Friday, October 13, 2006

Moo Ink

NEW YORK KIND OF GAL - Kristy Hinze

STAND outside 111 Fifth Avenue in New York City for even the briefest moment, and you’ll notice something extremely peculiar.

There, cavorting on the freckled sidewalk abutting one of the world’s most famous thoroughfares, you will find an inordinate number of very, very attractive people. You will witness beautiful men and women taking each other’s pictures with their mobile phones, hopping about like excited schoolchildren, smoking cigarettes, powdering noses and flirting.

Number 111 may be between 18th and 19th streets in Manhattan, part of the urban borough formerly known as “the photo district” for its concentration of fashion houses, camera equipment retailers and film development laboratories. But that doesn’t fully explain this gathering of curves and searing eyes and lantern jaws. This is a rash, a herd, a plague of world-class looks on a tiny apron of concrete.

What’s going on?

It all makes sense when you learn that the 9th floor of the delightfully refurbished Edwardian office block at 111 Fifth Avenue is home to the Ford Models agency. Ford. Perhaps the planet’s most prestigious crucible of beauty. Professional long-time home to Jerry Hall and Christie Brinkley. The ultimate millennial dream factory for young women and not a few young men. A glamour epicentre. Possibly the exact longitude and latitude of “cool” on Earth.

Is it any wonder, then, that all that gorgeousness should sporadically spill down to ground level and gather in a pretty pool out the front of the building?

We have come to Ford to see one of their special clients - Queensland-born model Kristy Hinze. The elevator to Ford opens to a bare foyer, the walls painted in blistering red. It is like stepping into a giant supermodel’s pout.

Behind the reception counter is the poster of a stunning male model. Approaching the desk, you realise it’s not a poster at all, but a real person (not easily distinguishable at Ford). It’s Ben, the receptionist. He, in turn, calls Charlotte, Kristy’s “booker” at the agency. And Charlotte comes out to tell us that Kristy is half an hour late. Can we wait?

One of the wonderful things about the modelling business these days is that surnames seem to be superfluous. It is all very egalitarian and informal. It’s also a bonus for people with dull, unattractive or difficult-to-spell surnames. No Smith and Jones here.

So Kristy is Kristy. And inside Ford, there are literally walls of photo cards depicting the agency’s stable of models who are just called Ajuma or Asa or Flavia or even the less exotic Pamela, Stephanie, Hollyanne or Vanessa. Who would have ever thought that plain old Vanessa would one day be the stand-alone moniker of a famous fashion model?

Ben, at reception, is politely frazzled. It’s children’s audition morning for an advertising catalogue and there are innumerable good-looking kiddies running about the agency. It has, for a while, become a crèche full of perfect human genes.

Does he get a lot of modelling “hopefuls” turning up cold at the Ford desk?

“Every day of the week,” he sighs. “I had a woman in here the other day who was performing yoga, yoga, right there in front of me, telling me her daughter, who wanted to be a model, could also do yoga.”

Ben confides he sometimes takes Polaroid snaps of drop-ins, ensuring them the picture would “get to the right people”, and slips them in the bin when the subject has left. It is understandable. Ben sits at the gateway between anonymity and unimaginable wealth and recognition.

Then Kristy arrives.

According to her official Ford thumbnail biography, Kristy Hinze is 177cms tall, wears a size 40 shoe and a size 34 dress. Chest 86 cm. Waist 61cm. Hips 89cm. She is 26 years old.

In real life, statistics aside, she is on this day tall, almost willowy in a flowing floor-length halter neck dress and sandals. She is lightly tanned. She is almost completely devoid of make-up, and her blonde hair is pinned up at the back. Large, gold hoop earrings extend from her lobes.

When Kristy smiles and introduces herself, she immediately betrays a hint of the source of her popularity, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere – she radiates a peculiar naturalness that gives you the feeling, as improbable as it sounds, that she has just come in from a stroll on a beach, a hike through a forest, a swim in the ocean. There is a sense of freedom about her, a whiff of wildness, that is even more accentuated when placed against an urbanised landscape layered with technology, infrastructure, and the pace of modern life, like New York City.

Indeed, the more you observe her, the more mercurial she becomes. Over the two days in her company, a slight change of hairstyle or outfit alters her appearance each time – she is teenager then mature woman, farm girl then cosmopolitan professional, sportswoman then art aficionado.

The former editor-in-chief of Australian Vogue magazine, Nancy Pilcher, once described Hinze: “…she has a very Australian look, a unique attitude, a sort of coltish look which doesn’t come around that often.” Other fashion editors have also detected Hinze’s chameleonic quality – with the turn of a head she can appear as if she just alighted from a horse, or come from dinner at the Waldorf Astoria.

Kristy herself later summarises her own style and appearance perfectly: “I am not the girl-next-door, but the girl you wished lived next door.”

She laughs at this. That wishful look has made her probably the most successful and recognisable Australian model since Elle McPherson, afforded her a lifestyle that to most is simply unimaginable, as we shall see, and continues to feed her glamorous peripatetic existence.

“I thought I looked like a camel when I was a teenager,” she says matter-of-factly. “Then a donkey. But I was the donkey that morphed.” She glances out the window and across the rooftops of Lower Manhattan.

“And to think, when I was younger, I wanted to be a horse chiropractor when I grew up.”



*



THE Kristy Hinze story is not exactly Pygmalion, but it’s not far off it either. (“I don’t want no gold and no diamonds. I'm a good girl, I am.” - Eliza Dolittle.)

Before Kristy “morphed”, as she puts it, into a beauty, she was most famously paternal granddaughter to the late Queensland “Minister for Everything”, Russ Hinze. She was 11 when he died of cancer, aged 72, in late June, 1991. Hinze, from a family of south coast dairy farmers, faced allegations of corruption stemming from the Fitzgerald Inquiry at the time of his death. Former deputy-premier Tom Burns described him in parliament as “an old crook”, the world’s worst singer and ‘a good bloke’.

Kristy says: “I’ve had some people come up to me who didn’t like my grandfather’s politics. All I’ve got to say to them is - I was his granddaughter, I was eleven, I had no idea about his politics. At home he was just Gramps, lying around watching movies with us and taking us to see the horses. He was wonderful. He was awesome. There was nothing he loved more than his grandkids.”

Hinze’s son and Kristy’s father, Rod, was also a dairy and cattle farmer. She has fond memories of the family farm at Beaudesert.

“I thought it was the most amazing way to grow up,” Kristy says. “I thank God that I grew up the way that I did. It gave me responsibility. I had to get up early and even before I’d started my school day I fed the horses and cows and pigs and chooks. The same thing happened when I got home.

“It taught me a lot - how to look after other things as well as myself. I think it helped me with my modelling, having that sort of background. You show up on time. You do your job. I know what it takes to get me to that job.

“Getting my hands dirty wasn’t really a problem for me. I think it definitely gave me grounding. Knowing where I came from helped me deal with the success and fame and fortune that have been afforded me in this industry.”

At 14, it was decided by her mother Vivienne that Miss Hinze would attend the Buckingham School of Modelling in Southport on the Gold Coast to smooth out some of her personal edges. (“I was a terrible tomboy.”) There were issues, it seems, with her deportment.

A scout at Buckingham informed Sandra Robbins of the Brisbane branch of Vivien’s Models (founded by agency doyenne Vivien Smith) that they had “someone special” in class, and many months later Kristy – who ummed and ahhed about it – headed to the big city for her fateful meeting.

“We saw her in the waiting room and thought – yes, thank you,” says Robbins. “She just stood out. The eyes. The hair. The way she carried herself. A Kristy Hinze doesn’t come along very often. She was 14. Living in the back of beyond. Riding horses. The farm. There was nothing pretentious about her. She just had that X-factor.”

Within weeks Kristy was on the cover of Vogue magazine.

“That sort of thing doesn’t happen much,” Kristy recalls. “I was shooting with a male model as well and I was supposed to look sexually intimate with him. I had no idea. I’d never even kissed a boy.

“There was a shot where I had to straddle this guy. It took a lot for the photographer to get me to do it. I thought - I can’t do that. My mother will kill me! What will my grandmother think? I’m going straight to hell. I got through it.”

With her first pay cheque - $2,000, and astronomical for a teenager – she made her first investment. “I bought six cows at auction. I actually did make a lot of money on them. I bred them and ended up having something like fifty cows. It was quite profitable. Those six cows, I called them Kristy 1, Kristy 2, Kristy 3, 4, 5, and 6.”

At Ford, the auditioning model children are still running amok. Kristy suggests lunch. Leaving the building, we pass through the pool of beautiful people out the front. She doesn’t seem to notice them. And they stare after her, as if they have just recognised a superior member of their species.


*


OVER on West Broadway in Soho we arrive at one of Kristy’s favourite restaurants – Downtown Cipriani – part of the exclusive chain of eateries started by the legendary Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Venice’s Harry’s Bar and inventor of the Bellini and Beef Carpaccio.

One reviewer wrote of Downtown Cipriani when it first opened: “…attracting the same sort of moneyed, international clientele as Harry’s uptown. The yellow awning bears no name, so only the privileged are in on the secret.”

“I love this place,” she says, and as she enters a volley of waiters and the maitre’d smile in concert. Cheeks are kissed in the European manner and we are ushered to a table at the front, beside the glass and wood doors.

The food is stupendous. She orders some simple asparagus and then tuna.

She talks of her first experiences of New York City: “I came here when I was 16 with my Mum and Vivien (Smith). I was over here for a month and I stayed at Eileen Ford’s (as in Ford Models) apartment in the city. It really was the big smoke. I walked around stunned the whole time. Big buildings. The car horns going off all the time. Phew. I needed to sit down. It was just like every first experience, it was crazy, incomprehensible.”

As her modelling career took off – she is only the second Australian model after Elle McPherson to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated’s famous annual swimsuit edition - she juggled her schoolwork with the demands of constant international travel. The books and lessons ended up following her around the world, and often the twain did not meet. Bundles of schoolwork in London. Kristy in Japan. Or vice versa. She was happy, however, to be removed from the milieu of Beaudesert High School.

“I wasn’t the most popular kid at school,” she recalls. “I was head of the sporting teams, the swimming. I did all that. But as far as popular girls go, I wasn’t the popular one. Then I started modelling.

“I had instances where women, girls, would have a go at me in the bathrooms. There was pushing and shoving. One day I couldn’t take it anymore and decided I wasn’t coming back. I told the principal my reasons and decided to finish school by correspondence. I didn’t have to put up with it anymore.

“I was a really good student and I really enjoyed school. I loved my ancient history classes, biology, chemistry, all of those sciences. It was a pity.”

After lunch, we meet up with some of Kristy’s “crazy” New York friends. There is artist and art dealer Peter Tunney, who is dying to show off the latest works of his client, photographer Roberto Dutesco, in a studio in Crosby Street. (“I did $60,000 business in one day in a restaurant uptown. I’m gunna go there every day, set up a cash register!” says Tunney.) There’s a short stopover at the hole in the wall café Ruby’s on Mulberry Street, owned and run by Australians. Friend and fellow expatriate, photographer James Houston, drops by for some coffee and cake. (“New York is about survival,” says Houston, “and to see Kristy go on and have so much success, well, you’ve got to be proud of her, she’s done a great job. Her look represents the essence of Australia. She’s about natural beauty.”)

“I’ve got a whole little Australian community here,” Kristy says on the way back to her apartment in Tribeca. “It’s comforting, to hang out with Aussies.” She has lived on and off in New York since she was 18.

Interestingly, her dialogue is peppered with Australianisms. She talks about being “cactus”, “stoked”, and throws in the occasional “bloody hell”. She laughs at herself when these little home aphorisms pop into her speech. Yet when talking to her agent or booker on the mobile, or in the company of New York friends, her accent shifts to a definite American twang. It doesn’t appear deliberate. Like many long-term expatriates, she seems to tune into the dialect at hand as someone might tune in a radio station.

By chance, our car passes Downtown Cipriani’s again. A man sitting outside, wearing a white singlet and with slicked back hair and dark sunglasses, sees her and waves enthusiastically. “When are you going to make it down to Mexico?” he shouts, an imploring hand suspended in the warm, late afternoon air.

“I’ll call,” she responds. ‘I’ll call.” She slumps back in the seat. “Guys,” she says, almost with self-bemusement, “this is my life.”



*



SHE lives in a comfortable, rented two-bedroom apartment with views of Lower Manhattan. In fact, if it wasn’t for the New York panorama, it could be a flat on the Gold Coast or at Noosa with its white couches, parquetry floors and bright, beach shack-style decorations and pastel touches. It has the air of a place only occasionally lived in. It is the digs of a woman on the move.

On one wall is huge painting/mural by her friend Peter Tunney. It reads: NOTHING HAPPENS UNLESS, FIRST A DREAM.

Kristy pulls a beer from the fridge, curls up on the couch with Grace Kelly, her miniature Schnauzer, and is relaxed enough to talk about love, or its lack thereof.

Is she seeing anyone at the moment?

“I’m dating a couple of people, but…” A long pause. “I’m too serious about all the other things going on in my life at the moment. I’ve realised I’ve spent a lot of time with boyfriends over the years and haven’t really focussed so much on what I needed to do for my career and for myself.”

She cringes at the list of her more public past romances – French-born model turned art dealer Mickael De La Selva, Fashion TV supremo Dan Benayer, Andrew Videto.

“They were all nice guys, well, actually no, one of them wasn’t,” she says. “He stole a lot of my money. But that’s another story. My parents have been pretty accepting of all my weird choices, and when they’re no longer around – phew, thank God. French guys. Fashion-y type men. I guess you have to try different things before you find out what you want. I’ve made mistakes. I should have listened to my friends.

“I need someone who is down to earth and can deal with the fact that I’m going to be away quite a bit and that I’m going to get a lot of attention from other males. Not someone with a hot head who’s out to fight every guy that looked at me.”

She recalls a story and laughs. “Do you know Marcus Schenkenberg, the model? His pick up line was – ‘You and I would have really beautiful children.’ I thought, that’s the worst line I’ve ever heard in my life, and I’ve heard some pretty bad ones.”

It is a rare day that Kristy gets to relax in New York. She has just returned from jobs, golf and scuba diving in Florida. On the weekend prior to our meeting she went up to a friend’s house in the Hamptons – the summer playground for the rich and famous on Long Island, east of Manhattan - in a private seaplane. She recently swam with sharks in Costa Rica. In three days time she is off to Europe again for a modelling assignment with her client, Decleor, the French skincare company, then to St Tropez to meet some friends.

According to Sandra Robbins, models in Kristy’s class are capable of making “serious” money. “Runway girls get more publicity, but it’s the girls who do the product catalogue work who earn the big dollars. Someone like Kristy can earn $A10,000 a day from a regular client, and a shoot might last three or four days. That might happen two or three times a year for the same client. Then you might have several regular clients you work for.”

Hinze has properties at Bondi Beach in Sydney and at Noosa on the Sunshine Coast. Her business investments have included a juice bar in Coolum and a chain of baby product stores throughout Queensland. She is contemplating buying property in New York.

“I have some great clients,” Kristy says. “A lot of beauty stuff. I’m still travelling around doing catalogues and editorials. It’s pretty much the same as I’ve always been done. My career has never really taken a big dip; it has maintained a level, which is wonderful. I’m very lucky.

“I have to be in St Tropez at the end of month. I have a fragrance campaign with Puffy (hip hop impresario Sean Combs) or whatever he calls himself these days, Germany again for a department store campaign. Sometimes I forget which country I’m in.

“I’ve already started thinking - how much longer can I do this? - but the truth is I can do this for another ten years, and I have no problem doing that, as long as I have other challenges. I’ve managed to set myself up with a very nice lifestyle and I’ll be able to continue that for the rest of my life.”

A few of the aforementioned challenges include finishing her high school certificate by correspondence (she abandoned it mid-Year 11), completing an acting course in New York (she has a small part in the film Perfect Stranger, starring Bruce Willis and Halle Berry, to be released next year), and bringing down her golf handicap (in the low 20s). One of her favourite things in the world, she concedes, is heading down to the nearby Chelsea Pier Golf Club and “belting the crap out of a few balls”.

She misses Australia, and says she slipped in and out of the country last May when her sister, Lauren, 25, gave birth to twin boys. (She has two other siblings – Russ, 19, and Guy, 32.)

“Nobody knew I was in town,” she says. “I’m very passionate about Australia. Extremely passionate about Queensland. I will always go back there. But I’ve got one foot firmly planted in New York, and the other firmly planted in Australia, and I kind of like my lifestyle right now.”

Her mother, Vivienne, still wonders if the family made the right choice in letting Kristy go into modelling: “It was a very hard decision we had to make. To do it again now that we’ve done it, and as a mother, I don’t know if we would do it. We miss her, and she’s a lot older and wiser in the mind than her 26 years. I think she missed out on a few things because of her career, but she’s done incredibly well. Unfortunately she has to be in the U.S. and Europe. That’s where it is.

“She has a different life. It’s not like back home on the farm. It’s a high lifestyle they lead, but Kristy has always been grounded. Kristy is Kristy. I’ve met people in her industry and 90 percent of them are wonderful, but 10 percent are sharks, and you have to keep an eye out for them.”

With so much exterior colour, glamour, celebrity, and global travel in her life, what is it, then, that nourishes Kristy Hinze’s inner life? Her private self?

“Just because modelling is so…it can be a very fake industry,” Kristy says. “People who get together on a photo shoot become friends instantly because you sort of have to, but it’s acting. Everyone’s acting on the job. Even if you really don’t like them you can’t have that vibe at a shoot.

“You get phone numbers and you never call, or you do and try to make plans and it all falls to pieces. I go back to my real friends, friends who have been there since I moved to New York, and make sure I have a really good network of people around me, that care about me as a person and not just what you I look like.

“I don’t look at myself as any different from anyone else because I’m not, I’m just a human being who happens to do something that some people can’t do, which is just like anybody.

“Then there is my family, of course. I treasure my friends. And there’s my dog.”

The next day, Kristy meets us at the Chelsea Pier Golf Club after finishing a morning audition for a major hair product company. She feels the need to unleash a few one woods.

Kristy changes into her golfing attire and takes us and her Callaway clubs up to the fourth level of the driving range. Chelsea Pier is not a real golf club at all, but an elaborate multi-level practice facility, protected by towering nets, that juts into the Hudson River.

She belts a couple of clangers – hooking and shanking left and right – then starts to find her range. “I want to hit the net at the end, on the full. Here we go.” It’s 250 metres. And she does it.

Later, she says: “I was a daydreamer as a kid. Fantasising about different things. The catwalk was the furthest thing I’d ever thought. I’d never even looked at a fashion magazine. I knew of Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell but it was not something I aspired to. I thought Elle PcPherson was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen, but I just wasn’t interested in fashion.

“I probably would never have even been to New York. It’s funny to think about that. I might have been a show jumping professional in Beaudesert. A horse chiropractor. And yet here I am.”

A friend has loaned Kristy her chauffeur and car for the day. The black, polished Maybach and suited driver are waiting at the entrance to the Chelsea Pier Golf Club.

She wishes us farewell and the limousine slowly pulls out. Suddenly, the spritely head of Grace Kelly pops up and the Schnauzer watches us through the rear window of the car before it disappears into the afternoon Manhattan traffic.

Something is glinting in the back of the limousine. It is Grace Kelly. She is wearing a sparkling, diamante collar.

UNDERGROUND - A Talk with Andrew McGahan

IT may say more about the taxi driver than the place itself, but when I ask to be taken to the western Melbourne suburb of Yarraville – home to expatriate Queensland novelist Andrew McGahan – my request is met with bemusement.

Yarraville? A directory is consulted, a map studied and swivelled around on the console between the two front seats. The driver scratches his head. And eventually we are heading out of the CBD and over the great, towering West Gate Bridge with its view of the city’s one-time industrial heartland.

Yarraville and neighbouring Footscray, it turns out, were settled on the old stock route into the city, and the villages once bristled with tanneries, abattoirs and places like Henderson’s Ham Curing Establishment. And sitting on the western banks of the Maribyrnong River, they quickly became Melbourne’s industrial hub in the late 19th century.

The place had high death rates from typhoid, and, according to official reports, stagnant pools of sewage under houses, alongside roadways, and waterways “unspeakably polluted”.

Today, Yarraville is a mere 15-minute drive from the city centre, and the curing works and factories have been turned into arts centres and warehouse apartments. Census reports deem Yarraville as being “under gentrification”. In contemporary parlance, the yuppies are moving in.

Embedded in this, amidst the narrow streets and refurbished worker’s cottages, the organic food stores and funky cafes, is the Dalby wheat farmer’s son, McGahan.

“There are still cobbles under the bitumen here,” says McGahan, when we finally meet, strolling the short distance from his home to the village centre. He is keen to point out, it seems, at least some vestiges of the suburb’s gritty past. “It was a wintry, foggy day when we came down here for the first time,” he says. “It was so cheap. It’s still a working class area, just enough but it’s fading. It got discovered. Now it’s a young, yuppie suburb, and kids. The endless bloody prams. Everyone’s got a pram.

“All the people I know live here now. That’s why we’d never leave the suburb. It’s like being in a little country town.”

McGahan, 40, is one of the more curious figures in Australian literature. He offers, time and again, an apparent nonchalance towards aspects of his chosen career, and yet he has blossomed, surely and steadily, into one of the finest writers of his generation.

He gives very few interviews, and yet he is well known as a writer and his books are popular for literary fiction. He has decided to cease making appearances at writer’s festivals, citing that he has “nothing to say that would be of interest to anyone else”, and yet the demand for his time and presence has never been greater. None of his friends are from the “book world”.

Furthermore, he is an Australian novelist and yet has read very little Australian writing, and almost none by his contemporaries. His work, beginning with the “grunge lit” novel Praise, winner of the Vogel prize in 1991, looked set to follow a predictable pattern charting the woes of our disenchanted youth, yet after his book 1988 he produced the superlative post-Fitzgerald Inquiry thriller Last Drinks (2000). He followed this with yet another stylistic body swerve in The White Earth, a gothic meditation on Australian race relations and land ownership. It earned him the Miles Franklin Award last year.

Indeed, McGahan’s work is broadening in scope, book by book, and yet he likes nothing more than staying at home and watching television, or cooking. The bigger his world view and narrative thematics, the smaller his playground. He likes it in this little country town of his.

“I don’t do much, really,” he says. “In fact, when I think about it, I’m surprised at how little I do. I’m a house husband. I like cooking. I make curries. I find it satisfying. Or I come up to the pub and meet friends for a drink. That’s it.”

His rare public appearance, on this occasion, is to talk about Last Drinks, which has been adapted for the stage by his good friend, the Brisbane playwright Shaun Charles, and will have its world premiere on August 17 at La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre.

“Yes, Last Drinks,” McGahan says. “I’ll be going along to opening night and I’ll be keen to see it, but I don’t know who any of the cast are, and I’ll be going along to none of the rehearsals. It’s not my play, it’s Shaun’s.

“I’ve gone over some of the drafts of the adaption, and it’s been so long since I wrote that book I’ve had to be reminded who some of the characters are.”

He smiles. It’s impossible to see his eyes behind his large, dark sunglasses.

“So,” he says. “Will we go to the pub?”



*


IT sits on a table at the side of La Boite’s cavernous rehearsal space at Kelvin Grove, and for a moment resembles a black, somewhat sinister, steamer trunk from another century. In fact, it is a miniature of the set of Last Drinks.

La Boite theatre director Ian Lawson is peering down into the black maw of the tiny set. He indicates a structure that looks like a minimalist oil rig, with a human being strapped into it, crucifixion-like.

“It’s symbolic,” he says, “of what was done to Queensland during the period. And there’s the past, or blood, or wine, spilling across the stage. It could be George’s inner life.”

The George he refers to is George Verney, the former alcoholic journalist and primary protagonist of Last Drinks who, since the Fitzgerald Inquiry into police corruption, has lived a quiet life in Highwood, a mountain village on the border between Queensland and NSW.

George has fled his past, and left behind in Brisbane a string of friends, lovers and acquaintances who became entangled in the corruption inquiry. Some were jailed. Others should have been jailed, but weren’t. Almost all of them are physical wrecks, courtesy of the booze.

As Last Drinks opens, Verney is told by the police that his one-time friend, the restaurateur Charles Monohan, has been found tortured and murdered. In a remote electrical substation. In Highwood. After a decade of self-imposed exile, Verney is drawn back through the emotional nettles and complications of a past he thought he’d left behind.

“It’s exciting,” says Lawson. “We’re at a point now, in Queensland, where we want to hear our own stories. It’s time to do that now.”

It is the first rehearsal for the cast on this day, and there is a tangible excitement in the room as the actors takes their seats and form a semi-circle in front of Lawson.

There is George (played by Peter Marshall), Kelly the Cop (Chris Baz), Brisbane’s Old Money establishment figure Sir Jeremy Phelan (Chris Betts), corrupt former Minister of the Crown Marvin McNulty (Steven Tandy), the ghost of Charlie (Damien Cassidy) and George’s former lover May (Helen Howard). Shaun Charles is sitting in the semi-circle, a pencil at the ready.

“Let’s jump straight into the read,” says Lawson.

“I shouldn’t be standing here,” says Marshall as a distraught George. ”This was all supposed to be over. Finished with. Everything ended in 1989 after the Inquiry. It’s over. It ended ten years ago…I was asleep when I got the call. It was the police.”

George is interrogated by Kelly. Then on page six of the script the inscrutable one-time National Party “Minister for Everything”, Marvin McNulty, bellows for a drink. There is laughter amongst the cast and other observers. Actor Tandy’s raucous, Queensland twang is so familiar, so frighteningly recognisable from a not-so-distant era, that it engenders not just surface humour but a deep nervous response. It’s the same with Betts’ creepy, slithery exposition of Sir Jeremy. Even during the first rehearsal, you’re taken back to a Queensland that seemed to exist so long ago, and yet, eerily, could still be just around the corner. The whole room feels it.

As George laments: “So where else but Queensland would a man like Marvin end up in government? It was bizarre. The public couldn’t get enough of him. They lapped him up. Queenslanders didn’t like sophisticated types. They liked their representatives to be awkward, and incoherent. They mistook it for honesty.”

And later, May launches a heated attack on Sir Jeremy and all he represents. In fact, she is savaging Queensland’s past. “The sight of you makes me physically ill,” she says. “You and your kind want the people of this state to be satisfied with less, be satisfied with backwardness. Worse, you want us to be proud of it. And don’t listen to those southerners, you’re tougher here in Queensland, it doesn’t matter if they laugh at you. You make me sick. The worship of ignorance is the excuse of rednecks and backwaters and corrupt governments the world over, and people believe it, they get used to it. And you and your kind just keep scooping the heart out of the place.”

Charles, 32, later discusses the difficulty in adapting the novel to the theatre. He directed a version of McGahan’s earlier play, Bait, and even starred in a second version, and has since collaborated with McGahan on sitcom and movie scripts. (They are presently at work on a horror flick with the tentative title of Bloodnight. It features two characters called Shaun Charles and Andrew McGahan.)

“I was too young when the Fitzgerald Inquiry was all happening,” Charles says. “But I’m fascinated by it. When I tell people I’m adapting Last Drinks, it fires them up. They want to tell me they’re stories.

“People like to hear their own stories, to hear on stage the streets they live in being mentioned and the places they know. Brisbane is becoming a big city and our stories are pretty good, they’re as good as anywhere else.

“Andrew has been contributing to the adaption. I think we’re up to draft 11. He emails copious notes and suggestions. I think he likes the social side of the theatre. It’s an outlet for him. He thinks it’s all drinks after the show and lots of fun. If only.”

Charles confirms that McGahan has not met the director of the play (Lawson), nor any of the actors. The vast bulk of communications about the production have been carried out via email.

“Andrew is a formidable intellect and he plays the recluse really well, but it’s also the real deal,” Charles says. “One of his favourite things is to sit down and watch TV. (He is partial to DVD boxed sets – Deadwood, The West Wing, Buffy.)I know some of his friends and not one of them are from the literary world. They’re from IT, or banking or law. He still has friends from when he worked in the public service. I would say he doesn’t take himself too seriously though he does take his work seriously.

“Naturally, he wants to get this right. And I’m a bit terrified. People love McGahan’s work. It’s been a delicate balancing act.”

Near the end of the first rehearsal, George talks to the ghost of his mate Charlie: “Anyway, it’s over. Ten years too late, but that’s Queensland for you, always ten years behind the pace.”

The reading ends. Lawson looks happy. Charles is thinking of even more cuts he might have to make to his umpteenth draft. And the little bloodied and naked figure in the set model quivers, strung up on wires. Emasculated.



*



“What’ll you have?” McGahan asks.

We have come to his local pub – The Blarney Stone – an Irish-themed watering hole in the heart of Yarraville. It might have an Irish flourish to it on the outside, but inside it bears all the characteristics of a classic working class Australian hotel.

It is early afternoon and the clients include workers grabbing a beer and a pub lunch, and elderly men reading newspapers in the dim winter light through the windows and sitting for hours on a single ale.

“They’d be factory workers, dock workers,” McGahan says, indicating a group of men across the room. He is clearly at home in this place. He has known dreary, soulless work. He has known unemployment. All of this has been chronicled through his semi-autobiographical anti-hero Gordon in his early novels and the play Bait, set in a mail sorting room.

“It’s where I left Gordon,” he says. “I wanted to look at the nature of work - is it worth working at any cost? Is it more soul destroying to do shit work for no money than not working at all, which is supposed to be ultimately soul destroying.

“I had that job in the mail sorting room. That’s where I was when I heard Praise had won the Vogel. If it hadn’t won that prize I’d probably still be there myself. It was where our life separated.

“It was a cruel way to end it. It was a black ending for Gordon. I can’t write about Gordon anymore; there’s nothing left to say about him. As much as he was me, my life’s been happy since then. There’s not an unhappy situation to put him in.”

Last Drinks, the novel, was McGahan’s fictional bridge from self-reflective writings to a more complex and imagined narrative. The White Earth, set on the Darling Downs, completed that journey. McGahan may have tilled memories of his Queensland childhood, but in it he produced a powerfully realised epic novel of place and ideas, which revealed his maturation as a writer.

He was naturally pleased to win the country’s greatest literary accolade – the Miles Franklin Award for 2005 – but not for the public attention.

“There was a sense of freedom the award gave me,” he says. “With The White Earth I believe I did as good as I could do with that sort of style. After the award it felt like I could try anything.

“I have a little bit of money in the bank now. But I have never been terrified of not having money; I’ve always had enough. As long as I had money for tobacco (he’s since given up smoking) and alcohol, everything was alright.

“And I’ve never really thought about ‘things’ before. About buying material ‘things’. My partner Liesje (a veterinary scientist) and I have been renting the same house since we moved to Melbourne six years ago. We moved here for Liesje’s study and work. There was no other reason than that, and by chance a lot of our friends from Brisbane were moving down at the same time. Yet everybody we know now is buying property. This property thing, it’s everywhere and it gets in your head.

“Should we be doing this? I don’t know.”

McGahan’s next novel – Underground – will be released in October. It will be his first book without a primary Queensland context. It is also a natural follow on from McGahan’s engagement with politics in The White Earth.

“Think Australia, some five or so years from now,” his publishers, Allen & Unwin, state in their promotion blurb. “The war on terror is dragging on and on. Canberra’s been wiped out by a nuclear bomb detonated by unknown terrorists. All citizens have been issued with identity cards. Fuelled by a gleeful, anarchic energy that takes a chainsaw to political neo-correctness, white-picket-fence thinking and Australia’s new ultra-nationalism, this book goes straight to the heart of the country’s future – and it ain’t pretty.”

Underground is, in short, McGahan’s meditation on the not-too-distant future of Australia. Moreso, it’s his way of venting his thoughts and feelings about what has happened to his country over the past decade.

“Don’t get me started on this,” he says. “What’s annoying me about the country at the moment? I don’t want to rant. It’s in the new book. I’d rather not go into talking about it. When Underground comes out I’m going to have to do this same interview over and over. There’s no point just getting mad.

“Even after ten years, the Howard Government – it’s just getting into the swing of things. Can the country get back to what it was? Can it get back?”

Does he feel, as an Australian novelist, that he has an obligation to voice his opinions? To speak out?

“I have less an obligation as an opportunity,” McGahan says. “It’s useless to sit around, get drunk and rant and rave. You’ve got to do something. What do you do? Do you join a party? I have the option of writing a book and some people might read it.

“This book – some people will love it, and some people will think it’s crap. That’ll pretty much be the political divide I think.”

It’s getting dark outside. McGahan’s phone starts ringing. Slowly, steadily, his Yarraville tribe are beginning to mobilise. Friends are on their way down. For drinks. For dinner.

He is at home here, in Yarraville. I think back to earlier in the day, picking him up at his house, and noticing an extraordinary but bleak picture that he has as his screen saver on his computer. It is a grey industrial landscape, taken by McGahan himself in the local area. (“Yes, I took it,” he says. “I’m getting into digital photography.”) It’s a long way from the wavering wheat fields of the Darling Downs. From his days in New Farm and the Gabba.

Interestingly, if you were to take a bird’s eye view of McGahan’s career, its surface randomness has a logic, a pattern to it. There was the Brisbane period of Praise and 1988. His farewell to Brisbane book, Last Drinks. The homage to childhood and the beginnings of a broader, national view in The White Earth, completed in Melbourne. And with Underground, the futuristic satire. For someone who doesn’t move about much, he manages to cover a lot of territory.

What’s next? Living outside Australia?

“Who knows?” he says. “Liesje and I are going to the UK in October. I’ve never been. But my closest friends are here. You’d be surprised at how little I get out of Yarraville. I just potter around the house. I finish a book, then I sit around. It doesn’t sound like much does it?

“But I do feel I have a job. And it’s not a bad job.”

SELF-PORTRAIT

A Snapshot of Artist Hazel Dooney:





JUST five hours after our interview, artist Hazel Dooney sends an email marked URGENT to clarify matters.

“What is it they say: act in haste, repent at leisure?” she writes. “Which is not to say that it wasn't good to meet you today, or that I felt that you were anything less than complete in your questions of me. It's just that when I found myself reflecting on our conversation, I felt that some of my answers – in the attempt to keep it light and cheerful – risked giving you the wrong impression of what I really felt about some things.

“Your questions about my childhood were unexpected, and I guess I was trying to put a homey gloss on my responses. But it was anything but homey…” The email adds that she believes it important she doesn’t “pull any punches” in expressing her true feelings.

This is typical Dooney both personally and in her art. To say she pulls no punches is being polite. The 28-year-old, who spent her formative years in Brisbane, is a study in brutal self-examination. She quite literally cannibalises her inner-thoughts, her past, indeed her own body, for the sake of her work.

On the day we meet in Sydney’s northern beaches, where she currently lives and works, she is at once powerful and brittle, brash and nervous, raw and reticent.

She is anachronistic in her surrounds – a polite, petite café at posh Avalon, thick with wealthy retired ladies of a certain age, and gents who all looked like they’ve just come off a tennis court at their local country club.

Dooney, however, imposingly tall with her hair cropped short and with paint splashed on her work sneakers, sits at an outdoor table like an exotic, possibly dangerous, flower in this dull field of upper middle class suburbia. (When we’re momentarily interrupted by a car alarm, Dooney rails at the local “yuppies”.)

We have just come from her “studio” up the road – a two-bedroom converted flat in a curious, Spanish-style block of apartments – and refreshments are desperately required. Inside the flat are numerous finished and incomplete works that will constitute Dooney’s latest exhibition in Melbourne – Venus in Hell. And visiting her work space at this frenzied time is like stepping into a parallel universe of voodoo and ancient sacrificial ritual, of blood, death, self-immolation and pain.

The sketches and watercolours feature eerie, violent landscapes with naked women and children at their center. Even an untrained eye can detect a physical resemblance between the tortured women and Dooney.

It’s a relief, then – at lunch – to take a long draft of fresh water.

“It’s been easier to use myself in poses; I’m familiar with my own proportions now,” Dooney says. “I think that when you’re exploring something that you know. I’m so tired of art that doesn’t reveal or show anything, that doesn’t tell you anything you don’t already know. About humanity. About the deep, dark aspects of someone.

“Cannibalise is probably a really good word for most of what I do. A huge amount. Consuming, displaying, flaying, probing. It’s a way of me processing myself for the outside world.”

Dooney is arguably Australia’s most successful artist of her still young generation. She is financially independent. She abandoned the traditional system of being represented by galleries two years ago, and, to put it colloquially, runs her own show. The business persona of Dooney is blunt, organised, informed and savvy.

Yet she is self-admittedly dichotomous. She argues on behalf of “real” art and integrity in the profession, and at the same time has posed semi-naked in magazines and deliberately flirted with controversy. She says she is “conscious of walking the razor’s edge between respect and celebrity”.

As she wrote recently in her essay “Life Study”, published in the Griffith Review: “…I have stopped believing in a lot of what is thought of as art these days. It’s as if a couple of hundred dull-headed, middle-aged men and women – not just artists, but educators, curators, gallerists and critics – have come up with a set of rules to define what real art and real artists are. The rules are vague, and yet still as constricting and moralistic as anything concocted by a Reformation cleric.”

And she is a new type of artist in the respect that she has harnassed the internet to disseminate her work and ideas. The world wide web has become her gallery showroom, archive, business tool, diary and intellectual soapbox.

Yet for all her technological vision, her fresh and thrilling contemporary modus operandi, there is an age-old humanness about her. As she warned, the house of Dooney has been anything but homey.


*


DOONEY was born in Sydney and for a time the family lived in an “historic” cottage in Campbelltown, west of the city. Incredibly, the rustic dwelling had no electricity.

“I think they (her parents Tom and Anna) liked beautiful historic cottages and they were not particularly fussed on whether it had electricity or not,” she says. “I suppose it was cheap. I was only one year old. I always remember candlelight. I know we had a dog called Watson scrambling at the door. He laid by me when I crawled and stuff.”

Not long after, the Dooneys moved to Black Mountain, 10kms south of Guyra near Armidale. Tom was an experienced “powder monkey” and explosives expert. Anna was a teacher. At Black Mountain, the family led what you would call an “alternative” lifestyle.

“We were completely self-sufficient,” the artist recalls. “We had a cow called Germaine, after Germaine Greer. She was the provider of milk and my mother made yoghurt from that milk, and she made all the bread. We had ducks, chickens, all of that. It was sort of a fulltime job being self-sufficient. My mother worked in the garden and if you were hungry you’d just go out and pull a carrot from the earth.”

It sounds idyllic, but in Dooney’s corrective email she further writes: “I’d hate for you to think that I am a 'country girl', simply because of the time I spent in various rural areas as a kid.

“The country was my parents’ life for a while, not mine. It was where they retreated to when they were broke. Aren’t we all prone to try to be sentimental about the country? But the truth is, from the moment my parents dragged me there, I wanted to be in the city. I found, still find, the country to be incredibly isolating and desolate. If I was asked to name the locus of my darkest hours, it's the country.”

Following her parents’ “huge” divorce, Hazel and her younger brother, also named Tom, lived with their father outside the tiny town of Bonshaw, near Texas on the Queensland/NSW border. The hamlet’s only claim to fame was the robbing of the Bonshaw Hotel by notorious bushranger Captain Thunderbolt in May 1867.

Again, the Dooneys lived in conditions that might have belonged to another century.

“We moved into a country house that hadn’t been lived in for a couple of years, so we cleaned that out,” she says. “We ate a lot of rabbits. There was a rabbit population problem there.

“We were dirt poor. I don’t think we would have done that by choice. My dad made it into a good time, an adventure, something that was fun. But for him, as an adult and a person, would have been an incredibly stressful and horrible time. He was buying groceries on his credit card. We shot and ate a lot of rabbits and they weren’t gourmet rabbits. I don’t think it was romantic, but for us he made it into an adventure.”

Moving to Brisbane, the family settled in a Housing Commission dwelling in Kingston, near Woodridge south of Brisbane.

She remembers: “We went to Woodridge. I thought it would be wood and ridges. To me it was frightening. My father is a survivor. He made the garden beautiful. We had fresh food. He tried to make it nice for us.

“I did well (in high school) and became even more of a misfit. I spoke well. I walked tall. I was a country kid. I was acing everything as well which didn’t go down well.

“It was a good experience, but I wasn’t appreciated in any way. There were rapes. It was scary. Gangs. Cigarette burns on their Adams apples. I remember girls who liked fighting. Beating up other girls. I was palmed in the face.”

When she left school she bought a one-way ticket to London via Japan. She still had no idea what to do with her life. She fell ill and returned home to Brisbane. Before long she drifted to Melbourne. Her love of art began to surface. She began mixing with bohemians, taking drugs, garnering experience.

Back in Brisbane, she immersed herself in the city’s street culture. As she said in her email: “I always loved going to art galleries, plays, and concerts. I loved the murals, public art, and graffiti. The technique for painting the work I am best known for is a refined form of graffiti, and I also have elements of it in my most recent work, where it is, of course, much more raw.

“I hated every school I went to, and I hated every country place we lived (in). I hated school in Brisbane as well, but at least there was an urban centre, and at least there was Fortitude Valley. I lived at Bowen Hills, and when I wasn't working I hung out at night with friends who did graffiti and made lo-fi hip hop and lo-fi rock and roll. I went to industrial raves, and art performances. For a solitary, f***** up, very creative kid from a broken home, it felt like heaven.”

Dooney briefly endured art school at QUT. She quit after two terms. “What provoked me to leave art school was the sense that the art I was being ‘taught’ was so leached of technical rigour and emotion that it had been reduced to a kind of glib in-joke between teachers and students.” She was told by a teacher she would “never make it” as an artist.

Living in inner-city Paddington, a local exhibitor asked to see one of her canvases. She walked the huge artwork up La Trobe Terrace. It was bought by an interested passer-by before the exhibitor had barely seen it. The sale shocked Dooney, then 19. She decided to hold her own solo show – Hazed.

“It got a lot of coverage in street press and bit of attention in newspaper,” she says. “It was massive. The church where we held the exhibition (in Paddington) was packed out. After that, Jan Murphy Gallery called me and asked me if I wanted to go there. That was a big moment for me.”

Her work then was a bright, bold, provocative combination of traditional Pop Art styles a la Roy Lichtenstein and Japanese manga. It questioned the female image as commodity. Again, Dooney herself was the physical subject of the work.

Jan Murphy recalls: “Her work was just very different. I’d never seen anything like it. Her early pictures were meticulously painted. It’s impossible to say if she’s a potentially important painter. I think she’s a very good painter.” When asked about Dooney’s decision to eschew the galleries to represent her work, Murphy says “she does still use galleries to show her work, which is quite an interesting contradiction”.

Midway through our interview Dooney reveals she suffers from Bipolar II Disorder, which has been defined by the American Psychiatric Association as "characterized by one or more Major Depressive Episodes accompanied by at least one Hypomanic Episode." As distinct from Bipolar I, the illness general does not invoke psychotic episodes and does not disrupt the sufferer’s social interaction or ability to work.

She is matter of fact about it.

“It’s not something that comes on and off,” Dooney says. “I don’t have a period of feeling normal then suddenly not feel good. It’s far more an integrated part of my life. I know people live fairly normally and have episodes, but mine is constant. I don’t really feel I experience a medium ground.

“I take medication for it now, and I see a psychiatrist once or twice a week. I used to work 12 hours to 28 hours at a time and then have 4 to 6 hours sleep. I had been conscious from very early on I wanted to do a lot of work. I didn’t want to take it slow. I had a sense of urgency, I guess. I didn’t want to wait until I was 50 before I could make art fulltime.”

Following Hazed, Dooney held several local and international exhibitions, and her artistic cache has been steadily maturing and increasing in value. Her larger works now command up to $30,000. She reportedly estimated her annual income in excess of $200,000.

She says her decision to forgo gallery representation has been financially rewarding.

“I still work with galleries,” she says. “I will exhibit with other galleries. But I won’t do it in same sense, as an artist in their stable and having to run ideas by them for their goddam approval. I’m not going to be answerable to a gallerist.

“Not to be arrogant, I’m one of the most successful artists for my age at the moment. I’m sure there are other artists my age who have more work in collections than me, but I see that as a long- term thing. It happens over time. I’ll keep working hard and stay true to my work.”

The internet has been integral to her survival and success. She describes herself as a “virtual corporation”.

She adds: “For artists, the irony about art is there are all these rules people follow. Incredibly structured rules. I’m very unhappy following them, and I don’t think they work for artists. I approach it now in same way as an Indie band does. I use the internet. I don’t have that battle for control of someone telling me how to do it.

“I live it. It’s part of me, as well, organising and presenting my work to the world. It’s how you live. I don’t want to be a Tim Storrier or Tracey Moffatt, an artist who paints about issues and lives a suburban life the same as a doctor or a lawyer. I’m allowed to work and live the way I want to now, with the internet.”

Her close friend, the writer and photographer Creed O’Hanlon, says she may be a new breed of contemporary artist.

“She recently declared that she wouldn't be represented by a single gallery anymore, and that while she would continue to exhibit in well-known independent galleries on a one-off basis, she wanted to take more control of her professional life, and be responsible for her own sales and marketing,” says O’Hanlon. “She has a business manager (unheard of for most local artists), and a small team of web designers and programmers that she works with to keep her site and her email subscription list constantly working. In many ways, she is probably a prototype of the artist of the near future – tech' savvy, independent, and financially self-reliant.”

The internet has also been her occasional muse. A few years ago she explored the internet as a source for fetish-related pornography as research for a new series of pictures. Her abiding interest is how women are culturally represented. That she was briefly a model in her early 20s perhaps feeds this inquiry of hers and adds to her contradictory nature.

Dooney’s latest works, exhibited in July at the Melbourne Art Rooms, were described by one critic as having “ripped the surface asunder, revealing a troubled and troubling potpourri of psychological self-investigation and an obsessive fascination with arcane ritual…one feels that Dooney is treading very close to the edge in these works”.

Melbourne Art Rooms owner/director, Ms Andy Dinan, says Dooney is one of the most exciting and collectible young artists in Australia. “I think she’s a remarkable young lady and very desirable from a collector’s point of view,” says Dinan. “Her work is an amazingly good investment, and there’s a strong secondary market for Dooney paintings. Work that sold for $9,000 two years ago is now reselling at $13,000 to $15,000. What collectors love about her is the way she uses the web to give her work a context.”

O’Hanlon says: “Given the ten year span of her career to date, it's hard to accept that she's only in her late 20s. It's an impressive body of work, but I think a lot of it has been under-rated or misunderstood even by some of the galleries that have represented her. Her early work was large, glossy and accessible – a lot of critics compared it to '60s Pop Art – but if you look at the works closer, especially together, you begin to realise that there is a hell of a lot of irony and anger in it, even if, like every young artist, Hazel was eager for recognition (even if it came without real understanding).

“That said, when a few of her works were shown in some high profile group shows in New York last year, everyone there did seem to 'get' what was going on beneath the shiny surfaces, so maybe it was just another instance of our parochial perspective.”

Near the end of our meeting it appears Dooney is keen to get back to work in her studio. For weeks later, she sends several emails with further information on her life and work, friendships, and future. She is always generous and affable and shares intimate and honest thoughts in her virtual messages. It is almost as if the real Hazel Dooney exists online, in cyberspace, just beyond the computer screen.

I remember, much later, the signs of a tattoo I noticed peeking out below the line of her T-shirt, on the soft inner flesh of her upper left arm.

It reads: A fronte praecipitium, a tergo lupi. Alis volat propriis. In front is a precipice, behind are wolves. She flies with her own wings.

THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH

The Life and Times of Tony Bonner:






EVEN across the crowded floor of Sydney’s perennially hip Tropicana Café, regular home to aspirant actors, unpublished poets, cons, models, celebrity lawyers and millionaire hairdressers, he stands out.

It’s not just that he’s thin and radiantly healthy. Nor that he has what old-time Hollywood agents might call “charisma”. Specifically, he has a face that triggers a feeling of déjà vu. You look at him and wonder – do I know you? Where have we met before?

That face belongs to actor Tony Bonner, 63, who at one time was about as famous as you can be in Australia. As star of the iconic television series Skippy in the 1960s he was, arguably, our first modern small screen pop icon.

Bonner sits in the corner of the inner-city Darlinghurst café and scores of people pay their respects, wave, nod in acknowledgement of his presence. (As a friend says, wherever Tony Bonner is, he is like an unofficial mayor, meeting and greeting everyone in his vicinity.)

On this day he welcomes you with that firm, clear, beautifully modulated voice that transcends decades. It echoes to you from The Man From Snowy River, The Anzacs, The Lighthorsemen, The Mango Tree and more than fifty other films and television shows.

“Nice to see you again, as always,” he says, standing courteously. He orders coffee and, as is his custom, the Tropicana’s “Children’s Breakfast” – a light fare of toast, a single egg, and a couple of slender bacon rashes.

Two more acquaintances say hello. Toddlers are playing happily at the adjacent table. The sun is shining outside. And Bonner appears to be his usual positive and cheery self. Which is why everything jars so abruptly when the conversation turns to suicide.

“I have lived with these thoughts since I was 15 years old,” he says. “I’ve ridden horses, driven motorcycles, sailed, done some dangerous things, and I did all of them, I think, with a suicidal tendency.

“I would never sit down with a gun, knives, pills, but I’ve certainly flirted with suicide as an escape while pursuing those physical activities. I’ve always been propelled to push everything in my life to the very outer limit. In many ways I’m lucky to be alive.

“At the moment I’m tired of the superficiality of life. The quest for material things and surface adulation. I would like to move north, to Queensland. I’ve always loved it up there. Or Los Angeles. Or who knows, maybe Turkey. I am someone looking for a safe harbour.”

He says this with the utmost honesty and sincerity. And when the little children’s breakfast arrives, and he takes up his knife and fork, you realise that he left behind Jerry King, the blond fresh-faced helicopter pilot in Skippy, a long, long time ago.

Between then and now there have been many Tony Bonners – the Manly boy who ended up acting with some of the biggest international stars of his era, the playboy, the husband and father of three daughters, the alcoholic and drug addict, the tireless charity worker and mentor, the surf fanatic. He is dichotomous. Multi-faceted. A puzzle.

Finishing his breakfast, he says: “I’m still waiting for that epiphany, that moment, that suggests to me what I’m here for, what I’m doing here.” He dabs his mouth with a serviette, and for the first time looks genuinely perplexed. “What’s it all about? That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer all my life.”




*



By 1966, Tony Bonner had a modest reputation in Sydney as a stage performer and model. Only a few years earlier, he may have caught the occasional pedestrian’s eye working as a window dresser in Bebarfelds department store, opposite Sydney Town Hall.

Born in the Manly area on Sydney’s North Shore, he left school without any real crystalline career in mind. His grandfather had once been the mayor of Manly and a founding president of the suburb’s famous life saving club. And Bonner’s father, Frederick, had been a musical comedy actor in Her Majesty’s Theatre, working alongside light opera singer Gladys Moncrieff and actor/dancer Robert Helpmann.

“I knew I wanted to do something creative,” Bonner says. “I had a good eye for symmetry and balance. I worked for a company that supplied materials for window dressing, and in the early 60s was asked to dress windows at Bebarfelds. By then the theatre bug had got me.”

Bonner then began his stage career as a “dresser”, or wardrobe attendee to the stars of the evening shows at Her Majesty’s. By day he studied singing and dance. He eventually made it into the limelight, as a chorus member, in a production of Annie Get Your Gun.

During his stage apprenticeship he lived in a terrace house in Victoria Street, Potts Point, near Kings Cross – an area renowned for its bohemian lifestyle. It was here he initiated his lifelong friendship with photographer Jon (CORRECT) Waddy.

“We must have been about 18 when we first met,” Waddy recalls. “It was a wonderful time, everybody knew each other, and there were terrific restaurants like Vadim’s at the top of Challis Avenue where all the actors went for dinner after the shows. They used to serve alcohol in tea cups after 9pm because of the liquor laws. Anybody who was anybody was there.

“Tony was doing some modelling at the time. Later, I was the one who took the famous nude centrefold photograph of him for Cosmopolitan magazine. We used to drink together and go to parties. He was living a few doors up from me when Skippy started.”

Australian fashion guru Trent Nathan says he used to “hang out” with Bonner during the Skippy period. “He was a very handsome man then and I’m sure he still is,” says Nathan. “I suppose he was a bit wild back then. He hit it. But I think we all hit it. We were good friends and we went our separate ways.”

Bonner had secured a role in the landmark show which, in 1966, aired at prime time on Sunday nights. The program centred on an uncannily intelligent bush kangaroo, its owner Sonny Hammond (Garry Pankhurst) and head ranger Matt Hammond (Ed Devereaux). It was set in the fictitious Waratah National Park. Bonner played a flight ranger. By the time the first episode – “The Poachers” – had finished airing, Bonner was literally famous.

“It was enormous,” Bonner says. “In Australia in the 60s there weren’t a lot of home grown film stars. There was nothing being made. I was like a pop idol overnight. I was a young fella. There was no one else around.

“I never ran from it, Skippy. It was an important part of my past. I drank in the same bars and restaurants after the show started. Lived in the same place. The attention was pretty nice sometimes, and sometimes it wasn’t. I always treated people with the same manners and respect. Some didn’t act the same way towards me.

“Whoever I was seeing, too, we were never just ‘good friends’ in the eyes of the press. They’d beat up stories about me. When the show became an international hit, some of them (journalists) made careers off the lies they printed about me.”

These were heady times, especially for a young man who had started drinking when he was 15. Overnight fame only worsened matters.

“During that period I very rarely had to buy a drink and I think this fame helped to sustain my drinking,” Bonner reflects. “If you’re an open, agreeable person, like I was, people would buy you drinks. I’m not blaming anyone – I always had the choice to say thank you and no – but that went on for the next thirty years.”

That same year Bonner scored a minor role in the classic Australian film They’re a Weird Mob, directed by Michael Powell and starring Chips Rafferty. (It remains one of the highest grossing local films – in the context of its time – in history.)

In 1967, at the close of Skippy’s first season, Bonner asked for a pay rise and perhaps a small share in overseas sales and other residuals. The show was on its way to becoming a huge international hit, and would eventually air in more than 120 countries. Bonner’s request was rejected. (In the forty years since the show’s creation, he has “never received a penny” in residual or royalty payments.)

“I just left the country,” he says. “I hopped on a plane and went to London.”

The charismatic Bonner quickly secured work, filming You Can’t Win ‘Em All (1970), a period “soldier of fortune” piece alongside Tony Curtis and Charles Bronson in Turkey. This was followed by the now cult classic Creatures the World Forgot (1971), shot on location in Africa, and episodes of the then popular British television show The Persuaders, again starring Curtis and Roger Moore.

Bonner, by anyone’s standards, had made it. He worked and partied hard, favouring the famous Tramps nightclub in London, and lived periodically on the island of Ibitha, Spain, where he did some “sculpting and swimming”. In 1972 he dashed back to Australia to see his parents, and met model Nola Clark at a party.

“We hit it off but I had to go back to London,” he says. “I told her if she ever found herself over there she could look me up in this bar called Tramps. Some time later I was in the bar and the concierge came up to me and said this great looking girl was asking for me. I walked up the stairs and it was Nola.”

They travelled to Rome together and a romance blossomed. Nola returned to Australia, and not long after Bonner turned up unannounced at her 21st birthday party in Melbourne. They were soon married. “It was late 1972,” Bonner says. “We were married for twenty years. We have three wonderful daughters. These things happen. The tide comes in, and the tide goes out.”

In 1974 Bonner starred in an Australian thriller called Inn of the Damned. On the set he met another of his close male friends, the former surf champion and now Gold Coast-based film producer and director Phil Avalon.

“Funnily enough, when Tony left Skippy I auditioned for his role and didn’t get it,” Avalon says. “I’ve known him my entire adult life. He’s a very fine actor, and has done an incredible body of work. I believe, given the right vehicle, he could have been our biggest movie star – bigger than Mel Gibson, bigger than Russell Crowe.

“To this day he’s an extremely handsome man, and he certainly has the right voice. He’s totally dedicated to his craft. But he was probably a mite too early. And he may have had a self-destructive streak when he should have concentrated on the work. If he had been an American, I have no doubt he would have been huge, and still in huge demand for work.”

That self-destructive streak did continue to surface in Bonner’s life, and by his own admittance it nearly destroyed him. There were several incidents in bars, street brawls involving knives, and weeks on end that were just a blank.

“There was lots of stuff,” Bonner says. “I used to push the envelope, be sarcastic with people. Why, I don’t know. I could hear myself saying these words to people, awful words, and I could hear an inner voice at the same time telling me to shut my mouth. Later, I’d go and beat the crap out of myself for saying those things.

“I had so many blackouts in my life. I did a lot of stupid things. I rode my motorcycle into people’s houses. I would go to a barbecue with my wife and children and drink with the men and ignore my family and when they went home I’d stay drinking. Then I might go home a few hours later, or a day later. I’d go to sleep in London and wake up in Turkey. Go to sleep in Sydney and wake up in Perth.”

Despite this, Bonner managed to continue producing fine work in Australia and overseas. But the demon remained close by, and eventually cost him his marriage.

“I always knew the title for my autobiography,” Bonner says. “I would call it – Was I There? For years people would relay stories to me and I’d always ask – was I there?”

In the late 1980s, following years of prolonged drinking and occasional drug abuse, he suffered pleurisy and pneumonia. It was then he left his family– his wife, Nola, and children Chelsea, now 31, Skye, 30, and Hannah, 27 - and checked into a Melbourne clinic.

“We wouldn’t know where he was for days or weeks at a time,” says Chelsea. “He was absolutely outrageous. All the kids in the street loved him. He was like a cartoon character. It was fun having a character like that in your life, but for a kid it can be quite confusing.”

Daughter Skye recalls: “We weren’t taught to feel we had a sense of sanctuary at home. He’s perplexing to me to this day. But you have to love him the way he is. That’s life. You get on with it.”

Bonner emerged from the clinic sober and has remained so ever since. That was 17 years ago. He has never remarried. He still attends AA meetings. His charity work would exhaust half a dozen people. He still believes, with all his heart, in the art of acting. And he dotes on his 11-year-old granddaughter, Maddison (CORRECT), who lives in Brisbane with her mother Skye. (A former Miss Indy, Skye was briefly engaged to Madison’s father, one-time ironman champion Guy Andrews.)

“Maddison has been an incredible thing for Dad,” says Chelsea. “It’s a new little person with his genes who hasn’t seen any of the terrible things he’s done. He has made no mistakes with her. She’s a new, clean human being and he can be the ‘new’ Tony. He’s loving being a grandfather.”

Skye Bonner confirms: “The Bonner side of the family is a little bit crazy, and maybe there’s some theatrics involved, but Maddison is completely taken with Tony. She feels the softness, the little lost boy in him. I get to see Dad through her eyes.”

Yet those unceasing questions continue to haunt Bonner.

“I want to position myself where things are important, where things matter, and that’s family,” he says. “I am a bohemian in a sense, but I miss that structure of family. It’s all we’re here for. It’s the only real mark we leave on the world.”



*



BONNER’S contribution to Australian cultural life is immense, and he continues to pour his energies into his craft, often for little or no remuneration.

Whilst he is renowned for his charity work, including volunteer patrols for the Manly Lifesaving Club, and his work for the Variety Club of Australia (in particular the Queensland chapter), few are aware of his generosity towards younger generations of Australian actors. He is repeatedly acclaimed as a teacher of drama, and yet passes on his skills for a pittance, and often for free.

“Dad’s a soft touch,” says Chelsea, now a successful small businesswoman who is also based at Manly. “When it comes to giving young actors classes, he knows what it’s like to be young and starting out with no money, and he simply wouldn’t ask them for a fee. He believes what he does is an art form. How do you put a price on that? He’s one of the last purists.”

Jon Waddy says the hours Bonner puts into surf lifesaving is flabbergasting.

“In the last few years he has put in more hours than anyone at the (Manly) club, a record, and he’s 63,” says Waddy. “I’m a good member and I think I did 15 hours last year. Tony did 400 hours. If he put as many hours into his acting and teaching as he did his charity work, financially he’d be a very comfortable man.”

Bonner himself has the same professional desires he had as a teenager. He wants to continue to act in film and television, and to teach. Avalon has two films slated for this year, and hopes to enlist Bonner in both. There is a potential television series on the horizon. A smattering of theatre.

Daughter Chelsea is circumspect about her father. “His needs are very simplistic,” she says. “A roof over his head. A motorcycle. A salad roll in the fridge. He’s had all the trappings of wealth. He lived the high life. He had the yacht and the houses and the cars. Some of it made him happy and some of it didn’t.

“My father has had nine lives. It’s a Bonner family trait. He says he wants to anchor himself now, but at the same time he can’t decide where that might be, or what that means. He’s never really settled anywhere. He’s never had a settled life.”

She says it took years for both of them to resolve their differences after the family broke up.

“He’s manic, and a lot of people thought that mania would go when he stopped drinking, but in some ways the alcohol was a sedative for him,” Chelsea says. “It took the edge off his personality. To me he’s not a father in a conventional sense, but a sort of older, crazy brother. We talk to each other now about absolutely everything in our lives, and I think we have a relationship that not many children and parents would have.”

Skye says she “prays” that he finds a settled life. “He’s never really in the present moment. He’s always looking everywhere else but the present, and is never at ease. I think his inner-world is in a constant state of flux. I pray he finds what he’s looking for, that safe place. Dad’s journey can sometimes be difficult to watch. It doesn’t mean he’s unhappy. He’s a survivor.”

Waddy says it was time his friend Bonner’s “ship came in”.

“What is his purpose in life? As a hedonist, as Tony seriously was for thirty years, you don’t ask that question,” Waddy says. “You have to love him. He’s a wonderful friend and he would do anything for you, no matter what it was, no questions asked. Yes he’s complex, but he has a heart of gold. He has given so much to so many people for so many years, it’s really time something came back to him. He deserves his time, and that time will come.”



*



In the Tropicana, Bonner is gathering together his legendary satchel. It goes with him everywhere. In it he has his mobile phone, scraps of paper covered in ideas and reminders, pens, keys, perhaps the copy of a play or a script, and other accoutrements that see him through the day. Bonner has said that he could survive, and go forth, just with the clothes on his back and the satchel.

Walking up Victoria Street he sees in sidewalk cafes other friends and acquaintances, and all are given a warm greeting. Each recipient beams happily at the sight of Bonner. He is brimming with energy. His openness and friendliness is infectious.

Further down the street he stops and looks incredulously at a closed down dry cleaning shop. The doors are locked, the store empty, and already the shopfront glass is gritted with traffic exhaust. It looks like it has been shut for twenty years. “It was open just the other day,” Bonner says, almost to himself.

“When I was 16 I wrote to a yogandada-type fellowship in the United States and asked them – who am I? Why am I here?” Bonner confides. “I said to them I’m just starting out in life and I’m lost. I told them I see pain in people, which affects me. What am I to be? An actor? A teacher? A father?

“I’m still on that journey. I’m not being precious. I’d like to know these answers. I’m willing to go to some length of insanity to find out. At my age I should know, but I assure you, I don’t.”

It is impossible not to be endeared to Bonner. To his questing, his brutal personal honesty, and his search for safe harbour.

He leaves, turns, and salutes from a distance. Watching him disappear, you wonder what it is that makes Bonner so touchingly human, and you can’t help but think that the answers to some of his questions have been given to him over the many years of his colourful life.

And yet like so many of us, he just wasn’t in a position, at that moment, to hear them.



ends