My parents lost their business and went bankrupt, so I left school at 14. It meant I had totally unformed ideas of what I could do, so I tried a million things. Back then, ingenuity and quick brains could get you into all sorts of positions. So, in my 20s, I talked myself into jobs as an assistant to a geophysicist in Libya, a cook in a sailing school and an air hostess with British Airways. There was nothing stopping you, because there were so many options. They just needed bright young people.
In the early 90s, my embarrassed Year 3 classmates were given permission slips for their parents to sign, so they could watch VHS copies of Where Did I Come From? and What’s Happening to Me? These were tame sex education cartoons, featuring footage of smiley-faced ovaries and cats falling in love. Personally, I found none of this necessary. My family was open about sex from Day One—possibly too open. We’d spend our evenings making pots of tea, before gathering around the television to watch informative segments about anal pleasure on Sophie Lee’s Sex. It’s what we called Family Time.
I went to Sydney University to study arts, but ended up ditching my English Honours and switching to anthropology. It was the closest thing you could find to journalism in the academic world in those days. So the study of human society – social interaction, religion and politics – was pretty close to what I do now. The Study of Man. [laughs]
Oscar Wilde once said, “Hell is the absence of other people.” For most of my life, I’ve thoroughly agreed. I’ve never lived by myself and can’t imagine I’d handle it very well. For 27 years, I’ve been a human relay baton, happily passed from a big family (childhood) to friends (teens and early 20s), before finally bunking down with my boyfriend. I’m like a tapeworm or oral herpes: something that needs human warmth in order to survive.
Australia’s present-day first lady, since 2007. Superpowers include rapid weight-loss, global business smarts, scaling African mountains, deploying mega-watt smiles and searing people’s corneas with pink blazers.
Family: Married to current Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who she met through the Australian Student Christian Movement in university. They have three children.
Famous for: being the first Australian prime ministerial wife to retain her own name and continue in the workforce, running a multi-million dollar international employment agency (Ingeus), no less.
Trivia: She is a trained psychologist.
Dress sense: Infamous for early fashion faux-pas (sail-like satin coats; shopping-bag sleeves), the newly svelte Rein now favours sleek slimline coats, shoulder-exposing gowns and angular shoulder pads.
Charity interests: Disability (Rein’s father became wheelchair bound after a plane crash), unemployment, homelessness and Indigenous youth literacy.
I was in my 20s in the 1960s. This was the decade of the referendum to include powers on the Federal Parliament to make laws in respect to Aboriginals. It was a time of the gradual abolition of the laws on the White Australia Policy. But it was also a time of the Vietnam War. So it was a mixed bag, but there were some steps in the direction of progress.
I came to the Sydney Law School in the last year of my arts degree. I was working in a lawyer’s firm as an article clerk earning £6 a week. When I graduated in law, I got a job as a solicitor. I was working as a full-time solicitor with a very heavy workload, and doing an economics — and then a master of laws degree — at night and in my own time.
Looking back, this infatuation with university was an anaesthetic to postpone my engagement with the real world — and with human relationships. It was a lonely time. Most human beings seek out personal relationships and sexual experiences, and I did none of the above. I simply concentrated on my studies, but I knew there was emptiness in my life. In 1968, I came to the end of my studies — Master of Laws — I couldn’t keep doing more and more degrees. I realised I had to face up to things.
When I was a kid, scoring a luxurious $5-per-week in pocket money, I thought millionaires were the richest people in the world. “One million dollars!” I’d think to myself. It was my personal yardstick of astronomical wealth, a sum only Rupert Murdoch, Donald Trump and Scrooge McDuck — suited-up white men and cartoon birds — could have possibly earned. For the rest of us, it was a nice daydream. Sometimes I’d list all the things I’d buy with a million dollars, like a vending machine in every room, or a pet dolphin in my waterfall pool. A million dollars: it was a dizzying amount of money that bordered on the ridiculous.
For someone who grew up in a Chinese family, I spent an inordinate amount of my childhood wishing I were white. In my mind, being white would mean I’d finally have access to all the stuff Anglo kids took for granted, like roast dinners and matching crockery, as well as forearm hair and eyelids.
I wasn’t the only one. Most non-Anglo kids raised in Australia — whether they’re Sri Lankan or Somalian, Greek or Japanese, Indian or Italian — will have probably resented their racial background at some stage. It manifests in different ways. Think back into your past. Did you ever hurl your dinner plate at your mother, disowning your native cuisine? Perhaps you’ve used bleaching creams on your dark skin, or waxed your hirsute European butt cheeks. Continue reading
Faux pas run in my family. Between us, my family members have made chatty references to leukemia with friends, not knowing that our friend’s sibling had died of leukemia. We’ve bemoaned our pale, wintery “corpse-like complexions”, before remembering we were at a funeral. We’ve impersonated the effects of stroke, to people whose friends just had a stroke. Between us, we have a special knack for saying and doing all sorts of wrong, hideous shit, at the exact moment when people need it the least. I suppose you’d call it a skill.
Spend your entire life in Queensland, and you know a bogan when you see one. All my family needed to do was drive 30 minutes in any direction and we’d hear the banjos from Deliverance, and smell roadkill cooking on incinerated garbage. The further you drove on, the less teeth you’d see. You’d encounter Caucasian people whose first language was English, yet were impossible to understand. “Ows it garn?” they’d ask. Then, seeing we were Asian and speaking English: “Youse Strain, eh? Liall be.” The men wore their shorts high; the women wore their breasts low. They were bogans.