Story transcripts

The It-girl: Gemma Ward

Sunday, September 24, 2006
Reporter: Peter Overton
Producer: Alex Hodgkinson

Her name is Gemma Ward and she's our brightest fashion star since Elle Macpherson.

The 15-year-old tomboy from Perth was plucked from suburbia and transformed into a supermodel, almost overnight.

Peter Overton reveals how she made millions by the ripe old age of 18 and still manages to stay warm, sane and natural, too.


MAKE-UP ARTIST #1: Close your eyes. Are you done spraying?


PETER OVERTON: What are you being transformed into today?

GEMMA WARD: Um ... not quite sure.

PETER OVERTON: In a New York studio, Australia's Gemma Ward is busy preparing for Italian Vogue. This is the strange world of very high fashion, where, curiously, it's not so much about the clothes, but who's wearing them. The model they most want is Gemma. But refreshingly, underneath the froth of haute couture, lies a smart Perth tomboy, who never dreamt she'd be living this existence.

GEMMA WARD: I know what I like to look like and that's a bit more scruffy, but I don't know if that's how everyone in the industry sees me, so ...

PETER OVERTON: Well, I've heard your look is out of this world. It's alien. But it's "It".


PETER OVERTON: You comfortable with all of that?

GEMMA WARD: Yeah. Yeah.

PETER OVERTON: A regular work day for Gemma requires a degree of commitment and precision worlds away from most 18-year-olds. Thirty minutes after today's shoot, with mum by her side, Gemma is scrubbed, packed and boarding a helicopter for a dash across New York City on the way to her next job in London. Can you believe it, the schoolgirl from Perth now jetting between New York and London, one of the world's top models?

GEMMA WARD: Not really. I mean, it's funny 'cause I never really get a chance to just sit back and think about it, because my life is so go, go, go and I would never ever have guessed that I would be here, but I'm extremely, extremely blessed.

PETER OVERTON: Gemma's career began at the very top, with the fashion house Prada in Milan. It was an unprecedented rise and a most accidental one. A doctor's daughter, the second of four children, Gemma was the family clown whose ambition was acting.

YOUNGER GEMMA WARD: This is the place where I'm going to live and have my children.

PETER OVERTON: At 15 she was nagged into entering a modelling competition she was watching in Perth, her friends forging her mother's signature to get her on stage.

GEMMA WARD: I just couldn't stop laughing, I just felt so out of place. I felt like there was no way in hell that ... that, you know, I looked right among all these people. And I didn't — I didn't want it like the other girls. But in the end, it was quite a funny kind of thing and it opened a lot of doors for me, and you know ...

PETER OVERTON: Opened a lot of doors? It changed your life in the most extraordinary way.

GEMMA WARD: Yeah. Yeah, it did. It did. Those friends still ask if they can get commission, but I'm like 'No'.

PETER OVERTON: I bet they ask.


PETER OVERTON: Gemma didn't win that competition, but a spotter from leading modelling agency Vivien's saw her potential and made a show reel.

DAVID CUNNINGHAM: Look how confident she is. I mean, she looks like she's been doing this for years, and she's a 15-year-old kid walking in an alleyway in Perth.

PETER OVERTON: It landed on the desk of ace model scout David Cunningham from the New York agency IMG.

DAVID CUNNINGHAM: You come across a girl like Gemma very, very rarely and that's why it's so exciting for us because it really is — people say needle in a haystack, and obviously there's a lot of models that are currently working that are great models. But somebody like Gemma that really has the full package, that there's just — there's nothing to reproach her on.

PETER OVERTON: She's a supermodel?

DAVID CUNNINGHAM: She's a supermodel, for sure.

PETER OVERTON: A schoolgirl from Perth?

DAVID CUNNINGHAM: Yes. Absolutely.

PETER OVERTON: To convince young Gemma to move to New York, David had some very fast talking to do to her parents, particularly mother Claire — a nurse and not easily wooed.

CLAIRE WARD: I mean, I fretted when my children went to school, so you know, leaving your child in New York — and she is a child, she was a child — you know, with people that I'd really only met briefly ... Although I did feel very comfortable that she was very well taken care of and they weren't mercenary in the fact that they were just using her for, you know, a money-making object.

PETER OVERTON: What were you being told by the senior people at your agency after a week in New York? Were you being told that you will go to the top, you have everything in front of you?

GEMMA WARD: It was all up to me and I wasn't being pushed and I wasn't, you know, being told that I would, you know, even achieve the things that I have. I was just told that, you know, there was a lot of interest, and there were — places they were telling me, 'You also have a job in Paris and you have a job here,' and I was, 'I wouldn't mind going to Paris, so, you know, maybe I should take a chance'.

PETER OVERTON: Gemma joined a little gang of Western Australian models doing exceptionally well in New York. With their sunny dispositions, Perth girls are currently the world's top pick for model scouts. The pack includes Nicole Trunfio, Pania Rose, and Amy Finlayson.

AMY FINLAYSON: It's got me, New York, like it has that affect on people and I mean, it's New York City — New York City.

PETER OVERTON: What did Frank Sinatra say?


PETER OVERTON: If you make it here …

AMY FINLAYSON: You can make it anywhere.

PETER OVERTON: It's a cutthroat business, full of beautiful girls competing for the same job. When she's not working, Amy Finlayson's days are spent at castings, up against the ruthless best from Eastern Europe. I could imagine rejection would be — we all know, it's difficult to take.

AMY FINLAYSON: Yeah, it is.

PETER OVERTON: And you could drown in it.

AMY FINLAYSON: Yeah, well, you could. But we like to stay positive.

PETER OVERTON: Are there temptations out there that you see — drugs, parties, pressure from men?

AMY FINLAYSON: To be honest, that is a big side of things, but you know, you have to keep reminding yourself that you are here to do your job, you know. Like, I've flown halfway across the world and if you lose sight of that, then, yeah, you can get wrapped up in that partying, the drugs, the guys, whatever, but you just have to keep sane and not lose the vision of living here and modelling here, which is what I came to do so ...

PETER OVERTON: You're not going to blow it?

AMY FINLAYSON: No, not going to blow it. Definitely not.

PETER OVERTON: After nearly a year in the Big Apple and loving it, 18-year-old Amy's dream is to be as rich and famous as her friend Gemma. When you look at Gemma, do you revel in her success or do you envy her success?

AMY FINLAYSON: A bit of both. There's a bit of envy there, but I mean, she's my friend, she's a really good friend of mine, so I'm incredibly happy for her. She's worked to get where she is and she works really hard, so good for her.

GEMMA WARD: This street reminds me of Paris quite a bit.

PETER OVERTON: Be it in Paris, New York, Shanghai or on London's swanky Bond Street, look up and Gemma Ward's image is there. So who's that young woman in the window?

GEMMA WARD: That's me.

PETER OVERTON: She's the much-desired face of everything that's highly fashionable and highly expensive.

GEMMA WARD: I guess I do kind of disassociate myself with, you know, the end product.

PETER OVERTON: You can't take your eyes off her.

GEMMA WARD: No, I love the outfit. I'm, like, thinking, 'How am I gonna get that one?'

PETER OVERTON: You wouldn't know it by how relaxed she is, but from the moment she gets out of bed, Gemma's life is tightly orchestrated. Planned to the minute, the schedule of the world's most in-demand model is most exhausting.

HAIR STYLIST: Gemma, your hair's very, very ratty today.

GEMMA WARD: Yeah, I know. Well, you told me not to touch it, so I didn't.

PETER OVERTON: Today is a normal sort of day that begins with four hours of hair and make-up preparing for British 'Vogue', and that's before she sorts out what to wear. How on earth do you wear those? That is the most impractical shoe I have ever seen.

GEMMA WARD: We had to wear these in the show.

PETER OVERTON: And you could walk in them?

GEMMA WARD: Yeah. Nobody fell, but we had to do a lot of practice.

PETER OVERTON: For a shoot that will stretch into the night, she takes all the fuss and bother in her ample stride. I don't think you'd do good diva.

GEMMA WARD: No, I don't think I could ever be a diva. But we'll see, you never know.

PETER OVERTON: Oh, please don't. I bet you've seen some, though?

GEMMA WARD: Yeah. I'm not going to tell you.

PETER OVERTON: But what shocked you most about their antics?

GEMMA WARD: You know, I've seen them snatch make-up from the make-up artist's hands and redoing it and, you know, just wanting everything tailored to them. It's very strange to me, because it's teamwork.

PETER OVERTON: The youngest newcomer on Australia's rich list, in three years Gemma's become a multimillionaire. Now tell me, I've heard figures like she's already earned US$10 million.

CLAIRE WEBB: Well, I think that's — I think people really have no idea about how much models earn. I mean, that's not accurate. But she's certainly not — she's certainly earning a reasonable amount of money.

PETER OVERTON: Not crying poor?


PETER OVERTON: It's a family business. Claire Ward travels with Gemma whenever she can. They are a tight clan and a beautiful one. Sister Sophie also models and her twin brothers made a recent guest appearance alongside Gemma. How is she coping?

CLAIRE WARD: She's a remarkable woman, really. She is. I have seen her go through the hardest times emotionally, because she gets terribly homesick, obviously, and she has incredible energy to get through really tough times sometimes. But she knows that she's supported. I think that helps.

PETER OVERTON: With the most desired look in fashion, millions in the bank, an army of fans and her feet still on the ground, it's been an incredible way to grow up.

FEMALE FAN: Can I have a photo with you, Gemma?

GEMMA WARD: Yeah, sure.

PETER OVERTON: And if it did all end tomorrow, Gemma is one young woman smart enough to recognise it's been a fantastic run. Your whole outlook is, I suppose, so different to so many young women who — it's a battle, it's do or die — 'If I don't get this, I'm ...'

GEMMA WARD: I don't think I could have handled it if I felt like it was a win or lose or, you know, a fail or succeed type of situation. And I am proud of myself not only because of what, you know, the heights that I've managed to get to, but also because of the way that I've kept myself very true to myself.

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