JESSIE Lee Hultgren credits her country upbringing for helping in the tough modelling game, writes JOHANNA LEGGATT
Jessie Lee Hultgren was hoping for an easy one. Something lofty about world peace, or why she would make a fine ambassador for the competition, would have been ideal.
Instead the question she drew from the beauty pageant goldfish bowl touched on the thorny issue of religious tolerance.
“I was asked about my opinion on women not wearing bikinis because of their religion,’’ Jessie guffaws.
“Which was tough. But I answered it pretty well, saying it was the woman’s choice and we need to respect that.’’
It certainly didn’t do her any harm, with Jessie claiming the sash at the World Supermodel Pageant in Fiji late last year.
The win comes on the back of a stellar couple of years for Jessie, who has just returned from living in Perth for two years, where she worked for Vivien’s Model Management and walked the runway at Perth Fashion Week.
She also worked in TV commercials, modelled lingerie and featured in catalogues.
While living in Perth, Jessie flew back to Melbourne to be a grid girl at the F1 Grand Prix, and perform the role of hostess at the Melbourne Cup and the Australian Open, where she would meet and greet clients in the exclusive marquees.
But for someone who has fallen in love with modelling so wholeheartedly it is surprising to discover it was a path Jessie almost didn’t take. She grew up on a small property in Healesville, in the Yarra Valley, with her parents, numerous horses, cows and her two sisters.
It was a bucolic childhood, filled with afternoons catching yabbies at the dam and long horse rides. The family cut hay and trained and sold horses in between running their homemade pie business, Okka Pies.
"When people talk about their childhoods they talk about different TV shows, but I talk about packing a picnic lunch and going down the back to build cubby houses," she says.
"I think my childhood was quite different to others. It was a very good childhood, very healthy, we never wanted for more."
Modelling, horse riding and ballet all beckoned at one point. Jessie was training three times a week on scholarship at a city ballet school, competing at dressage and toying with the idea of modelling. Her mum sent in a bundle of photos of Jessie in to a magazine modelling competition, and the family received a call from an agency that was keen to meet her.
But at 16 Jessie was in a car accident, which put a temporary halt to her dreams."I suffered spinal injuries and was told that I wasn’t to wear heels or run again," she says.
"In the end I started to run, even though I was told not to, but I figured I was unhappy and I knew what was going to make me happy.
"I still have days when my back hurts and I am in a lot of pain, but at the end of the day I can either sit and be miserable or I can make things happen, because either way I will feel the same pain."
The decision to get fit and keep active despite her injuries flowed in to other areas of her life.
"I got to about 21, and I was working in office administration and I remember being quite miserable at my desk and I thought, ‘Now or never’,' she recalls.
"I quit my job and decided to become a model full-time."
The successful run of modelling jobs eventually followed – including the prestigious World Supermodel title – but the period was not without tragedy.
Jessie may have been living her dream of working as a model, but the Black Saturday bushfires have left a deep scar on her life.
“I remember seeing embers fall in the pool, and it was happening so quickly,’’ she says. Fortunately, the family had been preparing for the fire for years, and were well placed with fire pumps, a dam near the home and sprinklers on the eaves.
“We were pretty much putting out fires for a week. We hardly slept and just lived on chocolate, because we didn’t have time to prepare meals. Apparently that was quite common.
The main thing was we saved the house and the animals, and we were all safe." The fires left Jessie all the more determined to pursue modelling, because "life is too short to have regrets".
At 170cm, she is on the short side for a model, but says her work ethic means she is rarely short of jobs. "A lot of girls will turn up to shoots and they will be difficult," she says.
"Seeing my parents run their own business I understand how important it is that the business achieves what they want to achieve, and my job is to help them sell that product.
"My dad said to me, ‘You’re being paid on your job, so if you have swept the floors and there is nothing else to do then you sweep them again’."
As for the future, Jessie is aware there is a time limit to modelling, and hopes to branch out into personal training. She has also had numerous offers to model for risque lads’ mags, but has politely declined.
"My favourite saying is, ‘Keep your head, your heels and your standards high’," she says.