The model nicknamed “The girl of the moment” moved behind the camera
By today’s standards, fashion shoots in the 1950s and 60s were low-tech, with budgets almost non-existent. A successful photoshoot relied almost entirely on the talent of the photographer and the natural beauty and poise of the model.
And yet, this clean minimalism of 1950s fashion photography has often captured some of the most iconic and evocative images of the past century. Like many great fashion photographers of the mid-twentieth century, Wakely’s work – much like that of Helmut Newton – testifies to the simple, yet highly effective and elegant approach to fashion marketing of the time.
The Australian Women’s Weekly rapturously reported that Wakely’s “fragile but tough and ‘oh, so carefully laid-back’ look set her apart in England – the thousands of young women from Commonwealth countries who flood Britain every year to see something of the world before getting married and building a home and a family.
Wakely was different. More driven, hardworking, creative and self-reliant than most of her contemporaries, after returning to Australia in 1958, she began to take an interest in and work in the field of professional photography.
Originally drawn to capturing the world she knew, Wakely took pictures of the many famous photographers of the day she knew, including Helmut Newton, Athol Shmith and Henry Talbot – usually while they were working on location.
Wakely’s successful modeling career continued to hum until the early 1960s, when she performed in the All Australian Fashion Parades – considered the fashion event of the year at the time. It was during this catwalk event that she was named Model of the Year and had the honor of wearing what was oddly known as the “Dress of the Year”.
In 1963, Wakely retired from the podiums. With a sense of adventure and business acumen uncommon for a woman of that era, she and her friend and fellow model Helen Homewood established the women’s Penthouse modeling agency and a small photography studio in Flinders Lane, Melbourne. .
In 1964, Wakely photographed an irritable Rudolf Nureyev as he rehearsed for The Corsair in Melbourne. She had a bang before he saw her backstage; and as he hunted her down, undeterred, she got another winning shot, both of which are considered some of Nureyev’s most naturalistic shots.
After another overseas tour in 1965, Wakely returned to Melbourne, this time to establish a larger professional photographic studio with fashion photographer Bruno Benini.
In 1967 Wakely embarked on what was considered an extremely adventurous project – organizing and photographing a fashion photo shoot in Papua New Guinea for the Women’s Weekly. These historic photos were later published in people today and have since been bequeathed to the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, along with many of Wakely’s appointment books, diaries and clippings from the 1950s and 1960s.
In 1970 Wakely married Eric McIllree, the founder, chairman and managing director of Avis Rent-A-Car in Australia. It wasn’t just a romantic match: the couple shared a sense of adventure, energy, and business acumen. Earlier, Eric started a car rental business, a business deemed unfeasible in Australia at the time. World War II temporarily suspended him, but by the end of the war he had moved on to founding McIllree Motors (an air charter business).
The first international airport car rental company was established in the United States in 1946, and by 1953 there were franchises in Canada and across America. Cleverly, Eric realized that neither Avis nor Hertz had registered their names in Australia, and claimed the names for himself, securing the rights for $10 – allowing airport car rental franchises to establish themselves firmly in Australia.
With Janice’s support, Eric operated his growing empire between his family harborside home, Shellbank in Cremorne, his Avis headquarters in St Leonards and his home island, Dunk Island off the coast of Queensland, where Clifton Pugh painted it.
The McIllrees entertained themselves in legendary fashion, hosting many famous friends on the island, such as Harold Holt, Sean Connery, Ron and Valerie Taylor and Sam and June Hordern.
A sassy story that circulated that characterized that glamorous era of the early 70s and Janice’s sense of humor was tied to one of their most famous visitors, Sean Connery, who vacationed on Dunk Island with his wife.
Janice knocked on Connery’s bedroom door to announce that dinner was soon to be served, only to find Connery in his natural state. His joke to friends implied that there was much more to the famous James Bond actor’s physique than 007.
Shortly after their wedding, Eric was diagnosed with lung cancer. He survived his predicted prognosis, but ultimately succumbed in 1973, with Janice at his bedside.
She continued her career as a photographer, although the last few years were mostly spent carefully and accurately cataloging the thousands of photos taken by and of her. In 2002, McIllree’s photographic work was featured in the exhibition Rarely average at the National Portrait Gallery.
Five years later, she donated the famous photograph of herself by Helmut Newton to the National Portrait Gallery, along with a Clifton Pugh painting of Eric.
The Powerhouse Collection has also acquired many original photographs by and by Janice. Often, these photos showed her in the company of talented contemporaries, such as fashion designer Hardy Amies and the hairdresser of the stars of the moment, Vidal Sassoon.
McIllree is survived by her daughter Justine, her grandchildren Oscar and Daisy and her brother, Joel Wakely.