Author and TV personality Kathy Lette is a glorious firecracker of sass, with spitfire wit and upper arms and an arse that I’d kill for.
Apart from her perky glamour and her machete-sharp intellect she is, without a doubt, one of the most down to earth and warm-hearted women that I’ve ever interviewed.
She’s fun too, with boundless energy and I feel sure that she’s one of those enviable individuals that leaps out of bed grinning at the sparrow’s crack of stupid o’clock and manages to tick every box on their substantial ‘to do’ list by lunch time.
Back in the day
At the tender age of just 17, beach loving Kathy Lette and her friend Gabrielle Carey (both growing up in Cronulla on Sydney’s south coast) wrote the iconic novel Puberty Blues. An incredibly insightful, explicit, humorous and sometimes gut-wrenching story about two teenage girls growing up in a Sydney coastal town, trying to find their way through the daily turmoil of adolescent life and get noticed by the surfer boys.
It’s a book that you really enjoy reading….until your daughters start wearing training bras and you spend summers on the coast. It’s at this point that shudders run through you as your mind wanders to the intimate details of certain chapters (particularly those involving Vaseline and horrendous humiliations at a pool party).
Then of course, let’s not forget your own personal and regrettable memories…the woeful flash-backs of drunken, sweaty fumbling, being howled at in the street by spotty, grunting boys and enduring dried peas being spat shot at your nipples in the back of a geography class. Those were the days…
The scariest part of this brilliantly written book (apart from its accuracy) is the fact that many of the behaviours and attitudes still exist and continue to take place in some dire pockets of our society today.
Puberty Blues was made into a film in 1981 and in 2012 it was adapted into an award-winning tv drama series for Australia’s Channel 10 by John Edwards and Imogen Banks.
As the early years passed by Lette decided to set her sights a little higher than being a ‘human handbag’ and beach towel mule. She waved goodbye to the surfer boys of Cronulla that had inspired her so profoundly and decided to push forward and upward in life with great gusto…like Madonna’s 90’s cone bra but with a lot more class.
Strings to her professional bow include newspaper columnist, sitcom writer, playwright, highly acclaimed author and now she has blossomed into a much-loved and highly respected media commentator and TV personality. These well-earned titles are enjoyed both here in Australia and in the UK where she resides with husband (human rights barrister) Geoffrey Robertson QC.
A Woman’s Woman and a Girl’s Best Friend
We only have limited time over lunch as she has another interview after mine with a TV station. Despite the time constraints we, (being women!) cover enough ground for me to realise that her heart is as big as her personality.
She openly celebrates womanhood, but there’s no hint of ‘twee’ or ‘man hater’ about it. Lette lives it and proves it consistently, not only in her writing and hilarious quotes but also in her tireless support for women and children’s charities, particularly the struggles of mothers less fortunate, locally as well as globally.
Lette has a thirst for knowledge and by knowledge, I mean gritty people/life stuff, the stuff that glues friendships and sinks bad battle-ships. It’s only 30 minutes in and already I’ve shared something with her that would normally be reserved for the ears of a good mate after 10pm and 2 bottles of Lisa McGuigan Pinot Gris.
It’s the first time in a long time that I’ve stopped to actually listen to a woman who has thrown the word ‘feminism’ around. It’s refreshing to hear her educated and heartfelt convictions on the subject, ever peppered with wit and irony.
When it comes to feminism and how it is discussed and portrayed in many of today’s media channels, it’s easy to feel confused and jaded as we listen to the pithy bleating of uneducated, half-naked pop & tv ‘celebrities’, often waxing lyrical about equality and freedom whilst busting moves with their cosmetically enhanced backsides that are physically impossible for mere mortals to achieve (unless you’ve had some kind of industrial sponge scaffolding shoved up your clacker and you are standing stupidly close to a jack-hammer). It’s enough to bring tears to your eyes and trigger a bad case of sciatica.
I’m not sure how all that caper would make me feel free or equal. I think I’d rather switch channels, remain saggy arsed and relax in the knowledge that my buttocks will never take out the dessert trolley in a restaurant as I rise from the table or be responsible for knocking unconscious the All Blacks rugby team at half time if I turn too quickly to check out the scoreboard.
Lette’s version of feminism is relevant, right on and does not involve bums, jack-hammers or g strings.
About The Boy
Lette and Robertson have a daughter and a son, both in their 20’s and both have flown the nest but it’s evident that Lette remains utterly dedicated to both of them and she delights in discussing their lives and achievements.
I had previously read about her son Julius, who was diagnosed as a child with Aspergers Syndrome (which is a form of Autism). The article was written by Lette for The Australian in 2013. It moved me greatly, not just because it was so honestly and beautifully written but also because a close friend of mine has been strapped to the same relentless, emotional roller coaster ride every single day since her son’s diagnosis of the condition 8 years ago.
Lette describes her ‘overwhelming lioness-type love’ for Julius and the endless battles that she has fought and continues to fight for his fundamental rights and needs in an often cold and unaccepting world. Her natural sparkle fades slightly and her voice lowers as she describes her darling boy and the exhausting struggles in trying to find a warm and welcoming place in society for him.
As she shares just a snap-shot of her son’s story I can almost feel the anguish that she must have endured year after year. The sleepless nights, the bureaucratic battles, the fear for his safety, the concern for her daughter’s wellbeing and the relentless strain on the whole family. And all along the deep feelings of love for a child who, (like my friend’s boy) didn’t ask to be born this way, is so much more than a diagnosis and who is ultimately bright, beautiful and gloriously unique.
Listening to her story reminds me vividly of the times I spent at my friend’s kitchen table in Sydney as she described (through rarely shared tears) how her son was struggling at school and how let down she felt by the education system, time and again.
Seeing my strong, positive and selfless friend buckle under the relentless weight of coping day after day (not as you may think from the challenging behaviours of her child who, in her words was simply ‘wired differently’), but more from the lack of appropriate care, support and respect in his day-to-day life was heartbreaking.
You wouldn’t wish this on any family, but Lette’s bravery and positivity shine throughout this tough conversation and I sat there thinking how incredible my friend and this woman in front of me are and how blessed their families are to have them. In my previous career in social work and mental health, I worked with many families that were ripped apart and destroyed when faced with the realities of this same situation.
It also made me want to get these two special birds together. For all their pain and difficulties neither have lost their humour or glow and I think it would be quite a party to boot!
Despite all the years of heartache and turmoil, Lette did what she does best in adverse situations and wrote a book about it. ‘The Boy Who Fell To Earth’ Details of this book and her 13 others can be found on her website (link at the end).
Your most embarrassing moment.
When you made me stand on the plinth at the art gallery, in front of all the tourists for this photo. Some day my Plinth will come!
Your biggest lesson learned
Never wait to be rescued by some Knight in Shining Armani. Always stand on your own two stilettos.
Which of all your own books was the favourite
My latest, Courting Trouble, set in the world’s first mother/ daughter, two-person, boutique feminist law firm, where they only take on women’s causes and cases. It’s full of love, laughs, litigation and acute lust in the 3rd degree. It’s also dedicated to my favourite barrister, human rights lawyer, Helena Kennedy, who has promised to get me off when I kill my first book critic. I’ve just sold the TV rights, so I’ll soon be driving around town with a casting couch strapped to my roof racks. If you haven’t read it yet I suggest you slip between my covers. Satisfaction guaranteed!
What would you like to say to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott
Apparently you have appointed yourself as Minister for Women. If this is true, then surely your first job should be to sack yourself and appoint a female, who would then also appoint a few more females to your male-dominated cabinet. If you don’t appoint a woman as Minister for Women, then you really are the ‘suppository of all wisdom’ as you’re talking out of your arse.
What iconic piece of Australia have you taken with you to London?
Backyard barbies. Although, in the British winter the arctic weather forces us to hold them indoors. We just turn the heating up really high, wear our bikinis, go-go dance to Kylie and Mental as Anything and pretend we’re on the beach at Bondi.
A surf. Plunge headfirst through a frothing, foaming breaker and it’ll fizz all the fuzz out of your brain. Then hook yourself up intravenously to some Hunter Valley “kard-onney”, get together with your Aussie mates and laugh till your lips fall off.
What you miss most about Australia
Our laconic humour. It’s drier than an AA CLINIC. Plus our gentle scepticism. We have chronic skeptic-emia. We’re not cynical, just sceptical about everything while retaining our optimism. We do not think optimism is an eye disease.
Who you would most like to slap around the face with a wet kipper
Great question! I think I would have to say all misogynists. I have an allergic reaction to men who think women should be runners-up in the human race. It’s still a man’s world. Women don’t have equal pay, we’re getting 75 pence in the pound, plus we’re getting concussion hitting our heads on the glass ceiling, and we’re expected to clean it whilst up there. Any woman who calls herself a post feminist, has clearly kept her wonder bra and burnt her brains as we still have a long way to go.
Your worst fashion moment
The sequined boob tube and satin hot pants in the late 70’s. It was clearly a look which didn’t quite come off, but definitely gave the impression that it would later… and for the whole band!
What your children have taught you
That there is no such thing as a perfect mother. Perfect mothers only exist in American sit-coms. Oh, and that any mum who says she copes all the time is either lying or taking A LOT of drugs!
What your husband has taught you
That love prepares you for marriage, the way needlepoint prepares you for round-the-world-solo yachting.
Your biggest tip for newlyweds
Have sex and sleep now because once you have children, you never will again.
Your most recent dream
Standing on the podium while I receive the Nobel Prize for literature from Brad Pitt, who then whisks me off to some remote island so exclusive that not even the tide can get in, where he proceeds to lick the roe of virgin sturgeon from my navel ‘neath a tropical palm.
The Female Eunuch. 1970 Author – Germaine Greer
I grew up as a surfie girl in Australia. The men at the time disproved the theory of evolution – they were evolving into apes. Women were merely human handbags, to be draped decoratively over their arms. “Why can’t women surf?” They’d ask. “Because it’s so hard to get the smell out of the fish.” “Why are there women”? “So men have something to lie down on while having a root.” “ Why are there women?”… “Cause sheep can’t type”. Discovering feminism aged 16 changed my life. Reading Greer made me realise that the female of the species is more than a life support system to a pair of breasts.
Vanity Fair. 1847 – Author William Makepeace Thackeray.
Character Becky Sharpe was the Madonna of her day. With tongue in chic and lashings of chutzpah, she flaunted tradition and challenged hypocritical sexual mores as she constantly reinvented herself. And what a survivor! After the nuclear holocaust, you know who’ll be left? A couple of cockroaches….and Becky. Ironically, not only was Becky’s complicated and compelling character created by a bloke, but she was also conjured up in the 1800’s, 100 years before Emily Pankhusrt tied herself to the railings. And yet her independence, her fiery spirit, her radical views, her wit and wordplay outshine all the wet and wimpy heroines dished up in so much of today’s contemporary women’s fiction. The dreary Bridget Jones and her doppelgänger protagonists rife in today’s literary world are human musk; Canada on legs; the Taj Mahal of Mediocrity. They are polite and one-dimensional and invariably get rescued by something tall, dark and bankable…. Becky, on the other hand, learned to stand on her own two stilettos. Much of Vanity Fair is still thrillingly relevant. Like England, today, the early 1800’s was a time of economic chaos and social neglect. There was an anti-Jacobean reaction against all proposals for reform and all sympathy with the sufferings of the poor. The aristocratic ruling class enjoyed its own pleasant life apart. Reminiscent of the Bush policies in America, town planning, sanitation, education and health, were not considered a high priority of the Government. The motto of the age was “self-help” – an individualist doctrine which left behind the weak and less fortunate. And Becky Sharpe did just that. Orphaned early, Becky was forced to rely on the frugal, condescending charity of her school headmistress (the entire staff had a condescension chromosome). Made to give French lessons in exchange for education and board, she is never allowed to forget her humble circumstances. From such inauspicious beginnings, with wit and verve and lots of nerve, she goes on to be come the Edmund Hilary of social-climbing, scrambling her way to the upper slopes, eventually being presented to the Prince Regent. One of the criticisms levelled at Becky Sharpe is that she was a ferocious husband-hunting. Becky Sharpe wasn’t interested in Mr Right, but Lord, Sir, Marquis Right at the very least! But we’re talking 1810. With no vote, no union, no fixed wage no welfare, no contraceptives, no abortion, no maternity leave….what options were available to women? Apart from becoming a governess, factory work or domestic service, it was prostitution or marriage. (Often a tautology in those days).
Another condemnation is her social-climbing. If social-climbing were an Olympic category, Becky Sharpe would be a gold medallist…But let’s just remember that it was a national sport at the time. Born on the wrong side of the tracks, until befriending Lord Steyne, Becky Sharpe spent the whole time looking up people’s noses….even people shorter than her! And that is not such a pretty view. What annoyed London society, was that, despite constant reminders of her lack of family connections and patronising lectures about remembering her “place,” while they laboured away on the lower social slopes, Becky’s talent and drive enabled her to abseil straight to the top of the class system. And the woman had a head for heights. Even though she climbed high enough to induce nose bleeds, even being presented at court, there was no altitude sickness for our Becks. Her major fault, the San Andreas of her faults, shall we say, seems to be the accusation of Bad Mothering. The dismissive cruelty Becky displayed towards her son is notorious. Personally, I put it down to post-natal depression….all six years of it; the longest case known to medical science. But who wouldn’t be depressed? For Becky and Rawdon, it was a Foetal attraction. She was a 19 yr old orphan, broke, ostracised by her husband’s family and, four months into the marriage …up the duff. Her rejection becomes less scandalous when you consider that children were not a precious commodity in Victorian England. They were shoved up chimneys and down mines… More concern was voiced over conditions of the pit ponies. It was the custom of the upper classes…and still is…. to prefer pets to people. They keep their dogs at home and send their kids off to high-class kennels, called Eton and Harrow. Adultery is another accusation leveled at Ms Sharpe. But there is no real evidence that Becky was a sexual kleptomaniac. Yes, she flirted. Yes, she probably played Tonsil Hockey with the repulsive Lord Steyne. Yes, she used her sexual powers…(the woman climbed the ladder of success, lad by lad…or really, wrong by wrong.) But what other tools were available to the 19th-century female? It is Vanity Fair’s men for whom Thackerey saves his literary venom. Firstly, George Osbourne, a vain, immature man who went straight from puberty… to adultery. Then her own husband, Rawdon, a dimwitted soldier with love bites on his mirror who couldn’t support his wife. And finally, the hypocritical Steyne; a man who thought monogamy was something you make dining room tables out of. Becky Sharpe should be every girl’s role model. She broke the rules – defying the notion that “it’s not the done thing.” As far as Becky was concerned, once she did it, it was done and then it was the done thing. She also reminds us that life’s too short to be subtle. And, even more importantly for the education of all young women, that all men should be taken with a packet of salt. I named a character after her in my satire on marriage called “Altar Ego.”
The Women. 1939 – written by Clare Boothe Luce and Anita Loos. Director George Cukor.
Women may not be as physically strong as men, but we can shoot from the lip. We’re more verbally dexterous than blokes. We girls have black belts in the art of tongue-fu. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than from the all-female cast of the fast-talking, funny, feisty film, “The Women”. Until discovering this black and white gem, I’d always felt Hollywood movies to be a D.I.Y. Guide to Becoming a Bimbo. Women were usually decorative and demure or obsessed about which side their beds were buttered on. They never drove the plot. But then I stumbled upon The Women. This film about a coup in the holy state of matrimony, not only has a female protagonist and antagonist, but all the supporting characters are also female. There’s not a bloke in cinematic sight. But, whereas the sharp, shrewd heroines in Anita Loos’ script (taken from a play by Claire Booth Luce) puts the cat into catwalk, especially in the department store’s lingerie parade, it is the absent male characters for whom this brilliant writer reserves her most barbed observations. The Women also takes comic aim at my own favourite targets – the double standards of moral crusaders, misogyny and male gullibility. Anita Loos’ marital satire on the sex war goes straight for the jocular vein. You’ll have to be hospitalised from hilarity.
Thelma and Louise. 1991 Written by Calli Khouri – Director Ridley Scott
Thelma and Louise – The reason this film was such a success is because for too long, all Hollywood had offered we women was a D.I.Y. Guide to Becoming a Bimbo. The only cinematic role models we had trough the 80’s were a “Pretty Woman” prostitute , a “Fatally Attracted” psychopath or fallopian-tube flashing Sharon Stone. Hollywood is allergic to Real Women. Women with the odd bit of armpit stubble. Women with cheek and chutzpah. Women who do not have love bites on their mirrors. It wasn’t always thus. Once we had Mae West, Lauren Bacall, Barbara Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis… Women expert at the art of quip lash. So, what happened? The 1950’s, that’s what. The war was over, women were no longer required in the workplace…and suddenly, surprise, surprise our heroines were dipped in household disinfectant. We were in for an entire decade of film scripts sanitized by the likes of Jane Wyman, Donna Reed, Nancy Reagan; sinking into his arms…before sinking her arms in his sink. So, what a joy to finally have a film with feisty female protagonists. Funny, feisty, independent, sexually assertive – Thelma and Louise put the fun into feminism What a novelty to see a movie where the women aren’t waiting around to be rescued by something Tall, Dark and Bankable nor having endless academy award-winning orgasms – with no foreplay. And invariably being shot, raped, cut up or chain-sawed by the end. This time, they do the maiming and revenge seeking and havoc reeking.
Adam’s Rib. 1949 – Written by Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin. Director George Cukor.
In the film they (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey) play two lawyers married to each other, working on the same case. It’s like the verbal version of Wimbledon, with one-liners lobbing back and forth. Hepburn is the Navratilova of the back-handed compliment. And Spencer Tracey is the Federer of the verbal volley. I love the film because it’s all talk, no action. Wordplay is foreplay for females – how else does Woody Allen still get laid? So many movies now have characters with a three-grunt vocab of “ na , dunno, errggh”. This movie is all about dazzling high-wire wit and wordplay.
Puberty Blues. 1981 – Written by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey. Director – Bruce Beresford
I’m currently having my fourth puberty. First of all, I had my real puberty, then I wrote a book about it, then there was the movie, then the tv series. I’m now menopausal, so all very confusing. I watched the film again recently. Hadn’t seen it for 30 years! I was torn between hysterical laughter and nausea to the point of projectile vomiting. But the raw emotion, the poignancy, the wry, dry comedy, is what makes it a cult movie today. So many kids come up to me in London quoting movie lines. “Get me a Chiko Roll. And DON’T TAKE A BITE OUT OF IT ON THE WAY.” This is a little book that punched way above its weight.
The Lives of Others – Director- Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck.
This is the most powerful film I’ve ever seen. It’s about the power of art and humour to humanize and civilise. Set in East Germany before the Berlin Wall comes down, the story revolves around a boring, beige, robotic spy, who is sent to eavesdrop on a writer and his actress wife and all their bohemian friends, who are chipping away at the system. He is out to trap them, but, in the end, becomes entranced and seduced by their wit and warmth. He ends up betraying his communist bosses. It’s heart wrenching, humane, profound and truly beautiful.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra with Richard Tognetti and his wife Satu. This is without a doubt, the best band in the world. Soul-melting, ear-caressing perfection.
Stephen Fry, Barry Humphries and Billy Connolly. They should all have to register their wits at a police headquarters, as they’re lethal weapons. I do so love a man who can shoot from the lip, triple an entendre and give a little punniligus.
Women are your human wonder bras – uplifting, supportive and making you look bigger and better. I am blessed to have three scintillating sisters, a lovely, warm, wise and witty Mum, plus the best and most loyal girlfriends in the world.
What you want to be in the next life
An opera singer who can melt the ear lobes of all, with one glorious aria. Or president of the free world so I can give women equal pay.
Who you were in a past life
My sign reads “Do Not Disturb.”
When you die, if you could come back for a night and scare the shit out of someone who would it be
Rootin’, tootin’, shootin’ Putin. I’d tell the homophobic sociopath that he’s secretly gay.
Did you ever actually fetch a Chiko Roll for a surfer
Yes, sadly I did. Surfie girls were second glass citizens. I’m just glad I occasionally sneaked a bite out of it on the way back up the beach.
Your biggest achievement in life
My two darling kids. Your children are the greatest love affair of your life. Although, on second thoughts, there are a few conditions – you must never take up the descant recorder, drums or bagpipes.
What you wish you knew about sex before you did it.
That sex starts in the brain. Truly mind-blowing sex is all about emotion and intimacy. Although it helps if the blokes knows that ‘mutual orgasm’ is not an insurance company.
What with the war on women – FGM, honour killings, kidnapped school girls, domestic violence, forced marriages – I cry every time I read the paper.
What would we be surprised to know about you
I am a crossword addict ( a cruciverbalist) a scrabble addict, an open ocean swimming racer (the reason I swim fast is because I know something big is always down there, trying to eat me!) and I am a closet romantic.
Kathy Lette, Kirsty Noffke (Random House Publishing) Lisa Catt – Communications Manager Art Gallery of NSW, Svetlana Mironov-Marketing Executive Art Gallery of NSW, Malcolm the model, Kitty the Intern-Iconic and Vintage, Graham Jepson and Isabella Schimid for Iconic and Vintage.
Location – The Art Gallery of NSW
Photographer – Graham Jepson
Hair and MakeUp Stylist – Isabella Schimid
The Art Gallery of NSW
The Chiswick Restaurant at The Gallery
Kathy Lette Information
My Boy Shines In The Dark – Kathy Lette – The Australian 2013
Kathy Lette is the Ambassador for the British National Autistic Society, The White Ribbon Alliance and Plan International.
Kathy Lette also supports and campaigns for International Women’s Day and Women and Children First.
Gift For Kathy Lette provided by Gascoigne & King Luxury Scented Candles