Christie Whelan Browne cheerfully admits she’ll hit her “ageing diva phase” any minute now. The Melbourne-based actor recently turned 40 and is at near-exhaustion point when we meet, juggling a new sketch comedy TV series, a solo stage show for Sydney festival and grabbing a few moments on FaceTime with her almost two-year-old son Duke.
“He doesn’t understand that I’m away, he’s too little,” Whelan Browne says. “For me it’s a new level of heartbreak. I was an absolute wreck the first week away from him.”
Whelan Browne is sitting on the edge of a bed in her temporary digs in Newtown, Sydney, at the end of what has already been a long day. Immaculately groomed after a photoshoot, she veers from confident to cautious in the media spotlight, after the “ugliest, most horrible four years” of her life.
Best known for her work on the stage, Whelan Browne has delighted audiences with her whip-sharp timing in Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, Shakespeare’s As You Like It and Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest. On the small screen, she’s starred in Shaun Micallef’s Mad as Hell and has just wrapped We Interrupt This Broadcast, a new Channel 7 comedy for 2023. She describes herself as a comic actor.
“I feel confident in my ability to make people laugh,” she says, adding that her solo Sydney festival piece Show People – which premiered at Adelaide cabaret festival (under a different name, Pure Blonde) in 2015 – is “tragic and hilarious”.
Performing it comes as a welcome change of gear after four years of intense media coverage that overshadowed her talent. In 2018, Whelan Browne, along with two other female cast members, brought forward allegations of indecent assault against Craig McLachlan, the star of their 2014 production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. McLachlan denied the allegations. In 2020, a criminal trial found him not guilty, and in 2021 he brought a defamation case against Whelan Browne, the ABC and Nine, before dropping the suit in May of 2022.
Those were dark times, Whelan Browne recalls. She received death threats and rape threats. “That really shocked me,” she says. “I copped anger and hatred from the media and the public and I just wasn’t prepared for that.”
The end of the court case left her feeling “a bit like a zombie”. “The next day, my son woke up at six, and life just carried on. I was back at work the next day or the day after,” she says. “It wasn’t until just a few weeks ago that I finally realised there is this big heavy monkey on my back and that I’m going to need to address it at some point.”
Whelan Browne says she lost work during this time and was fired from one job after she was sued for defamation. “That was very painful,” she says. “But I made it my mission to continue working, to make it clear I wasn’t broken or beaten.”
Twice during our interview she wipes away a tear, but she doesn’t want it misinterpreted: “I’m only crying because I’m so very tired. Please don’t make it a sad story – because I’m not.”
Whelan Browne is now a powerful vocal ally on Twitter for women who have experienced sexual assault. “I know what it meant to me when people were willing to put their face and voice to a supportive comment, when others shied away because they knew it would provoke the trolls,” she says. “But I’m not afraid any more. I would prefer to be someone who uses their voice. I am never going to be quiet any more.”
She is still being trolled on Twitter too, she says. When it happens, she writes “Fuckhead alert” to warn other women. “I don’t want women to feel they’ve got no hope or that they’re alone. I get people reaching out in my DMs asking how best to navigate the shitty situations women find themselves in. I don’t really know what I can do other than calling out injustice when you see it.”
There’s a long way to go, but Whelan Browne says she’s inspired by the younger generation of female performers who “will not take the shit other generations have taken – they just won’t,” she says.
“The young women I worked with on Muriel’s Wedding were amazing at calling out anything they didn’t like. They are far better at pointing it out and saying, ‘That needs to stop’, and that gives me so much hope for the future. They just don’t have that same fear that I definitely grew up with, and that makes me so happy.”
Show People predates her experiences on Rocky Horror. It began in 2015 when Barry Humphries invited Whelan Browne to create a show for the Adelaide cabaret festival, after her hit Britney Spears cabaret written by her collaborator and friend Dean Bryant.
Bryant also wrote and directed Show People, in which Whelan Browne plays six roles: a new drama school graduate; a mum juggling performing and childcare; an ageing diva; an understudy; an older actor ready to retire, and the misogynistic leading man.
“I was nervous to perform the show at first, knowing people would be wondering who the characters could be based on,” she says. “But the truth is, they are all of us. I have been at least three of the characters myself and I will probably be more. They’ve all faced obstacles along the way.”
The careworn actor-mum has special resonance these days, she says. Whelan Browne was performing nightly in a play when Duke was only eight months old. She missed bath and bedtime terribly. “I thought, ‘That’s it, I can’t do theatre any more.’ I think my time in that world might be done for a while.
“In my 20s and 30s I was striving for a career but now happiness is my goal. Happiness and less stress. A toddler helps with that a lot. When you are stopping to look at flowers at every single house along the way to the park and a 10-minute walk takes 40 minutes, that’s when you realise how much beauty we miss in our busy lives.”
Show People plays at Sydney festival on 12 January