“IT’S MY PRIORITY”
IT IS A FAR CRY FROM THE GLAMOROUS TRAPPINGS OF LIFE AS A WAG, BUT MOTHERHOOD IS DRIVING KYLY CLARKE’S DECISION TO RAISE AWARENESS ABOUT A POTENTIALLY FATAL DISEASE
Kyly Clarke on a new awareness campaign and life as an EX-WAG.
From the time she was a child, Kyly Clarke never wanted to do things by halves – even her own mum says so. And when she and cricketing legend husband Michael became parents to their own daughter in November 2015, that innate desire to exceed everyone’s expectations went into overdrive.
Kelsey Lee Clarke was born prematurely, and spent her first days in an incubator. For the Clarkes, that anxious week kicked off an intense cycle of constant worry and guilt, the kind most first-time parents feel, regardless of how their child arrived into the world.
“There’s always this underlying concern,” Clarke, 35, says. “‘Is this going to affect her as she grows?’ Michael and I have been lucky enough that Kelsey Lee has grown into a healthy and happy child. But that’s not always the circumstance for a lot of parents.”
Clarke was forced to again reflect on this good fortune recently, when the former model and presenter met a little girl named Jenna. In 2015, when she was two years old, Jenna developed
a fever. At first, her parents waved it away as “just a flu coming on”. Jenna had already been vaccinated for meningococcal disease, an acute bacterial infection that can advance in hours and may kill up to one in 10 of those afflicted. So when she started vomiting a few hours later, her parents were not alarmed.
Except it was already far too late. The following morning, Jenna’s mum was horrified to see the tell-tale purplish rash on her child’s stomach. Despite being rushed to hospital straight away, Jenna had to have her right arm amputated below the elbow, as well as most of her left hand and her left kneecap.
“I had tears in my eyes,” Clarke says, recalling the devastated family’s story. “To imagine what those parents go through each and every day to cope with the impact of the disease is unimaginable… let alone that little girl. I can’t begin to imagine what she is thinking when she can’t even pick up a spoon to feed herself. So many things have been stolen from her.”
Jenna’s plight inspired Clarke not only to increase her own knowledge, but also sign on as the spokesperson for a new campaign aiming to raise public awareness of the disease. She had already lent time to the SIDS charity Red Nose Day. So when word of her desire reached Chris Downs, senior brand manager of Glaxosmithkline, the pharmaceutical company that commissioned the research behind the Know meningococcal campaign, he jumped at the chance to work with her.
“As a mother of a young daughter, Kyly knows firsthand the importance of children’s health and understands the challenges that parents face in trying to care for and protect their children,” Downs says.
Kelsey Lee is now 19 months old; like Jenna’s parents, Clarke had already started her vaccination schedule. But what she quickly learnt – and is desperate for other parents to find out – is that the standard 12-month vaccination only protects against one strain of meningococcal disease.
“I rely on my GP to give me the information I need to be fully equipped to do the best I can for my child,” Clarke says. “We need to be more proactive. We wait for information rather than asking questions. So, ask, ‘What does that vaccination cover my child for? Are other ones available that will cover for strains we don’t know of?’
“My siblings and I were vaccinated and we all followed suit [as parents]. I have always been huge on my own health, fitness, and nutrition and that is something I am going to keep implementing with my child. Hopefully she’ll pass it on to her own children. It’s about caring for your body… because that’s what is going to deliver everything you can do in your life. It all stems from your health.”
TRADITIONS AROUND KEEPING healthy are not the only thing Clarke hopes to pass on to her daughter. Growing up, she recalls cooking and entertaining as being central fixtures in her family home.
“I can still picture the house I grew up in,” Clarke says with a smile. “I can smell the Italian aroma of the pasta sauce as I played in the lounge room while my mum was in the kitchen wearing the exact same apron she still has today.”
The Clarkes have an open-plan living area in their home in Sydney’s Vaucluse. So now it’s Kelsey Lee’s turn to breathe in the comforting smells of those same family recipes while Clarke cooks – often with a camera in the kitchen, as she is taping for a new cooking segment she’ll add to her Lyfestyled by Kyly Clarke website.
“Kelsey Lee has grown into a healthy child, but that’s not the case for a lot of parents”
While Clarke is in the kitchen, Kelsey Lee is “usually watching Shimmer And Shine or playing Lego. And she loves singing and she loves dancing. It’s entertainment city when you come into my lounge room!”
Though he retired from cricket in 2015, Michael now commentates on the sport full-time, and is often on the road for work. But Clarke says he remains a big part of their daughter’s upbringing, calling him “an adoring father”.
“Thank goodness for Facetime!” she adds with a laugh. “He dotes on her so much that he wouldn’t live without seeing Kelsey Lee every day. As a mother, it’s such an attractive thing to watch.”
Like plenty of new fathers, Michael tries to draw the line at particular tasks – although he’s not often successful. “When he’s home, he changes nappies. Sometimes I’ll hear a, ‘Honey, I think she might have gone to the toilet.’ And I’m like, ‘Honey, I think you know where the nappies are!’ Honestly, he’s really good at having fun with Kelsey Lee and making her laugh. He’ll sing songs and be animated. That’s where he shines more than he knows.”
The picture she paints of cosy domesticity is a far cry from Clarke’s previous life as a glamorous WAG during her 36-year-old husband’s cricketing captaincy. It was one lived in the glare of the media’s spotlight, but she insists she does not miss it in the slightest. “It was great, but now my priority is Kelsey Lee, our family, our home and what we’re creating for the future,” she says.
Michael was back in the news after the publication of his autobiography My Story last year; its numerous insider revelations did not sit well with some, and its modest sales made their own headlines. Once again, the Clarkes were on the receiving end of some bad press. Asked how they coped, Clarke diplomatically shrugs it off.
“It’s called swipe and delete,” she says. “You’ve got to be you – if people like or don’t like [you] it doesn’t matter. I’ve always wanted to be unique and different. People love honesty more than they do airs and graces. I know I’m not everybody’s cup of tea, and I’m OK with that. I’m happy not to be.”
She is also happy not to be spending so much time away from home. Although she could ostensibly join Michael on his travels, other things now take priority. “Obviously, I miss Michael more now [when he travels], but it’s hard to force Kelsey Lee to be confined to a hotel if she doesn’t have to be,” Clarke says. “Plus, she’d have to change her routine with all the friends and family members she sees all the time. We try our best not to spend too much time apart, but we knew when we got together that this is how it would be.” Scheduling in the Clarke household has grown in importance – and not just for Kelsey Lee. “We invest so much time in our kids’ social diaries and our work, but we all need to water the garden to make sure our marriages and relationships continue to grow as well,” she explains. “We put aside time for that, even if it’s just a home-cooked meal, watching a movie and having a good adult conversation together.”
The pair are determined to “build an empire” they can leave for their daughter – and any future children they may have. To that end, Clarke says she would love to add to their young family, before quipping that it is dependent on “Michael being in the same country!” Until then, she will stay focused on making sure she does her bit to ensure other mums are armed with the same knowledge she has been given around her child’s health.
“Sometimes, as parents, we do brush things off a little bit because there are so many things going on in life; we’re all busy. But we have to take the time to open up conversations with our GPS. If I can be a public voice to help that happen, then I think it’s great.”
“[Being a WAG] was great, but now my priority is our family, our home and the future”
LENDING SUPPORT Kyly Clarke is passionate about raising awareness of meningococcal disease; (right) with husband Michael; (below right) at Kelsey Lee’s christening.