Kerri-Anne exclusive: how I escaped my first marriage
Kerri-Anne Kennerley is a born optimist, excited by life, but when her first husband, Jimmy, bullied and beat her, she had to run for her life. In an emotional interview, she tells Juliet Rieden the full story.
He was very tall, six foot one, not particularly attractive, but full of swagger … I was drawn to him from first sight,” says Kerri-Anne Kennerley, who is casting her mind back to a period in her life she buried, long, long ago. Until now, the 64-year-old star has never spoken about her horrific first marriage. Even her own family knows scant detail of what really went on when a “naïve and bushy-tailed” Kerri-Anne followed her heart and the bright lights for an exciting dream life in New York.
She was 21 and Jimmy Miller, who owned recording studios in Manhattan and lived in a penthouse above the studios, was 20 years older. “He was so incredibly charismatic; an absolute genuine New Yorker, born and bred. It was just terribly exotic. It was the ‘oh my God’ factor for me.” Jimmy’s film and recording studios were used by the likes of The Rolling Stones, Liza Minnelli and Natalie Cole, he knew the city’s coolest people and went to the best parties.
Yet what started as fun and exhilarating soon turned dangerous and damaging as Kerri-Anne was abused physically and mentally, and eventually forced to run for her life under the cover of darkness. The memories are shocking to hear and while it doesn’t come naturally to this bubbly optimist to dwell on the past, when she started working on her new memoir, A Bold Life, Kerri-Anne realised it was time to come clean about the fear, the beatings and the crippling loneliness she suffered in those early years in New York.
“I’m pretty good at just erasing what I don’t choose to remember,” KerriAnne tells The Weekly. “But having done so many interviews myself about those types of relationships, I recognise what went on and I think it’s good to talk about it, to help other women. It was nothing unique. Millions of other women in the world have gone through it. It was classic [domestic abuse]. I didn’t really understand it because Mum and Dad weren’t like that. Dad was the strong, silent type, the boy from the farm; Mum was
from Blackall [Queensland] and would never tolerate anybody raising a hand, not that Dad would ever have done anything like that. So that’s the imprint I had. That sort of stuff didn’t go on in our house. Then all of a sudden, I’m getting sucked in and I’m alone and isolated. I look back now and realise it was textbook.”
We are sitting in the stunning living room of Kerri-Anne’s Sydney home with golden retriever Digger padding in and out, and her husband, John, watching television in the front room with his son Simon, who moved in with the couple to help care for his father. John’s condition has improved considerably since he slipped off a wall at a golf resort in Coffs Harbour, in a freak accident that fractured his C2 and C3 vertebrae, in March 2016.
Yet while the 77-year-old is now back home permanently and in surprisingly good spirits, the family is still getting used to its new normal. What’s wonderful is that John can now speak and breathe freely, and move his hands a little, but he is also a quadriplegic needing round-the-clock care. It’s a huge adjustment, but one this courageously upbeat couple is refusing to let get the better of them.
The book was John’s idea. “I think he wanted to keep me busy,” Kerri- Anne quips, but sifting through boxes of photos has certainly given the soulmates a chance to relive their extraordinary relationship.
It was John, an English businessman who was then in New York to launch Lotto, who actually saved Kerri-Anne from Jimmy’s clutches and a marriage she confesses could have killed her. John was a friend of a friend and part of the wide social circle Jimmy and Kerri-Anne moved in. “Out in public, they always seemed to be getting on fine, so we didn’t know [what was going on] and it didn’t occur to me,” explains John. “It was only when Kerri-Anne suddenly turned up all beaten up that I realised exactly what was happening.”
Kerri-Anne had originally met Jimmy in Jamaica, where she was visiting her best friend, 1973 Miss World Jamaica winner Patsy Yuen. “Patsy was famous and knew everyone in Jamaica. I was young, a little bit star-struck and it was all so sophisticated and not Australian,” writes Kerri-Anne. She met Jimmy at a party. He was in Jamaica working with a film company. “He was the dictionary definition of a bad boy,” says Kerri-Anne and he swept her off her feet. When Jimmy
suggested she come to Manhattan, Kerri-Anne couldn’t resist.
“He was incredible and I was very impressionable,” she says. “I felt as if I was so naïve and young, and didn’t know anything, and he was so worldly and knew everything.”
Kerri-Anne was planning to launch her own career as a singer and with Jimmy moved into a heady world of musicians and wild parties. New York’s famous Studio 54 was at its height and Kerri-Anne was a regular.
She was having a ball and when Jimmy decided they should get married, Kerri-Anne blindly went along with it. “I don’t think there was any proposal. I think it was like, we may as well get on with this, and off we went. I remember it was a rainy Thursday afternoon and we went down to City Hall. I look back now and I think it probably was all about control. He loved parading me around, having this blonde with an Aussie accent was all a bit unique.
And he was very, very possessive, which I thought was great.
“We lived on the top floor of Jimmy’s building. We had the whole floor with a roof garden,” remembers Kerri-Anne. And their place was “party central” with a giant movie screen on which Jimmy would show pirated versions of the latest releases. There was alcohol flowing and recreational drugs, and inevitably Kerri-Anne would join in. She confesses she tried cocaine, but liked it too much and, in a decision that gives an early glimpse of the courage she showed later on, decided to walk away.
“Heroin was the big deal in those days, but I wouldn’t stick a needle in my arm. Such a chicken. I won’t even have my ears pierced! So cocaine was obviously the easier option. But it was too good. I do have that addictive type of personality and I had this image of all those terrible heroin addicts, how dreadful they look and I was scared of that, and luckily scared enough to know that it would be very easy to get addicted to. I decided that it was not what I was going to do.”
It was a very smart move, but behind the glamour of party-life, Kerri-Anne’s relationship was a mess. Her husband was addicted to prescription drugs that made him violent and angry.
“He used to say it was for his migraines, but I realised it was an addiction,” she says. “He’d get so out of it and buzzy, and he’d get pretty aggro with it. It happened over a couple of years, so slowly that you don’t realise. It creeps up on you.”
Jimmy started hitting Kerri-Anne and threatening her, and she lived in fear of upsetting him. He tried to limit her friendships and stopped her going out. She was trapped. What’s more, behind her back, he was cheating.
John, who was single at the time and becoming a good friend to Kerri-Anne, recalls going to a party at their house, “and there was this rather sumptuous girl in a pink soft-top Cadillac who couldn’t park, so I walked up and said, ‘Would you like me to park your car for you?’. This girl was going to the party, so we went up together and, sooner or later, we ended up in a room somewhere and then, suddenly, Jimmy Miller came into the room and he went berserk. It turned out she was his mistress. I think then I got the first real insight to what a bastard he was.”
Kerri-Anne says she thinks the first wake-up call came when her parents visited. “They’d never been on a plane before, or overseas, and I was really excited.” She had pleaded with them to come and I wonder if subconsciously this was a cry for help.
Nowhere to run
Back in Queensland, Kerri-Anne’s mum, Grace, was not only worried about her vulnerable youngest daughter in the Big Apple, but she also missed her terribly. “I did cry for a long time,” admits the 96-year-old. “I worried about her because I thought she’s never been on her own. I thought, ‘How will she manage over there?’… She didn’t tell me what was happening, but begged and begged me to go over.”
When they arrived, Kerri-Anne says she was “on tenterhooks” praying that Jimmy would behave. Then one night, Jimmy came home in a mood and started taking it out – as he usually did – on Kerri-Anne. “I think it basically came down to him being very resentful that they were there because he’s Mr Control,” she says. “He got a bit mean and my mother twigged very quickly and went ballistic.
“She was literally picking up things and throwing them at him. The funniest line, which didn’t seem too funny at the time, was Jimmy saying to Mum, ‘How dare you, she is my wife and I’ll do what I want!’ And Mum saying, ‘She may be your wife now, but I hope not always, but she’ll always be my daughter.’ It was an absolute cracker.”
Kerri-Anne was sad and hurt, and even though it was night time, she quickly exited, taking her parents to a hotel and then away to Las Vegas. They ended up having a fabulous
He got mean and my mother twigged quickly.
golfing holiday together, but parting was tough. “Mum really wanted me to come back to Australia, but I said no, I’m going back to finish whatever it is I’m going to finish. After that, Mum was always on the phone begging and crying.”
Kerri-Anne’s older sister, Jan, says this was the first time the family realised something was wrong. “Our mother is like a tiger and she was like, ‘This is not happening to my daughter’. It was probably very scary, I think, for everybody concerned because she stood toe-to-toe with him and she’s quite tiny and he was quite tall.”
For Kerri-Anne, life was already dangerous and Jan says she was shocked when, years later, she learned that one of the beatings her sister had endured resulted in a night in hospital. “Yes, I was battered and bruised with a black eye, all that,” Kerri-Anne recalls. “It makes you realise that when you’ve got a maniac, six-footone bloke chasing you from room to room, there is nowhere to run.”
Kerri-Anne’s confidence was shattered and she was living “in abject fear”. Then, one night, she snapped. “I can remember it like yesterday,” she writes. Jimmy kept a .22 rifle in their house. “It was always loaded because we lived on the top floor of the building and it had this huge astro-turfed area that was terribly fabulous and glam, but not that safe, so he always had a gun,” Kerri-Anne says.
“Jimmy got aggressive and, terrified, I ran as fast as I could into the bedroom and slammed the door behind me. I knew I only had seconds before he would knock the door down, so I climbed up, picked up the .22 and waited for him to barge through the door … I wasn’t going to take it a minute longer.”
Kerri-Anne aimed the rifle at him and threatened to pull the trigger.
“I’d had enough at that stage and it’s terrible, and that’s why I’m so in favour of gun laws. If somebody who has never, ever had a violent nature, somebody who’s never held a gun, is prepared to kill or shoot someone, that could happen to anybody. I think he was really quite shocked. It was probably the first time I’d ever really stood up against him. But I was serious.”
Jimmy disappeared for a few days and when he came back, he was full of remorse, as had become the usual scenario.
So when did Kerri-Anne finally realise she had to flee? “I guess when I knew if I stayed with him I could die,” she explains. “But how to?” One night, when Jimmy again became aggressive, Kerri-Anne threw some clothes in a bag and ran for her life.
John to the rescue
She and John had become good friends by this time and she swiftly walked the 10 blocks to his apartment. “She arrived at my doorstep with the black eye and a bloody nose, and she never really went home,” says John.
The rest, of course, is history. When John landed a job to launch Lotto in Sydney, Kerri-Anne came back with him. “When you realise that you’d really rather be with someone that you love, you follow your heart. Simple as that,” she says.
When they married in 1984 in the first wedding to be held at
Sydney Opera House, it really was a meeting of souls. And today, as I watch the couple, even with the daily battles surrounding John’s condition, it’s clear they are still head over heels in love. “He is remarkable. He is absolutely remarkable,” says Kerri-Anne.
Heady days in New York: (from top left) the blonde with the Aussie accent who Jimmy “loved parading around”; among the stars she met in his recording studio were Natalie Cole (left) and Nancy Wilson; Kerri-Anne is all smiles behind the wheel of her canary yellow Corvette.
ABOVE: Kerri-Anne with her mum and sister Jan in 2007, and with her dad, Edward, in the late ’90s. “I didn’t understand domestic abuse because Mum and Dad weren’t like that.”
LEFT: Kerri-Anne and John are in good spirits as he makes progress recovering from an accident last year.
ABOVE: John and Kerri-Anne wed at Sydney Opera House in August 1984. The love between them is obvious. “With John in my life, I got flowers every Friday,” she writes in her book.