Maggie Tabberer, 79
DISCOVERED AT AGE 14 at a family wedding, Margaret May Tabberer was working as a department-store model in Adelaide in the ’50s when the greatest creative influence of her life, photographer Helmut Newton, intervened.
Tall, broad-shouldered and in possession of a sophisticated look and remarkable almond eyes, Tabberer, then 23 and married to first husband Charles, would move to Melbourne and become a fixture at Newton’s studio after the photographer persuaded Charles that his much-younger wife could make a lot of money modelling.
Newton, a German-born Jew who had been interned in Australia by the British Army in 1940, would go on to become one of the world’s greatest fashion photographers – and Margaret May Tabberer, formerly Trigar, would, along the way, become Newton’s lover and a household name: “Maggie T”.
“I was very gifted because Helmut met me and said, ‘Come to the studio every morning.’ And of course that’s what I did – I didn’t have an agent, I just went there,” said Tabberer. “Whatever he was shooting, I was shooting. It was a very great introduction because he knew so much. He’d worked in Europe and he was a Vogue darling and had all the big accounts of the day.
“I just soaked it all up. Not just how to stand to please him, or how to look – but how to contribute and have a say about what I thought and gradually, gradually, gradually he taught me. I have to give him a lot of credit. He was very patient with me.”
When Newton quit Australia for Europe to reinvent fashion photography at French Vogue in the early ’60s, he invited Tabberer to go with him – but, “I couldn’t go to Paris! I had two little girls, two babies. I couldn’t just go,” says Tabberer. “And I never wonder what could have been if I had – I didn’t do too badly here after all.”
In truth, Tabberer did incredibly well and would pioneer a new professional calling – that of Australian celebrity model.
Within four years of being dubbed 1960’s Model of the Year, Tabberer was showing the nation she was as bright and plucky as she was beautiful, on television’s Beauty And The Beast.
Newly separated from Charles, there would soon be no stopping her.
Before the decade was out, she had her own daily television chat show, Maggie, for which she won Gold Logies in 1970 and 1971.
Along with Newton, other fashion contemporaries of her day included New Zealand-born couturier Clarence Hall Ludlow, who became a dear friend; Melbourne salon owner Lil Wightman, of Le Louvre; model Margaret Hibble, another favourite of Newton’s with whom Tabberer was often photographed; and catwalk queen Diane Masters.
Tabberer can’t recall her first pay cheque as a ’50s model but says, “In my mind it was an absolute fortune.
“I was the sole breadwinner then – with two little girls to support and a husband to feed,” she says. “He [her husband] sort of blackmailed me that way, because he knew it would be too difficult to work and look after the children. He figured I’d have to put an end to the modelling… so I just got a very good nanny.”
Media opportunities followed – most notably with The Australian Women’s Weekly, where Tabberer became fashion editor in 1981. That same year, she launched her own fashion label, Maggie T, with which she is still associated, although no longer, at 79, engaged in the day-to-day business.
Tabberer is concerned for the young models of today – some of whom, she once remarked, are so painfully emaciated, they look as if they should go directly from the catwalk to the hospital. Had she been born later, a modelling career would have held less appeal.
“There have been too many sad cases in recent times, and I was never a waif,” she says. “My shape – big boobs, long gams and no waist after my babies came along – would not have suited these times. These girls have to be super-slim, and that, frankly, doesn’t much appeal to me. I’ve never been much of an imitator.”