Tarlisa Gaykamangu is a monumental beauty and so, too, her breakout as a model which has the potential to be future-defining.
Phone reception isn’t the best in Yurruwi. Text messages need to beam in from across the vast salt-kissed, low-lying archipelago that is the Crocodile Islands, almost 500 kilometres out of Darwin in East Arnhem Land. Nevertheless, when 22-year-old Yolngu model Tarlisa Gaykamangu received one asking if she would like to front Vogue Australia, her second ever shoot, her first ever cover, the reply that came back was clear: yes. “I was really excited,” she says, deep brown eyes flashing.
She’s in Sydney, flown in from Milingimbi Island, as Yurruwi is also known, and is wearing some of the few winter clothes she owns; bathed in tropical heat and skirted by the aquamarine waters of the Arafura Sea, average temperatures in Milingimbi don’t vary much from 30 degrees Celsius. She bought these, not for a relatively mild Sydney winter, but for freezing Milan where another life-changing phone call took her earlier this year.
“My Aunty Liandra called me and asked if I would be interested in walking in a runway show in Milan,” she remembers. “It all happened very quickly.”
“I had to ring and double check you knew it was for Milan,” her aunt, Liandra Gaykamangu, with her today, says gently teasing. A swimwear designer herself, it was Liandra who encouraged Tarlisa to model in her first shoot in July 2022. “I said, ‘Okay, so Milan … it’s halfway around the world in Italy.’ You were like, ‘Yeah.’ And I said, ‘But we’re going to have to go to Italy.’ And you said, ‘Yeah. Yeah.’ And I was like, ‘Okay … Okay, bye,’” she continues. “And I knew she knew where Italy was, but she was just … relaxed.”
To give the moment some context, no other First Nations model from Arnhem Land has walked on the runway of a major international house like this.
A collected exterior is already something of a trademark for Tarlisa. On this day, The bilingual model—who speaks English and Djambarrpuyngu; one of the many languages of East Arnhem Land—is a fold of never-ending legs in skinny jeans with a tumble of black hair. As she talks, she is considered and understated, a demeanour underscored by her pillowy lips and striking black brows that frame her soulful eyes like deep pools. Her sense of humour, though, constantly threatens to break through the surface, her aunty making her laugh with recollections like this.
Which brings them to another milestone, as each reel at the preternatural calm she approached one of the biggest moments she, and any aspiring model, might face: walking the Bottega Veneta runway, on an exclusive.
“We were backstage at Bottega. I was trying to keep it together and I remember asking you if you were nervous and you said yes, but I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure because you were so calm,” says Liandra.
To give the moment some context, no other First Nations model from Arnhem Land has walked on the runway of a major international house like this. First Nations models like Charlee Fraser and Samantha Harris set wheels in motion, but an international house uncovering a face from a remote, at least from major cities, part of Australia just doesn’t, historically, happen.
Part of the reason this is still an anomaly is an industry geared towards major capitals, including in Australia. Case in point: Tarlisa didn’t have a passport so flew within a week of the call to Sydney and at one juncture, bureaucracy—the office of births, deaths and marriage—threatened to derail the trip, printing her name incorrectly, losing a day in organising the passport she needed to fly out to Milan with little notice.
“It was printed by Wednesday, but I think we picked it up on Thursday, and then flew out on Saturday.”
Happily, though slowly, the idea that models need to fit a predetermined mould and work in with the existing system, and not the other way around, is being rewired in the fashion industry at large. Take Indigenous American model Quannah Chasinghorse whose culture underscores her beauty, or Adut Akech who, connecting with young women about the experience of being a refugee, has an impact magnified by sharing her story. Fashion is fitting the person that is the model, taking in the depth and breadth of their culture, the uniqueness of their personality that comes with them and building it into a complete picture of internal and external beauty.
“These women are naturally themselves, and the goal in the show is to bring out who they are and what they stand for—not to change them to fit Bottega [Veneta],” said notes from the Italian house’s casting team. “The same is true of models such as Tarlisa.”
Remarkably, one of the busiest people in fashion, creative director Matthieu Blazy took time to understand her culture, watching a video about Milingimbi traditions and customs. That Blazy, a champion of craftsmanship himself, might understand the traditional weaving techniques practised by the renowned Milingimbi weavers, hand-harvesting pandanus (gunga) leaves from the shorelines, dyeing it before drying and weaving it by hand in colourways that express ancestral stories, is no small thing.
Tarlisa is moving between this world of fashion and her roots, connected to the land. “For me, growing up was hunting, fishing,” she says. A lot of time was family time, spent together with lots of cousins. They would hunt mud crab and shellfish, and still do, visit nearby Elcho Island by boat and go swimming together. As they describe it, Milingimbi is a community where everyone knows each other, family is central, and for this reason it’s safe. “Everybody’s connected,” says Tarlisa.
Like Tarlisa’s family is to creativity. Her dad Warren paints, as does Tarlisa from time to time, and her grandma Gwen, who travelled to Milan to support her. Education is important in their family, and family is important to all of them. They all crowded around the livestream at 4am in the NT to watch Tarlisa walk the runway.
“They were proud; my grandmother and my aunty and my father—he is my number one fan,” she says.
The impact of younger girls looking on is not lost on her. “I’m always around my little sister, and I think it’s really important to be a good role model,” says Tarlisa, who has two brothers and two sisters, of her youngest sibling. According to Liandra, she is: “She doesn’t stay out late, she’s sensible and always has been. I know that if Tarlisa is going to be there, then [her sisters] will be home when they’re supposed to be home,” she says smiling at her. “It’s probably just a part of your personality, but also I think Warren, her dad and her mum and her family, have played a part in that.”
‘When I was in primary school, we used to play dress up. That’s where it all started. I was nine or 10 years old’
Representing her family, but so, too, her culture in a moment of visibility: “It really means a lot to me.” For anyone doubting the power of that visibility, the effect of Tarlisa’s runway turn was immediate. “Where we come from, it’s a tiny little island of, I don’t know, 1,200 people or something,” says Liandra, “and the fact that Tarlisa was there to do that, I think just shows that all you have to do is be able to open the door a little bit for an opportunity, but you can also do that from anywhere in the world.” Young girls from Milingimbi began reaching out to Liandra immediately saying they’d love to model. “I was like, ‘One at a time!’” she says good naturedly.
Liandra notes here the other models coming out of Arnhem Land, from east to west: Magnolia Maymuru and Cindy Rostron, now Tarlisa. For the family it’s an acknowledgment of those who made the pathways that Tarlisa is treading—a big moment for both old and young generations. For the industry, it’s a reminder that big dreams build in every place. “When I was in primary school, we used to play dress up. That’s where it all started. I was nine or 10 years old,” reflects Tarlisa recounting an origin story typical of any future super talent. She wants to see where modelling takes her. She brings up New York as a destination on her list. For now, she just knows she loves it, something she says characteristically serenely. “I always wanted to be a model. Seeing all these photos and magazines …” The impact of her being that girl, a beauty not celebrated in this way until now, remains to be seen. No doubt it will transcend any country, and any distance.