Little lady, big legacy

Jeanne Little in an undated appearance on The Mike Walsh Show. Photo: National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA).

Obituary: Jeanne Little 1938–2020

Diminutive in stature and name but big in personality and talent, Jeanne Mitchell OAM – better known as Jeanne Little – was a true original and a mainstay of the Australian entertainment industry from the mid-1970s until her 2009 retirement. By Peter Hackney.

Singer, actor, daytime television maven and gay icon, Jeanne Little – known for her outlandish make-up, outrageous clothing and “Hello darling!” catchcry – got her first big break in 1974 when Channel Nine’s The Mike Walsh Show booked her for a guest spot, after a producer saw a photo of her modelling maternity wear at her Paddington dressmaking boutique.

An instant hit with audiences, Little quickly became a regular on daytime TV, appearing over the years not only on The Mike Walsh Show but also Midday with Ray Martin, Beauty and the Beast and her very own variety program, Jeanne’s Little Show

Her idiosyncrasies, including her striking look and unique voice (stemming, in part, from a childhood case of diphtheria which damaged her vocal chords) ensured she became a talking point for Australians, leading to a wide range of commercial endorsements across TV, magazines and radio.

A Bernina sewing machine commercial featuring Jeanne Little. Photo: The Senior/Bernina Sewing Machines.

At one point, her fame even threatened to go global, when a second career in Britain beckoned after a 1980s appearance on Sir Michael Parkinson’s chat show, Parkinson.

In an interview with this journalist for SX magazine in 2006, she said: “One of Parkinson’s producers was out here in Australia and he saw me and wanted me on the show.

“So I flew out to England and was interviewed on Parkinson and it was just fantastic! All the papers the next day said mad things! And next thing, they wanted me to go on Doctor Who to play the Australian aunt of the doctor.”

Sadly, the role never came to be, as it was blocked by the British Actors’ Equity Association, which objected to an Australian playing the role. 

Taking the stage

But Little continued to enjoyed great success in Australia, not only in television but in musicals and cabaret.

In 1987, her stage career took off when she landed a role in the Australian production of the Broadway musical Jerry’s Girls, alongside Debra Byrne, Judi Connelli and Marci Hines.

A career highlight followed in 1988 when she performed at the Royal Command Bicentennial Concert in Sydney before the Prince and Princess of Wales.

Other stage highlights included the comedic play Legends with Kerrie Biddell, Nancy Hayes and Toni Lamond at the Sydney Opera House.

But perhaps her greatest stage success was Marlene – A Tribute to Dietrich, a show she wrote with her husband Barry, which debuted in 1994 and toured Australia and the US for the next ten years. 

Little’s career continued into the 2000s with further cabaret shows such as MM – A Tribute to Marilyn Monroe, regular appearances on the TV talk show Beauty and the Beast, biographical stage shows, and a 2006 autobiography – Hello Darling! 

Gay icon

In her 2006 SX interview, Little credited the gay community for her success, declaring: “I really should thank the gay community and the drag queens because they’re responsible for my career.

“When I was young, my gay friends took me to The Purple Onion and [gay clubs] like that and suddenly something clicked. I was a pretty plain girl in the face, so when I saw these drag shows I thought, ‘Now, they’re boys and they look sensational. Why don’t I do that?

“So I bought false eyelashes and I put on tonnes of make-up and it just changed my life overnight.”

A 2016 Studio 10 report on Jeanne Little by celebrity reporter Craig Bennett. Video: Studio 10/YouTube.

Final curtain

In 2009, Little’s family announced that the performer was suffering from rapid onset Alzheimer’s. By 2014, family members advised that her illness had advanced to the point where she “no longer knows where she is or what’s going on around her”.

Her daughter Katie Little Poulton announced her mother’s death on social media last night, posting: “My mother has left the earthly plane …. This is a huge shock – but I’m so grateful,” thus bringing to an end one of Australia’s greatest showbiz stories, and a life that drew numerous accolades and awards for services to the arts and charity, including a Gold Logie award and an Order of Australia Medal.

RIP, Jeanne Little. 

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