LARA: "I KNOW I'VE MADE MISTAKES"

The secluded beach is shrouded in soft drizzle and storm clouds are brewing, dark and moody in the distance.

Except for a lone fisherman on the rocks, the shore is empty as we wait for Australia’s most infamous ‘It’ girl, Lara Bingle – the quintessential beach babe whose life has, rightly or wrongly, been plagued with controversy since she first emerged as the face of Tourism Australia’s global advertising campaign in 2006.

Bingle’s coming to set the record straight after months of reading untrue stories about herself in the media.

The most recent was in Grazia magazine.

Having happily worked with the weekly fashion magazine on many occasions, the 23-year-old was surprised when it printed a bogus photo that showed her leaving an apartment with close friend Dion Anthony and falsely stated there was something more to their relationship.

In actual fact, two pictures had been taken at different times and doctored to look as if it was the same moment.

To make matters worse, Grazia went on to insinuate that Bingle had let herself go, which was completely untrue and a strange statement considering her lifelong passion for staying fit and healthy.

With all that front of mind, we’re expecting her to turn up for our interview and fashion shoot (which, for the record, involved no money whatsoever changing hands) as stormy as the clouds overhead.

It turns out, we needn’t have worried; she’s all smiles and small talk as she prepares to be photographed.

Petite and athletic, Bingle is the picture of health, and a good sport, too.

Is she bothered about the biting wind whipping around her tiny white dress, or the soft sand her towering heels are sinking into? Not a bit. She’s strong and has a surprising maturity about her.

"At 23, I feel like I’ve already lived 10 lives," she says, with a wry laugh.

Which isn’t surprising; this has been an undeniably tough year for her, ever since she split from her fiancé, cricketer Michael Clarke, amid a cloud of mystery, and her private life became front-page news.

Since then, her every move has been monitored or made up, including the latest suggestion she’s involved with radio shock jock Kyle Sandilands. Yet she remains philosophical. 

"I appreciate that there’s interest and speculation about my personal life and I don’t begrudge that at all," she shrugs.

"I just value good company and I won’t let gossip interfere with having positive people in my life. I feel lucky to be me. But I'm honest enough to admit I'm still learning, and I've made a few mistakes along the way."

When she and Clarke paired up in 2007, they fast became the nation’s golden couple, but that world was shattered earlier this year, when Woman’s Day published a nude photo of Bingle in the shower, taken by serial bad-boy Brisbane Lions forward Brendan Fevola.

While some sought to criticise her, others saw her as a victim of a horrible breach of trust, a young woman taken advantage of.

"I felt very upset and as humiliated as any girl would feel if that happened to them," she says quietly.

She says she never wanted him to take the photo.

"I may be an easy target, but it doesn’t make it morally or legally acceptable."

She and Clarke split just a few days after the photo was made public in March, and the rumour mill went into overdrive, churning out stories of a ring flushed down the toilet (false), huge payouts (also false) and general damage-control from both camps.

Not knowing where to turn, a naïve Bingle sought the advice of Australian spin doctor Max Markson, who negotiated an exclusive tell-all with Woman’s Day – the very magazine that had played a part in humiliating her – and Bingle was criticised for taking a deal said to be worth more than $200,000.

"If my dad had been alive during any of the challenges I faced, I’d have handled everything differently," she says.
Her father, Graham, lost his battle with bowel cancer in May 2008, aged 55, when Bingle was just 20 years old.

They were extremely close and she was at his bedside when he passed away.

"So, I turned to someone without really understanding what was happening during a very confusing time."

Today, Bingle seems to have grown out of her naïvety, and while she feels she’s been badly treated at times, she has strategies in place to deal with the pressures of fame.

"It’s part of my job," she says.

"The best thing about the media spotlight is that it gives me the chance to give something back – including charities and supporting designers. But I feel blessed that it’s also given me extraordinary opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had."

And when the media gets a little tough?

"It makes me appreciate my family and friends more. By choosing this path, I have to learn to take whatever it brings – good or bad."

That acceptance means Bingle can admit to the errors of her youth ("If I’ve made any mistakes regarding my career, it’s allowing others to speak for me and not following my instincts"), but she’s adamant that her relationship with Clarke wasn’t one of them.

"We’re the best of friends," she says.

There are plenty of people who’d love to see them back together, reunited in a perfect life in their Bondi penthouse, and sparkling together at the A-list parties.

"Michael and I have amazing chemistry," she adds, blushing.

"If we seemed like a ‘golden couple’, it was because we were genuinely in love. I’ve known him for five years now and, despite everything we’ve been through, the dynamic is still there.

"We’ve both been through huge challenges, especially with our fathers and their health struggles," she says, making reference to Clarke’s dad, Les, who’s battled Hodgkin’s disease for years.

"How can you not be inspired to be a better person by someone like Michael?"

Bingle has never gone into detail about why the pair ultimately split, but blames separate lives: "It’s incredibly hard to keep a relationship going when you hardly see one another."

These days, Clarke still lives in the Bondi pad they shared, while Bingle has been settling into the modest apartment she recently bought in Sydney’s Darling Point.

It’s not a place she’s in a hurry to share. But it hasn’t deterred the romantic in her. She believes her instinct will tell her when the time is right to fall in love again.

"Right now, I’m single and happy. But I’m no wallflower and I won’t date one, either."

In the meantime, her number-one priority is work, such as her role as the face of Speedo, though she has TV projects and plans for her own fashion range in the pipeline.

Now set up with new management, she’s looking for other opportunities and taking her time to rebuild a solid, respectable career to rival that of some of our biggest modelling exports – though she maintains she’ll "never leave Australia".

"I take my profession more seriously than ever," she says.

"It's an exciting time; in the same way Elle Macpherson and Sarah Murdoch have paved the way, I’m ready to define my own path. What I can say, is that for the rest of my life I’ll be endeavouring to create and endorse products and causes that promote good health."

Whatever may come, she knows she has the support of her family, who have helped her through the roller-coaster of the past few years. She names her mum, Sharon, as her best friend.

"She’s taught me to believe women have the right to be respected."

Charity work will also remain a big focus, including her ongoing work with Bowel Cancer Australia.

"My father died from the disease because he was diagnosed too late," she explains.

"If he’d seen a doctor earlier, I believe he’d still be alive today.

"I want to be working with them for the rest of my life and, even if I don’t have a career in entertainment, I’ll still help out."

After all, something that’s become clear to her on this rocky path is how fickle fame can be.

"It can be taken away from you so quickly."

It’s a realisation that would be enough to stop a less resilient woman in her tracks.

But not Bingle. Ready to face the world again, and with a point to prove, she’s vowed to never quit striving for the happiness and satisfaction she deserves in life.

"My recent experiences – from my father’s death to the break-up with Michael – have shifted my understanding and focus," she says, her voice strong as she looks out across the water.

"Dreams don’t come true – you have to earn them. I feel back in control of that."

Source: Sunday Magazine