Portrait

The Murri teenager who has set her sights on becoming Australia’s Next Top Model. By Melissa Lucashenko.

Model Indigenous role model Guyala Bayles

On the back deck of her Brisbane family home, Guyala Bayles is quietly confident about becoming Australia’s newest modelling sensation. “They said they were looking for someone a bit different, looking for a new Samantha Harris. And I just thought, ‘Well, bring it on, this is my time to shine.’ ”

Bayles is 16, a Murri teenager. Like her pop, land rights legend Uncle Tiga Bayles, and like her much younger brother Quaden, Guyala is supremely comfortable in the public gaze. Just as well. She is a contestant on the upcoming Australia’s Next Top Model.

As we sit down to talk, her in denim cutoffs and a cotton singlet, family members busy themselves in the summer heat. One aunt is chopping fruit salad for Tiga’s birthday party that afternoon. Another hoses a clutch of kids on the lawn below. The fine silver necklace around Guyala’s neck reads “Sweet Sixteen”, and I get the distinct sense, seated centrally among the ebb and flow, that Guyala is a Birri Gubba–Kungalu princess in waiting.

With long, loose limbs, flashing brown eyes and cinnamon skin, it’s easy to see why the camera loves this girl. Heads turn in the street. She’s heard the classic racist line more than once: Oh, you’re too pretty to be Aboriginal. Still reviled by some for being different – skin “too dark”, lips “too full”, hair “too curly” – Aboriginal women are at the same time often seen as easy targets by predatory men. All Indigenous women know this. Yet Guyala expects only the best from life. 

“I’ve grown up my whole life with my mum, my aunties and my pop all telling me not to be shame, that the power is within us as Aboriginal people. Aunty Mook always said: ‘Nobody can make you feel the way you don’t want to feel. You can make your own tracks.’ ”

Positivity and confidence burst from Guyala, but her early life in Redfern and Kempsey was anything but easy. Her mum, Yarraka, coped for years with the trauma of domestic violence by turning to hard drugs. “I thought I was being discreet,” she tells me frankly, sitting beside her daughter. “I thought that the kids didn’t know, but they knew. Then a mate asked for a lift somewhere one Christmas Eve – my car was chock-full of grog and drugs for the holidays – and it turned out to be to an NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meeting. I’ve never looked back.”

Yarraka escaped the violence and addiction, but other family members didn’t. “I remember hearing the sirens one day,” Guyala says, “and seeing a body on a stretcher, the legs sticking out, and thinking, ‘Oh, God, another poor fella’s gone and OD’d.’ It was the third time I’d seen that in Redfern, but I didn’t find out ’til later on it was my own aunty. She took us to the beach just the day before. I was six years old. Devastating.”

Guyala danced at the funeral. “It put my mind at ease, dancing for Aunty one last time. And I knew she wasn’t going through pain anymore. She used to try to OD and when they’d bring her back she’d go off at them. But she’s at rest now. And you know, those hard times have made me the person I am today.” 

In 2010 Guyala’s mum moved back to Brisbane, to be closer to the mob. “I’d rather be in Redfern, but family’s gotta come first,” Yarraka tells me. Enrolled in a school with a diverse population of refugee children – “the only school I’ve ever felt at home in” – Guyala became captain of the touch football team and made a lot of friends. Then disaster struck again: over an 18-month period she was hospitalised 10 times. “The first time, I woke at midnight with excruciating pain – it literally felt like being stabbed.” A wheelchair on the deck that I had assumed was Uncle Tiga’s turns out to be Guyala’s, left over from her ordeal. “It used to be incredible. I’d black out from the pain.” After 18 months with multiple tests and still no diagnosis, only a change of diet has helped. “No wheat, no dairy, no sugar. I’ve lost about five kilos, and that probably helped me with the auditions in the end…” Yarraka chips in here to say that only the intense focus on body size bothers her about her daughter’s nascent career.

We wonder aloud about the fashion industry – the anorexia issue, whether they still want living blonde Barbie dolls. Guyala has already received friendly professional advice not to reveal her Aboriginality if she wants to make it as an Australian model; advice she snorts at. 

Hers is a large family of women, but five years ago Quaden arrived, a new little brother for Guyala and her non-identical twin sister, Lily. At three days old, the hospital told the family that their new son had achondroplasia, the condition commonly known as dwarfism. In shock, they took him home.

“At first we all kind of wanted to hide it. It was hard to take in, let alone be proud. But then…” In typical Bayles fashion, Yarraka decided to not just embrace her son’s disability but to change the world for him. Today Quaden is the international face of Stand Tall 4 Dwarfism. He has been on TV in Australia and around the world.

Guyala laughs as she tells me how her brother reacted to her success in the modelling audition, and the attention she has been getting since. “He goes to me, ‘Oh, are you going to be famous now, sis?’ Like, a bit put out, cos he really likes being the centre of attention, you know.” 

Quaden had better get used to sharing the limelight, I think to myself, packing up to go. Guyala apologises for not walking me out when I leave, and I assure her it’s fine. The seven-week-old nephew she has held nestled on her chest for the past hour is still fast asleep. “No problem,” I tell her, understanding the unspoken Murri rules. “Family first.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 14, 2015 as "Model role model". Subscribe here.

Melissa Lucashenko
is a Goorie writer who lives in Brisbane.

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