From the time I was born my grandmama decided I would follow in her footsteps as an actress. I on the other hand hated being in front of a crowd. The “funny” family story that gets told over and over again about me is the one where I got fired from a movie set when I was 4 or 5 years old. You see my grandmama was staring in the movie along with Judy Davis and a very young Claudia Karvan and my gran had “scored” the role of Colin Friels’ daughter for me. But given that I was terrified of cameras and as stubborn as a mule it ended in disaster when I refused to be coerced, bribed or cajoled into the damn car seat I was suppose to make my debut in. My grandmother was bitterly disappointed in me and never let me forget it. I just wasn’t cut out for that life.
She, on the other hand, was born for it. At 16 she started as a chorus girl, she performed in the circus on the high wire and as a contortionist. She was a vaudeville performer. A singer. A dancer. A comedian. She even spent 3 years performing to the troops in Korea. In the 18 years she was apart of my life I watched her, with awe, do things I had no inclination, or talent to do. She was a fiercely independent woman who raised two daughters, out of wedlock, in the public eye at a time when women just didn’t do “that”. I don’t know that she ever knew that I admired her for those things.
When I was in my first year at high school I didn’t have any friends. I sat alone most days. But then my gran got a lead role in “Heartbreak High” and all of a sudden I could get all the signed pictures of Alex Dimitriades I wanted. I experienced a period of intense popularity. But I never quite got “celebrity” fever. Maybe it’s because I grew up with people that you would see on the screen, tv and stage. I admired them, I considered some of them to be my favourite “Aunts” and “Uncles” (my grandmother never allowed her friends to be addressed by their names only – it was always “Uncle xxxx” and “Aunty xxxx”
I consider my childhood to be especially privileged (apart from the actual miserable home life) as I was exposed to things some people never see. While my nana showed me the world of painters and fine art, my grandmother introduced me to the world of performing arts. I was taken to movie sets, the theatre, jazz clubs and comedic roasts. I watched her perform in 42nd street every night it played during the holidays when I was 15. My favourite place in the whole world was backstage during a performance. I fell in love with a 25 year old gay chorus boy that time. I had free run of that theatre. I sat in the stalls and the dress circle. I watched from backstage and sat in the orchestras pit. She introduced me to the wonderful world of Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. I was the only teenage girl I knew who wanted to marry an old, balding tap dancer! Oh how I loved Fred. She took me to the circus – Ashtons Circus (to which we were somehow related) – where I not only got to watch, but meet the animals, watch the families train and “play” on some of the equipment.
Between my grandmama (my mums mum) and my nana (my dads mum) I experienced so much. To this day I remember bawling my eyes out watching Les Miserables at 16 on a school night. When I fell asleep in phsyics class the next day my teacher demanded to know why. The entire class looked at me like I had two heads when I explained – but my teacher was a huge musical theatre fan and we ended up spending the rest of the class discussing the show.
But my favourite memories of my Grandmama was listening to her sing jazz in various beer gardens and Jazz clubs, watching her become the first female to become a part of the male comedy society with a big roast in her honour, watching her do the splits on tv on her 60th birthday (should I mention it took 3 stage hands to get her out of them?) and watching her over and over again in 42nd Street.
We were quite close (I was the last person to live with her – spending a year with her from 15-16 years old) until the last six months of her life when we stopped talking. I was expecting a baby and madly in love. She had been treated like dirt by men and having a baby almost destroyed her career apparently. In 18 years I had never raised my voice to her until we had a spectacular falling out. I had taken him to Sydney to meet my whole family – after all we were having a baby. We decided to stay with Grandmama as she had a spare room. She took an instant disliking to him (something that has never happened to him before…people usually instantly love him) and was determined to get me to agree to a termination of my pregnancy. She even went so far as to book one for me and tried to force me to go. In the end I couldn’t cope anymore. As crazy as it was I was in love and I desperately wanted my baby. Apart from the horrific morning sickness, I was so overwhelmingly happy. We had a huge fight which ended in her telling me if I walked out the door things would never be the same and they never were. Things were even more bitter after she appeared on TV gushing about how excited she was to become a great grandmother.
She came to see my mum once when I was further along in my pregnancy and even bought me a tonne of designer baby stuff from her friends who had finished having children. But things were so incredibly awkward and pained. We never did patch things up. The last time I spoke to her was about a week before she died. She called randomly in the middle of the night to make sure I had phone numbers of a few people. The same week she made similar calls – random, weird times and strange content. My mum got a call reminding her to always empty the lint filter in the dryer.
I still remember vividly waking up to the phone and him talking in whispers to my mums current boyfriend. When he told me I was sure he got it wrong. I was so sure she would be around forever bossing me around. I actually thought it must be my great nan. I kept saying he got it wrong over and over again. It became even more surreal when it showed up on the news. Then the morning shows were doing tributes.
Hers was the first funeral I had ever been to. I was 8 months pregnant and exhausted from my insane drug addicted aunty – who was even more crazy as her mum had just died. I was tired of trying to look after my two younger brothers. I was sick of searching the house for a non existant will. But the funeral was the worst. The people I had been so close to showed their true colours. Everyone was jumping in front of cameras, clamouring to speak just to get their 5 minutes of fame. The things they said about her were awful. It was a circus. Afterwards some lady got right in my face talking about how excited she was to play at my upcoming wedding. I didn’t even know she had booked a band for the wedding (to the man she couldn’t stand???). I told her the wedding was off and I blew off the wake. If the funeral was that bad, how horrible would it be once they were all drunk and it was open mic. The only saving grace for the day was the amazing ladies of “White Lady Funerals” they made sure I was fed, hydrated, hidden away as much as possible and they took me home straight after the funeral.
4 weeks to the day after she passed away, and just days before what would have been her 66th birthday my daughter arrived. We added her “stage” name to the name we already had picked out. When she was 5 minutes old she looked straight at the camera and almost seemed to pose. She has the same fiery diva attitude. She loves the camera. She loves to sing. She was born for the stage. I can’t help but see so much of my grandmother in her. Life really does come full circle.