It’s the oldest cliché in the celebrity journalism book but here goes: despite her larger-than-life on-screen personality, Gretel Killeen is positively tiny in person. Even her memoir, The Night My Bum Dropped, with its “gleefully exaggerated” tales, belies her diminutive size.
My first thought upon encountering Killeen in the foyer of Brisbane’s Stamford Hotel on Tuesday morning was of a life-sized Tinkerbell, her standard book-tour uniform of black skinny jeans, black vest and flat black boots the perfect complement to her raven pixie crop and feisty feminine zeal. I wonder if her pockets are filled with magical fairy dust and if she might take off flying around the room just to prove herself.
But Killeen is done with trying to prove herself. After enduring more than her fair of public criticism and media scrutiny (like Big Brother, the Logies will just not go away, but she's not going to let it bother her); after growing up in a strict and stifling Methodist household, attending private school and trying to live up to the world’s superwoman expectations, she is finally, almost, content to just be.
“I was brought up thinking that you had to change to fit the mould, which just makes you feel inadequate and incomplete,” she says. “I think that in the journey with this book, that while it’s funny, it’s actually about missing the part of you that had to be abandoned, that was trained away, because it was unacceptable. It’s about the uniqueness you had to abandon to try and fit in.”
A palpable sense of anxiety and inadequacy permeates much of her memoir, which keeps from falling into heavy-going, contemplative Eat Pray Love territory with its clever anecdotes and standard Killeen witticisms. Killeen is, after all, a writer first and foremost, and a prolific one at that: she penned her first book aged five ("It may have been plagiarised heavily from Mickey Mouse") and has produced more than 20 works of fiction, including 1994's popular My Life Is a Toilet, each imbued with her kooky brand of humour.
“I know [Eat Pray Love] was a huge success, but it was so serious, and I like the humour in life. Fundamentally, we’re all faced with the question of ‘What is life about?’. But I find a great connector is when we can giggle at it. It alleviates the difficulty.”
While I expected her to be a formidable, intimidating presence, Killeen is about as warm and relatable as celebrities come, though she'd be forgiven for being guarded and aloof. Her publicist tells me before the interview that she doesn't read everything written about her, but she had been pleased with the profile piece by Mark Dapin which ran in Good Weekend magazine.
She speaks in hushed tones, careful not to disturb the austere ambiance of the Stamford by creating a scene: unlike certain other celebrities, who get their kicks from jumping on couches, Killeen adapts to her surrounds, something she perfected as one of four children who learned to put her thoughts on paper rather than airing them.
"I was a little bit lonely growing up," she says. "You can be lonely in a crowd. Connecting with yourself is what writing allows you to do. I have this opinion that you don’t become a writer, I think you are a writer. I’ve written all my life. I’ve always had stories running through my mind."
Having brought up two children on her own, Killeen is tough and matter-of-fact about just getting on with life (“there wasn’t time to fluff about,” she says), but feels that the stoicism instilled in her runs against the very fabric of her being. Her memoir is like an excavation exercise that attempts to get at the root of her inner longings, what she calls the “ache in my heart”.
While Gilbert turns to gurus, food indulgences and love interests, Killeen turns, not entirely successfully, to her family, friends, a woman named Fluffy and, eventually, God in her search for life’s big answers, concluding in the book’s final pages:
“I realise that if not leading your life wholeheartedly as yourself is truly a sin, then I have committed this sin, too. And I suddenly also realise that this ache I have carried is about loneliness, but perhaps it’s not about missing someone else’s company. Perhaps it’s about missing my own. Maybe the person that I’m missing is the person that I was born to be, with a complete soul and a complete self, uncorrupted by the expectations of others and therefore untainted with inadequacy or inferiority.”
Her book is like a big hug for women whose lives are tainted by constant and all-consuming worry: worry that you may not have lived up to your potential, or what the world expects of you, or that you forgot to get the chops out of the freezer. She believes that in sharing our trials we grow as humans, and, more particularly, as females.
“Women connect by talking about their frailties and vulnerabilities and laughing at their mistakes,” she says. “My bum’s dropped; I can’t believe what I said; look at my boobs; look at my neck! We just connect in the chaos. I feel like [the book] is a gift I’m giving people in saying, ‘Let me tell you how I felt, so you can feel better’. Telling the truth to someone is about respect, and that’s what I wanted to do here. Respect for myself and all the people like myself.”
As a public figure, Killeen has made herself extremely vulnerable, and though she’s been presented with many opportunities she’s grateful to have been given, the return hasn’t always been positive.
“I don’t understand why people see people in the public eye as fodder. They seem to forget that they’re real people,” she says. “What it does call upon is much greater strength for the individuals who are targeted. If you can do that and rise above it, it’s incredibly great for your self-esteem because you work out what’s important to you. But I do worry for people who don’t have that, particularly if you’re younger. If you don’t have the support around you and the experience and the tougher skin, then it can be devastating.”
Once this book tour is complete, Killeen will be working on the sequel in addition to a title for teens and a film she’s written. But now her children are grown, with one living overseas and another not far off it, she doesn’t want to settle down.
“I feel like I had the pause button on my life as a single parent raising my kids for 20 years. It’s exciting to have the thing we often dream about – the energy of youth but the wisdom of age. I want to be able to say that I really lived and to me that means experiencing every emotion. I don’t want to lead that protected life that some people seek. Because I don’t think that allows you to become the person that you’re meant to be. The more you challenge yourself, the more you expand and the more you become yourself.”
The Night My Bum Dropped: A gleefully exaggerated memoir, Viking, $29.95, is out now.
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