Emma Balfour ushers me into her home, steps around the composting toilet in the hallway, and rummages for some good cups to make tea. Her Bondi bungalow is a study in elegant grunge. Outside, it’s painted sea green – the same colour as when she bought it 15 years ago – and a round window in the front room is set with purple glass. Inside, the furniture is vintage and mismatched – pieces she picked up in London a lifetime ago. The dining room table is decorated with homemade pottery and a scrap of white fabric is draped across the window, blocking out the new, ultra-modern development next door.

“I find people in Sydney are very, very greedy,” she says. “A lot of this is [partner] Andrew’s influence – he’s very much a minimalist at heart. But I’ve always been contrary, I’ll always do the opposite to what everyone is doing. I want to try to make the world a little bit better, not a little bit worse.”

The composting toilet, she tells me, is bound for the family’s beach shack, on the far south coast of NSW. She could move there in a heartbeat, and probably will when her sons – Bruno, 14, and Elliot, 9, both strikingly like their mum – leave school. She wants to build an “Earthship” – a low-carbon house made from recycled car tyres.

“I’m the ultimate stupid hippie,” she laughs. “We’re not about stuff and symbols. There is a much better way of showing people who you are than what car you drive or what your handbag is. I’m probably blessed because I have boys, but you have to model things properly for them. Kids, especially around these parts, get very enamoured about all that stuff.”

“I’m the ultimate stupid hippie. There is a much better way of showing people who you are than what car you drive or what your handbag is.”

Two decades ago, Emma made her name modelling stuff. She was one of the new wave of supermodels – heroin-chic icon, friend of Kate Moss, a waifish, dark-eyed suicide blonde.

Even then, she was a nonconformist. As a 20-year-old living in London she was frequently cast as a Claudia Schiffer proxy. She hated having her hair curled, being made to look glamorous and sexy. It didn’t suit her sense of herself. Her then-boyfriend, fashion photographer David Sims, suggested she cut her hair. When she came out of the salon as a willowy street urchin, a new look was born. With her ethereal gaze, exquisite bone structure and artful slouch, she was one of the most sought-after models on the planet.

“We were all just mucking about,” she once said of the buzz. “We were doing whatever we wanted. It just happened that it clicked.”

This is an edited extract of a story which was originally published in The Sun-Herald’s Sunday Life magazine on 20 July, 2015. You can read more and see a slideshow of Trevor King’s photography here.

Photo: Trevor King