t true. It was because I was so in character as a model.”
“Famous model” wasn’t even the character Ward had intended on playing as a child. The daughter of Perth GP Gary Ward and wife Claire fantasised about being a stand-up comedian.
“That was a part that got locked away when I was modelling,” she says. “There was some video my mother leaked from the family vault where I was the clown, playing around with my sister and brothers.”
Ward’s older sister, Sophie Koren, was a model before quitting the industry at 23 to pursue a career as a writer in California. There are also twin younger brothers, Oscar and Henry. “I was trying to win them over because I thought my brothers loved my sister more. I was very silly, very goofy.”
Fate and renowned Perth talent spotter Christine Fox recast Ward’s career ambitions, persuading the teenager to enter the heats of the pioneering reality show Search for a Supermodel in 2002. Ward didn’t make it to the final round and went largely unnoticed months later on the runway at Australian Fashion Week in shows for now closeted labels Lisa Ho and Billion Dollar Babes.
It took images of the wide-eyed beauty with porcelain features taken by photographer Justin Smith to light a spark that spread like wildfire, making their way to the desk of development manager David Cunningham at modelling agency IMG’s New York headquarters.
By 2004, Ward was on the cover of US Vogue’s influential September issue alongside Daria Werbowy, Natalia Vodianova and Gisele Bündchen being hailed as a model of the moment.
Countless magazine covers and advertising campaigns followed and industry website Models.com named Ward the number-one model in the world in 2007.
“It’s weird to talk about it,” Ward says. “It makes me feel like a historian. At that time blogs were taking off and people were really getting to know models. I didn’t understand that people were rooting for me as a person. I just thought that people were looking at pictures of me and picking outfits from magazine pages.”
“When you’re a woman breastfeeding, it can take a while to get your mojo back and it happens in a way you are unaware of.”
Today, Ward’s position on the fluctuating barometer of fame is more manageable. “Personally, I don’t feel very famous now, which is a good place for me.” Ward is still famous enough to return to acting on stage in the play 2:22 A Ghost Story, which closed last month at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, and on television as Sadie in While the Men Are Away – a 1940s queer revisionist historical drama on SBS.
Earlier in her career, Ward appeared on screen in The Black Balloon and had small roles in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.
“I’ve had an agent since I was seven and did commercials then,” Ward says. “For me, acting is a lifelong thing. It just happens at various times.”
“I felt so lucky to be included in that cast,” says Ward, who appeared in 2:22 A Ghost Story alongside Ruby Rose, Daniel MacPherson and Remy Hii. “It was great to be back on stage, to spend time in Melbourne and work on something that was longer and more strenuous,” she says.
Ward has also appeared recently in advertising campaigns for French luxury house Courrèges, Four Seasons hotels and worked with enduring Australian label R.M. Williams.
Once a Prada exclusive was the pinnacle of joy for Ward, but now knocking around in R.M. Williams boots ignites that contagious smile. “I could say that it was great working with them because they’re iconically Australian, but I was really excited because they’re my dad’s favourite brand. He grew up surrounded by wheat fields, loves acoustic country music and playing a 12-string guitar. So that was something I could call him about and it felt like a big career tick.”
This burst of activity is part of a pattern that has marked Ward’s career since she took her first major break from modelling in 2008. Her first industry absence followed the death of actor Heath Ledger on January 22, 2008, who Ward met and began dating only a few months earlier.
At the same time Ward also experienced widespread body-shaming after appearing on the runway in a denim bikini for Chanel in October 2007, with some people criticising her womanly curves.
Now, as mother to Naia, 9, Jet, 6, and Kirra, 3, her children with partner David Letts, she is too busy parenting, pursuing her own writing and working to spend time pondering her most recent runway renaissance.
“Sometimes things just work out,” she says. “When you’re a woman breastfeeding, it can take a while to get your mojo back and it happens in a way you are unaware of. To be honest, at Australian Fashion Week this year I was just having fun with my friend Jessica Gomes. We met as young teenagers for the first time at Search for a Supermodel.”
Gomes went on to appear regularly in Sports Illustrated magazine and later replaced Miranda Kerr as David Jones’ store ambassador. “We were laughing and feeling carefree, like we had gone back in time,” she says.
I have first-hand experience with Ward’s laughter, having sat next to her during runway shows and at long industry lunches. On our first encounter I stupidly braced myself for the remote ice queen she portrayed as a teenager on the runway for Dior, Fendi and Givenchy.
Instead, I got to revel in the humanity that the rest of the world can finally see. Ward’s insightful asides and erudite observations on collections and her self-deprecation tickle like a series of feathers.
She doesn’t take herself as seriously as she once looked. “I find that I’m even a mystery to myself,” Ward says. “I know that it’s a weird thing to say. I go with the flow.”
On the Sunday Life shoot, Ward’s contentment is evident. While others crowd around monitors, checking images, she prefers to remain in front of the camera.
When we discuss another Australian model notorious for deleting images she doesn’t like before a photographer can intervene, the laugh returns. “I’m not that breed – maybe to my detriment,” she says. “They don’t know what they’re missing out on by letting go of some control. There’s freedom to surrender and letting go.”
The most obvious sign of Ward’s letting go is when she incorrectly says that she is 36 years old. “I had been telling people I was 36 all year,” Ward says. “I’d basically forgotten and had counted one more year.”
For most people, forgetting a year is understandable. But modelling, like sport and ballet, is an unforgiving profession built on a fragile foundation of collagen and youth. “I’m happy being one year younger. It’s easy in fashion to feel old and ageing out of your career.”
When challenged about her go-with-the-flow approach, another veil drops and her ambitious side reveals itself. “I do definitely have ambitions and there are times when I let them take over,” she says. “I can’t be blindly ambitious any more. Mental health is important, and accepting that your life is never yours to control. Life is a collaborative thing.”
For Ward, that spirit of collaboration can be felt at work and home. “When you work with the same people, the same bunch of artists, it’s nice to have that family to keep you grounded. There’s that thread of familiarity. But as I get older, and every time I’m away for longer, I appreciate what I have built with my own family. “That’s something to be proud of.”
Fashion editor, Penny McCarthy; Hair, Darren Summors using Oribe; Make-up, Linda Jefferyes using Liqlips by Linda Jefferyes.
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