Meet the Maddens

Actors, athletes and activists, Sydney’s Madden sisters push boundaries and thrive at home on Gadigal land. Here, they showcase romantic new-season fashion and reflect on the foundations of family.

Inside the regal walls of Vaucluse House, five Indigenous women are holding court.

Dressed in gothic black dresses, the Madden sisters have congregated for a marie claire shoot, with their grandparents, Lily and Charles “Chicka” Madden, even popping in for a sneak peek. “They can spin a yarn and they were quiet the whole day because they were just in awe,” Miah tells us, noting the particular significance of Charles being a direct descendant of the land’s true custodians, the Gadigal people. “Filming in Vaucluse House, back in the day, it wouldn’t have been the Indigenous people enjoying the beautiful rooms and red carpet. So it was funny to be able to do a shoot in there and say, ‘You know what? We’re Gadigal, this is our land.’”

“I think about all that my grandfather and my grandmother have gone through and all that they’ve done so that we could pursue our careers, passions and dreams, without being discriminated against or be put down because of our race,” Lille adds. “For them to see us being celebrated as the next generation, it was very special and emotional.”

L-R: Lille, Miah, Thea, Ruby and Madeleine. (Credit: Image: Max Doyle)

The Maddens are a family steeped in not only cultural significance (they are also related to the late Indigenous activist Charles Perkins AO), but also artistic brilliance and love. “It feels very liberating to be in our family,” Madeleine says. “We were constantly surrounded by creatives, so were always encouraged to express ourselves. There was never any conversation that was taboo.”

 “There’s just a really, really strong matrilineal line in our family,” Thea agrees. “It’s amazing, because especially in this day and age, it’s a patriarchal world and it’s easy to internalise some of those values. But we’ve just never been that way…there’s always an undercurrent of tenderness; of wanting to bring people up with you and support people.”

The sisters tasted grief at an early age when their father, Lee Madden, died in a car accident in 2003. Madeleine, Lille and Thea were raised with older brother Tyson by their mum, art curator Hetti Perkins, with Miah and Ruby brought up by their mum, Belinda. “Growing up in a single mother household, I just feel so blessed, and Miah and Ruby would say the same thing,” Madeleine shares. “Mum’s passed on so much insight and wisdom and love and acceptance to us that I felt like whatever I could come to her with, I would be accepted.”

Miah and Ruby (Credit: Image: Max Doyle)

Their dad shines through them though, Miah says. “He modelled in Paris, picked up a tennis racket and played in Wimbledon; was an actor; an activist and poet. He’s all of us in one person.” As such, it was particularly moving having their grandparents see them at the fashion shoot: “It’s giving our dad life and legacy through his girls.”

Their upbringing had a clear influence on the paths each of the girls took: Thea, 28, is an artist, Lille, 25, works in land conservation with organisations such as SeedMob, Madeleine, 24, and Miah, 18, are actors, while the youngest, Ruby, 16, is a champion runner. “It’s been really fantastic because everyone’s found their own area, so we can all support each other while always having family at the core,” Thea says, noting that her artistic practice is guided by heritage. “A lot of my work stems from looking at family, family archives and places associated with family. But it’s also part of being an Aboriginal person, too. At the core of our culture and values is this family dynamic.”

While their trajectories have been distinct, Lille points out that they’re threaded by storytelling. “That’s the most important factor when it comes to anything really, isn’t it? It’s how we bring people in, share together, pass on knowledge and continue culture,” she says. “It’s essential to everything and for me, in what I do, it means creating an empathetic response and a deeper sense of connection and understanding to something that I believe people need to learn about. Or, it lights that fire within them to take action.”

Lille and Thea (Credit: Image; Max Doyle)

In conversation, their voices are coated with affection for a childhood that was spent having fish and chips at La Perouse, watching Disney films together at their grandparents home or stealing each other’s clothes. “Our dad would be so happy with how much we see and talk to each other. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not talking to my sisters,” Miah says. For Ruby, it’s the small moments with her sisters – whose group chat is called ‘Sister Act’ – that she holds closest: “all of us having dinner together, watching movies, sitting around telling each other stories.”

Now that they’re older, those moments are rare with Madeleine, Miah and Ruby all noting it was a feat just getting them all in the same place at the same time. “It felt nice just to have us all back together for the day,” Ruby tells, going on to confess her favourite thing about having sisters is “always having someone to talk to. Especially being the youngest, I always had someone to look up to.”

L-R: Miah, Thea, Lille, Madeleine and Ruby. (Credit: Image: Max Doyle)

Their close bond made the marie claire shoot something special, with Lille recalling her favourite moment as the shot on the steps. “Being one of the older sisters having Miah, Maddy, and Ruby all sitting below me and playing with their hair, making sure they looked okay. You know, just doing those big sister things,” she laughs. “I was like ‘okay just settle down, they’re their own women, they’re mature’. Always having that overarching care and love for them.”

But the opportunity to be shot together also holds more than just personal significance. “I came into it thinking that it would be a seated studio portrait,” Thea says. “So it was great to be part of the shoot and I just think it’s amazing to have five Aboriginal women modelling high fashion.”

Madeleine agrees: “Having five Aboriginal women featured in a major fashion magazine is an important moment,” she explains, pointing to the specific visual impact. “People will sometimes say, ‘You guys all don’t look the same.’ And that’s a real issue in Australia: what defines how an Aboriginal person looks? That’s what makes me really happy about this shoot; we are all proud Aboriginal women, we all look different, but we are all sisters. We’re all the same. So that’s something as well – it’s not just a fashion shoot, it’s quite a significant cultural statement.”

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