Sunny side up
Zimmermann 'Instinct Layered' bikini, $260, zimmermannwear.com. Man The Label 'Palmero' necklace, $99, manthelabel.com. Ole Lynggaard 'Snake' ring, $4350, and 'Nature Ring No. 4', $1995, 1800 765 336. Photo: Trevor King
Jodhi Meares wears leopard print yoga tights and sips lemongrass tea. On her left hand is a modest engagement ring, a small skull where a diamond solitaire might have been. "Jon chose it," she says, showing it off. "It's very us. Very rock'n'roll."
The former Mrs Packer is in a happy place. She has a new clothing label, daily yoga classes and divides her time between Sydney, Hawaii and New York. She's also planning a low-key wedding to her fiancé, former Noiseworks rocker Jon Stevens. There's no date, no place, no dress. "And we won't let anyone know if we do," she laughs.
Warm, witty and impeccably mannered, Meares is nonetheless fiercely private. Questions about her three-year marriage to billionaire James Packer are off limits. So too are her thoughts on the end of Packer's six-year marriage to second wife Erica Baxter. Meares is also coy about her relationship with Stevens which, perhaps because he is nine years her senior and has two adult children, has become gossip column fodder.
"I don't want to get too into it, if you don't mind, darling," says the 41-year-old. "I don't like to talk too much about my personal life but I'm very, very happy. If we could leave it there that would be good."
It's late afternoon on a balmy day. Sunshine bounces off the white walls of the North Bondi cafe and there are glimpses of blue ocean around every corner. It's the perfect setting to meet Ms Meares, the raven-haired bikini model who wedded James Packer in the "wedding of the decade" in 1999, then divorced him in 2002, sailing away with a multimillion-dollar property portfolio and a fledgling fashion label.
The fashion label became Tigerlily – a whimsical collection of bikinis and beachwear that established Meares as an entrepreneur in her own right. In 2007 she sold the company to surfwear giant Billabong in a deal worth between $3 million and $5 million.
At the time, Meares' long-time companion, 11-year-old rottweiler Tenzin, had died and she desperately needed time out. She retreated to Hawaii – eventually buying a house on Oahu opposite the famous surfing break, Pipeline, and just a few doors down from singer Jack Johnson – and to New York, where her eldest sister lived.
"I'd have never have left Australia while Tenzin was alive," says Meares, who wears, next to her engagement ring, an antique diamond ring she bought the day he died. "I was so lucky to be able to take that time out to regroup and look at what I wanted to do next. Billabong was a brand that I really looked up to and I was just flattered that they were interested in my funny little swimwear brand. All the finance people were saying that it was clever timing and I was saying, 'Was it? Good.' But I think I was just lucky."
Meares initially stayed on as creative director, though she has since stepped away in the wake of Billabong's financial woes. But she's grateful to the company – making it through the GFC solo would have been, she says candidly, "really tough".
"I have my opinions on Billabong," she adds. "It's really hard for a brand that is that big and that successful... But it's swings and roundabouts. All you can do in business is celebrate your wins and analyse your mistakes. That's what they are doing. I have no doubt they'll turn around."
Teamwork is fundamental to the Meares ethos. For her new project, The Upside, she's reunited her Tigerlily "A team" – a group of trusted design and marketing experts, except her head designer is now based in London and she has added a social media guru.
"Everything has changed, you can be anywhere now," says Meares of the new global economy. "Ash [designer Ashlea Holdsworth] can pop over to the Paris flea markets at a moment's notice. It's great having your creatives agile like that. You don't want them locked down in an office."
She has a strong hand in each stage of the design process, turning up for work daily at her Surry Hills headquarters in Sydney and staying in constant contact if she is travelling. "I would really not like to work alone," she says. "There are times you need to bounce ideas off each other. It's a really joyful thing to watch people in their element and watch it all come together. We start pooling ideas - prints, architecture, teepees, tree houses, anything that inspires us, a colour or an attitude in a picture or something from an old movie."
If Tigerlily was boho, The Upside is hardcore. Made for runners, gym junkies and yoga devotees, its piece de resistance is a streamlined, body-hugging, leopard-print lycra catsuit that Meares is confident can be worn from gym to street. "We just think every woman loves leopard," she laughs. "It conjures up so many things. It's very rock'n'roll but it reminds me of '50s movie stars. It's just such a cool staple."
Of course, to pull off this look it helps if you have a body like Candice Swanepoel. The decision to book Swanepoel as the face of The Upside – she is a Victoria's Secret Angel and was the ninth highest-earning model on the 2013 Forbes rich list – reflects Meares's desire to take the company international.
Meares says it took a year to convince Swanepoel to come on board; to show her, essentially, that "we're not schmucks". But the investment – the same money as a high-profile launch party, according to Meares – was worth it. Swanepoel's six-month engagement means she also promotes the brand to her 1.5 million Instagram followers.
It's a small taste of the Meares way. Hard work. Patience. Tenacity. Aspiration.
"I love to work and I love to build," she says simply. "It's in my nature, I'm Aries. They're ruled by Mars, so they're very industrious. I like to work hard and I like to have a vision. It's a lovely thing to have it realised."
Talk business with Meares and watch her eyes flash. Hazard into more personal spaces - her diet, her daily fitness regimen - and she has a deft ability to deflect the question. When I ask whether she hopes to have children, she answers with perfect grace, "Jon already has two beautiful children and a very special granddaughter, but if I was to have a child naturally it would be with my future husband."
On spirituality, though, Meares is an open book. Born in Merimbula on the NSW south coast and raised by a single mother who took astrology and numerology seriously, Meares has continued along the same path. She meditates daily, reads philosophy widely and attends at least four yoga classes a week, searching out teachers she feels are kindred spirits – Dharma Shala in North Bondi, the North Shore Yoga Co-op near her home in Hawaii, and Jivamukti in New York.
Interestingly, she was named Jodhi on the advice of her mother's numerologist but dropped it on account of schoolyard teasing, only to add the "h" again in 2002 on the advice of her own numerologist. Not that Meares is a spiritual purist. She loves a drink, and, according to those who know her, a cigarette or four. She also has a sense of humour she's not afraid to turn on herself. "I'll ring Mum about something and she'll say, 'Well, what did you expect, the moon was in Saturn.' " She laughs and slams down an imaginary telephone. "Yeah, Mum, thanks for the advice!"
Still, old habits die hard. She asks me my star sign – "Oh yes, I should have guessed" – and says she makes a point of employing Virgos "for their impeccable attention to detail". Later, talking about a favourite yoga teacher, she says, "She's a lovely woman. Pisces." Then she laughs at herself. "I'm my mother's daughter. It happens to all of us."
Yoga is the mainstay of Meares's life. She did her first class 15 years ago and became serious five years ago. It was a gradual progression - the more she practised, the more she wanted to practise. The result is an even more slender figure and a sharper mind.
"The most beautiful thing with yoga is you learn to accept yourself for who you are," she says. "We're so busy trying not to be who we are and there is so much evaluation in life -should I be like this or should I be like that? It's human nature, but we need to stop and let people be who they are."
I wonder what plagues Meares on the mat. Self-criticism? Past mistakes? Future plans? She bats the question back. "I run on adrenalin and I like to be busy and active and productive. So sometimes it's nice to sit and go, 'Do you really need to be so driven?'"
As well as yoga, she's a mad-keen paddle boarder, soft-sand runner and longboard surfer (though not Pipeline, she assures me). Her small, lean body is as lithe and strong as a tomboy and she is feather-light. And so, when it comes time for us to hit the yoga mat together, I'm more than a little scared.
But Meares has nothing to prove. She has chosen a gentle Hatha class – no dynamic Ashtanga or power yoga here. On the mat, Meares is elegant and poised. I watch as she accepts an adjustment with grace; later, she laughs as a posture goes awry. In her leopard-print tights, she looks like Bamm-Bamm from The Flintstones – barefoot, toenails bright pink, hair hiked into a high ponytail.
After the class, she is huskier, more relaxed. Gone are the Prada sunglasses, the model composure, the fashion-designer air. In their place is a woman completely comfortable in her own skin. "You hope with age comes some sort of wisdom," she offers. "A more peaceful attitude and a more peaceful outlook."
Photography: Trevor King. Fashion editor: Penny McCarthy. Hair and make-up: Claire Thompson.