Julia Morris doesn’t enter a room. She bursts into one. “Stand clear, mediocre talent walking,” the comedian cracks as she arrives on The Weekly’s set.
It’s the beginning of a series of pithy and often self-deprecating jokes that will launch the assembled crew into fits of giggles throughout our shoot, occasionally holding up proceedings as we get sucked into the comedic stories.
It’s this effortless flow of banter that has seen her traverse what she calls her “75 years in the business”, pivoting from one opportunity to the next and finding a legion of new, loyal fans along the way. But while it’s easy to write Julia off as a human one-liner generator, scratch gently beneath the surface and there’s a woman of many layers and complexities sitting underneath.
“That was a cross between glorious and gently embarrassing,” she sighs once the camera has been put down. “For years I was conscious of not looking like I was taking myself too seriously and in the end, that just took up more time.
“I think it’s something in the 50s about letting go. Not letting go of how I look – quite the opposite. But having faith that everyone else knows what they are doing.”
It’s not the first time Julia has shot with The Weekly. But it is the first time she’s spoken to us in the wake of her split from husband of 16 years Dan Thomas. And it’s the first time she’s laid bare not only the way she, Dan and their two daughters – Ruby, 16, and Sophie, 14 – have navigated the huge life shift, but also the personal awakenings she’s had along the way.
While the jokes will resurface throughout – the woman is a comic after all – the gravitas of the subject matter doesn’t escape her. Nor does the work that is still ahead.
“It’s been uncomfortable,” the I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! co-host says of the breakdown of her marriage. “It’s been super-sad. But there are a lot of layers happening at the same time.” Her approach has been: “Let’s just get through today. I can’t work out how everybody is going to feel in September. How are we going to do today? Because if we can do today, then everything is going to be alright because we’ll probably give tomorrow a go.”
WATCH BELOW: BEHIND THE SCENES WITH JULIA MORRIS ON HER SHOOT WITH THE WEEKLY
Journey of self-discovery
For years, Julia had been joking about her marriage being one argument away from ending. It was part of her regular schtick in her shows and various interviews.
“I’m famous for saying I feel like every year we’re going to break up,” she acknowledges. “But it definitely gets to that same point [at this, she emulates a clock ticking down], which is that we are just not necessarily growing in the same direction. And then once you’ve got that in your headspace, the other person starts to become quite a pest. I think that’s where patience starts to wear down to, ‘I’m not living like this. How is this an example for my girls that this is an okay life to lead? No thanks’.”
For decades Julia had confided in her trusted inner circle of friends about the state of her marriage and other personal woes. But when perimenopause kicked in at the age of 45, it led her to seek help in the form of a psychologist. That was 10 years ago, and it prompted a journey that has radically shifted her relationships with others, but more importantly with herself.
“While your friends are patient and amazing, it’s time to get better help and advice,” she says of the move to a professional. “Because everybody tends to favour you when they are giving you advice. You are often the hero of the story. But a more objective opinion comes from a professional. ‘Maybe you could try this because what you are saying to me is you are probably not doing enough of that,’ and so on. It helped me work out the maths of life.”
From her first session, Julia was hooked. Examining her history of decisions in unflinching detail set off a wave of awakenings, she reveals. Those realisations shook her out of long-held patterns she’d neither noticed nor questioned.
“Like my odd people-pleasing,” she says. “And my compliance. And my tendency to go way over the top to do something nice for people, which would then take me 17 days to do. Chronic people-pleasing. And not speaking my truth, which seems unusual for someone as outspoken as I am. But my need to be liked was deeper than my need to get it right.”
The longer she worked on herself, says Julia, the more crystallised the idea became that maybe marriage wasn’t the be-all and end-all many of us think it will be.
Certainly, she and Dan didn’t have what was once considered a “traditional” marriage. While Julia’s job would necessitate short stints away for work, Dan took a step back from his own comedy career, keeping things going on the home front and raising their much-loved daughters. It worked for them. Until, eventually, they both admitted that it didn’t anymore.
There was nothing dramatically wrong with her relationship with Dan, she says now. “But also, all the things that were wrong with it, everybody jokes about. Like, ‘I can’t get anything right.’ Or ‘I say this and he says no, it’s not.’ Every wife I speak to, they’re like, ‘That’s marriage, mate.’ So, you think, well, if that’s everybody, then maybe that’s just the payoff.”
They weren’t bickering or fighting, she says, just engaging in “smart-arsery”. Gradually, the jokes to friends about leaving her husband became more mired in truth. And working with her psychologist – as well as getting to the other side of menopause – were huge factors in making the leap from pondering to doing.
“Is this me?” she recalls thinking to herself. “What is it? I should feel happy. I’ve got a job, my children are healthy, my husband is nice. It’s not like he’s a beast. He’s not a nightmare. So why am I still not happy?”
But ultimately, she says, it came down to one concrete truth: “How do I want to live the second half of my life? I don’t really want someone else’s instructions. So … see ya!”
That was in May last year. Days after coming to that decision internally she finally broached it with her husband. “He literally said, ‘Oh my God, I feel the same way, this is amazing’,” she recalls. “And then we sat down and ordered new bedside tables for the apartment we rented to do the ‘nesting’.”
“Nesting” was the technique they employed to ease the disruption for the girls while the split was still fresh. Rather than the children travelling between homes, Dan and Julia would move in and out to spend time with the kids – the other staying at the apartment they’d rented. “We were both, like, let’s try to make our way into this new arrangement as smoothly as we can,” Julia says.
At the time, Melbourne was still in the grips of a lengthy COVID lockdown. While not fun for anyone with teenagers who were home schooling, ironically it helped her family get through those early days without any outside speculation. There were no social media announcements; only immediate family and friends were privy to what was going on behind closed doors.
“Everyone was pretty smooth,” she says of the reaction to the news. “No one said, ‘I saw it coming.’ And it wasn’t one of those where you were like, ‘Oh, thank God!’ A few people were shocked. I don’t think we lost any friends over it. You know, when some people go in one direction, some people go in the other. None of that happened.”
Also aiding in the smoothness of the process was their method of forming a divorce agreement. The pair decided on a “collaborative divorce” – a process which allows both parties and their lawyers to enter into a contract to finalise the legal aspects without having to go to court. It’s a quicker and far gentler process, with a set number of meetings at a fixed price, meaning it’s also far less expensive.
“So again, that process could have been much more brutal than it was. But we started off as pals, I guess. And I think you want to get all of that grown-up stuff in place before too much time goes past. Because once the love starts to wear out, I think it’s only going in one direction.”
Julia retained the family home in the settlement which, she laughs, was both a blessing and a curse. They’d bought it thinking it would be a renovation project for Dan while Julia was filming.
“Then, all of a sudden, it needed an excruciating amount of work to make it safe. I had this massive job on my hands and undertook an extensive renovation during a time when building equipment simply wasn’t available. Actually, it got less available. But now? Over the years I might have been led to believe that I wasn’t very capable. Possibly by me. So certainly, I’ve been able to gather some inner confidence.”
Taking the wheel
With Dan having run the house and finances during their marriage, it wasn’t just the renovation that proved a challenge. But Julia was determined that she’d go it solo without resorting to asking her ex for help or advice, be it on how to unclog a drain or how to remortgage.
“Put it this way, I didn’t know who we banked with when we broke up,” she admits. “You hear about women and you’re like, ‘What, you mean they don’t know anything about the accounts?’ But if you feel like it’s being taken care of, it’s ‘you do your job and I’ll do my job’. Everyone’s got a different job.
“I don’t have much business with the internet. Now I’ve got to download permission slips from school. And I’ve never worked in an office – I’ve taught myself all that stuff. It’s like an IKEA flatpack – that’s what my life has been since. I have no clue how to put it together, but I’m just going to try to sit quietly until it shows itself to me. The girls are now calling me ‘boss lady’.”
The pride Julia feels about how her daughters have coped during these tumultuous years is evident. Many of their formative moments were scuttled by COVID but their ability to navigate disappointment while remaining resilient has cheered her. They are at an age when they are beginning to spread their wings and assert independence. And while she jokes that she’d rather they wanted to spend all their time with her, or at least be a little more dependent, she’s appreciative that they seem to have sensible heads on their shoulders.
“They’re not arseholes, for want of a better expression,” she says with a grin. “I mean, they’ve had their times like that. But I also wonder if it’s the seasons of your parenting that have a direct effect on how the children are behaving. How tight have you got the noose and therefore how hard is the kickback against that? I don’t think it’s teenagers that are tricky. I think it’s that adults don’t really know how to parent them or speak to them. Or how to trust in their decisions and observations of life.”
She reflected on this sentiment to her own mother, Maureen, just the previous evening. “I said, ‘I don’t think anybody gets it right or feels like they are getting it right for a start’,” she explains. “You just hold your breath and try to get to the end. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong. Every single child is so different. We can all give each other parenting advice with a gentle side of judging, but no one knows your kid like you do. Even more so, no one knows your kid like your kid does.”
This generation of teenagers, she adds, have also become far savvier about not only their capabilities, but also their approach to mental health and self-care. It’s something she knows she needs to now do for herself in order to be the example her kids deserve.
“I am the last one on my list to be sorted. I think that’s how I ended up in the psychologist’s office in the first place,” she says. “I’m definitely trying to fit a few more things in now. Like, when I drop them at school, I go straight away to do Pilates, which is lying down exercise. I just don’t think it’s going to get any better than that. You lie down and somehow your legs do some workouts. It’s literally the best time I’ve ever had.
“Before [the divorce] I would have been quickly getting home to see if there was anything I could do. What are you doing or what are we doing or should we go out for lunch? I think the self-care takes over when you’re not caring for somebody else.”
And with that last musing, Julia is gathering her things to head off. It’s school pick-up time and with another lengthy stint in South Africa for the new season of I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! ahead, she wants to make the most of their time together in what she dubs their “girl palace”.
She’s said it before but wants to make it clear her stance hasn’t changed: there is no desire for a man to enter her life now or anytime in the foreseeable future.
“Hiding in my private home is my favourite thing,” she says. “I don’t like going out. I’ve been forcing myself a little bit more to see friends but I couldn’t be less interested in a romantic connection. You’d have to be pretty amazing to make me give up the best life ever. I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to live with somebody again – even if my girls leave home … and I’m happy if they stay with me forever.”
I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of here! debuts on Sunday April 2 at 7.30pm on Ten.
You can read this story and many others in the April issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.