Simone Starr's name might be synonymous with the seedy underworlds of drugs and prostitution, but when News24's lifestyle editor Herman Eloff sits down with her for a one-on-one interview, he discovers a woman who is triumphing over her nightmare past and is a shining beacon for others lost in the dark.
She was once listed as one of the 100 hottest women in the world, according to FHM, and lived a high-flying life. But it would all come crashing down when she made one choice that would alter the course of her life forever.
Today, Simone Starr, who spent almost seven years in prison after being part of an international drug-smuggling ring, is an entirely different person, and she's on a mission to show others you can rebuild your life no matter how dark your past.
It's 06:00 on a weekday morning in Cape Town when I connect with Simone via Zoom to talk about the new National Geographic show, Banged Up Abroad. It's late afternoon in Sydney, and an exhausted Simone has had a busy day, but accommodates the catch-up nonetheless.
According to Simone, who features in the latest season of the hit series, the creators reached out to her several times before she finally agreed to take part in the show, which chronicles actual experiences of people who got caught abroad and sent to jail for being involved in some sort of illegal activity.
Simone's jaw-dropping story made worldwide headlines when she was arrested. It's not every day that a famous model gets caught smuggling meth from Los Angeles to Sydney.
"I had a whole host of networks and people approaching me at the time. They tried for six months to get me to come on board. They even reached out on Facebook, but I turned them down, and I said no for quite a period.
"Then some lady spoke to me, and she told me the positives that would come from this situation. So, I went away, and I took it all on board. I thought maybe in the long term, through my testimony, I'll be able to instil some sort of positive message in someone that can help them turn their life around or help them not make bad decisions. So, I finally said yes."
Simone's episode focuses on her rise in the modelling industry from Australian beauty to relocating to Los Angeles, where she quickly made a name.
As her star started to shine brighter, Simone got caught up in the glamour of Hollywood and quickly realised she'd need a lot more money if she wanted to sustain her lavish lifestyle. That's when she made a choice that saw her getting involved in illegally shipping methamphetamine disguised as bath salts to Oz.
But you don't jump from fashion model to meth smuggler overnight. This wasn't Simone's first brush with organised crime. Her mother was also involved in the criminal underworld, and Simone herself worked as a high-class escort before finding success as a model.
"My story is a lot deeper than what you guys have. There's so much more content. So much more interesting content and stuff you would probably never even dream about. But that's for another day," Simone tells me as she expresses her desire to one day reveal more in a tell-all book or series.
"My whole life story is a combination of Crank and possibly Scarface. I had a very straight life on one side and a very colourful life on the other side at one point," she adds.
In Banged Up Abroad, we learn how Simone and her agent at the time got caught up in the seedy world of exporting drugs camouflaged as bath salt gift sets that Simone would sell on her website. The drugs were hidden between other merchandise on the site and, at first, the plan seemed foolproof.
Simone quickly earned up to $320 000 a month and spent the cash as soon as she made it. After getting away with their illegal activities for about six months, Simone and her co-conspirator were fearless, and soon their work got sloppy.
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That's when the police intercepted the packages, and the unimaginable was about to happen. When Simone flew to Sydney for a job opportunity in 2009, the cops cornered her at arrivals, and the model was about to be famous for all the wrong reasons.
In 2016, Simone was sentenced to 11 years in prison and, with time served, was eligible for parole in 2019. Her nightmare prison experience is unpacked in detail in the episode and was the catalyst that would inspire her to turn her life around after she was released.
"I didn't know where the world would take me after what I've been through, especially because it was so intense. I ended up studying while in prison and started a bachelor's degree in human services, majoring in counselling," says Simone, who now works as a care and support worker for the aged and those with disabilities.
She adds: "I'm a mentor in the community, and I counsel people and help them. I live a very everyday life now. There's a lot to be said about the other side of the fence, which I've never experienced.
"There are things I had to learn on my own through self-help and a lot of therapy. I never had the skills that most people get through their families. I was pretty much raised by my grandparents and had no siblings. My life was guided by my mother, who was heavily involved in the underworld. So, this to me was like growing up all over again.
"I'm humbled by the fact that I now know who I am. I've beat my demons and my addictions, and I've found direction. When I look back at my life and talk about this situation, it's tough to believe it's me. Because I don't know that person, but that person was me. So, it's hard. It's hard because it doesn't seem real. But then my life now is good. I'm happy where I am."
- I've had a lot of downfalls. I've experienced things they only write movies about. But at the end of the day, I wasn't going to be a victim, and I don't beat myself up about it. I know that this is the hand I've been dealt, and the odds were against me.
- You can do whatever you want to do in your life by just having the will and keeping the motivation.
- It doesn't matter if you fall along the way. Just keep going because you'll get there. If you want it bad enough, you'll get there.
- Start with knowing yourself. To put everything else in place, you have to know who you are and what your DNA is made of psychologically. Otherwise, there's no point because you will never beat an addiction. You won't have direction if you don't know who you are. Then you have to accept who you are.
- Understand that you will make mistakes, and you're not perfect.
- There is no situation so bad that you have to call it quits no matter what you've done. You can get through it. One of my favourite sayings is: "This too shall pass".