“I’M STILL GROWING”
Jessica Mauboy opens up about being an Indigenous role model and tells Stellar of her “upset and anger” over the national anthem controversy.
Jessica Mauboy is silent for a minute, her eyes welling with tears as she looks at herself. It is a striking image – the Jess no one has really seen before: the beautiful pop star fierce with pride as she celebrates her Indigenous identity for Stellar’s cover shoot.
What does she think of the woman in the photo? “She’s everything to me. I love her, I’m really proud of her,” she says.
The 27-year-old singer, songwriter and actor has always tried to represent her mob and fulfil the role-model obligations society demands of successful young people. She’s trodden cautiously when entering public debate about the myriad issues affecting Indigenous Australians, eager to be educated, to respect the opinions of elders and make sure she is confident in the expression of her own viewpoint.
Mauboy shows her values through action, as a committed ambassador for Indigenous literacy groups and schools. With her mother, Therese, and four sisters, she is undertaking cultural instruction from female tribal elders, a process she began last year when she won the role of Billie in The Secret Daughter, and one she will continue in Darwin whenever she is back home.
Mostly, she has used her talents to make her point: raising her voice in song. All of her acting roles, in movies Bran Nue Dae and The Sapphires, as well as TV series The Secret Daughter, have been Aboriginal characters. Yet sometimes she doubts she is getting it right or doing enough, and as she looks at herself wearing black, red and yellow – and a custom-made Little Dandelion knit – she is quiet as the tears fill her eyes.
Finally, she speaks. “The shoot was interesting as it felt fashiony but, at the same time, I felt proud I was representing. When I was doing that particular shot, I thought about all the doubts and questions I’ve ever had about what I do and how I do it, and then I just thought, ‘Why did you ever question it? How dare you question that you can do it?’”
It is a significant moment for the young entertainer, because only a few weeks ago Mauboy’s confidence about representing her Indigenous community, and her connection with Australia at large, was rocked to its core.
She became collateral damage in the national anthem controversy that preceded the blockbuster rematch between boxers Anthony Mundine and Danny Green. As one of the faces of the new Fox Footy channel, Mauboy had been contracted to perform before the February 3 bout and sing the national anthem. Mundine announced he would not stand in the ring during the singing of the anthem because he believes it is racist. He said Mauboy, who has sung “Advance Australia Fair” dozens of times at big gigs, including in an Indigenous language, had been booked because “she is black”. In fact, she was asked because she was already due to perform her own songs at the event in Adelaide.
She weathered the initial storm that followed Mundine’s comment, but her heart sank when he was asked again later in the week for his opinion about her singing the national anthem.
“That surprised me... but I can’t talk for Jess,” Mundine said. “She might not have researched or know the actual facts around the anthem. If she wants to do that, that’s on her, but I want to educate black and white people.”
His words hurt her deeply. She knows Mundine, they have crossed paths many times and she looks up to him as a leader. She says she has “so much love and respect” for him, but felt “disowned” by his comments. “Of course I was angry and upset,” she tells Stellar.
Mauboy maintained a dignified silence, steeled herself to do her best on the night after agreeing to go ahead with the gig and, gracious as always, shouted “Go Mundine!” as she left the stage to cheers from the crowd.
The anthem controversy abated, but she bristles now when asked about his characterisation of her. “Like I was dumb and didn’t care – of course I care! I have sung that [anthem] so many times, I’ve sung it in [an Indigenous] language, so how come only now a leader says I’m wrong? Now, for some reason, I’m the bad person?” she asks.
“That’s his story. I’m still growing, I’m still making my pathway and trying to be a physical expression of my identity. Getting up and having the courage to share with people, all
``in the end, singing the national anthem was a unifying moment for me´´
people, and even just being asked to sing, first of all, that’s all part of how I express my identity.”
Mauboy admits to being “sh*t scared” before she sang the anthem. She didn’t fear a recurrence of the panic attack that stopped her from singing “Advance Australia Fair” at the Melbourne Cup in 2015, thanks to the infamous kerfuffle over the brand of shoes she was wearing. But she was mindful of her mob and that there would be boxing fans in the audience who would support Mundine’s position about the anthem.
“In the end, it was more of a unifying moment for me. Maybe singing [the anthem] isn’t right according to some people’s beliefs... I hoped everyone watching would connect with me and there would be something in their hearts that would feel this was the right thing for me to do, to sing,” she says.
It is going to be a very big year for Mauboy, the culmination of more than a decade of hard work since she won hearts on Australian Idol in 2006. Her biggest national tour yet kicks off in March. She then begins filming the second series of The Secret Daughter and has to write and record a new album.
The All The Hits Live tour will test all the experience she has amassed from her Young Divas apprenticeship, through to becoming an award-winning and chart-topping pop star with five albums under her belt. When planning the tour, her blank slate started with a list of 47 songs to whittle down to a show that represents her impressive career and the expectations of her adoring audience.
In a bar housed in the headquarters of her label, Sony Music Australia, she becomes animated when discussing the tour. Her face lights up when she talks about the videos that will complement the live action and help to tell her story. “You’ll get to see me when I was a kid singing country music, wearing tassels,” she reveals with a laugh.
Music will always be her first love, but acting was also a childhood dream. Little Jess loved Broadway musicals and would sing them to calm herself when she was upset. She erupts into laughter when recalling one of her star roles in a primary school play, performing to a packed house in the “dry area” during the middle of Darwin’s wet season.
“I did a play, Snow White, with three of my friends. And they made me Snow White because she sang,” she says. “So I was the black version. The beauty of growing up in Darwin, growing up in a place of such diversity of cultures and community, was no one saw colour.”
During the shoot she reveals she is making wedding plans with her partner of eight years, Themeli Magripilis. He finally moved from Darwin last year and, while they jokingly battle over his fair share of the wardrobe, the transition from long-distance relationship to living together in Sydney has ended the emptiness she felt when they were apart: “Sitting on my own, on the phone, because there was no physicality… it felt like nothing. And it hurt me a lot as I am meant to feel love, I am meant to feel happy and I [wasn’t]. I felt terrible.
“Looking at it now… sometimes at night I look at him and I want to cry because this is actually working,” she says. “We’re making it work. I love it.”
As she contemplates seeing her masses of fans when she hits the road, Mauboy again gets teary. She makes no apologies for being a crier; she is a sensitive soul, and connecting with fans – whether from the stage, in the surf or jogging in the park – is one of her reasons for being. Their support over this past decade continues to fuel her.
“It surprises me that people do believe in me. What gets me every single time is I get up and share something with people, and maybe it’s just a physical thing of here I am and I’m singing. But there’s something so great about the fact they never let me down. My fire is singing and when I get out into the public, they throw that ball of fire back into my gut and that keeps me going.”
For All The Hits Live dates and tickets, visit jessicamauboy.com.au.