Imogen Bailey at a Mogadishu school in Go Back To Where You Came From.
Imogen Bailey, the actor and former model who grew up in Canberra, believes SBS was not keen for her to be part of the latest series of Go Back to Where You Came From.
She maintains the multicultural broadcaster was sceptical about her being able to fit into the hit series that allowed prominent Australians to experience the life of a refugee to challenge their views and also those of the audience watching at home.
Bailey says one of series' directors Lincoln Howes had to ''fight tooth and nail for me''.
A naked Imogen Bailey pose with "Reggie" the rabbit during an anti-fur photo shoot for Peta in Sydney March 25, 2004. Photo: Reuters
''Because of the serious subject matter, [SBS] were worried people would say, 'What's a bikini babe doing as part of this?' '' she says.
Howes, however, says there was no particular resistance against Bailey from SBS and that the series production house, Cordell Jigsaw, had to justify all of its casting choices, the others being former defence minister Peter Reith, rocker turned would-be politician Angry Anderson, shock jock Michael Smith, comedian and writer Catherine Deveny and former Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher.
But that's not to say many people underestimated Bailey and questioned Howes' judgment in championing her for the series.
''The first time I spoke to her … I thought, 'Mmm, there's a lot more to her,' '' he says.
And his instincts have proved correct, with Howes declaring Bailey the ''unexpected star of the show''. The former Melrose High and Phillip College student has revealed to a wider audience her compassion, intelligence and ability to articulate a view.
''She's a lot smarter than people think,'' he says.
For its part, SBS says it ''went through the standard casting procedures with Bailey, as we would do with any program, and we're delighted that she's part of the show''.
''She plays a very important role among the group, and she's proving to surprise and impress many viewers,'' a statement from the broadcaster says.
For Bailey, 35, proving she has substance is nothing new. Her first claim to fame was self-publishing bikini calendars of herself, which proved to be a worldwide hit. She was voted the sexiest model in Australia by readers of Ralph magazine. And she went on to appear in everything from Celebrity Big Brother to Skating on Thin Ice.
She starred in Neighbours for 12 months but has been off-the-radar in Australia for the past four years while she pursued acting work and training in Los Angeles. Bailey has always been passionate about animal rights, working with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and two years ago became a Buddhist. ''It changed my life,'' she says.
Bailey says she never intended to return to Australia at this stage in her career but found the chance to be on Go Back to Where You Came From too tempting to refuse.
Howes says Bailey was cast because she was the ''fish out of water'' and the ''blank slate'' - someone who would be influenced by others on the three-week journey with more strident views, as she came to form her own opinions about the refugee situation.
Bailey in the series called herself a ''fence-sitter'' but says that doesn't mean she didn't have an opinion.
''What I actually meant is I believe in the plight of the refugees, I've always believed that we should be doing more,'' she says. ''Where I said I sat on the fence, I meant I didn't know what to do about it because I hadn't previously paid enough attention to Australian politics. I, like a lot of people, get bored with the slinging match and the soap opera that it has become.''
Bailey felt the mainstream media has misinformed her.
''I don't blame any Australian who has a negative view of refugees, because the media is driving us that way. I want[ed] to find out for myself,'' she says.
Bailey also surprised her fellow participants during Go Back to Where You Came From when she revealed that during her modelling career she was involved in an eight-year relationship with a Lebanese Muslim. She was a bikini model by day who read the Koran by night. She fasted during Ramadan and even, on occasion, wore a burqa.
She says in the series that she had been the subject of ''reverse racism'' but now regrets the choice of words.
''It was controversial: the fact I was modelling and, of course, his mother would have preferred him to marry a Lebanese girl, but he's since married someone who isn't. His family was very kind to me, they were very open but I'm not going to say everyone he knew was. Some people are more accepting than others,'' she says.
On the series, Bailey, with Asher and Smith, were sent to Mogadishu, the Somali capital in ruins, a lawless wasteland in which they had to travel in convoy with armed guards. They visited the occupants of a vast makeshift refugee camp, home to thousands of people, where water was a luxury. They met mothers desperately trying to keep their starving children alive.
Last night's episode saw the Australians in Indonesia, a country that is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention for Refugees, where they met desperate asylum seekers living in limbo, and the people smugglers who plied the trade.
Bailey says there are images from the journey that haunt her.
''Absolutely the camp, the children there and the babies we met, who were so malnourished they were smaller than premature babies,'' she says.
''The second was the family we met in Jakarta, who have fled war not once but twice. It's a Somalian mother with her daughter and her three sons. They are in hell. They're in Indonesia, they're not accepted there, they can't work, they can't get anywhere. They are a family trying so desperately to do things the right way. They can't communicate because only one of them knows a little bit of English and Indonesian. The father returned to Somalia and has never come back and is believed to have been killed. They're put on a waiting list and the corruption money these people have to pay is unbelievable.
''We hear so much about the boat people smugglers and the money they take. I have never heard anything in the Australian media about the corruption that is involved in the process of doing things 'the right way'.''
Bailey has stayed in touch with the Somalian family and has spoken to a lawyer who might be able to help them come to Australia.
''Thinking of leaving them behind and knowing they have no hope and are stuck there was just too much,'' she says.
Bailey says she thought about pulling out of the series when she was told she was going to Mogadishu - where they wouldn't have a passport, phone or money.
''For a split second, yes. Because when I told my mum I was doing this show, she'd seen the first series and was a fan and she'd been looking online and said, 'The one place they won't take you is Somalia.' And when they said, 'You guys are going to Mogadishu,' she did not know that's where I was going to go [because I couldn't call her],'' she says.
''But I'm thankful for that because it really added to the experience. Having your passport taken away is unnerving. Michael actually stole his phone back at one stage. There were moments when we tried to get our passports back, we wanted some of our power back.''
Bailey says the whole Somalian experience was intense, saying she felt frozen and in shock most of the time.
''When you're seeing us in the camps, what you're not seeing behind the camera is all the men with guns surrounding us to protect us and all the unpredictable things that are going on around us,'' she says.
Bailey feels she is closer to some answers on refugees but still wants to learn more.
She believes in ''solution-based policies'' rather than ''deterrent policies'' and that the media and politicians need to stop demonising boat people as criminals. ''It's not illegal to seek asylum in Australia,'' she says.
Bailey is now back in Sydney with her mother, and her plans to pursue acting in the US have been put on hold.
''After a week at home, I said to my mum, 'I can't go back yet.' … the contrast between LA and Somalia is way too much, but also because I wanted to take some time to learn about the political side and more about what I was going to do and how I could help. Now that I've seen what's going on, I can't walk away,'' she says.
■ Insight: 'Go Back' Special is on SBS One tonight at 8.30pm.