She’s among our most famous women, though the reason for this is vague. Now, writes Jane Cadzow, Lara Bingle has a plan to "stand for something".

Lara Bingle is glowing gently from the exertion of her morning yoga class. Blonde hair tied in a ponytail, leopard-print Prada purse beside her on the back seat of the BMW, she is in good spirits - and not only because she is on her way to breakfast. As the car weaves through Sydney traffic, she explains that she is making a change in her life. She has a new set of priorities. "The No. 1 thing I want is credibility," she says.

Bingle is among the most famous young women in Australia: it is hard to think of another 25-year-old whose name and face are so firmly stamped on the national consciousness. She is stalked by paparazzi, features constantly in the gossip columns and recently starred in her own reality-TV series. Her messy romances, her nude-photo scandals, her difficulty with road rules - if you aren't up on this stuff, you haven't been paying attention.

Yet to even the most dedicated Bingle-watchers, the reason for her celebrity is vague. Certainly, she looks terrific in (or out of) a bikini. Granted, she once starred in a controversial Tourism Australia advertisement. True, she has a world-class array of gleaming white teeth, along with the rare ability to smile and talk at the same time. But as she cheerfully admits, "People say to me all the time, like, 'What do you do? What do you actually do?'"

It isn't an easy question to answer. "Yeah, it's weird, I lose my words sometimes because I don't know myself," she says. "Like, there's nothing you could actually pinpoint ... but there's just so much going on!"

In any case, and this is the reason for her excitement, she expects to chalk up a meaningful achievement in the near future. Her ambition, she says, is "to have depth and substance". The time has come "to stand for something, in particular one thing".

Yes, she is bringing out her own range of lingerie.

To Max Markson, one of her former agents, the point about Bingle has never been what she does, but what she is: "the quintessential Aussie beach girl". More than that, "she's a publicity magnet", says Markson. "If I sent out a news release now [it is about 2pm] - 'Lara Bingle is holding a news conference at three o'clock to make an important announcement' - a stack of media would come along to it." Outside politics, few in Australia have that kind of drawing power. "Shane Warne pulls a crowd. Lara Bingle pulls a crowd."

Odd, then, that Being Lara Bingle didn't rate better. The series' initial capital-city audience of 928,000 had dwindled to fewer than 400,000 by the time the final episode screened on the Ten network in August. Perhaps the London Olympics, then showing on Nine, out-bingled Bingle. Perhaps weekly exposure to Lara and the rest of the Bingle clan - mother Sharon Bingle, brother Josh Bingle, grandparents Nan and Pop Bingle - was too much for some viewers. Or perhaps people switched off when her then manager, Hermione Underwood, lit a candle and announced she was going to use it to remove Bingle's ear-wax.

Whatever the reason, it is a shame that so many fell by the wayside, because those who stuck with the show can look back on some golden moments. Bingle playing bingo with Nan Bingle, for instance. Bingle beaming beguilingly at the police officer who has just pulled her over ("I think I have a licence"). Bingle denying she uses fake-tan ("My skin is real. El naturel!"). Bingle examining a proof sheet of pictures of her naked self, taken with a telephoto lens through the glass doors of her bedroom. "I didn't realise how voluptuous I was," she says, momentarily forgetting her indignation. "Jeez, I've really got an arse, haven't I?"

Then there was the scene in which an uncharacteristically glum Bingle complains about a make-up job: "My eyebrows are dark and my eyes have got some weird thing on them. There's no colour. There's nothing ... I'm just saying, like, I feel like shit." Holding up her phone, she takes a photograph of herself and studies the image. "Actually," she decides, "I look quite good."

Some reviewers dismissed Bingle as vapid, vacuous and self-absorbed: how could anyone spend so much time gazing into reflective surfaces? But others found her likeable in a hapless sort of way. Michael Idato, a television writer for The Sydney Morning Herald, observed that "she seems most of the time to be like a deer in the headlights. Even if she's one who willingly wandered out of the forest looking for the nearest highway."

At a cafe overlooking Bondi Beach, Bingle orders toast with avocado and Vegemite. She says making the show was fun overall, though considerably more challenging than she expected. "We were doing, like, 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week. We filmed for, like, three and a half months." For the duration, she lived here at Bondi in an $8 million apartment rented for her by the production company. Her life was recorded by a five-person film crew - an experience that she confesses wore thin after a while. Occasionally, she threatened to go on strike. "I was, like, 'I'm not filming today!"

Why did she agree to do it in the first place? She says she wanted people to get to know the real Lara Bingle. So many unkind things had been said about her over the years, "I just thought I really had nothing to lose ... I was hoping they would portray me - who I was - in the right light."

Most of us first set eyes on Lara Bingle in 2006, when she stood on a Whitsundays beach and asked the rest of the world, "Where the bloody hell are you?" The 18-year-old model had been plucked from obscurity to star in a $180 million campaign to boost tourism to Australia. Her question was intended to grab attention in overseas markets. Which it did. But the advertisement baffled the Japanese, was briefly banned in Britain and became the target of widespread derision at home. Bingle, who had merely said a line she'd been given, was guilty by association. "I was so young," she says. "I was like, 'I don't understand' ... But the blame was on me. And, like, ever since it's always been that."

What surprises Sam de Brito, author of the Fairfax blog All Men Are Liars, is not that Bingle attracts criticism, but how vitriolic some of it is. "I accept that some people find her whole persona irritating," de Brito says. "But being irritated by someone and lacerating them in the press or on a blog or on social media - I don't understand that."

When Fran Bailey, federal tourism minister at the time of the contentious campaign, went to the UK to persuade regulators to allow the ad to go to air, she took Bingle with her. "She was quite shy and naive," says Bailey, who was struck as much by the teenager's vulnerability as by her fresh-faced physical allure ("The one thing anyone would say about Lara is that she is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous-looking"). She remembers hoping that someone had Bingle's career in hand. "I thought she was a young woman who really did need sound, effective management."

That impression was reinforced when a men's magazine, Zoo Weekly, unearthed and published pictures of Bingle posing in skimpy swimsuits. "I thought, 'Oh my gawd'," Bailey says. "It wasn't the sort of image we were wanting to portray. I was very cross that this had come to light after we had done the launch." Bailey recalls that a friend asked her what Bingle was like. "I said, 'She has the looks and the body to be another Elle Macpherson. But not the brains.'"

Following in the footsteps of Macpherson - the Australian supermodel who has built a global lingerie empire - is, of course, exactly what Bingle wants to do. Even if her as yet unnamed lingerie line is a more modest success than Elle Macpherson Intimates, she hopes it will provide her with post-modelling income, as well as the satisfaction of working for herself. Creating her own label will make a nice change from endorsing other people's products. At the moment, she says, "everyone else owns Lara. And that's got an expiry date." (Her conversation is often like this: slightly off-kilter, but you get her drift.)

Fran Bailey isn't the only person to have questioned Bingle's savvy. "I just don't think she's very bright," said Dancing with the Stars judge Todd McKenney after she was eliminated from competition last year. One journalist, noting that Bingle had "Breathe" tattooed on the inside of a finger, suggested it was so she wouldn't forget. In Being Lara Bingle, her only sibling, 28-year-old Josh, said, "My sister is really easy to take the piss out of because she doesn't get a lot of stuff ... I don't know whether it's a blonde thing but, yeah, she doesn't seem to be too smart."

I gingerly ask Bingle how she feels about such comments. Pretty relaxed, as it turns out. "I guess it's just because I've grown up in the media," she says in a breezy tone. Her mother, Sharon, seems equally unperturbed, assuring me that Josh didn't really mean what he said. "You've got to understand the dynamics between the two," Sharon says. "It's a jokey thing."

Make-up artist Max May, who is Bingle's closest friend, first worked with her on a shoot for Speedo swimwear. "When we met, I was just, like, 'Wow, you're actually really cute and fun and sweet,' " says May, who argues that her ditzy reputation is undeserved. "I mean, Lara will be the first one to admit she has said some pretty stupid things. We've all said stupid things, but we're not all being recorded."

Still, Bingle doesn't do herself many favours. Before presenting a music award, she wrote on Twitter: "Lara is def going to F*#K up at the MTV Awards ... Hahaha I'm such a retart [sic]." On the morning in July that a Sydney court heard driving charges against her, she played a game of "Will Lara Lick It?" in the studio of radio station MIX 106.5. Touching her tongue to a nine-volt battery, she said, "It doesn't do anything." Then she said, "Oh yeah, oh my God, it gives me, like, a shock!"

A few days earlier, she had posted a picture on the Instagram photo-sharing network of two Guatemalan children smoking cigarettes, with the comment, "Poverty-stricken but still cool as f...". In a hastily released statement, Bingle's publicity agency, Tailor Maid Communications, explained that, "in essence, Lara felt the imagery was beautiful, but on reflection and understanding of people's feedback and comments, Lara decided to pull the image down".

One thing about being Lara Bingle: it's never dull. As her mother says, "Golly, lots of things have happened to Lara." As Bingle herself puts it, "Like, my life has been so crazy and up and down."

Take the Brendan Fevola episode. Soon after making the tourism ad, Bingle had a brief fling with Fevola, then the AFL's leading goalkicker. When news of the affair broke, she insisted she hadn't realised he was married - which didn't stop her being cast as a hussy and home wrecker. "The contempt and the rage and the sneering directed at her seemed out of all proportion with the mistake that she'd made," says Sam de Brito, who suspects the fuss might have been more muted if Bingle, by then 19, hadn't been quite such a bombshell. "There just seems to be a real animosity towards sexually powerful young women."

The next sports star to fall under Bingle's spell was Michael Clarke, then the doe-eyed dauphin of Australian cricket (and now the captain). Superficially, they seemed a perfect match: both blonde, both paid large sums to advertise big-name brands (she had the Speedo account, he posed for Bonds), both partial to tattoos, both addicted to Twitter. "On the couch watching the football ..." Clarke once tweeted. "I don't do this enough ... What's my girl reading?"

"Reading British Vogue in my room baby!!" Bingle replied. "Yep we are tweeting each other from diff rooms in the same house ..."

Bingle was with Clarke for more than three years, in which time he had her initials inked on his shoulder and presented her with a diamond engagement ring reportedly valued at $200,000. He also gave her an Aston Martin V8 Vantage worth more than $250,000, later admitting to an interviewer that he was scared to get into it with her. "Lara isn't a terrible driver, she's a crazy driver," he said. Bingle shared Clarke's $6 million apartment and travelled the world with him, watching him rack up boundaries. "I was living the perfect life, as I thought, and it was all very easy," she says. "Everything in that space in my life was pretty much handed to me on a plate."

Then, in March 2010, Woman's Day published a picture of Bingle in the shower, allegedly taken by Fevola during their earlier liaison. At first, Bingle was seen as the wronged party - it was clear from her dismayed expression that she hadn't wanted to be photographed - but sympathy turned to anger when Max Markson, then her agent, brokered a deal to sell her side of the story to the same magazine for a fee rumoured to be close to $200,000. Now she was not just a scarlet woman, but a greedy one. Tension escalated when Clarke abandoned a cricket tour of New Zealand to fly to her side.

The late Fairfax columnist Peter Roebuck predicted that the talented batsman would never lead the national team while in Bingle's thrall. "He seems to be locked in a love affair with a beautiful but possibly unstable woman," Roebuck wrote. "Lara Bingle has all the hallmarks of a femme fatale. Restaurateurs complain about her manners and the company she keeps. She craves attention and courts controversy. Yet her paramour seems besotted. Beauty and danger are a potent combination."

That was mild compared with some of the stuff that was written. "She was bullied, both by anonymous internet users and media professionals," says de Brito, while Sharon Bingle remembers being bemused by the furore: "I thought, 'Has my daughter killed somebody or what?'"

The strength of emotion unleashed convinced Anna Hickey-Moody, a lecturer in gender and cultural studies at Sydney University, that hostility towards Bingle was tinged with fear. "I think people are scared because she's so appealing," says Hickey-Moody. In this case, her ability to lure Clarke away from the crease was perceived as verging on the traitorous: "Our national identity is so embedded in a thing like a cricket match that she became synonymous with threatening national pride."

When Clarke's management announced a few days after his return to Australia from the New Zealand tour that he and Bingle had decided to split up, sports fans breathed a collective sigh of relief. The cricketer then rejoined the team and hit a brilliant century, earning the admiration of a grateful nation. Sharon Bingle has always liked Clarke, but she believes coverage of the end of the engagement was hopelessly one-sided, and that her daughter suffered as a result. "He came out of it squeaky clean," she says. "And they destroyed her. They absolutely destroyed her."

Bingle has been modelling since she was five. Raised in the Sutherland Shire, in southern Sydney, she started with Big W and Best & Less catalogues and moved on to TV commercials. "I think I did, like, a Campbell's soup and, like, a Head & Shoulders," she says. "I was with an agency called Cute Kids." By her early teens, her career was really taking off and some of her classmates at Port Hacking High were jealous: at least, she thinks that's why she was bullied. It got so bad she changed schools, commuting to St Vincent's College in Potts Point. Then, at the end of year 10, she turned her back on academia altogether, heading for the catwalks and cameras of Milan.

"I wasn't scared," she says. "I just went. And loved every minute." But at 168 centimetres, she wasn't really tall enough - or skeletally thin enough - for Europe's high-fashion designers. After about a year, she came back to Australia, where her curvy build guaranteed her work as a swimsuit model. She quickly landed the Tourism Australia job and before long was happily partnered with Clarke. "I was very much living in Michael's shoes," she says.

Well, in his penthouse, really. What she means is that Clarke's career took precedence, and that at first she didn't mind at all. "But there's only so long you can do that before you start to want to do things on your own." When they broke up, she took out a mortgage on a small apartment in inner-city Darling Point, but Speedo did not renew her contract and other modelling jobs started to dry up. "Bingle goes from glam to grunge," said a headline in Melbourne's Herald Sun. As she recalls, "I was like, 'What am I going to do next?'"

She embarked on a romance with Melbourne Rebels rugby union player Danny Cipriani, declaring on the cover of Who magazine: "I'm in love!" But within a month, Cipriani was out of the picture. ("He dropped me on my arse so hard that my arse cheeks are still hurting," is the way she put it on her TV show.) While her broken heart mended, she snacked. And tweeted: "Counting the empty spaces in the box of truffles I was sent today. 15 f...!!" By last November, Who was reporting that she had gained six kilograms. Paparazzi were said to be camped outside her door, shouting, "Give us a fat shot, Lara!"

The extra weight did nothing for her job prospects. "Everything was just one after the other," she says. "Nothing went right. Everything was getting worse." Max May worried dreadfully about her. "It was absolutely horrible," he says. "She was in a pretty dark place. But thankfully we're definitely out of that now. She's working on getting her body to a place where she's happy."

Earlier this year, Famous magazine ran the line "Fat or Fab?" over a cover picture of a bikini-clad Bingle during the plumper period. She was devastated. "She's copped a lot of flak," says May. "But she's taken it on the chin and she's kept on going. She's a definite fighter."

These days, Bingle exercises regularly and diets conscientiously. "That Vegemite and avocado was a true treat," she says when we're back in the BMW, leaving Bondi. "You don't often see me eating like that." Her business advisor, George Moskos, who is at the wheel, says he noticed she polished off both slices of toast: "I was, like, 'Wow. Lara's indulging today.'"

Bingle tells me she decided she wanted Moskos on her team when she heard that he had helped model Miranda Kerr create her own brand of organic skincare products. "I was like, I've got to track this man down." Fortunately, he wasn't deterred by the dramas that swirl around Bingleworld. "Actually, that's what attracted me to wanting to work with Lara - the fact that there's been this rocky road," Moskos says.

He is confident that Bingle's high profile will help her sell a lot of lingerie. "Sure, she's got a very polarising personality and image, but there are so many people who really love her."

Moskos, Bingle and six others are sitting around a boardroom table, earnestly discussing Brand Bingle. Leading the conversation is Simon Bookallil, who heads an agency called Bashful ("We specialise in integrated creative strategy") and describes himself as a brand architect. "Let's face it, in this world, celebrities are brands," he says. "And they need to be managed in that way."

Bookallil doesn't want to sound uncaring. "Lara is a living, breathing human," he says. "She's sitting right here. She is herself." Bingle looks chuffed. Bookallil continues. "We're not trying to say, 'Lara, be this, do this.' We're not controlling her. What we're doing is setting up the best opportunity for the brand to exist." This involves market research. What do people really think of Bingle? How large does she loom in the cultural landscape?

"Our feeling is that there are very few people in this country who have the ability to influence an audience as much as Lara," Bookallil says. "Particularly females under 35. It's because she's so real and honest in how she presents herself. And because she gives access to herself via social media in a very human way." He reads a few comments from Bingle's Facebook page: "I love you Lara, you're so Aussie ... You make me laugh every time I watch your show ... I would love to hang out with you one day ..." Apparently, this all means there is likely to be strong demand for Bingle's bras and knickers. "In terms of Lara the brand, it is a great opportunity," Bookallil says.

Talking about the meeting later, Bingle reiterates the key message: "Lara Bingle is a brand, but it's also me. And they're two very different things." She says she is aware that her popularity with young women shot up when she put on weight last year. "That's when girls in general really reached out." She pauses. "It's a weird world we live in."

At one point in Being Lara Bingle, Sharon Bingle says, "What's this, the third time you've lost your licence, Lara? I can't keep track."

Sharon isn't the only one. In September, AAP reported that a Sydney magistrate had listed traffic infringements including "at least" six speeding offences this year. Bingle was on a two-month driving ban when in May she and her black Range Rover had a ... bingle with a motorbike at a Bondi Beach intersection. The rider suffered a dislocated shoulder but, while others gathered to help, Bingle left the scene.

"It was absolute panic," Sharon says. "She knew she shouldn't have been driving that car and she panicked." The next day, she turned herself in: "She said, 'Mum, I'm going to go to the police station.' I said, 'Yes, that's what you've got to do, Lara.' " In court, she pleaded guilty to driving on a suspended licence, failing to give way and not leaving her details after a crash. She was ordered off the road for another year, fined $3500 and given an 18-month good behaviour bond.

"I've come to the realisation that I'm not a good driver," says Bingle, who rides a bicycle and a leopard-print skateboard these days. "I take responsibility for my mistakes and, you know, my mishaps." For more than a year, she has had a steady boyfriend - Gareth Moody, co-founder of the Ksubi menswear label. She campaigns to raise awareness of bowel cancer, the disease that killed her father in 2008. George Moskos is optimistic that she is sorting out her life and has a bright future: "She's grown up. She's focused. She's got a purpose."

Bingle sometimes marvels at how much she has fitted into the past five years. "God knows what's going to happen from 25 to 30," she says. Her hunch is that big things are in store for both Bingles - the brand and the person. She smiles. "I've got so much to give!"

Source: Good Weekend Magazine
Published Date: 24th November 2012