‘THE REAL REASON I WENT INTO THE JUNGLE’
THE SHOWBIZ LEGEND OPENS UP ABOUT THE PERSONAL TRAGEDY THAT CHANGED HER LIFE
For close to 40 years, she’s sung and shimmied her way across our stages and screens in a whirlwind of feathers and sequins. But away from the glamour and showbiz dazzle, and behind her famous pins and flamered hair, Rhonda Burchmore has suffered more than most.
Fresh from claiming third place in this year’s I’m a Celebrity… Get me Out of Here!, the 59-year-old reveals that throughout the gruelling trials of the reality TV show, there was one constant source of support backing her all the way: her late sister, Michelle.
“I could feel her with me,” a teary-eyed Rhonda tells New Idea. “I was surrounded constantly in the jungle by butterflies and I knew that was a sign … a sign that she was watching over me.”
Facing her fears during gruesome trials – which saw the stage darling forced to devour the likes of trout eyeballs and be repeatedly shocked by electrodes – the leggy redhead endured it by thinking of her sister.
“People keep asking me: ‘How did you do what you did?’” she says. “I was able to do it because I knew I was playing a game, and I knew I’d be out; there was an end date. But with my sister, and my parents – especially with my sister
– her battle was terminal, you knew there was no other outcome. What I was doing in the jungle – even though it was absolutely gross and really testing – was nothing compared to what she had to go through.”
Michelle passed away in 2015 after being diagnosed with a rare neurological disease. Rhonda felt helpless as her sister’s body shut down. But her death was just one in a series of family tragedies for the star, the first of which was losing her father in 2009, as a result of a rare form of Parkinson’s.
Soon after Michelle’s diagnosis, their mum was diagnosed with dementia, an illness she would eventually die from only two years after Rhonda lost her sister.
“To lose her so young and off the back of Mum and Dad …” she pauses to reflect. “It really helps you to not take anything for granted. My sister would have given anything just to live one extra day of her life. But that was the card that she was dealt and, unfortunately, nothing could change that.”
Rhonda’s stint in the African jungle saw her makeup-free, candid, open and vulnerable – just as she intended.
In fact, showing the “real Rhonda” was another motivator for the performer signing onto Network Ten’s reality juggernaut.
“It used to do my head in that people would pigeonhole me all the time as this tall, leggy, glamorous showbiz type,” she reflects. “They couldn’t see beyond that image. Going into the jungle, I said to myself: ‘I’m going to stop this.’
And now, after leaving the show, well … I’ve never felt such love from the general public. I have a whole new fan base of people, some of who have never seen me before. I guess, they’re receptive to seeing a woman of a certain age just giving it a red-hot go!”
This ability to change and adapt is undoubtedly the secret behind the veteran’s 40-year career. And with her 60th birthday just around the corner in May, Rhonda doesn’t have any plans to hang up her tap shoes anytime soon.
“I remember when I was little, I used to think that 60 was ancient!” she chuckles.
“Some people go to work every day and hate it and wait for that time when they can retire, whereas for me it’s the opposite. I have no intention at all of retiring the old legs yet! In fact, my year is pretty much booked out. I’ve got a lot of corporate things coming in, I’m going to be playing the wicked queen in
Snow White in Sydney, and I’ve got a load of endorsements lined up, which is great.” While her upcoming show, Menopause the Musical, may now be on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s one that’s close to her heart.
“It’s an absolute riot,” says Rhonda, beaming. “A real girls’ night out – hot flushes, mood swings, and all of those kinds of things.”
While Rhonda’s enjoying a career renaissance, she’s aware life can turn on a dime at any moment, and she counts her blessings accordingly. “When you see your sister and your parents dying, it teaches you to be thankful for what we’ve got,” Rhonda says sagely. “Life is a gift and when you see how quickly it can go, you have less time for all the bulls--t in the world.”
“TO LOSE HER SO YOUNG ... IT HELPS YOU TO NOT TAKE ANYTHING FOR GRANTED”