When I took a call from Melissa George at my desk almost five years ago for what was supposed to be a fairly routine interview, neither of us realised how damaging it would be for the way she’d be perceived in Australia ever since.
That interview, to promote the show Hunted for the Sun-Herald’s television magazine, yielded the now infamous quote: “I’d rather be having a croissant and a little espresso in Paris or walking my French bulldog in New York City.”
The backlash was swift and vicious – and has come back to haunt her now, right at the time she is pleading with her country for help. As George detailed to Channel Seven’s Sunday Night, she is trapped in the middle of a marital and custodial hell. She alleged her French partner Jean-David Blanc struck her in the face and then pushed her into a wall leaving her bruised and bloodied. She cannot leave France with her two children without the written permission of Blanc.
And now, I’ve been horrified to see that many Australians have been quick to throw her words from that interview right back in her face. “Suck it up princess,” said one commentator, echoing scores of others who suggested she deserves no sympathy for turning her back on Australia.
The words that particularly rankled readers – then and now – was George saying: “I don’t need credibility from my country any more, I just need them all to be quiet. If they have nothing intelligent to say, please don’t speak to me anymore. I’d rather be having a croissant and a little espresso in Paris or walking my French bulldog in New York City.”
So how did it all unfold? My phone interview with George came moments after she had exited a scheduled appearance on Network Seven and I remember expecting a hum-drum interview, then being surprised and I’m ashamed to admit, almost delighted, when she had an unexpected dummy spit.
She had actually kept her cool on the Seven show as Larry Emdur and Kylie Gillies flashed back to her Angel days on Home and Away, but as I was the next journalist in line, she was clearly keen to vent her frustration about it to someone. It probably didn’t help, either, that about five minutes into our chat, I too was asking her about the Angel role, which had made her a household name.
If I’m honest, at the time, her reaction felt comical. In many ways, as journalists are trained to do, I egged her on with further questions, not quite believing the unedited verbal spray she was having at the other end. As someone who has interviewed countless local and international celebrities over the years – most of them media-trained to within an inch of their life – it is very rare to hear a high-profile actor going off script.
Let’s face it, Kylie Minogue is probably more than a little tired of being called Charlene from Neighbours, but she would never dare say it, because of her innate understanding of its importance to her high-profile brand.
Not one of our big-name stars, some of whom have been based overseas for years – Minogue, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman and our adopted Kiwi Russell Crowe – would ever stop describing themselves as “Aussie” or dare openly criticise Australia or Australians, knowing how it might affect their careers. George, perhaps craving increased recognition in Australia for what she had achieved in the United States, broke the rules.
After the call was over, I leapt up from my chair and said to my two nearest colleagues “oh my god, that interview was GOLD, Melissa George has just given the most unbelievable quotes about how she hates being called Angel” and I remember them laughing in reaction. Then I hurried over to the editor’s desk to proudly announce my scoop. I remember being disappointed it didn’t run as prominently as I’d liked (it was on page eight) but the public reaction to the story was instant and enormous – it was the water cooler topic of the week.
So how do I feel about this story now? I regret it. Sure, people will say “don’t shoot the messenger” because it was George who said those things and felt that way about Australia, at the time. But I wonder haven’t all of us said things we would later take back? Maybe been petulant in a situation which surprised or upset us? We are probably fortunate there isn’t someone there with a tape recorder, taking it all down.
I was the journalist interviewing George and all I cared about was the story at the time. Not George herself, for she was famous, therefore somehow perceived by all of us to be immune from human failings. It’s ridiculous. The one thing I certainly didn’t know was that nearly five years later, a clearly traumatised Melissa George would plead publicly to Australia for help after a very troubling incident of domestic violence in her French home and those words of hers would still be used against her by so many. Is Australia really so unforgiving that those flippant and somewhat ridiculous remarks will be held against her for years?
The tide of comments on social media against George have been relentless, since she aired her sad and troubling story. Can you imagine how hard it must have been for her to speak publicly about what happened in her personal life? This is a mother facing an incredibly distressing and difficult personal situation, while living in a foreign country with a different legal framework. Surely our country is mature enough to get over some silly comments she made years ago?
Many of those people attacking George have directly used those inane comments from my original interview (published years ago) to somehow justify her not receiving sympathy or help now.
I just wanted to say sorry Melissa, you don’t deserve it.