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in loving memory of ‘search for a supermodel’

At the turn of the millennium, Search For a Supermodel promised to change the industry and discover the next wave of Australian talent. It didn’t, but it did change Australia.

by Wendy Syfret
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06 April 2017, 1:11am

In 2000, Search For a Supermodel premiered in Australia on channel 10. Over its three season run it would provide the nation with its first wonky look into the insular world of modelling, change the notion of "being discovered", and unearth the defining Australian beauty of a generation. The premise is now familiar, it's been reproduced across many years and franchises, selling interchangeable dreams of stardom. The contestants (girls for the first two seasons, mixed for the third) turned out to shopping malls and public halls around Australia to present their fresh faces to a panel of "industry experts," those who appeared to have potential were whisked out of suburbia to the bright lights of Melbourne, described repeatedly as Australia's fashion capital. There they would compete over several weeks, the stress and pressure forging them into a diamond model — perfect and indestructible. The winner would go on to represent Australia in the Ford Models' Supermodel of the World contest. Win that and you took home a $250,000 modelling contract. Basically it was a national beauty pageant, with longer limbs and better haircuts.

By now this sounds familiar to us, we've seen it a thousand times thanks to later, more successful, versions of the formula. The most notable example is of course the international Next Top Model juggernaut, but it would also serve as an early example of a coming wave of reality TV contents. American Idol, Master Chef and The Voice would all follow the same path of tracking from big cities to regional outposts in the quest for something exceptional and undiscovered.

But the lingering magic of SFASM, and why we implore you to remember it, is because it came about during a time that fans of reality TV now hold as sacred. Before we'd all binged on endless series that pitted wide-eyed hopefuls against each other, carefully selecting and editing in eternal archetypes — the villain, the victim, the underdog, the darling. 

A 2001 TV promo for the show.

Now we know how it works, shows like UnReal and Burning Love even parody it, but in these early years something really special can be found. Especially in a show that largely mined the secret dreams of teenage girls. This was a time when producers were only waking up to the reality that real life could make great TV, and early subjects — sorry contestants — were naive enough to be truly engrossing.

Today you can point a camera at anyone and assume they have some understanding of how to act on screen. You don't need to be a TV prodigy, we've steadily consumed this kind of content for a decade, and our diet has left us with a tolerance to it. Your mum's accountant knows not to cry on camera, talk trash to a producer, say something cruel "off the record" or leave your hopes anywhere high enough for them to be dashed on air.

But at the turn of the last century, no one had binged watched seasons of America's Next Top Model, Make Me a Supermodel, The Agency, The Janice Dickinson Modeling Agency, A Model Life or The Face, absorbing how to move, talk and deliver a punchy line to the camera. Contestants are candid and open in a way no one will ever be on TV again.

Rewatching grainy snippets of it on YouTube today, you're struck by how green these model hopefuls are, it's equally sweet and gut wrenching.

A teenage Gemma Ward in a suburban heat of the contest.

As the camera pans the endless line of teenagers it's impossible to notice they don't look like the kinds of kids you'd expect to step forward to fight for a quarter million dollar modelling contract. Some are tall and willowy, most aren't. As they wait patiently, holding their sign up sheets or while their friends pin a number to their back, you remember how out of style waiting to be discovered has become and how much has changed in half a generation.

Today future Caras know it's about so much more than a look. They're creating online identities so elevated brands are clamouring to name them as a muse. Stars like Barbie Ferreira, Slick Woods and Blondey McCoy made themselves into the product for sale. These kids haven't been raised on clips of Gigi joking around on Instagram, demonstrating how to effect their own take on natural candour. The contestants are candid but they're not at ease, they're direct, hopeful and totally open. 

In 2000 when the show started, the fashion world was far away. The only portal to it, for your average Australian teenager, was an expensive and heavy glossy magazine that would weigh down your schoolbag and cost a week's canteen money. No where is this more apparent than in 2002 when a judge asked a baby Nicole Trunfio why she entered the contest. To pause for a moment of context, Trunfio would go on to win her season, model for literally every major international fashion house and become one of the country's biggest fashion exports. But before all that began she admitted to the judge she just wanted to go to Italy. Not to walk in Milan fashion week — although she would, for five years straight — but to visit her Italian grandmother, she couldn't really manage the cost of flights alone. 

But the show's biggest find is undoubtedly Gemma Ward, who was picked out of the crowd to try out. She didn't originally intend to compete, she was there supporting friends, but her alien beauty caught the first of many industry eyes. Ironically, in that Perth shopping centre her extreme, new look didn't work in her favour. She didn't make it past the local heats. When asked on camera if she'd try modelling again she admits probably not, it had never crossed her mind until now.

A 2000 TV spot for the show's first season.

It's funny to think of those judges almost catching Gemma, struggling to understand what they had. We can now enjoy the scene ironically, knowing her specific allure would go on to become a signature of the decade, she would join the ranks of wide eyed dolls to define the look at the 2000s. But just as Gemma was about to set into motion a new stage in beauty history, the show was also starting to change things for Australians watching at home.

These early contestants might not have had 23 cycles of America's Next Top Model to mould them into the perfect contestant, but they soon worked out the personality was more than a marginal factor. Watching it at home, it was soon evident to even the most starry-eyed pre-teen that the judges might have been looking for faces, but the producers were looking for stories. There were the tomboys who didn't own hair brushes, the pageant stars who thought they were perfect, the girls the boys liked who the industry didn't and the villains who tended to continue to get by, despite not excelling, because they made great TV. We already knew personality could mark the difference between a great, and a super, model. But here it first became apparent that it could also deliver the kind of head start that perfect looks couldn't guarantee alone. 

Obsessing over Search For a Supermodel as a teenager, it all seemed so glamorous. Even the title promised huge things — it literally stated the winner would be more than famous, they'd be iconic. And while it did provide a starting point for a handful of Australian success stories — Pia Miller, Kate Peck, Tiah Delaney also make appearances — its legacy wouldn't end up being famous faces.

Before this show, modeling was a foreign country. To be "discovered" meant that you were more than exceptional, you were exceptionally lucky. You needed to be physically perfect, in the right place at the right time, just as the right person walked past, and realised you were just right for them to scout and whisk away to this dreamy new world.

But in 2000, this admittedly kind of cheesy Australian reality TV show suggested otherwise. For the first time it suggested, maybe you could make your own luck. Maybe you didn't need to wait until someone walked past, maybe you could stand in their way.

Credits


Text Wendy Syfret
Screengrabs via YouTube