The road to success
SHE has become a national treasure by playing Rhonda in the AAMI car insurance ads, but Mandy McElhinney is taking her eyes off the road and moving her career up a gear with a new ABC1 production. McElhinney stars in Paper Giants: Magazine Wars, the two- part series that follows the bitter feud between two of Australia’s most powerful magazine editors, Nene King ( McElhinney) and Dulcie Boling ( Oscar- nominated Rachel Griffiths), which started during the late 1980s and lasted well into the next decade.
With a successful stage career and several guest TV appearances – not to mention the AAMI ads – to her credit, McElhinney is no stranger to the limelight. But she admitted to some trepidation before taking on what is essentially her first major lead role.
“I was really nervous. I felt I had a huge job ahead of me,” McElhinney said. “I was absolutely aware of the responsibility of leading the group. But it was funny, in doing it, I realised it actually helps if you’re there every day, from beginning to end – you get on a roll.”
Being cast opposite Griffiths, one of Australia’s most successful actors, could also have easily stretched McElhinney’s nerves. But, she said, it wasn’t that tough.
“It was just fantastic. She is such an incredible talent and has so much experience,” McElhinney said of her co- star.
“It’s a fairly new situation for me to be in and it was just wonderful to have someone around who has seen it all before and just brought a level of professionalism and integrity to it.
“When you’re working with someone that good, all you have to do is just be there and react to what they’re doing.
“[ Rachel] was just so formidable as Dulcie. She’s a very friendly, unpretentious person, but when she had the wig on she was enjoying being intimidating. It was really fun.”
Starting with Nene’s acrimonious departure from the Dulcie Boling- led New Idea in 1987 and following her career as she became one of the country’s most successful editors, Magazine Wars is very much Nene’s story, from facing up to Kerry Packer at Woman’s Day magazine, to coping with an alcoholic partner, to her troubled relationship with her mother.
The latter in particular, McElhinney said, was one of the major motivators in Nene’s striving for success.
“That’s the key to her drive … that she’d been told her whole life she wasn’t quite up to it, that she wasn’t quite good enough, that she was too fat, too loud, too scatter- brained,” McElhinney said.
“I guess the reason Dulcie seemed to push her buttons as much as she did was that it was very similar to the messages that she got from her mother.
“It was a huge motivator for Nene to prove those women wrong and to prove to herself that she was of value.”
One person Nene never had to prove herself to was her partner, Patrick Bowring, who tragically disappeared while wreck- diving in 1996.
The ying to her yang, Patrick was laid- back, calm and had a passion for gardening – the perfect balance to Nene’s frenzied, bouncing ball of energy.
Even his increasing dependency on alcohol couldn’t threaten their unity.
“That was the really appealing truth of their relationship, they accepted each other so completely for who they were,” McElhinney said.
“There was no desire to change. Even though they were quite different – they had quite different passions, they pursued their own desire – but at the centre of it they were absolute soulmates.
“I found it incredibly moving. He was as much her support as she was his. The fact she lost that man, she would never be the same again.”
Of course, there was another man who had a defining impact on Nene’s life during this time – media tycoon Kerry Packer ( Rob Carlton).
Just as in 2011 mini- series Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, which documented Ita Buttrose’s relationship with Packer, Nene’s story also shows a softer side to the publishing magnate, including a time she made him wait while she did her hair and make- up.
“You can’t help but be charmed by the bravado of someone like that [ Nene] because he was such an intimidating man,” McElhinney said.
“There’s a warmth and an openness and an honesty to her that he just responded to. But he could also see how hungry she was and that she was going to make him a lot of money.
“And I think she made him laugh.”
PAPER GIANTS: MAGAZINE WARS,
ABC1, tonight, 8.30pm