“Is the return of Gemma too much for you? Can you breathe? Anyone need CPR? Experiencing heart palpitations?”
That's what models.com tweeted on September 18, 2014—the day Gemma Ward, then 27, miraculously surfaced from a six-year retreat from the public eye to open the spring 2015 Prada show in Milan. The face that first emerged at just 15 years old to define modeling for an entire generation of fashion obsessives was, it would seem, finally back.
Before the Prada show, the last time anyone had really seen much of Ward, who’d been heralded as her era’s Kate Moss, was in 2008. That’s when the tabloids and early fashion blogs embarked on a mission to publish as many photos of Ward (and to criticize her for no longer resembling an ultra-elfin teenaged waif) as possible following the death of her then boyfriend, Heath Ledger, when she was just 20.
Now 30, Ward has spent roughly half of her life in the spotlight. When she was 15, she was scouted at her local mall in Perth, Australia. She’d tagged along with friends to a televised modeling competition because, as she recalled to me one recent morning, she “wanted to make fun of it.” Of course, she soon found scouts both pushing her in front of the cameras and forging her mom’s signature on a form giving parental consent. She was too young, it turned out, to be on the show, but less than a year later, in 2003, the mega-agency IMG discovered her and wasted no time in flying her to Milan to meet Miuccia Prada at the designer’s request.
As if out of a fairy tale, Ward made her debut on the runway that same season as a Prada exclusive, and was immediately photographed by Steven Meisel for her first major campaign (also Prada), paving the way for her to become the face of what seemed like every other major fashion label on the planet as well (including Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, Dolce & Gabbana, Balenciaga, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Valentino, and Hermès, to name a few). By 16, she was the youngest model to ever appear on the cover of American Vogue; by 17, she’d taken over as the face of Calvin Klein Obsession (and reportedly earned more than $1 million in the process) from none other than Kate Moss herself. Five years after showing up at a mall in Perth as a joke, she’d made Forbes’s annual list of the world’s highest-paid models, reportedly commanding some $20,000 per show and making $3 million a year at 19 years old.
More significantly, though, Ward’s face transformed the industry, popularizing the “baby doll” look along with Lily Cole and other rising models whose names seemed to always be mentioned in tandem with words like “Pre-Raphaelite,” “otherworldly,” and “Bambi.” So when this new generation’s gem decided, in 2008, to make her foray into acting with the critically praised Black Balloon (and later on in small roles in The Great Gatsby and a Pirates of the Caribbean movie), the fashion industry saw Ward’s crossover attempt as betrayal. Ward was even forced to make a statement to clarify that, no, she was not “retiring,” and added: “I’m only 20, for God’s sakes.”
That year was a turning point for Ward. On January 22, 2008, less than three months after she began dating Heath Ledger, who was also from Perth, and just weeks after the couple spent Christmas with each other’s families, Ledger died, at just 28, from an accidental overdose. Whatever coping Ward was allowed to do took place in public. The paparazzi even managed to track her down on a private beach and get a photo of her in her swimsuit—which one newspaper in Australia ran beneath the ruthless, all-caps, body-shaming headline: “ROLL MODEL.”
It’s not surprising, then, that when we arrived at the subject of the tabloids during our long conversation, Ward momentarily soured. We were sitting on the sidewalk outside of a TriBeCa café on a sunny day—something that would have been impossible for Ward a few years ago—and she wore sunglasses and a straw hat, not as a precaution but as fashion. For the most part, though, Ward was calm, collected, and reflective. She told me as we sat down, in her easygoing Australian lilt: “I’m trying to tell my story as honestly as possible, but also trying to have compassion for people and not point any fingers.”
Ward made her return to New York as a full-time resident only three months ago. “I love Australia so much, but I’ve got the rest of my life to be there,” she explained. She had come back to New York, finally, because she was ready to get back to work. Ward has made comebacks before—she initially re-signed with IMG in 2013, and the 2014 appearance on the Prada runway came complete with another Steven Meisel campaign—but this time it feels enduring, and not just because she had to commit to a yearlong lease. Her face is already plastered around the city, thanks to the Whitney Museum’s ads for its exhibition of the work of one of fashion’s buzziest labels, Eckhaus Latta, which features Ward. It’s no small endorsement—and a sign of her lasting influence—that two of the hottest young designers working today told the critic Cathy Horyn how “important” it was for them to work with Ward, whom they matter-of-factly described as someone who “signifies fashion.”
But since she left fashion six years ago, Ward has been, more than anything else, a mother. In fact, she moved to New York partly because she wanted to enroll her 4-year-old daughter, Naia, in a more permanent school than the Montessori she’d been attending on the picturesque northern coast of Australia—which happens to be where Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies novel is set. “It really is like that there,” Ward said. “The school is nestled in this woody area with grass everywhere, pretty much on the beach. And everyone’s quite wealthy and tasteful.”
Ward met David Letts, her partner and the father of her two children—in addition to Naia, they have a one-and-a-half-year-old son, Jet—on a beach in Sydney in 2008. After learning he was a boxer, she figured he’d make a handy companion for the long treks and travels through India and Nepal she had planned for the next year. She invited him along, booking them separate ashrams with no anticipation that things would turn romantic.
Despite article after article stating the contrary, Letts and Ward are not married—though for a time he was functionally her Instagram husband, encouraging Ward to create an account, posting on it for her, and explaining to her that the more she shared with the public, the more the comments sections voiced a desire for her to make her comeback. Even before social media, Ward was one of the first models to have a fervent online fanbase; the Ward forums on the Fashion Spot are well over a thousand pages long, and to this day, if you’re scrolling through certain corners of Tumblr, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll stumble across one of Ward’s editorials.
Meanwhile, Nicole Trunfio, one of Ward’s closest friends since they were both on the Australian competition show Search for a Supermodel, was playing the same game. “When Gemma was out of the picture, I would send her all of these Instagram fan pages dedicated to her, and all of the positive comments. I myself missed seeing her face in magazines, even though I’m her friend,” Trunfio recalled over the phone last week. Trunfio is also a mom signed to IMG, and she knows firsthand how solitary Ward can be; they lived together in Australia for a time in 2003, and again briefly in 2009, a year after Ledger’s death. They found such a private area of Byron Bay to retreat to together that Trunfio is still baffled as to how the paparazzi managed to snap Ward’s photo on the beach. “I didn’t even see her go swimming—ever,” she recalled. “Maybe she would go before everyone was up.”
“After Heath, obviously I knew there was some healing that had to happen,” Trunfio added. (In 2011, Ward herself admitted that her “break from the media spotlight… was something spurred by Heath’s death.”) And the healing was going well—until the pictures of Ward on the beach came out. “She was actually in a really good place at that time, and that’s what sucked about it, too. It was so good and positive…until she was on the cover of every newspaper. We left for the airport separately, and then it was like, ‘Ohhh, my God,’” Trunfio recalled. “I had that feeling you get when you care about someone so deeply and just know that that’s going to hurt and affect them. I was just praying that she wouldn’t see it.”
But Ward couldn’t miss it. “It felt like a public shaming,” she said. But now, a decade later, she can only laugh about it. “It must have been a slow news day,” she quipped.
Ward has matured, of course, and it’s not lost on her that the industry has, too. “I feel like there was a culture of being quiet back then,” said Ward, whose rise came just before that of fashion bloggers and street-style photographers. "There was this real benefit to a girl having a mystery about her. People were telling me, ‘Do not talk about what’s going on. Do not go out in public.’ It definitely felt like it was better to be seen and never heard.” Ward at times envies the social platforms of top models of today: “I see other people go through certain things and clap back right away, and I kind of wish I had that.”
At a certain point, though, Ward had to accept that the attention and curiosity weren’t about to just go away. So in the year leading up to her pregnancy in early 2013, she decided to do some work on what she could change: herself. “I just said no modeling, nothing to do with my appearance—I’m focusing on my voice,” Ward recalled. She went to an Australian health retreat, where, in between hiking and art therapy, she finally received treatment for the eating disorder she’d struggled with—and done her best to ignore—“from a very young age.”
Ward was scouted at a time in her teens when she thought she “looked pretty scary,” having just gone through a bout of depression during which she lost a lot of weight. She gained some of it back, along with some self-confidence, when she became a successful model, though that only lasted so long. “At one point, I was like, ‘I’ve got to start writing down all the messed up stuff people are saying to me,’” she said, with another meaningful laugh. (No need, actually—just go back and read the blog posts and comments about her body, particularly after she walked a Chanel show in 2007 wearing a denim bikini.)
After she stepped away from the industry in 2007, Ward discovered that everything she had suppressed while working—the self-medication, substances, anxiety, depression—could “compound and make you start to spiral.” And she did, quietly. “It’s amazing what the human body can endure, and what you can kind of get yourself into mentally. For a long time, I wanted to talk about what I was going through, but I was still in it,” she said.
During this period, Ward found solace in autobiographies by Princess Diana and Jane Fonda—who both had difficulties with their body image and adjusting to life in the public eye—and now wants to put her own struggles on the record. “I always wanted to get to that place where I could talk about it, because it would mean that I was no longer in it. People would say to me, ‘You’re never going to get over this—it’s with you for life.’ And then you get desperate, and you’re like, ‘If this is an unbreakable cycle, do I just end it?’” she said quietly. “It’s amazing even to be sitting here, going, ‘Wow, I actually got through it.’ Because I did get trapped in a cycle until I finally got help, which people should be aware that they can get. Thank God I was—otherwise I might not be here anymore.”
Here is where Ward is now: She’s making sure her kids get enough chocolate-covered pretzels before she goes to work. She’s boxing regularly. She’s writing screenplays. She’s keeping tabs on auditions (she just went out for a role in the upcoming Batwoman CW series). She’s answering the difficult questions that she “actually was just always waiting to be asked.” And she’s genuinely relieved that she gets to do all that without scrutiny: “I’m so thankful the paparazzi doesn’t care about me anymore.”
As for her modeling comeback, well, New York Fashion Week is just around the corner. Who knows where Ward will turn up then, and after that, and ever after. She is only 30, for God’s sakes.