It’s another blissful weekday at Bondi Beach. Beneath clear, sunny skies, backpackers and tourists laze on the sand or stroll on the promenade with ice-creams. Surfers and swimmers bob about in the ocean and children build sandcastles at the water’s edge. But there is someone working amid this seaside idyll. Hands on hips, with her enviable figure poured into a Josh Goot bodysuit, Jessica Gomes expertly swivels her body this way and that as she poses for her Sunday Life cover shoot.
With her exotic beauty – her mother is Chinese and her father is Portuguese – it’s no surprise that Gomes has worked with some of the best in the business. Vogue, Glamour, Italian GQ and Teen Vogue – she’s done them all. Her campaigns include Victoria’s Secret, Adidas, Gap and DKNY Denim, but she’s best known for her six appearances in the famous swimsuit edition of Sports Illustrated.
But rather than the fellow glamazons Gomes is used to working with, her companions on today’s shoot are some boisterous nippers from the North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club. It’s probably the first time they have been snapped with a famous model, but you wouldn’t know it as they play up confidently for the camera until the photographer declares the shoot a wrap. “They were so cute and funny, and it’s been so good shooting on the beach. It’s definitely been a tough day at the office,” Gomes, 28, quips.
Life is good for her right now. She just shot an Estée Lauder campaign and filmed a commercial with tennis ace Serena Williams for a headphones brand. She also has a role in a feature film, which will be out in July, and later this month will strut her stuff on the runway at the autumn-winter collections launch for David Jones, the company for which she is an ambassador. “I feel like I’m riding a wave at the moment,” she says. “I’m doing everything I wanted to do and it feels like a magical time.”
Life hasn’t always been this charmed. Growing up in Perth as the youngest of four children in a mixed-race family, Gomes was subject to racist taunts in the playground at primary school. “I was teased a lot because there weren’t many Eurasian or Asian girls where I grew up,” she says.
She’s not the first model to have been bullied. Mannequins in the making are usually all gangly limbs and awkwardness as youngsters, but as Gomes says, bullying can happen to any child. “All young kids can be like that, and I think every young model has been teased,” she says. “But I’m glad that I had a hard time in school, because it made me want to distance myself from that by doing something different.”
In a bid to boost her daughter’s confidence, Gomes’s mother Pay Yuen enrolled her in a deportment course. “I wasn’t socialising with any of my peers and Mum wanted me to make some friends,” she says. Not only did Gomes make friends, including enduring besties in fellow Perth models Gemma Ward and Nicole Trunfio, she went on to forge a stellar career.
The daughter of a bricklayer and a nurse, Gomes credits her parents for the highly disciplined work ethic she applies to every job. “They’ve always told me to believe in your dreams and go for it, that it doesn’t matter where you are from, you can achieve whatever you want to achieve so long as you work hard.”
Of course, there is also that face. Gomes has changed into denim cut-offs and a white shirt, and is sitting with not so much as a skerrick of make-up on a vinyl chair in the North Bondi surf club. And she is gorgeous. Her almond eyes, angular cheekbones and pale caramel skin make for a beguiling cocktail that is as singular as it is stunning.
Kathy Ward, director of Chic Management, says, “As soon as we saw her, we could see that beauty in her created by the different cultural backgrounds of her mother and father. Her appeal is unique and it’s really hard to pick which country she is from, which makes her appeal to a broader market.”
David Jones identified this when it signed Gomes last year as part of a pitch to appeal to a population that has changed significantly over the department store’s 175-year history. She is a marked departure from the blonde ambassadors of the past such as Maureen Duval and Lauren Hutton.
“Our customer base has grown and evolved and today is representative of Australia’s proud multicultural heritage,” says David Jones chief executive Paul Zahra. “Jessica is the embodiment of multicultural society. That makes her relatable and someone that our customers identify with.”
But forging a living based on looks comes with its own pitfalls. Gomes, a curvy size 8, found initial success as a swimsuit model precisely because of her bikini-suited proportions. But catwalk models are generally taller and have a smaller frame – as Gomes discovered when she became the subject of snide remarks about her weight following her debut on the David Jones catwalk last July. One male guest reportedly said, “You’d think she would have gone to the gym before the show.” Another was reportedly overheard asking, “Can you see her stretch marks?”
Gomes, who found the criticism “a bit full-on”, took to Instagram shortly afterwards to post a racy image of her slender, toned figure. Touché.
“The nature of the industry is that models are always going to be judged on their weight and appearance, so in a way I always knew that was going to happen,” says Gomes. “But looking back on it now, it doesn’t really bother me. Some people are going to love you and some people are going to hate you. You’ve just got to be happy with yourself.”
Easier said than done for many women, not just Gomes. “I have to be very careful with how I speak about weight, because it’s a touchy subject with all women,” she says. “I’m always mindful of what I’m saying about [body image], and I’m a person who tries to stay positive.”
That positive attitude was tested again when the media reported the model’s split from her longtime boyfriend, Melbourne property developer Sebastian Drapac, in November last year, then falsely linked her romantically with her fellow David Jones ambassador Jason Dundas just two weeks later.
These days, Gomes is based in Los Angeles and happily single. When she’s not working, she relaxes by visiting farmers’ markets, hanging out with buddies and living a healthy lifestyle that is decidedly more LA than WA. “I love training with my trainer, going for a hike and making my own juices,” she says.
With Hollywood at her doorstep, it’s perhaps no surprise that Gomes’s next move is into the film industry. Apart from going to acting classes and securing a role in an upcoming film, of which she says, “I can’t speak much about it, but it’s really great and it’s being released in July” – she is preparing for a larger role in London. “I’d love to do more films, because for me it seems the natural progression and I would love to expand my horizons.”
As the sun dips lower, it’s time for Gomes to meet her Australian agent and a fellow David Jones ambassador for dinner at Icebergs restaurant up the road. She invites me along for a drink – that’s the kind of friendly and easygoing person she is – and her driver picks us up for the short trip around the corner.
We take a seat on the balcony and order Aperol spritz cocktails all round. Gomes has barely taken a sip from hers before she jumps up, grabs her Chanel tote and rushes over to two women at a nearby table. “I’ve got your swimsuit in my bag,” she tells them, handing over a grey print bikini. “I just wore it on a Sports Illustrated shoot.”
The women are young Australian swimwear designers and Gomes has remembered them from a brief meeting overseas. They are visibly thrilled, and there are group photographs and hugs all round before Gomes returns to her drink. “I knew I recognised them,” she says.
Her global recognition would lend itself to an entrepreneurial role, in the tradition of models such as Elle Macpherson and Gisele Bündchen, who have built significant business empires around their personal brands. She has spent time around music entrepreneurs, including Jay-Z, for whom she’s recorded voiceovers, P. Diddy (she was the face of his Unforgivable fragrance in 2007) and Kanye West, who mentions Gomes by name on his track Christian Dior Denim Flow.
“I would love to have my own business,” says Gomes. “I love that models are now becoming brands, so naturally it’s the next step for me, too. It’s just the right timing and the right product and collaboration; I feel it will come and I don’t want to rush anything.”
For now, she’s content to relax with another sip of her cocktail and soak up the sunset views. “This is so perfect,” she says. “Australia really is a sanctuary, a beautiful island so far from the rest of the world. In all my travels I’ve realised we’ve got such a great quality of life here.”
I notice a delicate tattoo on her arm. “It’s my dad’s nickname from his village in Portugal and my mother’s Chinese name,” she says. “When Mum moved to Australia she decided to get an English name and she chose Jenny. But I said, ‘Mum, having an Oriental name is cool now, so you should bring it back.’ And she did – she’s Pay Yuen now. That’s cool.”
Photography: Trevor King.
Fashion editor: Penny McCarthy.
Hair: Brad Mullins for O&M.
Make-up: Charlie Kielty for NARS at Mecca Cosmetica.
Styling assistant: Thea Roberts-Thomson.
All clothing from David Jones, davidjones.com.au.
Surfboard from Surf Empire, surfempire.com.
Thanks to North Bondi Surf Life Saving Club; facebook.com/NorthBondiSLSC