It’s hard working in Australia because they’re just after that typical blonde, surfer typical Australian look
Would she be bitchy? Would she be stupid? Would she be overdressed? Would she tower over me? Those were the thoughts running through my mind before my scheduled meeting with up and coming model, Leah Johnson.
A brown-haired girl in a simple black top, black leggings and a red puffy scarf came my way and I finally exhaled. As I get up to shake her hand, I realise we’re the same height. There go all my preconceptions.
You may recognise Leah from her Australia’s Next Top Model debut in 2008, or her Victorian Miss Universe win, but nothing about her screams typical model. The 22-year-old Melbourne-born half Greek model doesn’t put on an act, nor does she pout. Rather, she’s a friendly, chatty young woman who sees modelling as just one of three ‘jobs’ she juggles. Her part time job and her university studies take up a lot of her time. “I hate being bored,” she explains to Neos Kosmos, justifying her workload.
For Leah, her rapid rise in the industry in just five years has been something she never expected. Pushed by a friend to enter the running for Australia’s Next Top Model, opportunities started to open for her. Signing up to an agency, she was getting campaigns and runway gigs, but it was her overseas appeal that defined what kind of model she would be.
But, for a woman so well travelled and having met so many influential designers and photographers, she plays down the glitzy industry.
“There’s a lot of sitting around, you get your hair done, you get your makeup done and you do rehearsals, and you literally just wait around for seven hours till the show starts,” she says about the runway.
The glitziness wears off a bit after you realize runways are mostly a big room of bored, beautiful people.
Her Greek background and unique look has made her a target for couture labels and expensive brands. But Leah soon realized she wasn’t going to get booked for Cleo or Cosmo with her dark hair and ethnic look.
You can see she’s upset when we touch on the topic of what look is popular and why the Australian industry needs to constantly conform to the same look.
“It’s hard working in Australia because they’re just after that typical blonde, surfer Australian look,” she says.
Leah’s marketing manager Nektaria Georgys says her unique look is one of her best attributes and has made her a sought after commodity internationally, far surpassing her Australian counterparts.
“I think the international market is really appreciative of her look and appeal because she has beautiful, striking, almost cat eyes,” Ms Georgys tells Neos Kosmos.
“When you’re looking at the international market such as Versace or Gucci or Chanel, they seem to take a very different approach to how they market their women, whereas in Australia we have a soft commercial look where the women are softer, more inviting and friendly and almost a plainer look, where they’ve got more of a blonde and nice and soft approach.”
Not many Australian models can put Gucci and Mimco on their CV. Last year Leah took up a position modelling in Singapore, then travelled to Milan to be part of fashion week and walk the Gucci runway, and then booked gigs in Barcelona.
This coming from a girl who was told she was too ‘bold’ looking or too short.
Amazingly, Leah has conquered the bridal fashion industry and is now preparing for a major shoot for Australian bridal couture designer Steven Khalil.
“I was under the impression I could never do bridal stuff through my agency, saying ‘oh, you’re too strong looking’, and I proved them wrong,” she says.
Bridal wear is one of the fashion industry’s gems. It’s the big bucks, where a designer has free rein to design what they want, spend ludicrous amounts and charge through the roof. The cost of shoots can range in tens of thousands while hundreds of bridal magazines keep the jobs piling up.
Leah jumps for bridal wear jobs, and tends to avoid the runway and pageants when she can.
Her Miss Universe competition last year left her a bit jaded on the pageant industry. Despite winning the Victorian leg, the preparations and stress didn’t make for a fun experience.
“I was the only European girl in there,” she remembers.
“It was so stressful, a lot of hard work. So much competition; girls are really bitchy in pageants. Someone stole my bikinis so I had no bikinis for the show and stole my flowers.”
She’s focused now on making a good name for herself and building her client base, all the while keeping up her studies in Public Relations.
For her parents though, modelling isn’t something they see their daughter in for a long time.
“They don’t see modelling as a career, they see it as a hobby,” she says.
But what they might not realise is how talented their young daughter is at her ‘hobby’.
Ms Georgys deals with models daily and finds her clients always take note when a model gives them multiple options. Leah is one that captures great pictures and also goes the extra mile to introduce herself to the team.
“She’s very professional and very friendly and the team seems to gravitate towards her,” Ms Georgys says.
“When talking about a model, what really counts is if she can move in front of a camera. Models can get away with anything if they can take a good shot. That’s what clients love, they love to look through a roll of 400 pictures and say ‘oh my god, I can use 50 per cent of these’. That’s a model that can make good money.”
Despite how well she’s doing at her job, Leah still gets stereotyped and judged.
Asking her about the industry weight standard and the obsession with being thin, she is quick to dispel the gossip.
“It’s the biggest lie, no one will ever say you’re not thin enough.”
But for Leah, she knows modelling isn’t a full time job she can retire on.
“I do go through periods where I get over it (modelling),” she says.
“It’s not structural at all. You go through months of working and go through a couple of months with no money.”
For now, Leah is content with working one job at a time as they come to her, even if it’s a big name like Steven Khalil.