The Opportunity: A conversation with Kathy Lette

by Michael Volpe

Growing up in the dreadfully misogynistic world of Sydney surf bums, alcohol, casual sex and drugs wouldn’t seem to be the basis for much opportunity. Yet Kathy Lette, wildly successful author and master of among several other things, the pun, can quite literally cite it as the foundation for her success.

‘I thought the sexism was normal really. We surfie chicks didn’t know anything about feminism and on reflection it was a demoralising and brutal world, but my friend and I started writing little stories about our lives and in doing so, began to realise the awful inequality.’

Kathy Lette is an Australian who can play the role to perfection; lacerating, warm, funny, linguistically ripe and fruity. She is an expert of the red carpet, dazzling all and sundry with her smile and trademark colourful dresses — and boy does she know how to work a room. Search her on Google and you’ll find a bewildering array of photographs of her with some of the world’s most famous people, most of them close friends. She is eloquent, rude, naughty, generous, devastatingly sharp tongued when she has to be, a force of nature, and an evening with her can be like being caught in a storm. Her novels are unabashed escapism but with a powerful edge of female agency (one is titled How to kill your husband and other household hints). But I recently read a funny and touching travelogue by her in which she wrote about a ‘wellness’ holiday with her actor son Julius who plays Jason Haynes in Holby City. Julius also has Asperger’s Syndrome and Kathy is a passionate campaigner and advocate on the issue of autism.

Returning to the opportunity, I wonder how the surf bum community played a role in all of this?

‘I went to a writing workshop with my girlfriend, and met a woman who said she was a script writer. We showed her some of our stories and she liked them. She said she wanted to turn them into a script and asked if she could acquire the rights. We were very sceptical and doubtful — even then I had chronic sceptic-aemia, we didn’t trust her at all, but decided to carpe the hell out of diem and take a chance — and before you know it, Bruce Beresford was directing it and the film, called Puberty Blues, became the biggest box-office grossing Australian film! It all started from there and the book is now a kind of Australian cultural classic. People see me in the street and still quote lines from the movie.’

A conversation with Kathy is always likely to be peppered with jokes and puns and turns of phrase. She has one for every occasion (‘optimism is not an eye disease’) and you’d be forgiven for thinking she is hardly ever serious. But you don’t get where she has without drive and determination, or risk taking.

‘At my age, I have few regrets. In fact, the only regrets I have are over the things I’ve never done.’ She lists a few of the opportunities she has had but it would be imprudent of me to list them!

As an Australian, Kathy feels she benefitted from the famously classless society and diversity that Australia has as a nation and I wonder if this is why she is more positive than many about the future for our society and the divisions within it.

‘I think that the pandemic has reminded us of the value of community and helping each other. Despite the sense of division, I ultimately believe we will come out of it being a bit nicer to each other. Maybe we’ll break the bubbles that the rich and poor live in? I hope so. Maybe by drinking more bubbles together!’

As you might expect, when we talk about Nova’s offer and how people contemplating a course, should approach it, Kathy is unequivocal. ‘If not now, when? People worry about failing but learning a subject is about more than an exam, it’s the journey, right? The only exam I’ve ever passed is my cervical smear. Give it a whirl Shirl and just carpe the HELL out of Diem!’

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The Opportunity

In people’s lives, ‘opportunities’ can come in various guises, some can be clear and obvious and others may not be evident until after the passage of time. At Nova, we aim to create the conditions for people to take new life chances, and to see where it may take them.

‘The Opportunity’ is a series of discussions with successful individuals who recall a particular moment — or opportunity — that changed the course of their lives. Sometimes it wasn’t obvious that a particular moment would prove so important to their future, at others, it was a blazingly clear juncture that they knew had to be grabbed with both hands. It could be deemed ‘a stroke of luck’, or it could just have been that someone, somewhere showed a little faith, but these moments are when we recognise the turning points in our lives.

Welcome to Nova. We are a small diverse charity with a big reach and novel approach to social change.