In the course of a morning, Paula Duncan has laughed and cried and laughed again, whirling around the room, talking up a storm.
Family, love, career, depression, cancer, divorce and infidelity – nothing is off limits.
“I’m not shy about expressing myself and telling everyone how I feel about life,” the multiple Logie-winning veteran of 17 Aussie series from Number 96 through The Young Doctors, Cop Shop, Prisoner, Home and Away and Neighbours smiles wryly.
“I haven’t done anything different to a lot of my darling friends, but I guess my face is pretty familiar and I do wear my heart on my sleeve!”
At 70, and celebrating half a century in showbusiness, the down-to-earth star is reflective.
With two failed marriages behind her – one of them to former Cop Shop heart-throb John Orcsik – Paula has battled episodic depression and survived a long-ago suicide attempt.
“I only ever wanted to be married once – ideally, one complete relationship,” she sighs. “It wasn’t able to happen – I don’t know why. My folks were married all their lives and I wanted what they had.”
Sadly, she has now abandoned any hope of “ride into the sunset” romance but remains passionate about her family, friends, career, cooking, dogs and charity crusades.
Most recently, Paula was forced to confront the agonising death of her adored big sister and lifelong mentor, Emmy Award nominee Carmen Duncan.
It was a painful, long-running farewell in which the Another World daytime soap favourite fell ill with cancer five times over a 20-year period.
She finally passed away, aged 76, in St Vincent’s Hospice, Sydney, on February 3, 2019, children Millie and Duncan beside her.
For Paula, who had kissed her goodbye the previous day, it was a devastating blow.
“Oh my God, Carmen went through it for so long,” she says, wiping away tears. “She had two bouts of breast cancer, then thyroid and bowel cancers. She fought them all, but the last time it was a very rare gynaecological cancer.
“Not that long before the diagnosis, Carmie was on stage in Anything Goes, dancing her little socks off. She sensed there was something wrong, but I tried to shrug it off. The year before, our older brother, Bob, had died of cancer, so …”
Paula pauses, the memories still raw.
“I saw Carmie nearly every day in the hospice and it was horrific, just tragic. I knew she really didn’t want to go. All she wanted was to be with her children and be a grandmother.
“I’m too emotional, probably too compassionate. Not because I’m a wonderful person, it’s just the way I am,” confides the self-proclaimed “rebel with a cause” who has raised more than $12 million – and counting – to help the sick and disabled.
“I love deeply and because it’s very genuine, I am easily hurt. But the older I get, I grow stronger. I’ve learned not to go into areas that upset me too much. I say the Serenity Prayer every time I get into a state. You know the one: ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference’. It wouldn’t be too hard for me to collapse, but that prayer has got me through so much in my life.”
“I promised I would always be there for her family, but I knew there was that unspoken thought, ‘Aren’t you lucky? You’re going to live and I’m not.’ At times I thought I should be in that hospice bed, not her.
“She was given the option of more treatment, but in the end it was too much. She couldn’t take it anymore. She was so stoic, courageous and dignified, all class. It makes me emotional, just talking about it.”
The Duncan sisters were always close and mutually supportive. No rivalry, despite their similar paths?
“Never,” Paula says emphatically. “If Carmie was alive she would disdain me mentioning it, but there was a 10-year age gap between us so we were never up for the same roles! If anything, she was responsible for me staying in the business after NIDA decided I wasn’t suited for a stage career. You know, I would have been happy just working at Angus & Coote, where I was the top saleswoman, playing music and keeping everybody entertained …
“I love looking after my home and you very rarely see me at opening nights or red carpet events – unless it’s for a charity – but Carmie loved all that. She was very poised and sophisticated, like our mother, and I’m not, although some people think I am.
“I have a real earthiness about me, so starry lights and fame never really attracted me. I remember the night I won three Logies, they couldn’t find me because I was in the toilet vomiting, I was so scared of getting up to make a speech. I’m not starry-eyed, not at all.”
Nonetheless, there was no escaping the family genes.
Parents Rita and Robert were successful country and city publicans who kept patrons amused playing honky-tonk piano and violin.
“They were both very musical, and my first cousin is the famous actor and author, Donald Macdonald,” Paula explains. “I guess it was just bred into us.
“My brother Bob didn’t become an actor but he never stopped singing. And my other brother, Warren, who’s an accountant, turns out to have a wonderful voice. Mum and Dad wanted someone sensible in the family and he was the only sensible one of the whole damn lot of us!”
Born in snow country Cooma, NSW, on September 15, 1952, Paula was a tiny tot when she first hit the limelight presenting a posy to the Queen on the 1954 Royal Tour.
“It seemed like a fairytale, there was a grand staircase and she was so pretty!”
Sent as a boarder to Santa Sabina College – “a very strict convent” in Sydney’s inner west – she fell in love with arts and drama, encouraged by the nuns.
On her first audition for NIDA, Paula was told she was “too immature, and I was!” Later, she did pass muster but left the prestigious acting school, disheartened, after two years.
Following a couple of stage musicals, television beckoned.
“It was a bit of a roller-coaster,” from Number 96 to The Young Doctors, then headhunted for the Cop Shop role of Danni Francis, which was created for her.
Paula starred in a movie with Deborra-Lee Furness, went wild as Prisoner’s Lorelei Wilkinson, worked with a very young Nicole Kidman, and played Dannii Minogue’s mother in Home and Away.
Good friend Judy Nunn, alias Summer Bay’s Ailsa Stewart, dedicated her novel, Heritage, to Paula’s parents, whose lives helped inspire the book.
“It just never stopped. It was quite an amazing period for me,” laughs Paula, still widely recognised as the clean freak housewife in Spray ‘n’ Wipe’s long-running commercials.
“I seemed to be protected, both in the media and from #MeToo incidents, which was really lucky. I was consumed with TV, but it was probably Cop Shop that made me famous.”
The top-rating show also brought her a husband, on and off screen, in the form of hunky co-star John Orcsik.
At the start, the auspices weren’t good.
“I’d met him on Number 96 but we never really connected. We were just different. He played Don Finlayson’s lover but there was nothing gay about John, I tell you.” She chuckles, mischievously.
“When he was cast in Cop Shop, I remember my best friend, Joanna Lockwood, saying I’d hate him – shirts open to the waist, gold chains, tight pants, thinks he’s a god. Meanwhile, John told a mate he dreaded working with ‘that actor who leads with her chin and waddles like a duck’. Me!
“But we went to a cast dinner where we started arguing about life. Everyone else got up and left us there. And that was how I got with him. It never stopped. We made love on and off screen and married three times – privately, next time on the show and then at a big family wedding. John was my soulmate and we are still best friends. It was real love, it was deep.”
They stayed together for 19 years, split up, got together again, separated, divorced. John brought her “the amazing gift” of a stepson, Simon, from his de facto relationship with make-up artist Maggie Strike.
Paula, afflicted by severe ovarian cysts, had been told she would never bear a child of her own.
“I had four cysts removed, horrible big ones, during the Cop Shop days. It was agonising,” she says. “One of the cysts was the size of a duck egg!”
But on Valentine’s Day 1984, she and John were “blessed” by the birth of “miracle” daughter Jessica, following a 48-hour labour and emergency caesarean.
“It was the epitome of joy, really,” she recalls. “Remember, I was with the love of my life, my career was on top of the world, I’d inherited a son from this beautiful woman – she sadly didn’t survive – and had a baby of my own.”
That happiness wasn’t destined to last however.
“Things go wrong,” says Paula, who spiralled into postnatal depression. “John wanted me to stay in the industry, but I got more and more involved with community work. And I wasn’t going to stay young forever either.”
At the age of 43, devastated by another parting from John, she attempted suicide while filming Paradise Beach on the Gold Coast.
Young Jessica, then in her early teens, saved her mother by calling an ambulance.
“Episodic depression is brought on by an episode, so a lot of my life it doesn’t touch me,” Paula revealed on Studio 10 several years ago.
“But at some stage of my life it can, and I can fall down. As high and as happy as I can be, I can be that low.
“They describe depression as being like a toothache. You can take all the medicine you like, use an ice pack, but that tooth is still aching. That’s what happens with severe depression. The triggers come about through me feeling a sense of loss, disappointing someone else and most of all, rejection. Rejection is something I can’t handle.”
Imagine, then, the pain of discovering through a newspaper story that her second husband, Steve Mason, was having an affair with a woman he openly called the love of his life.
Paula, who was on location in country Victoria filming Strange Bedfellows, didn’t see the “cheating” headlines but co-stars Paul Hogan and Michael Caton were forced to tell her about them.
“They were very beautiful to me,” she reminisces. “They just came up and said, ‘I wouldn’t read the Sunday paper if I were you, darl.’ I asked why and they said, ‘Well, your husband’s just admitted that he’s found his true love.’
“I actually had a nervous breakdown over that, and I make no bones about it. I knew there were problems in our marriage, but that was cruel. I couldn’t work at all, so they took me off the set and I went into a very, very dark place. I totally lost the plot. They found me in the foetal position in the park. I was a mess, but John came to look after me. When things go wrong for me, you’ll always see John somewhere around.
“But it was very, very hard. Steve and I had only been married for four years and it was a topic of conversation wherever I went. I got a lot of sympathy, but sympathy just made me more self-indulgent and sad as the days went on. Sympathy doesn’t do anyone any good, empathy does.”
Empathy is something vibrant Paula has in abundance.
Somehow she manages to make every setback an inspiration to help others, lending her name and profile to a battalion of charities.
Around the time of her second marriage breakdown, she was awarded an Order of Australia for outstanding contributions to the entertainment industry and Australian community.
It didn’t heal her heartbreak, but it spurred her to get over it.
Most recently, the loss of big sister Carmen prompted her to become an ambassador for WomenCan, an organisation funding research to help women with gynaecological cancers live longer, better lives.
“I’m doing this to treasure Carmen’s life, but I’ve always wanted to speak out for the silent,” she explains.
“I’ve tried to help the intellectually and physically disabled, people with depression, women with gynaecological cancers. They’re all issues people don’t want to talk about. But if we’d never got behind breast cancer, if we continued to ignore prostate or bowel cancer, how many more lives would have been lost? In many cases, women suffer symptoms in silence when they have an abnormality in their reproductive or gynaecological organs – yet that is the place we bring life into the world!”
Today, Paula continues to campaign as energetically as ever.
After 50 years in showbusiness – “Isn’t that hard to believe?” – she is recognised everywhere she goes.
“I’ve done so much TV, people talk to me in the street like they know me. They tell me how much they enjoy my work, which is wonderful, although I sometimes get compliments on A Country Practice. That’s about the only series I never did!”
She chuckles, always delighted to laugh at herself.
“Oh, I’m famous for my terrible faux pas, darling! I once told everyone about this delicious vegetarian quiche I’d made, with bacon. And there was one you probably can’t print, where I got the word Volvo mixed up with something quite different involving female anatomy!”
For a bet, she appeared on the Seven Network’s reality show First Dates in 2020.
“It was hilarious! John rang in the middle of my date and he wasn’t supposed to. It was fun, but I didn’t expect to meet someone and sail away forever. I think that’s done.”
So has Paula given up on affairs of the heart?
“I’d never give up on love, but I’m definitely not interested in being ‘in love’. I love my kids, my friends, fighting for causes, cooking, my dogs, breaking the silence for people who can’t speak for themselves,” she says.
“That’s what I love now. “Both my kids are madly in love – Simon is engaged and Jessica got married last year – so I love that. No worries there. But I’d like to be a grandmother, I would.”
To donate to WomenCan, visit womencan.org.au. If this story causes you distress, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
You can read this story and many others in the February issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now!