Monthly Archives: February 2014

“I didn’t know Charlotte Dawson but this is why I cried for her today.”

CharlotteI had a hot and cold relationship with Charlotte Dawson.


Don’t get me wrong, we never met. But when she first came to my attention on Australia’s Next Top Model (ANTM)– I wasn’t a fan.


I had vague memories of Charlotte being married to troubled Olympic swimmer Scott Miller at some point and I was aware she’d been a sometimes panellist on Beauty and The Beast with the late Stan Zemaneck years earlier but I’d never given her a passing thought (other than thinking she was extraordinarily beautiful). But  when she came to my attention on ANTM?  If I’m going to be honest, she irritated me.


Who is this woman? Why is she so mean to the teenage entrants?


That’s what I thought of Charlotte Dawson. In a nutshell: not much.


But my opinion changed. And I can tell you the exact date it changed: 28th August 2011.


Charlotte sat down with Mia to do a one-on-one interview for this very website and that’s when I saw the real Charlotte Dawson – a fragile, seeringly honest, loving, self-deprecating soul with a generous laugh. A woman who just like the rest of us was out there, doing her best and trying hard to be a contributor rather than a critic.




I sat at home that day, ready to roll my eyes and instead was mesmerised by her.  Instead I wanted to be her friend.  There she was, sitting on the floor of the Mamamia office, make-up free, hair pulled back and wearing simple – if not daggy – clothes. She talked openly and honestly – sometimes uncomfortably – about her history of failed relationships and her inability to choose the right partner, her reconciliation with the fact she would never be a mother, her feelings about aging in an industry that values only the very young and the paper thin. I watched her talk freely about her use of Botox, her experiences with online bullying, her fierce support of gay right and the mothering and nurturing (clearly rarely caught on camera) that she gave the ANTM entrants. I would never have guessed it was Charlotte who was the mother hen to those girls, dishing out the tough love and reality checks along with big doses of love to the young entrants.


So on 28th August 2011, I became a fan. And from then on I went out of my way to read interviews Charlotte gave in the media to learn more about her. That’s where I read about the fact she was sexually abused as a child at the hands of an elderly neighbour.  About her teenage birth mother who gave her up for adoption. About her difficult relationship with her stepfather. And her pattern for choosing (according to her therapist) narccisistic men


This morning I heard the news that Charlotte Dawson was found dead. And I cried at my desk.


Why? I don’t even know how to explain it.


We weren’t friends by any means. We exchanged a few messages on Twitter over the years – most frequently a message of support from one to the other when things had turned ugly and abuse was flying at either of us for one reason or another. But truth be told she wouldn’t have known me in a line-up.  I could have walked past her on the street and she’d have been oblivious to my presence.


So why the tears?


Because I feel we let her down.  As a society. As human beings, quite frankly.  She was so frequently pummelled on social media – the target of the most hateful, vicious messages.  And having been the target myself on some occasions – let me tell you, it’s hard for the abuse not to swirl in your head long after you’ve read it.  It’s hard for your spirit not to be irrevocably punctured; for your self-esteem not to permanently fractured when people are cajoling you to hang yourself. Or calling you a whore.  (And on that subject can I just say how the hell do we expect teenagers to brush off this type of abuse when we, as adults, can’t?)  Anyway.  So Charlotte was frequently attacked online and we tut-tutted and agreed that social media is awful and said, ‘Oh my God, poor Charlotte’ but then more often than not we followed it with, ‘Well what is she DOING on Twitter? She needs to stop responding”. That’s right, we told CHARLOTTE DAWSON to get off social media rather than the parasites and miscreants who have turned platforms like Twitter and Facebook into the cowardly bully’s paradise.


So why the tears?


Because we are so bloody pathetic when it comes to understanding mental illness in this country which is RIDICULOUS. You know why? Because we’re surrounded by it. At least HALF the people in my friendship group are on some form of anti-depression or anti-anxiety medication.  You’d never know, of course. Because still now it’s this big, shameful secret.  But it’s not rare. It’s not an affliction of the weak. Or the fragile. It’s one in five Australians. You with me?  According to the Black Dog Institute “One in five (20%) Australians aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year. The most common mental illnesses are depressive, anxiety and substance use disorder.”


dawson1 I didnt know Charlotte Dawson but this is why I cried for her today.

Charlotte, after last years Twitter saga on Sixty Minutes


So we don’t need all these hushed tones when we talk about depression or people with depression. Most of us have it, have had it or will have it at some point.  Of course we will. Life is bloody tough at times.  And at some point we will each be brought to our knees. I’ve had a bout of depression in my life.  Charlotte battled depression for years. Is that any surprise given her childhood?  She talked openly and honestly about her struggle with the black dog and I think many of us responded by making her feel less than when instead she should have been applauded for her honesty. We should have responded not just with open minds but with open hearts and arms.


So why the tears?


You know what? I don’t know. I guess I worry that this morning her heart ached with pain and loneliness and maybe life looked impossibly bleak. I’m sad because I worry that she felt like she was of no use or not wanted or had nothing to offer. I’m sad because whether her death was deliberate or accidental – the result is the same: we lost her.


I believe Charlotte Dawson was a  woman with a big heart who was in fact incredibly gracious and loving. And I worry she died without knowing that she was greatly valued and respected and wanted.


I wish I had a clever way to wrap up this column.  A wise message.  A moral to the story. But I don’t. I’m just sad because today Charlotte Dawson is gone.

This post first appeared on Mamamia.

This woman is more than brave …

red-dressI want you to do something. I want you to look at a photo. And I want you to tell me what you see.

I’ll give you a heads up before you scroll down. The photo is of a naked woman. Yep, naked. Still willing to look?

Let me tell you something else about the naked woman you are about to see: she’s a breast cancer warrior. The body you are about to look at has a tapestry of scars. You see, there is a story to be told underneath that red dress.

This week Brisbane woman, mother of four, Beth Whaanga, took a deep breath and did something daring. God, more than daring. “Daring” doesn’t do this justice. What Beth did was allow herself to be completely vulnerable. What she did was extraordinarily, breathtakingly brave and generous and courageous and if I had a bloody thesaurus I would insert 1000 more words.

Because Beth took off her clothes and allowed herself to be photographed by her long-time friend and photographer Nadia Mascot for a project they are calling “Under The Red Dress”. In a bid to educate women about breast cancer. In a bid to start a conversation about how cancer surgeries change your body and the way you feel about yourself. In a bid to say – that woman you see at the school gate, that co-worker in the department near you – it’s entirely possible her body looks like this. It’s entirely possible their bodies tell a story that belies their outward appearance.

What’s Beth’s story? Well she was diagnosed with breast cancer last year on her 32nd birthday. She was later told she carries the BRCA2 gene. So in November she went through a double mastectomy and a total hysterectomy. And now her body tells the tale …

Beth Red Dress 2 BEC: This woman is more than brave.

Here’s what Beth had to say on Facebook when she uploaded the images for her friends to see:

“WARNING. These images are confronting and contain topless material. They are not in anyway meant to be sexual. The aim of this project is to raise awareness for breast cancer. If you find these images offensive please hide them from your feed.

Each day we walk past people. These individuals appear normal but under their clothing sometimes their bodies tell a different story. Nadia Masot and I aim to find others who are willing to participate in our project so that we might show others that cancer effects everyone. The old and the young, age does not matter, self-examination is vital. It can happen to you.”

And this from Nadia:

“In my own work as a photographer, I became thirsty to share imagery with more meaning and purpose. This was sparked by a private health battle of my own. I want to be able to help people through my talents. Beth’s journey through her diagnosis and surgery touched me and I felt like I had something to say.   As we were doing the shoot, I felt inspired that this should not stop here.  We pass people in the street every day and only see their veneer. What they feel comfortable showing to the world often tells a different story to their private battles.  ‘Under the Red Dress’ is a project which attempts to tell those silent stories that people are not only wanting to tell, but that people want to hear. Everybody likes to be reminded that the person next door is only human, as they are.”

Beth Red Dress 6 BEC: This woman is more than brave.

So these photos – they’re  what I’ve been staring at for the past hour. Photographs of a body that has endured a total bilateral mastectomy. A breast reconstruction. A naval reconstruction. A total hysterectomy. The ravages of rapid weight loss on her skin. On-going hair loss.

That’s what I’m staring at and yet – that’s not what I’m seeing.

What I see in each of those images is a woman who is strong. Gutsy. Determined. A fighter. I see a mother. A sister-in-law. A wife. A daughter. A best-friend.  I see a woman who is beautiful not despite of her scars but because of them. A woman who is prepared to step into her own vulnerability in a bid to help other women. To remind them to do self-exams, to be breast-aware, to help start a conversation about the insidiousness of breast cancer.

That’s what I see when I look at those naked photos of Beth Whaanga.  But not everyone sees that. Some of Beth’s friends didn’t see that.

In fact, when Beth posted these images on Facebook, 103 of them UNFRIENDED her immediately. Some felt the images were inappropriate or even pornographic.

Beth Red Dress 4 BEC: This woman is more than brave.

When I first heard this I was baffled. Then angry. But actually I get it. I do. It’s frightening. Unsettling. Disconcerting. And maybe some of you reading this now feel the same.  Maybe you know someone who has had similar cancer surgeries. Maybe breast cancer runs in your family. Maybe you’re overdue to have a breast exam. Or felt a lump recently and don’t’ want to have to think about. Maybe you just don’t want to be damn well reminded about breast cancer. And the easiest thing right now is to look away. Turn your head. Unfriend the woman who posted those confronting images. I get it.

But I’m asking you to look back at Beth.

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer for women in Australia.

I’m asking you to look back at Beth.

One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime.

I’m asking you to look back.

Beth Red Dress 5 BEC: This woman is more than brave.

Because Beth needs our support. She doesn’t need to feel in any way ashamed for doing something so gusty and brave. For doing something intended to help save lives.

And Beth, I have a message for you: if by doing these photos and sharing them on Facebook means that one life is saved, if just one woman does a breast exam or goes to have her mammogram  or decides to go to the doctor to talk about a small lump they noticed last month because you had the courage to have these photos taken and to share them with the world … well, then you’re more than just brave. You’re a hero in my books.

If you’d like to get involved in the Under The Red Dress project, check out their Facebook page here.

This post first appeared on Mamamia. It was republished on Huffington Post UK and Huffington Post Canada with full permission.