Former model's unlikely sporting story
PRODUCING a gridiron star in Cairns sounds as likely as four Jamaican bobsledders competing in the Winter Olympics without ever having seen snow.
But Mel Kelly’s tale is as true as the bobsled heroes of 1988.
The raven-haired beauty, who moved to Cairns from the Gold Coast 18 months ago, has just returned from Canada after wearing green and gold for Australia at the International Federation of American Football Women’s World Championship.
Selected for the 2017 Australian Outback Women’s National Team, Mel managed to represent her country without playing a single game of gridiron in Cairns.
The former Ralph Lauren model is one of only a handful of female gridiron players in Cairns and the only member of the 52-strong Australian team living north of Brisbane.
“Because I was the only one from Cairns, I had to do my own training. My boyfriend threw balls to me every day so I was throwing and catching. A couple of my teammates from Cairns Falcons helped me as well and I started playing AFL for Manunda Hawks to keep fit and keep my ball skills up.”
The former Gold Coast Stingrays wide receiver is keen to grow the sport in her new hometown.
“There are seven or eight women’s teams on the Gold Coast and a dozen or so men’s teams.
“We’ve got one female team in Cairns and we’re trying to get a league off the ground in Cairns, Townsville and Mackay. The men’s league has been going for a few years,” says the 31-year-old owner of designer dress hire boutique Lending Luxury.
The men are only slightly better off.
“Townsville and Cairns have one men’s team each. They play here one week and Townsville the next. It’s a bit of a commitment, but when you love the game, it doesn’t really matter,” Mel says.
“We don’t have a Townsville team to play, but we’re trying to get a scrimmage session with a Brisbane team, so we can go down there for a week and train or they can come up here.”
Sport has always played a big part in Mel’s life, but took a back seat to her unexpected career.
“I was a real tomboy. I did not wear make-up. I was always into sport and my friend made me go into a modelling competition because she was a bit scared. I ended up getting through to the finals and they signed me.
“I was about 14 when I started modelling. Towards Grade 12 I was going down to Sydney to model and when I finished school, I went overseas, modelling in Singapore, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Milan, Indonesia.
“My first major overseas travel was to Hong Kong. I was 17 and living in Hong Kong by myself in a little apartment. I was straight out of high school. It was so different. Not many people spoke English. I had to find my own way, cook and fend for myself.
“I grew up fast and got to see a bit of the world. It was really good.”
Mel’s three months in Hong Kong kept her busy.
“I did lots of catwalk assignments. They love big productions over there. They go all out. And I did a lot of print work. It was exciting.”
But her favourite haunt was Milan, where she modelled for designer Ralph Lauren and showed his latest collections to international buyers.
“I loved being in Milan. The food, the coffee, the beautiful clothes. I love living in a country and seeing how other people live, not just seeing the tourist side of things.
“I’d probably been travelling for about a year when I came back to Australia. I was missing home.”
Initially represented by Tamblyn Models, Mel was signed to Vivien’s Model Management and became a regular at Brisbane Fashion Festival, Sydney Fashion Week and the Melbourne Spring Carnival.
The Mercedes-Benz fashion weeks in Brisbane and Sydney were always a favourite.
“It’s so much fun because there were a lot of us from the same agency. We’d pretty much hang out for the week, get hair and makeup done, wear beautiful dresses.
“I lived in Sydney for about eight months, but I missed the Gold Coast. It was home. I love the water, swimming, being in the sun.”
Back on the Gold Coast, sporty Mel was recruited into the controversial Legends Football League, aka lingerie football. But it was short-lived.
“I got into the Queensland Brigade team and would drive from the Gold Coast to Brisbane three times a week to train. Two weeks before our first game, it was cancelled because they were unable to secure television coverage.
“It was frustrating because we’d trained for about eight months. That’s why I went into full gridiron and played for the Gold Coast Stingrays.”
Moving to Cairns to be closer to her partner has meant closing the door on regular modelling, but Mel says she was ready.
“I wanted a sea change. I love Cairns. It’s like being on holiday. It reminds me of what the Gold Coast used to be like. When I found out there was a gridiron team here, I was like ‘I have to go’.”
Cairns Falcons Women’s Team train at Ivanhoe Rugby League Club, Leisure Park Rd, Smithfield, 6pm-8pm Sundays. For details, visit Cairns Gridiron Association on Facebook.