Mary Coustas credits Collingwood/Abbotsford with the development of both her characters. “I see Effie as a real love letter to those first nine years of my life,” says the actor and creator of the Greek virgin goddess with big, big hair.
“We grew up on a main road, in Gipps Street. Everyone was sitting in their front yards, popping into each other’s houses. It felt like a village, a very busy, happy connected village.”
The single-storey semi that was home to painter and decorator Steve Coustas and wife Fani mirrored others in the streets in which Mary, her elder brother Con and their cousins roamed, occasionally jolted by violence. “It was the era of the Sharpies and two streets from our house was this gang of what looked like human Tupperware,” Mary says. “They came in very small sizes right up to very large.
“One very hot summer day we went to the milk bar in Charles Street to get our Gluggs and our Sunnyboys when around the corner came the Park Street gang … all of them.
“My brother was holding onto this big block of chalk he found down near the river. Because we didn’t have grass, chalk [and concrete] was our playground. You would draw four square or hopscotch, and chalk was like currency.
“They saw the chalk and said, ‘Give us the chalk!’ and Con was like, ‘No way!’ I was like, ‘Con, give them the chalk’, and then suddenly a fight broke out. The other boy that was involved in that, his best mate ended up becoming a body-builder who won Mr Victoria. It was one of those kick-sand-in-the-skinny-boy’s-face type of stories.”
Despite her petite size, Mary didn’t need much build-up and was leader of her pack socially and academically at Abbotsford Primary School. But, at age nine, her world was upended by the family’s move to Doncaster.
“When I got bullied, and it was pretty bad in those first years, I wouldn’t say anything because I didn’t want to add to my dad’s stress levels. He kept having heart attacks and when I was 11 he clinically died and they didn’t think he would come out of it.” It took several years before Mary found her feet, aided by the secret weapon of Greeks everywhere … food.
“Once the Aussies twigged we had great food and we didn’t serve slices of roast lamb you could see through, like flywire, I was very popular.”
Mary began to enjoy the perks of her new demographic that included a horse called Sonny, which she invited onto the verandah and into the laundry.
On hot nights the family would turn the TV around and watch it through double glass doors from banana lounges on the back lawn.
She discovered performing arts at Greythorn High, appearing in many musicals including playing Jessie Oakley to Phil Ceberano’s Little Jake in Annie Get Your Gun.
The evolution of Effie had begun.
Setting the scene
As much as the photos from our years in Collingwood are in black and white, that time was colour to me. Moving to the middle class in Doncaster – that was black and white.
Now & then
We grew up on Gipps Street, a block away from the big Salvos Stores right near the Yarra. Those factories where my mother and aunties worked have now all become the most fantastic warehouse living. It has been a real little microcosm of how Australia has evolved. It was a safe haven, now it is an expensive safe haven.
This is inside Gipps Street around Christmas with some neighbours and a family friend. Look at my brother Con; my uncle made him that suit.
Front of house
This is Con and I out the front of the house in Gipps Street. We hardly even made it into the frame. This was during our love/hate revenge/hanging-out period.
A new ’do
I remember that hairdo. Mum must have gone, ‘Oh, she’ll have what I’m having’ at the hairdresser. That is me, my brother Con and mum near church. Greeks use church as a way of socialising. We go to church so we can hang out.
A star is born
Here’s an early Effie with Ernie Dingo. This was at a comedy gala in the early ’90s. I see Effie as a real love letter to those first nine years of my life.
My first …
A guy called Brett. Every time he walked past me in the corridor, I felt like I was having an asthma attack and I never had asthma in my life. He looked like he had cinnamon sprinkled on him with all these freckles and a short mullet. He was the antithesis of me and never knew I was alive.
Alice Cooper at Festival Hall. I was 13. It was good because it was so theatrical. I have never been a particularly monogamous fan, not like the girl who lived across the road and had a whole room devoted to David Cassidy.
Stevie Wonder’s Songs in The Key of Life. His really illuminating social commentary really impacted on me and I thought every artist had to get a message out.
I sold ice-cream at Myer in a filthy white- and canary-coloured outfit complete with hat and apron. You can’t pick up wearing sh** like that. I remember going to the job interview in my high-heel red stilettos, my Esprit top and mini-skirt.
A Volkswagen Beetle. It didn’t have a name. My second car did – I called her Holly, as in Holly Golightly. It was a Honda S800. It had a motorbike engine and was so small every time I got out of a nightclub I thought it had been stolen, but it was just hiding behind a normal car.
- Australia’s favourite Greek goddess returns in Effie – The Virgin Bride at the Comedy Theatre, February 4-14.