“IF I WAS 30 I wouldn’t POSE THIS”
LIKE UNLIKE SOME FEMALE LAWYERS, GINA LIANO REFUSES TO DRESS DEMURELY. INDEED, SHE VOWS SHE WON’T SPORT HAIRY OR UNBRONZED LEGS EVEN WHEN SHE’S DEAD
Not long ago Gina Liano appeared in court, armed with a blaze of green eye shadow and the click of high heels. She confronted a horror story: an injured infant, an accused man and a hopeless mum.
Here, in the family division of Victoria’s Children’s Court, Liano the barrister is a fixture for a daily rollcall of society’s secret shame files. She probes the abuses of the most vulnerable. Her defence from the details is to forget the names as fast as she can.
Liano, known to most Australians as the sultry star of Foxtel’s The Real Housewives of Melbourne, shows no cleavage in court. No bare shoulders or open-toe shoes. She arrived here, in fulfilment of a long-held ambition, well before a TV audience embraced her big hair and bigger attitude.
She bowed to courtroom customs, but was not about to nod to some of its sillier traditions. Most female lawyers seemed beholden to the boys’ club culture. They deepened their voices and pulled back their hair. Liano spotted hairy legs which, she vows, hers will never be, even when she’s dead (they’ll be bronzed, too).
Liano would be a woman “because I didn’t know how to be anything else”. As an opposing counsel puts it, she would be a “good listener and a tough fighter”. Liano, as with her other guise in a trash-talking TV show, would be who she was.
A single mum, she would weigh compassion against need on the question of severing the bond between child and parent. Liano recalls the 20-year-old woman, intellectually impaired and living on the street. “The poor darling, I felt sorry for her, she was quite violent and aggressive,” recalls Liano. “She wanted her baby back.”
Of late, Liano has appeared in court only as her higher profile duties allow. Her motto dictates how she divides her time, and “failing to prepare is preparing to fail”. A clotheshorse, always glad for a spot of “panelbeating” (teeth bleaching, spray tans, etc), she’s now an empire builder, too.
Australia has two “Ginas”: the mining magnate of Hancock heritage, and the lawyer turned pop-cultural
diva. This second Gina has expanded the more scholarly ambitions of her youth. Delicacy and decorum define her legal work. Her TV work, the result of chance opportunity, invokes no such dedication. Together, however, the seemingly mismatched strands of Gina Liano have opened a vision that reinvents how mature women look and behave.
She has distinguished herself from a contrived coven of potty-mouthed, well-to-do women on
LIANO DEBUTED ON the big stage aged 47. Her touchstones are the ordinary fractures and fears of family breakdown and health scares. Her talking points are battle lines and scar tissue.
The week Liano ran the maimed infant case, she also did a photo shoot for a jewellery range and hosted an online charity auction for the garments she wore on RHOM. During season three of the TV series, she ran a trial during the day and filmed at night. The case involved the sexual abuse of a young girl. Inevitably, her day job bled into her TV work. During filming with Pettifleur Berenger, a fellow cast member whose makeover between seasons may have included the sharpening of her tongue, Liano borrowed from the courtroom to offer advice. “Raise your argument, not your voice,” she told Berenger.
It had been a difficult day, says Liano now. “I remember saying to production, ‘Bloody hell, I’ve been running this rape trial. Now I’ve got to sit with Pettifleur and talk about what her teeth look like…’”
Yet this unusual collision of grittiness and glamour sits easily with her. She follows no rule book. The 50-year-old spills home truths and chutzpah that she traces back to her dispatch of a school bully at the age of 12. Liano is a cancer survivor and an independent spirit. If she stands apart from the screeching and squawking of RHOM she also finds more innovative invective.
“You need to snap the f*ck out of it,” she told Berenger earlier this year. “I’ve had enough of your indulged bull-f*cking-sh*t… you’re gonna cry. And f*cking sulk and carry on…”
The marketers leapt on the selling points: both her autobiography and her second perfume, launched this month, are called Fearless. Once crippled by postnatal bouts of panic, she now turns fear on its head, she says. Fear is her “great motivator”.
Liano also uses the term fearless for her cover photo shoot for Stellar. The poses – “glamorous but not raunchy” – fall outside her comfort zone. But she steels herself. After three seasons on the small screen, she believes her audience knows her as a “woman of substance”.
“If I was in my 30s I probably wouldn’t do it,” she says of the Stellar shoot. “But I’m 50 and, if I do a glamour shot, I think it can be quite inspiring for women of my age.”
Being the centre of attention requires no practice. A week after the shoot, Liano sits furthest from the door at a restaurant in the wealthy suburb of Toorak. Her bronzed skin radiates against the collective pallor.
Her jokes against herself dent the vampire TV casting. A deliberative choosing of words blends with a natural warmth. She sparkles and bounces – the rings and earrings certainly, but also in a cascade of thoughts and words. Here’s someone who never stops moving, bar the odd “pyjama day” she gifts herself.
Liano grasps the power of the anecdote – a planned book will recount her sayings, based on her experiences. She’s sharp – her one blank stare, over two hours, is in response to a cheeky query about the blind pursuit of fame.
Personal assistant Josh Cunial is more than an accessory. There’s a shoe and clutch collection, she plans more jewellery offerings, as well as an evening wear and skincare range.
Liano hasn’t given up on a Judge Judy- style pilot and will probably go back for the fourth season of Real Housewives, a worldwide franchise. Her ambition is naked enough – if Australia can’t accommodate it, she says, she will reluctantly head to the US.
Liano has an unfair advantage over other Real Housewives members. The profane onscreen rants belie a more measured approach. She offers welcome equanimity in what she calls a “dysfunctional sisterhood”. Viewers rushed to her defence when cast members ganged up against her.
Here, in offers of warmth and support, Liano discovered the power of the audience. It “ran my case” on social media, she says, of which she reads everything. Now she is accosted by people seeking her help. They reach out (hospital visits, cries for help), she says, because they feel she will understand. Their trust can be daunting, she adds, because she is not a trained counsellor.
The TV role similarly sounds like work, as though the price and the reward are intertwined. “I try not to take on board what is being said about me by the other girls, because I don’t always value their opinions,” she says. “I also question their motivation for a lot of things and their purpose, but I don’t want to be judgemental at the same time.”
If Liano has something to sell, there’s plenty she wants to tell, too. Hers is a life forged by hardships, tracing back to “maniac” nuns at a Catholic boarding school as a six-year-old. Her parents divorced when she started