Celebrity

EXCLUSIVE: How Wendy Harmer turned an unhappy childhood into a lifetime of laughter

In an intimate interview, the trailblazing funny lady and ambassador for The Smith Family reveals a life that has been both brutal and blessed.

This article with Wendy Harmer discusses the topic of childhood abuse which may be triggering for some readers.

Wendy Harmer retrieves her favourite teacup from behind cupboard doors that once belonged in an old, colonial farmhouse. Her front door – wood and bevelled glass – was, she suspects, pre-loved by a church congregation or an order of nuns. The mirror in the library was rescued from the old Carrington Hotel in Katoomba, where her husband, Brendan, was born in 1959. Everything in this house – where she has lived and raised a family for 30 years – has a story to tell, including Wendy. Especially Wendy.

“Was there anything about the book that surprised you?” she asks.

We’re discussing her memoir, Lies My Mirror Told Me (Allen and Unwin) and to be honest, much of it was surprising. Wendy has been so long in the public eye – as a writer, a comedian, a radio personality and a passionate ambassador for The Smith Family – that we think we know her, especially those of us who woke to her cheerful banter on Sydney breakfast radio, first on 2Day FM then on ABC Radio Sydney, for 16 years. But we don’t know the half of it.

The title of the book came from a conversation Wendy had with her mother when she was eight years old. Most of us know Wendy was born with a cleft lip and palate, but perhaps not that the boys at school called her “Eagle Beak and Flat Face and Wendy the Witch”. On one particular day, when she came home emotionally bruised from their cruelty, her mother suggested she “go and look in the mirror, and when you find something to complain about, you come out and tell me”.

“So, I went to look in the mirror,” she recalls, “and well, there was a lot to complain about, quite frankly. I only had little stumps of front teeth, my lip was patched up in a rudimentary fashion – I didn’t have my final surgery until I was in my teens – and my face was flat, like I’d walked into a door in a cartoon.”

But Wendy couldn’t bear to tell her mother that.

“I came out to my mother and said, ‘No, I’ve got nothing to complain about.’ And she said, ‘Good.’

“Sixty years later, she admitted that lesson in front of the mirror was brutal.”

Wendy Harmer, in a long white shirt and black trousers, stands in her living room beside a painting of gladioli.
Wendy Harmer’s home is filled with knick-knacks, books and art, like this beautiful old painting of gladioli.

Why did Wendy Harmer’s mother leave?

Much in Wendy’s childhood was brutal. Not all of it. Some of it sounds like Enid Blyton might have dreamed it up on drugs. But in between the madcap escapades with her siblings and holidays with her much-loved grandmother, Nellie, it was tough.

Wendy Harmer was 10 when her mother tried to take her own life. “She called the four children into the bedroom,” Wendy explains, “and said, ‘If I don’t wake up, call Daddy.’ Then she gave us some money to spend at the shops.

“I was thinking, ‘There’s something not right here’. But the others were younger, and they were all, ‘Money to spend at the shops! This never happens!’ … My father came home and she was unconscious. I remember him carrying her out to the car. She went to a mental health facility in Ballarat.”

Years later, Wendy’s mother, Margaret, told her that day was a blur. She said “she’d had enough and just wanted it over”. She’d been engaged at 15, married at 16, had Wendy at 17, then three more children and two miscarriages in quick succession.

“They gave her a tubal ligation after she had my sister and they said, ‘We think you’ve been through enough,’” Wendy recalls. “My mum went into a real depression after that. Looking back, she says she believes she had postnatal depression.”

Wendy Harmer is standing at her kitchen bench with a window behind her. She is wearing a long, colourful, checked shirt and beads.
Wendy Harmer’s kitchen windows look out to her leafy yard.

Wendy’s father, Graham, worked as a primary-school teacher in a succession of tiny, isolated regional Victorian towns. The Department of Education provided the family with houses that were barely habitable. None had indoor toilets. In one, Graham walked into the pantry and fell through the floor.

Graham taught all day and liked a beer with mates and a game of footy on weekends, so Margaret was often left alone with the children.

She came home from hospital for a year or so, but left for good on her 29th birthday.

“I remember hiding behind the couch, waiting to jump out and say, ‘Happy Birthday’, but she didn’t come home,” Wendy says. “I’ve hated surprises ever since. I always read the end of books first, I don’t like thrillers, I don’t like suspense, I like to know what my Christmas presents are beforehand. And I have a funny feeling it all goes back to that day my mum left.”

Tough times for the Brown kids

Margaret had gone home to Tasmania, leaving the four Brown children in the care of their well-meaning but (at best) benignly neglectful dad.

Years ago, Wendy shared a memory with The Smith Family, of which she’s been a long-time supporter. It was of the day “the Big Men in the Big Truck came to take our furniture away. They barged into the house and took the master-bedroom setting – bed, wardrobe and dressing table. Next to go was the lounge-room furniture – sofa, armchairs and new television. I remember wailing and trying to stop it all. My younger brothers and sister crying out in despair, too. To no avail. We were only little kids running down the driveway.

“Years later I came to understand that all our lovely, brand-new things had been repossessed. Dad had bought them on hire purchase in the hope Mum would come back. She never did.”

In the absence of around-the-clock adult supervision, the Brown kids became an unbreakable, loyal crew. They called themselves the ‘Famous Four.’

“My brother Noel was born with a cleft lip as well,” Wendy explains, “and partly, I think, because Noel and I were picked on quite a lot, we kids were very tight. My brothers and sister would pounce on anyone who was mean to me. So, they were my bodyguards as well as my posse.”

“We were always under the threat of going to an orphanage if Dad couldn’t cope.”

“…We used to whisper about it late at night … We knew that if we didn’t pull together, we could be split up.”

As the eldest, Wendy says, she felt a weighty responsibility for keeping the Brown family project on track, but until recently, she didn’t think anyone else had noticed.

“In writing this book,” she says, “I consulted with [brother] Phillip a lot, and he said, ‘I remember all you did for us. You made sure there was milk in the fridge and that we had bread and butter and that we got off to school.’

“I used to iron my dad’s shirts. Phillip very kindly reminded me of all that. And when he said, ‘You were our surrogate mum,’ I had a good old cry. Because
I did try really hard, but I hadn’t thought anyone had remembered.”

Wendy Harmer gets up to mischief

Left to their own devices, the Famous Four also had a whole lot of fun.

“When we lived in Bendigo,” she chuckles, “there was this labyrinth of old goldmines over the back fence – tunnels and mine shafts. No parent would let their children go into a place like that now, but Dad was often away, so we just played all day over there. We built elaborate cubby huts.

“We had this one underground cubby with furniture and wall niches for candles. We would have all suffocated if it had fallen in.

“It’s amazing none of us perished.”

Another highlight came at the zenith of the Evel Knievel stunt-riding craze. “There was a fantastic moment when Phillip convinced Noel to ride over a three-metre cliff on a pushbike and land in a willow tree, then in a pile of sand. Phillip, being the entrepreneur, got everyone in the neighbourhood to pay five cents to watch. Noel had a cape, and he flew off this cliff for about three feet, and then he went down like a shot duck. There was a roar of excitement. The kid’s bike was ruined, unfortunately. It wasn’t Noel’s bike. It was borrowed. But Noel was fine. He was a legend in his own lifetime.

“We were always getting into trouble. When we lived in Selby, we’d climb up onto Puffing Billy Bridge … We’d jump on the back of the train and spend the day at Emerald Lake. We were quite feral.”

The Brown kids and their dad made the best of things for two or three years, before Graham enlisted the help of a housekeeper, Alison, who swiftly added a second role as his live-in love, and a third as his children’s tormentor.

There was the time she nailed all Wendy’s favourite clothes to her bedroom door, destroying them, the time she told Wendy that she alone was the reason her father stayed out late at the pub. Then there was the kitten incident.

In Wendy’s book, Phillip tells the story: “There was a roster of tasks we were assigned, and one was to feed the cat. It had just had kittens and I’m not sure who it was who failed their feline care duties, but one night, while we were eating dinner at the kitchen table, Alison went on a rant about how ‘careless’ and ‘useless’ we all were because the cat needed extra care. She stormed out the back door. About 15 minutes later, she marched back in, held up a dripping bag and said we wouldn’t have to worry about the kittens anymore. She’d drowned them in a tub in the outdoor laundry.”

Who is Wendy Harmer’s husband?

Alison was the primary reason Wendy left home and, at 19, married a young man called Michael Harmer who had long hair and a beard and looked, she thought at the time, a little like Roger Glover, the bass player from Deep Purple. He also had wheels: “a Chrysler Valiant sedan he’d customised with lay-back seats and a studded black vinyl interior”.

Those wheels whisked Wendy far away from Alison, but they came with strings attached. “I didn’t mean to get married, it was a bit accidental really,” she admits. “I just needed somewhere to live. I didn’t have any money but I wanted to go to tertiary college and I had to move out of home.” She moved in with Michael and “he just nagged and nagged for me to marry him”.

She regrets losing the name Brown. By the time they married she was working at the Geelong Advertiser and they insisted she write under her married name, ‘Wendy Harmer’. After that, she says, it was just too hard to change back. “Wendy Harmer was kind of my byline and I’ve been stuck with it … You know, I’m actually Mrs Donohoe.”

Decades later, Wendy married a larrikin surfer and environmental activist called Brendan Donohoe, who she met at an election night party in 1993 (Paul Keating’s “victory for the true believers”). Brendan is, at this moment, in the kitchen, whipping up a round of cheese and tomato sandwiches for The Weekly team.

Asked what he first loved about Wendy, he offers: “Well, I’d seen her on [ABC comedy hit] The Big Gig and I thought she was hilarious. Then we got chatting and, well, what’s not to love?” He also admired her fearlessness.

Wendy and her husband Brendan laughing together in their leafy garden.
Wendy Harmer and her husband Brendan Donohoe have a laugh in their leafy garden.

Women are funny too!

Wendy was working in a Melbourne newsroom when she started going to comedy gigs. They were the coolest tickets in town. Comedy was the new rock‘n’roll, and she loved it.

“In every corner of Melbourne where you could put a microphone, there was an act, and it was cabaret and choir and magic, and cross-dressing and acrobatics and a cappella – you name it – these were really exciting times.”

Wendy first took to the stage in a troupe that included (Kath & Kim creator) Jane Turner, Ian McFadyen (The Comedy Company) and Mary-Anne Fahey (later to become Kylie Mole).

Wendy watched the male comedians and thought, “surely I could do this too?”

“The thing that really struck me,” she says, “was that half the audience were women, but there were no women doing stand-up. And I thought, women’s lives are funny too. It really annoys me when men say, ‘Oh, women aren’t funny’. Laughter is fundamental, and it takes away a fundamental part of our humanity if you say that women can’t make you laugh.

“This struck me as an injustice: That men were doing all the talking. So I started writing some stand-up routines.”

“In the beginning I thought, ‘I’ll go find a woman to do these routines’ but everyone said no. And I went, ‘Oh well, it will be me then, I suppose, won’t it?’”

Wendy’s first routine was about eight minutes long. “It was about taking your lunch to school in rainbow wax paper and the correct way to eat a Chocolate Royal and playing worms with Vita-Weats. It was silly, but that’s what comedy was back then – it was all very innocent and relatable.”

A bloke approached her after one show and said, “‘You know, when you’re on stage, we hear something we’ve never heard before. The laughter goes from a ho-ho-ho to a hee-hee-hee.’

“The laughter went up a pitch because women were laughing, and I thought, isn’t that fantastic?”

The comedy was intimate and accessible, but did get darker. Wendy sings a few bars from a song in her 1991 book, Love Gone Wrong:

“I’ve been driving round and round the block, watching your house since 10 o’clock. You had the nerve to change the lock, I’ve got my eye on you.” She calls it her “stalker song”.

Out of that era came many of the women comics we love – Magda Szubanski, Jean Kittson, Jane Turner, Gina Riley, Denise Scott, Judith Lucy, and Libbi Gorr.

“I count myself very lucky to have been around in those times,” Wendy says. “We were all really good friends – a tight little band. The first Melbourne comedy festival had 56 acts and you knew every person in it.”

Wendy Harmer stands in her library beneath a rainbow coloured chandelier.
Wendy and Brendan are avid readers and collectors. Every room has at least one stack of books!

How old are Wendy Harmer’s children?

The career of Wendy Harmer rolled along for the next two decades through live comedy, TV and radio. “I was really lucky just to scrape in under the wire, having kids at 42 and 44,” she says. “I nearly missed out. I used to say, ‘There were heaps of things I wanted to do before I had kids. I wanted to be financially independent, to travel, have a good career, menopause.’ I nearly got them all. But I really wanted to be a mum, and I’m glad I did it.”

After her own rocky childhood, Wendy says, her kids, Marley, now 25, and Maeve, 23, taught her how to be a parent. “I think Maeve was sent to me to teach me how to be a mum to a girl,” she says. “She made me into a mother in many ways. But to be honest, Brendan was the primary caregiver.”

The family home is hung with beautiful paintings, fabrics and mirrors. At “68 in a minute”, has Wendy’s relationship with mirrors become any easier with age?

“I don’t know,” she says, and pauses. “Growing old is a challenge … If you look at the rates of cosmetic surgery and chemical interventions, I think in some ways we’re losing our nerve as women. Having invasive plastic surgery says something quite profound about our confidence and how we see ourselves. So, is the relationship with the mirror getting any easier? No, it isn’t.”

However, she adds, life is about so much more than appearances.

Wendy Harmer's book cover is a portrait of wendy on a turquoise background.

“Humans have always been fascinated by mirrors,” she says thoughtfully. “We’re entranced by our own image. But mirrors are the wrong place to look for self-validation.

“There is a quote I use in the book, by Jean Cocteau: ‘Mirrors should think longer before they reflect’.”

If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

To learn more the work that Wendy Harmer does for The Smith Family and to help a child in need yourself, head HERE

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