MOMENT OF TRUTH
Magda Szubanski reveals the phone call that forced her to confront her greatest fear – and the unexpected reaction it sparked.
So, you may or may not know that for a while I was the very public face of Jenny Craig weight loss. I lost a lot of weight, which was great. But then I started to put the weight back on, which wasn’t so great.
And I got a call from the publicist, and she said, “Darling, I’ve just had a phone call, and the paparazzi have got some shots of you on Bondi Beach in your bathers.”
Now, I’m not an especially vain woman, but there aren’t too many women I know who would feel completely comfortable with having candid, unflattering pictures of themselves in their wet, clinging bathers splashed across every newsstand in the country. And for just a moment, I felt so vulnerable that I wanted to cry.
Because I knew what was in store. I was about to be “Kirstie Alley’d”. I was going to be publicly shamed for my failure to keep the weight off. And that was not a prospect that I relished.
But there was a deeper and far more disturbing fear. I felt as though a cold hand had reached deep into the depths of my soul, and was rattling the cage of a long-buried fear that I’d completely forgotten I had. That fear was a fear of the mob – that somehow I would do something unwittingly, and that people would turn into an unreasoning, nasty, irrational mob that would attack me.
It must seem strange to hear me say that, because I’ve been famous in this country for a very long time. And I have a great relationship with the public – people are very nice to me. In fact, one of the nice things that people say is, “Magda, you’re so brave with the comedy characters you portray in your performance. You’re so brave.”
I think often when they’re saying that, what they’re really saying is, “You’re so brave because you’re prepared to let yourself look unattractive on national television.” And I can’t really relate to that because, to be honest, willingness to look unattractive has never, ever entered into my calculus of what it means to be brave.
I can’t really relate to that word, brave. I can’t really claim it, and that’s because of my name.
You know me as Magda Szubanski. But the way my father would have said the name is [using a thick Polish accent] Magda Szubanski. Because I’m half-polish. And that Polishness completely determines how I feel about that word, brave.
When my father died, a woman came up to me at the funeral and said, “Magda, you must understand. Only the bravest of the brave were asked to do what your father did in the war.”
In 1939, when my father was 15, Hitler invaded Poland, and the world as my father knew it ceased to exist. His world of boating, and skiing trips to Zakopane, and nights at the theatre was over, replaced by six years of brutal Nazi occupation.
And in 1943, in possibly the darkest hour of that occupation, my father, who was only 19, was recruited to become an assassin in a top-secret counterintelligence unit. The chief job
“I felt so vulnerable, i wanted to cry”
of that unit was to protect the high command of the Polish resistance. And the way that they did that was to assassinate collaborators.
Just to make it very clear, my father was on the good side, fighting the Nazis. But the way that he was doing that was by killing his own people. And the crimes that these people, these Polish collaborators, had committed was that they were telling secrets of the resistance to the Germans.
Some of them were telling the Gestapo where Jewish people were hiding. It’s important to know that Poland, under the Nazi regime, was the only country where the penalty for hiding a Jew was the death sentence. In fact, just even knowing of the existence of a Jew and not reporting it would likely get you killed.
And my father’s parents, my grandparents, hid many Jewish people during the war. Of course, I didn’t know that when I was a little kid. Nor did I know that my father was an assassin. I just thought he was an ordinary dad out there mowing the lawn in his terry towelling hat.
And if you’d known my dad, you wouldn’t have picked it either, because he was a very warm, affectionate kind of guy. But there were hints. It was like swimming in a warm river, and suddenly you’d hit an icy-cold patch that would just make your heart stop.
I didn’t really know an awful lot about the war as a kid, and what I did know was from TV and movies. Of course in those movies, it was always about American soldiers, occasionally British, very rarely French. But I never, ever saw any Polish people. And so I kind of came to the conclusion that my father must have been fairly peripheral to the war, and maybe he wasn’t really there in a big way, in the thick of it.
Until one day when I was about eight or nine, and I was sitting with my family in the lounge room of our home in Croydon North [Victoria]. We
were watching a documentary, and it was about the Holocaust.
This was nothing like the war I’d seen in the movies. And as I saw those images of ordinary people, not soldiers – women, children, old people, little kids pleading for their lives, gaunt eyes staring from behind barbed wire, piles of naked bodies being bulldozed into pits – I was beside myself, utterly beside myself with grief and despair and a kind of helpless rage. But also a kind of incomprehension. I couldn’t understand what could happen that could make people do that to one another.
And just at that moment, my father looked at the TV screen and he said, “Ah, that’s the street where we used to live before it was rezoned as part of the Warsaw ghetto.” Suddenly I realised that that horror wasn’t out there – it was right here in our lounge room.
I looked at my father, I suppose for guidance and validation and comfort. But he was completely unaffected, completely impassive. And I felt then that there was a huge gulf that separated us.
As I grew older, I realised that the crucial difference was that he had been right there in the thick of it. And that immediate threat of the Nazis – of death, of torture, of being sent to a concentration camp – meant that he’d had to perform a kind of emergency emotional triage, and he’d jettisoned absolutely every single feeling that didn’t support his survival.
But I hadn’t been there. And without that urgent imperative to disassociate, I had the luxury of having a normal human response to this horror. And I was terrified. When I looked at my father, I saw his fearlessness, and it was reassuring. But I saw something else that eviscerated me – I saw his discomfort with my feelings. I saw his subtle, almost imperceptible, but unmistakable complete contempt for my fear.
In that moment, I vowed I would never feel fear again.
So began a kind of lifeline master class in the art of disassociation, as taught to me by my father, the assassin. But, of course, I hadn’t conquered the fear, all I’d really done was to drive it into the deepest, darkest corner of my unconscious. As I grew up and matured, the fear didn’t – it remained the fear of a nine-year-old girl, petrified. So now, when the publicist was waiting for my response, in an instant my world had changed. What had started out as an innocent swim on Bondi Beach had become a moment of reckoning, and now the paparazzi had me in their sights.
That fear came screaming out of my unconscious, in my face, and I was reduced to being that nine-year-old girl again. I felt as though every irrational fear that I had about human nature, about what humans are capable of, was about to come true.
The publicist said, “So, darling, what do you want me to do?” And I could feel my world crumbling. I could feel the ground giving way beneath my feet.
But just as I was about to fall, something happened, and it was something I didn’t see coming. Something completely unexpected. And a voice that I didn’t know I had came out of me.
And I said, “F*ck them. Do your worst. Do your worst, paparazzi. You are not gonna shame me off the beach. I’m gonna go down to Bondi, and I’m gonna be a fat middle-aged lady, along with the supermodels and the muscle men. I’m gonna wear my wet, clingy bathers, and there’s not a freaking thing you can do about it.”
So they published the photos. Because I’d refused to participate in the same game, the photos were unflattering, but the headlines said, “Magda Sports Her New Beach Body.” It was quite crazy, but nothing terrible happened, and the Australian public were lovely to me.
But this isn’t about me saying, “Aww, gee, look, I was brave like my father would have wanted me to be.”
I’m the second generation. I have the luxury and the very great privilege of being able to feel the normal feelings that my father, poor bugger, couldn’t feel.
And, finally, I was able to forgive myself for feeling that fear.
“i vowed I´d never feel fear again”