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Australian Story -

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Operation Wendy

PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT: Monday, 7 February , 2005

JESSICA ROWE - PRESENTER: Hello, I'm Jessica Rowe, a news presenter in Sydney. Tonight's program is
about a friend of mine, a woman who was once warned she'd never have a career on stage or in front
of the camera. But despite being born with a severe facial deformity, Wendy Harmer went on to
become one of Australia's best known performers and the highest paid woman in radio. She has
recently returned from a confronting overseas mission that's revived some painful personal
memories. This is Wendy Harmer's Australian Story.

WENDY HARMER: You know that old saying "Your face is your fortune", I was asked to speak on that
topic and I started off by saying that if my face was my fortune, I was obviously standing in the
dole queue. I don't think that my face has been my fortune. I mean, it hasn't made my career, but
let me put it this way, people look at me and they know that I've been through some hard times and
maybe I've got a perspective which is tempered in the furnace of hardship. Maybe that makes me able
to be - you know, people can relate to me or understand that there's a journey, you know, that I've
been on - maybe. I hope they can because I kind of feel that that's true.

When I finished up after 11 years of breakfast radio in Sydney, it was an amazing day. I mean, I
thought maybe three people and a dog might come out, but there were thousands of people there. It
was brilliant. It is a really artificial world to be doing breakfast radio. It really takes its
toll. But, oh, man, I loved it. I loved it every single day, you know it's the same thing as
stand-up; you get to talk to people all day long and there couldn't be a better job in the world.
It's fantastic. It's like being in this, you know, intense, big metropolitan newsroom every single
day, and the adrenaline is fantastic, great.

After 11 years, it was - yeah, it was a real turning point to leave. And I couldn't imagine what my
life was going to be like afterwards. I really didn't expect to wind up somewhere in the back
blocks of Fiji. I was having a little minor operation on my foot and I was approached by the
anaesthetist who asked me would I be interested in helping out Interplast. He said, "How would you
like to come with us?" Interplast is a group of plastic surgeons. They basically go to Third World
countries and they perform plastic surgery on children who haven't had any access to surgery.

We've come to the outskirts of Suva to pick up baby Sereana and take her to the hospital. She is
six months old and has a unilateral cleft lip.

LOVINIA MATAI (SEREANA'S MOTHER): It was interesting for me to see someone just like my daughter
because I thought she's the only one with the problem and I never think of others that would have
the same problem as her. But I was really happy to see Wendy here today.

WENDY HARMER: You know, I had a career in radio and I can sing, I can talk and do all these things,
and just maybe by looking at me, she might have some - have another dream, you know, just to be
able to kind of make her feel that anything is possible.

The serendipitous part of this story is that 20 years ago, her father, Tobias, was born with the
same condition and he was treated by Interplast.

GRAHAM BROWN (WENDY'S FATHER): When Wendy was born, to see her for the first time, she had
virtually a huge mouth and she had a little button of top lip which was fused to her nose. So it
was a huge hole in the face. Disastrous-looking thing.

MARGARET WICKS (WENDY'S MOTHER): Graham came in that night. He was pretty upset and he said, "I
don't want you to see her. I've told the doctor you can't see her for seven days."

GRAHAM BROWN (WENDY'S FATHER): It was a shock. Margaret was 17 and I was 22 at the time, healthy,
and we couldn't believe it.

MARGARET WICKS (WENDY'S MOTHER: Finally Dr Martin came in and brought me in a textbook, and she was
one of the most severe cases of bilateral cleft lip and palate that he'd seen.

GRAHAM BROWN (WENDY'S FATHER): I had a fox terrier pup born with a cleft palate and I had to drown
it. Wendy's condition was such that if she were not a human, she would have been put down. Thank
God we didn't. It was the last of our thoughts. We loved that kid just the same.

MARGARET WICKS (WENDY'S MOTHER): I looked at her and the first thing I thought was, "Oh, my poor
little love, you are going to have such a hard road here, and I don't know what to do."

WENDY HARMER: They didn't do the operations that they do now. They just kind of drew the lips
together that they had and they kind of just patched it together in a quite sort of rudimentary
sort of fashion.

There wasn't a precise point that I knew that I looked different to the other kids, but, um...I used
to get stared at all the time. And little kids would come up and go, "Mum, why has that girl got a
funny face?" They had all these names for me - flat face, pancake head, eagle beak, you know.

HELEN DI MARTINO (WENDY'S SISTER): I know that she was self?conscious about it, yeah. You'd have to
be. You'd have to be self-conscious. She learned how to deal with it, how to deal with other kids
giving her a hard time, and I think she probably developed a good bit of her wit and snappy
repartee from other kids teasing her.

WENDY HARMER: And there was a thing that my mother used to do, too. When I would come home from
school and say, "Oh, the boys have been picking on me," she would say, "I want you to go and stand
in front of the mirror and when you can find something to complain about, you come out here and
tell me."

MARGARET WICKS (WENDY'S MOTHER): So she went off with a tear in her eye. She said, "I've got
nothing to be sorry for." I said, "Right." So then I sat her down. I said, "Darling, when you grow
up and you have more operations," I said, "you will be just as beautiful as anybody else. It's just
going to take time."

GRAHAM BROWN (WENDY'S FATHER): It was a hard-love approach that we gave to Wendy. Wendy could be
loved and not molly-coddled. And so we said, "Well, she's got to be toughened against the slings
and arrows of outrageous fortune," and that's the way we operated. We knew no better. And, in fact,
I doubt if a therapist could have devised a better scheme.

WENDY HARMER: I remember there was this trip that we used to make every year, and we used to drive
from right out in the country into Melbourne, into the big smoke. And we'd be going off to the
Royal Children's Hospital to see if this was the year that I would have my operation that was going
to make me look beautiful. Go in looking like a witch; come out looking like a princess. I would go
in year after year and they would say, "Well, not this year. We want to wait until your head stops
growing." And so we'd be sent home year after year and I'd be sitting in the back seat. It was a
very long and sorrowful journey home, I remember.

Well, I'm having a real déjà vu here. Here I am how many years later? Oh, too many to count. On my
way to a hospital to the plastic surgery clinic. But this time we've got baby Sereana in arms and I
know something can be done for her.

I've been thinking about whether I'll go in and see the surgery. I don't know. And since I've been
a mother, anyway I just cry over anything, really. There's something about, you know, being a
mother. What do they say? It opens a window on your heart, or something.

DR PETER KEAST (INTERPLAST): There are 40 patients already booked at the clinic today and of those
it would seem that about 30 will be suitable for surgery. We bring with us all the equipment
necessary to perform the most common operations. The surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses donate
their time. They give up two weeks. Interplast has operated over the last 20 years on 3,500
patients in Fiji. A large percentage of those would have been cleft lips and cleft palates.

WENDY HARMER: What they're doing I think is they are really giving somebody a life who wouldn't
have a life to speak of at all.

I think it's going to be a very emotional journey for me. I will be imagining what I must have felt
when I was little, and there will be a window onto my childhood, I suppose.

GRAHAM BROWN (WENDY'S FATHER): The operations that Wendy had were progressive. The major surgery
didn't take place until she was about 15 years old.

WENDY HARMER: I basically woke up with 100-plus stitches in my face and with my mouth sewn
together. And a lot of people might say I've been kind of overcompensating ever since.

GRAHAM BROWN (WENDY'S FATHER): She came out of there looking a lot better. Her first job was as a
cub reporter with the Geelong Advertiser.

WENDY HARMER: And I got sent along to do a story about this new cabaret, new-wave cabaret. It was a
revelation. It was so brilliant. And I thought, "Oh, I think I might, you know, have a bit of a go
at this." I walked out on stage and I was this absolute epiphany, you know. I went, "Hang on a
minute. Hang on, whoa. You mean, I get to stand here with a microphone and people pay money to sit
and watch me? How good does this get? What's not to like about this deal," basically.

TED ROBINSON (TV COMEDY DIRECTOR): It did seem like the height of madness that Wendy would
contemplate a career on a stage in front of a camera. There's this kid with the funny face who's
going to go onto the television of the day that was all about blondes and bimbos and plastic
people. And I think I said to her, because I was somewhat taken aback by the notion, I said to her,
"Look, it's not going to happen. Pigs might fly, but I don't think that's ever going to happen."

GRAHAM BROWN (WENDY'S FATHER): Wendy's sister was Penthouse Pet of the Year in 1981.

HELEN DI MARTINO (WENDY'S SISTER): People say, "Look, Wendy's the clever one and then her sister is
the beautiful one." Wendy and I - I say to Wendy, "Oh, God, I wish you weren't so damn clever," and
she said, "I wish you weren't so gorgeous," and we'd just go, "Rrrr."

WENDY HARMER: I got told I was too ugly to do things my whole life. I was trying to prove that, I
guess, that I was, you know, lovable and that I could overcome any obstacle. For a person who was
born like I was, the hardest thing you could do would be a stand-up comedian. So I did it. And I
guess I always wanted to say, " I want you to look past what I look like and see who I really am."
When I started in TV, people used to send in really horrible letters about the way I looked.

TED ROBINSON (TV COMEDY DIRECTOR): So we adopted an unspoken policy of getting to the letters when
they came in first and censoring them and pulling out any that were too offensive or too awful or
too hideous, so Wendy wouldn't see them.

WENDY HARMER: But I did. At The Big Gig, I did find some one day, by accident. And they were, um -
they were really... they were really unpleasant. So, um (weeping) and that, you know, um, that really
hurt my feelings.

Well, this morning David Campbell, one of the plastic surgeons, is going to be operating on
Sereana. And I'm really excited about it. It's going to be fantastic because I know that - she's
such a gorgeous baby, that I think it's, in the long run, a simple operation. It's going to be a
great result, I think, so I'm very excited. I didn't think that I wanted to get in there and have a
close look at the operations, but, of course, it was absolutely irresistible. And once I was in
there looking I thought, "Oh, wow, man, I would love to do that." I think that I have a new
appreciation of what my parents went through when they first saw me when I was born, because
looking at a couple of the babies, it did, you know, give me quite a shock, really. So I must give
them an extra big hug when I get home, I think.

Given the advances in medical technology, it makes me wonder sometimes what it would have been like
if I'd been able to have my repairs done when I was so young, and there wouldn't have been 14 years
of pain there.

DR PETER KEAST (INTERPLAST): Watching Wendy in the operating room is very interesting to me. I
think going through her mind is her own experience, and by reliving this experience and maybe
visiting some of the darker experiences of her younger life, I think there has been not only the
healing of Sereana's lip, but I think there's been some healing in Wendy Harmer's whole life as

WENDY HARMER: I wasn't really concerned, but keen to know whether my children were going to be, you
know, normal, whatever the hell that means. If they were going to have the same condition, I was
the best person to be their parent, but I thought that if I had a child who had a cleft palate or
something, or a harelip or something, or a cleft lip that it would kind of magnify the attention. I
am kind of waiting for the day when my kids notice that I don't look the same, and I think, "What
am I going to say?" They just - they just love mum, they don't care.

I'm really comfortable with the way I look now. I don't think that there was ever a time when I
looked at my face and said, " I'm perfect." Well I mean, quite clearly I'm not now. I think that
I'm attractive, but I'm not beautiful.

While I wouldn't blame anybody for going and having plastic surgery for a big nose or wonky ears or
something like that which was really a problem to them, I think when you start using plastic
surgery to try and fight age, that you're really on a hiding to nothing, aren't you?

GEORGIE GARDINER (at Marie Claire fundraiser): In my opinion, if people think that that day has
come, then it's time for me to find something else to do.

WENDY HARMER: I think what you do here really does affect children in other countries. I mean, can
you imagine if a kid over there picks up a magazine and sees these stories of so-and-so going in
for a little nip and a little tuck? And they can't - they've got a hole in their face like, you
know, the size of a bread and butter plate. They can't have no life. That's what it means. And you
can say that it's disconnected, but I reckon it is.

Well, Sereana is nearly finished now. They're just doing the last sewing up and she looks really,
really brilliant. It is an amazing experience to be here. It's been very exciting. I feel much more
hopeful and positive than I thought I would. I thought I'd be falling about and crying all over the
place, but I haven't been.

DR PETER KEAST (INTERPLAST): The immediate transformation to these patients really gives me a big
buzz because we are working with an absolute goal towards giving this child an absolute new start
in life. So it is a life-changing operation and people have likened it to winning the lottery. Any
patient who has been through the process can offer encouragement, can offer advice, and offer an
end point for somebody who is embarking upon this treatment. Wendy clearly demonstrates that
despite your physical abnormality and despite its repair, you can still go on and have a very
successful life.

WENDY HARMER: I've always thought there's only really one touchstone in life, and it sounds banal,
but you have to go back and touch it all the time to have a sense of balance in your life...and that
is that there will always be people who will be better and worse off than you and that you should
count your blessings, and being here has enabled me to go and touch that stone again.