ON A HOT October night under a blanket of stars twelve Aboriginal girls strut down a raised catwalk in Broome, vying to claim the title of Kimberley Girl. Behind them a big 'KG' sign flashes, and they move to the beat of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Local retailers sponsored the resort wear and evening dresses (there are no swimsuits in this parade). The girls have spent hours in hair and makeup, and two days rehearsing the choreography. The first walk is shaky: a wrong turn, a misstep, visible shyness, occasional tugging at a hem. The next time the girls find their stride: smiles, a sway of the hip, an elegant wave of the arm. A girl blows a kiss to a young fan. Even when the music stops suddenly due to an electrical problem, they do not falter.
Close to a thousand people have turned up to watch the Kimberley Girl final. At the front are young kids, little girls dressed in their best clothes. Some families have come from communities far away to see their daughters, sisters, mothers or aunts on stage. They are there to show support and to celebrate, enjoying the hype of an event they can call their own. Prior to the final there were three heats, in Fitzroy Crossing, Broome and Kununurra, but a third of the finalists are from much smaller communities.
In the packed VIP section, sponsors from Virgin Australia and Leighton Contractors sip beers and enjoy the show. Channel Seven executives, guests of supporter Kerry Stokes, fill a large table, while the event's patron, the designer Liz Davenport, circulates in an electric-blue gown. The mining companies are there too.
Midway through the event a multimedia presentation fills the stage, with stylish black and white portraits of the girls, and their pre-recorded voice-overs: 'I am from Halls Creek. I like fishing and swimming and hanging out with friends. If I win KG I want to be a role model to other young girls and teach them to get over the shame factor...' The crowd cheers each snapshot of personality and ambition.
It looks like a beauty pageant but there's more going on. Since 2004 Aboriginal women aged between sixteen and twenty-five have signed up for Kimberley Girl, a leadership program that culminates in the catwalk parade and modelling shoot. Kimberley Girl teaches job readiness - not just grooming, but confidence and public speaking, a chance to experiment with identity and imagine a different life. It is run by a Broome Aboriginal media organisation, Goolarri (the Yawuru word for west coast, 'where the red earth meets the blue sea'). As the Goolarri CEO, Jodie Bell, says, 'Kimberley Girl doesn't change lives; it does enable girls to see choices.'