Zen & the art of being Meshel Laurie

Meshel Laurie. Photo: Kylie Thomson

Meshel Laurie. Photo: Kylie Thomson

Meshel Laurie has never been one to take the easy way out, not even when faced with the fraught scenario of a dead dog and a pair of second graders.

The ebullient radio and television star laughingly recalls her efforts to explain the expiry of the family shih tzu to son Louie and daughter Dali, her now-seven-year-old twins, in accordance with her Buddhist beliefs. “When Britney died I had to try and talk them through cyclic existence and I was like, oh God! I just wanted to say she has gone to heaven and we will all see her again one day at a big party in the sky, but I couldn’t.”

Honesty is important to Meshel, whether it is in matters of faith, taking on trolls, or calling out racism and sexism. “In a way, Buddhism is about reality. Existence is suffering, which sounds incredibly nihilistic, like I might as well just give up now. But the fact is, suffering happens, you can’t avoid it. It is part of life,” she says.

Meshel has had quite a big serve of reality in the past few years. Her sudden axing by Nova in late 2015, after delivering sustained No. 1 results in three different slots for the network over 13 years, hurt her deeply.

She was immediately snapped up by KIIS to go head-to-head against her old station with co-host Matt Tilley.

Matt & Meshel In The Morning snagged a respectable share of the breakfast ratings last year and held ground going into 2017 – although there’s still a considerable way to go to catch up with slot leaders 3AW and ABC Radio Melbourne.

It’s a challenge Meshel relishes. “I feel the opposite of big fish, small pond. I am a little guppy in this incredibly intense pool and that is something really exciting and motivating,” she says. “Obviously the big goal is out there, but feeling every day like you are chipping away at it is exciting. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”

A photo posted by @meshel_laurie on

 

The alarm goes off 4.20am every workday; Fridays, when she appears on Channel Ten’s The Project (aired live from 7pm in the eastern states) are very long indeed. Meshel also volunteers in palliative care, something she took up after working at night on Father Bob Maguire’s food trucks became too tricky with little kids.

“I researched a lot of options and this was one that looked like I could do before the school pick-up,” she says with a wry chuckle.

Her latest palliative patient, whom she’d visited for two years, died the day before we meet for this interview. “With palliative patients you have to have a certain mindset,” she says. “I never personalise it.”

Then there’s the fortnightly podcasts for Mamamia Women’s Network. Meshel organises guests, interviews them, edits and produces

Nitty Gritty Committee herself. “It lets me have longer conversations and explore things I know won’t fly on FM commercial radio,” the 43-year-old says. “You get frustrated sometimes when the best conversations are six minutes long.”

Interviewees have included everyone from David Icke – the world’s most famous conspiracy theorist, who believes, among other things, that the royal family are shape-shifting lizards – to Dr Susan Carland, Monash University lecturer and researcher and wife of The Project host Waleed Aly.

Through her podcasts, Meshel has tackled topics as varied as organ donation and the rules divorcees should follow on dating app Tinder.

Meshel Laurie. Photo: Kylie Thomson

Meshel Laurie. Photo: Kylie Thomson

Meshel also notably set up a GoFundMe campaign to pay for victims of child sex abuse to travel to Rome to hear evidence given by Cardinal George Pell to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The fund was intended to raise $55,000 but, with a little help from Tim Minchin and his song

Come Home Cardinal Pell, it ultimately exceeded more than $200,000. “It was quite terrifying to have that in an account in my name,” Meshel says, laughing.

It all came about because Meshel had travelled to Ballarat to see some friends do stand-up comedy and decided to use the spare hour in her hotel room to track down some interesting local people for her podcast. She’s a workaholic; it’s a statement she makes several times during the course of our interview.

“I don’t want to sound like some jerk from West Hollywood who reckons they have got a disease when they are just badly behaved, but I do think there is an addictive element in it in so many ways and I have to watch it. And I have to accept the part my workaholism played in the break-up of my marriage.”

Meshel and artist Adrian Lewinski were together for almost 20 years. They met in Brunswick during a Salvation Army-run program to help people get off the dole and were married six months later.

Before meeting Adrian, Meshel seemed hell-bent on following the script of her favourite movie Dogs In Space (1986), pining for a junkie and occasionally using drugs herself. “I lived inside that movie. My dreams sleeping and waking were about dark pubs with tiny stages, poverty, sniffling boyfriends. I couldn’t wait to get there.

“My dreams protected me from the changing landscape of my family, the misplaced anger of dad, the disappointment of my mum, the wrongness of my body, the bitchiness of my friends and every other shitful aspect of my typical teenage years,” she wrote in her 2013 memoir The Fence-Painting Fortnight of Destiny.

A lot of Meshel’s unhappiness was due to her deteriorating relationship with her father. Taxi driver Graham “Tubby” Laurie and the eldest of his three children are a lot alike in many ways.

“Physically, certainly, I am more like him [than my mother Mary],” she says. “He has always been a very popular, entertaining character. I think I definitely picked that up from him. I think when you call yourself Tubby, you put this idea into the world that it is OK and you are not precious about yourself. It is sort of unbulliable and I think I picked that up from him.”

But during the ’80s recession – carrying a lot of debt and paying crippling 18 per cent interest on his business and home – Tubby “turned into a bit of a monster”.

Meshel Laurie. Photo: Kylie Thomson

Meshel Laurie. Photo: Kylie Thomson

These days Meshel, her parents and younger siblings Sherri and Pete all live in happy proximity around Altona, but back then Meshel yearned to escape her family and her home town of Toowoomba in Queensland. “I felt like I was a boring person, from a boring town,” she says. “I wanted to be exciting, rebellious and drugs seemed like a way to fix that.

“I suffered, I think, a lot of mental illness as a result. I suffered depression. I gambled my mental health [with drugs] and could probably have saved myself a lot of mental anguish in my 20s and 30s.”

At the University of Southern Queensland she spent more time on amateur pharmacology than on her art and drama studies. By her second year, substance abuse was starting to mess with her head and she went cold turkey, coming to her senses just in time to discover she could score a free bus trip to Melbourne – the destination of her dreams – if she joined the university socialist club.

Returning to Toowoomba after the 1993 Socialist National Conference and a weekend that turned into almost a week, Meshel was convinced Melbourne was the place for her.

While saving for the move interstate, she started volunteering at community radio Triple Z and hanging out at the Sit Down Comedy Club and, in March 1994, did her first stand-up gig at Famous Bob’s Steak House in Brisbane. More gigs followed and it wasn’t long before she was southward bound and became part of Melbourne’s coolest comedy scene at the Espy.

Meshel’s first Melbourne International Comedy Festival outing in 1997 was with a show called Dairy Belles, written and performed with Corinne Grant, about two country girls who move to the city to become famous. Alas, the tale came only half true – at the end of the show’s run, just Corrine was picked up by comedy management agency Token. It was the start of a pattern.

Increasingly Meshel found herself being overtaken by other young talents and, when a friend told her about a receptionist job going at a brothel in Port Melbourne, she decided to take it.

She worked in various parlours in the next few years, which gave her abundant material; her show The Whore Whisperer was a sell-out at the 2001 Melbourne and Edinburgh International Comedy Festivals, pulled crowds at the Adelaide Fringe festival the next year and eventually went on to run for three weeks at the Sydney Opera House. (She still has a whole unpublished book on the subject of Melbourne’s brothels, tentatively titled Sitting on a Gold Mine, tucked in her desk drawer.)

Now she was well and truly back on the comedy map, work offers flowed. In 2003 she began filling in for Kate Langbroek on the Nova 100 breakfast show. But, when she finally landed her own metro breakfast show in 2005 – after a stint in regional radio at Gosford – she was devastated to learn the gig was in Brisbane, not Melbourne.

It was during those Brisbane years that Meshel was at her lowest ebb. She felt that returning to Queensland was a huge backward step. At first she maintained her national profile through regular appearances on Spicks and Specks and later Rove Live, but when Rove returned to air in 2007 after a hiatus, Meshel found she no longer had a weekly spot.

“I ended up in this deep depression and couldn’t pull myself out of it and I decided to go to the Langri Tangpa Buddhist Centre. I looked on the website and saw they had this one class at 10.30 on Tuesday morning called Dealing With Negative Emotions. I thought that has got me written all over it, because I was not only depressed, but I was feeling anger, resentment, hatred.”

His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet seems impressed by Meshel Laurie's hairstyle. Friday June 12, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia. Photo: Michelle Smith/Fairfax Media

His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet seems impressed by Meshel Laurie’s hairstyle. Friday June 12, 2015 in Brisbane, Australia. Photo: Michelle Smith/Fairfax Media

Buddhism has given Meshel a fresh perspective, but it is not without its struggles. “I am in transition very, very clearly to myself,” she says. “It is a strange dichotomy having spent so much of my life trying to get famous to the point where I don’t want to be interviewed and you have to drag me to a red carpet.”

These days she finds great outlet in writing and painting, and dreams of an old age spent “cooking and sweeping for monks”.

Her new book Buddhism for Break-ups is a distillation of the feelings of sadness, jealousy and loss run through the filter of Eastern philosophy. Meshel is also in the process of setting up an online dharma centre and “would like to do Buddhist stand-up and write a show that is both teaching and really funny”.

Well, zen, watch this space.

Image: Supplied

Image: Supplied

 

Meshel Laurie on the cover of The Weekly Review. Photo: Kylie Thomson

Meshel Laurie on the cover of The Weekly Review. Photo: Kylie Thomson

 

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