It’s hard to imagine but this time last year, the seemingly unsinkable Deborah Hutton was holed up on her living room couch, too afraid to venture out.
“I was in a really bad way, I was just a mess,” the media personality admits, her blue eyes clouding over.
Deborah’s estranged partner had just been arrested for staging a break-in at the Sydney beach house they shared, in a bizarre bid to intimidate her into staying with him.
Earlier that morning, a devastated Deb had chatted to her close friend Jenny Haretuku, who lives two-and-a-half hours out of Sydney.
Suddenly, there was a knock at her front door.
“And Jenny was standing there with all the ingredients for chicken soup – literally. She had an overnight bag and said, ‘I am staying,'” Deborah, 57, recalls.
“I just burst into tears and thought, ‘That’s one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given.'”
Through life’s ups and downs, the one constant in Deborah’s life – by default, not design – has been her tight-knit group of friends. She meets them regularly for dinner, drinks, golf, gym sessions, walks, Sydney Swans games – or hosts them at her home in the exclusive beach suburb of Bronte.
Among them is Deeta Colvin, the celebrated PR maven once described as “the greatest engineer of fun and frivolity Australia has seen”.
Watching her Ab Fab-style riff with Deborah as the pair prepare for The Weekly’s photoshoot, I don’t doubt that for a second.
“My friends are my family,” a more reflective Deborah explains when we catch up a week later.
“Because I never really had a true sense of immediate family, my friendships are everything to me. They anchor me and help me feel secure.
“It’s different for me. I am not married and I don’t have children. Friendships take on a very different meaning to you if you don’t have your own family.”
It is, Deeta assures me, a two-way street.
“Deborah’s a very caring friend. When I went through an illness, she was always the first to call in and bring me something. But she’s also got this lovely sunny, engaging, fun personality.”
It’s true, there is a disarming openness to Deborah, despite her four decades in the cut-throat worlds of modelling and media.
When she finds me waiting to interview her at her dining table, she orders me onto the couch for a cuppa.
When I ask her views on the #MeToo movement, she groans, “Are we really going to go there?” – then promptly goes there.
“Look, I have a tendency to trust people first,” she admits.
“I am not a person who decides to check out someone first to see if I can trust them before I’ll open up. You can get burnt that way, but I never want to become cynical. To my detriment, I always believe them to be the better person and I will always open up.”
The only subject on which Deborah is guarded is her love life – which is understandable, given the painful incident last year involving her partner of six-and-a-half-years, which ended with an apprehended violence order being put in place.
WATCH BELOW: Deborah and Breastscreen Australia busts prevalent mammogram myths. Story continues after video.
“It was an extremely challenging time for me and I needed to do quite a bit of work to find peace with it. And I did! You know, for whatever reason, s–t happens.
“So you have to decide if you are going to wear it forever or do the work, come out the other side, and just wish love and light to everyone. That’s where I am at. I honestly hold no grudges. You grow from things and you learn things about yourself.
“I learned that I am not as tough as I thought I was. I put on this really brave front and think that I am really strong, and what I discovered is that I am not. I also learned that that’s okay.”
In the wake of the incident, Deborah resumed her twice-daily meditation. Friends, far and wide, came out of the woodwork.
“I had people from all different walks of life reach out to me, maybe because we are so accessible through social media these days.”
BELOW: Deborah (far right) with media greats Angela Bishop, Natalie Barr, Kylie Gillies and Sally Obermeder at The Australian Women’s Weekly 2019 Women of the Future Awards.
“I was really blown away,” she says. “I felt so supported and just incredibly loved by people – and honestly I never knew that.”
She shouldn’t have been surprised. First as a model, then as a television presenter, magazine editor, homewares queen, cookbook author and brand ambassador, Deborah has been a near constant presence in the national psyche for more than 40 years.
She is one of our most beloved and recognisable faces – even to people no longer sure exactly why they recognise her.
With a classic beauty (that has seen her compared to a young Candice Bergen), street smarts, natural charisma and career success, it’s easy to imagine Deborah has always lived a charmed life.
Yet she’s also had her share of hardship and tragedy.
Her parents split when she was just two and young Deb – separated from her father and two brothers – was shuttled between Queensland, NSW and Papua New Guinea, a perennial new girl attending more than 10 schools.
Years later, in her 40s, she lost both brothers, to whom she had grown close in adulthood, in the space of less than two years.
Rod, who had suffered a severe brain injury in a devastating accident as a young man, died suddenly, aged 47, after an epileptic seizure in July 2007. David, 50, succumbed to liver cancer just 19 months later.
“It’s an enormous sense of loss that I still feel today,” Deb says. “I always think of them after my morning meditation. I hold them within me, without a doubt.”
“Grief and loss – you don’t get over it, you find a place for it and it just becomes a part of you and that’s okay. I just wish that sometimes they could be sitting at the table with me.”
Deeta, the wife of Sydney Olympics bid chief Rod McGeoch, admires her friend’s growth-through-pain philosophy and ability to always divine the positive.
“As a person she’s really gutsy, she’s a survivor, she’s been through a lot of hardship. Yet you always see the sunny side up. She just grabs hold of life and gives it a good shake.”
After leaving home and school at 16 to pursue a modelling career, the “jet-propelled” (her words) Deborah crammed much into her 20s, 30s and 40s.
She modelled in Milan and New York, became a Nine Network darling with shows including Location, Location, Getaway and Looking Good, was the face of brands such as Grace Bros. and Qantas, was an editor-at-large of The Australian Women’s Weekly, launched her own homewares brand, and attended every A-list party Sydney proffered.
Her ex-files, meanwhile, included the legendary celebrity agent Harry M. Miller, whom she dated for 11 years.
Yet despite a short-lived marriage in her 20s to an opal merchant, Deborah never really settled down. Does she feel unlucky in love?
“No, not at all. Every relationship I have had, I have loved at that time of my life. Every relationship was meant to be for that particular time and it was meant to finish when it did and I have evolved out of that.”
Her greatest love, she says without hesitation, was Billie Hutton, her Bichon Frise Shih Tzu pooch, who was tragically run over two years ago.
“It was a love I have never experienced before. I took her everywhere with me. Because I never had children, she was my world, my baby.”
She does have two very important children in her life. Her brother David left behind two “extraordinary, beautiful” boys, now aged 12 and 14 and living in the NSW Southern Highlands.
Although she doesn’t see them as often as she would like, given the tyranny of distance, she hopes that soon they will be old enough to hop on a train to come to Sydney to visit “Aunty Deb”.
“David definitely lives on through them,” she says.
These days, Deb is again turning her attention to work. She has just launched a new lifestyle show on Foxtel Find Me A Beach House, in which she helps buyers across Australia find their dream beachside retreat.
It is the perfect fit for Deborah, who recently completed building her “forever” home – a classic Hamptons-style beach house “with a touch of Queenslander”.
After a decade managing herself, she recently hired an agent in order to, “throw myself out there a bit more”. She is a brand ambassador for Estée Lauder and is developing ideas for other television shows, but says her ambition now is for more meaningful projects.
“What it gets down to is I am now working on projects that make my heart sing, rather than just picking up work for work’s sake,” she says.
“I’m not as manic as I used to be. That’s just nature’s way of saying it’s okay to not be always chasing, chasing, chasing. I have some really nice projects on but I have a bit more time for me, a bit more balance in my life.”
WATCH BELOW: Designer holiday homes we wish we could live in! Story continues after video.
It is ironic then that, just as she is finding balance in her life, Deborah is disbanding her website of the same name. After seven years – and much hand-wringing – she has decided she no longer has the 24/7 energy required to continue Balance By Deborah Hutton.
Deborah has, in the past, spoken about the soul-searching she did when work started to dry up in her 50s. Is she worried then about turning 60?
“God no. I find it amusing. I don’t feel it and I don’t act it. God forbid I ever grow up. If you are not a parent, there’s a sense that you never really have to. I have this childlike approach to things and I would like to retain that.”
Indeed, Deborah seems now to live a contented, settled but still rather jolly domestic life. She jokes that her home has two identically sized, 2sqm by 1.5sqm spaces – one an infrared sauna, the other a wine cellar.
“One is for detox, the other for retox, so talk about balance,” she quips.
She would, she says, rate her current level of happiness at a nine out of 10. “I am doing things I feel passionately about, I have finished my dream house, I have time for my people, my friends. The only thing I am missing is a dog. If I get another dog, I will be 10 out of 10.”
Deborah says she loves her own company and could quite happily spend the rest of her life with her friends, “eating good food, drinking good wine, having a seriously good giggle, drinking and swearing and carrying on”.
“I have my true friends. They are the ones, when the chips are down, who will turn up unexpectedly, or will just continue to ring when the phones have stopped, or the ones who will just turn up at the front door – and they don’t want anything in return.”
Find Me A Beach House airs on Wednesdays, 9.30pm on Lifestyle.
Read more on this story in the November issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale now.