“If you’d have told me five years ago, when I was a student just down the road, that I would be the ambassador for Melbourne Fashion Week (MFW), I wouldn’t have believed you,” Ayesha Madon says.
The actor and musician – and this year’s official MFW envoy – caught the attention of TV fans with her lead role as Amerie Wadia in Netflix’s reboot of the classic ’90s Australian teen drama Heartbreak High. The show went down well with audiences: it remained in the streamer’s top 10 shows in Australia for five consecutive weeks and reached the top 10 in 43 other countries, too.
“As a creative, I always have low expectations in terms of response, so to have this reaction came as a massive shock,” Madon tells Broadsheet. “It sounds generic, but I just feel overwhelming gratitude.”
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After graduating from Southbank’s Victorian College of the Arts in 2018 with a degree in musical theatre, being cast in the hit series was a combination of having a (good) agent, years of auditioning and “somehow getting lucky”, Madon explains.
Taking cues from the original show – which explored topics that were brave for its time such as teen sex and racial identity – the contemporary take focuses on weighty themes around gender, sexuality, consent, mental health and police brutality. The show also prioritises diversity, with a nuanced depiction of underrepresented communities, in terms of ethnicity, gender and disability.
As a South Asian-Australian woman in a lead role, Madon talks a lot about her appreciation of the show’s authentic representation of diverse experiences. “For many people of colour, they are a person of colour at home and then, when [they step outside] they’re not really – they are assimilating and code-switching and trying to fit the mould,” she says.
The feeling of having to “mask” your cultural identity is something Madon and her character Amerie have in common. It’s a point that prompted reflection for the actor during prep for the role. “I love that [the portrayal] doesn’t have to be another Indian kid trying to study,” she says. “The show lets us just be Brown and exist without always having to address [the topic of race].”
Ideas around social class, gender and sexuality inform much of the show’s fashion and costuming – another feature of the series. Fusing ’90s nostalgia with gen Z aesthetics, it’s a celebration of unapologetic self-expression, the rejection of mainstream trends and a showcase for diverse Australian designers.
While her character’s style is sporty (Amerie loves a statement pant), Madon’s off-screen looks are more “gender non-conforming, edgy and ever-evolving”, she says. “I go through phases very quickly, so one day I’ll be wearing baggy clothes and the next I’ll be hyperfem.” The singer-songwriter’s current phase? Tracksuit tops and pants as she works on writing her next upbeat tunes.
When she’s not opting for loungewear, the actor’s go-to brands include Melbourne-based labels such as Perple, Erik Yvon and Strateas Carlucci, as well as First Nations designers like Ginny’s Girl Gang and Clair Helen – many of them showcasing on the official schedule of this year’s MFW.
The Student Collections Runway, featuring the innovative work of a new wave of designers, is also a big draw, she says. “It’s like catching geniuses at the beginning of their journey.”
While we won’t see Madon walking down any MFW catwalks, she’s looking forward to cheering on from the sidelines and celebrating a move towards greater representation in Australian fashion. “I want to see someone’s nuanced experience through their art,” she says. “The only way you can have interesting work, in my opinion, is by diversifying the creatives.”
This article first appeared in Domain Review, in partnership with Broadsheet.
Want to discover the full MFW program? Read here.