Travis de Jonk speaks with the multi-talented Mary Coustas – actor, comedian, TV personality, writer and the woman behind iconic Greek-Australian character, ‘Effie’.
A truly switched on individual, Mary Coustas is an extraordinary talent – but you might know her best as ‘Effie Stefanides’, the larger than life character she famously played on the late ’80s and early ’90s Aussie TV sitcom Acropolis Now.
An icon of Australian and immigrant cultures alike, Effie is so beloved and popular that, 30 years on, Coustas is still headlining shows as her sassy alter ego. In fact, she’s about to tickle Sydney’s funny bone playing Effie in Hello Good Thanks – Better Out Than In, as part of the 2021 Sydney Comedy Festival.
Growing up Greek in Australia
A Greek-Australian, Coustas grew up in Melbourne; a child of first generation immigrant parents. The Australia Coustas grew up in during the 1960s and ’70s was a nation still emerging from its White Australia Policy, and had only recently recognised its Indigenous population as citizens with the right to vote.
Back then, the notion of multiculturalism was still struggling against a tide of deeply ingrained racism and a suspicion of foreigners. It made for an environment that was open, free and full of opportunity while simultaneously rife with discrimination, degradation and marginalisation.
For the first nine years of her life, Coustas grew up in a multicultural, working class suburb amongst her warm and inspiring Greek community. She cherishes that time – especially the time spent with Greek women she describes as “really strong, kind-hearted, hardworking but unapologetic”.
That community (especially its women) would go on to have a substantial influence on Coustas’s sensibility and approach to both life and art.
From ethnic working class to white middle class
Around the time Coustas turned ten, her father decided he wanted to give her what he felt was a better chance for a good education, dragging her reluctantly into white, middle class suburbia. Coustas describes this decision as devastating for her, but one that – with the gift of hindsight – she can now appreciate was probably right.
“For me, it was socially horrific. I never fit in. I was one of three ethnic kids in the school. [My father’s decision] was an insult to all I thought that mattered … but ultimately turned out to be a smart move. It allowed me to have an education that was taken seriously, it allowed me to go to uni and it allowed me to hone in on my talents and sharpen what I would later use as an actor and writer,” Coustas tells the Sentinel.
Carving her own path
Coustas studied performing arts and journalism, and afterwards while waitressing at a restaurant in St Kilda, she met Nick Giannopoulos – who, in collaboration with George Kapiniaris and Simon Palomares, would go on to create the infamous and groundbreaking stage show Wogs Out of Work and the hit TV sitcom Acropolis Now, among others.
Cappuccinos, foccacias and specialist delis might be standards today, but back in the ’80s, these offerings were seen as so exotic and foreign that they might as well have been from another planet. Despite Australia having one of the biggest populations of Greek people outside Greece itself, racially discriminatory attitudes still dominated Australian society, even in the arts and entertainment industry.
It would be an obstacle Coustas would have to manoeuvre around if she was going to fulfil any of her ambitions. She describes her experience of trying to get an agent thus: “The first agent I saw was one that Nick Giannopoulos had suggested I go to because he thought she was really good. It was very confronting because she told me I was ‘limited’. To begin with, I didn’t understand what that meant. I graduated with high distinctions … I’d played animals and children and men.
“And then as I was driving off, I saw the eight-by-ten black and white photos that all actors had back then and suddenly it became clear to me. She means that there’s no jobs for people who look like me,” Coustas recalls.
“Me being me, I wasn’t going to accept that, so I initially decided that I wasn’t going to bother with getting an agent but use what I had to make my own way. I was really determined and I wasn’t going to let anything get in my way to work as an actress.”
Game changers: Wogs Out of Work and Acropolis Now
Coustas used her connections in the industry, word of mouth and good old fashioned research to find auditions and opportunities. Those connections included Giannopoulos et al. and it wasn’t long before she got her shot in the amazing work they all created.
Wogs Out of Work and Acropolis Now were groundbreaking hybrids of comedy and theatre that tackled social tensions and marginalisation faced by immigrants in Australia, head-on. They told their stories, giving immigrants a voice and visibility at a time when those experiences didn’t exist on TV, in theatre or in pop culture generally.
These shows did something else phenomenal: they reclaimed and transformed language, taking hurtful racial slurs like ‘wog’ and transforming them into symbols of pride and empowerment.
Wogs Out of Work and Acropolis Now would be pivotal launching points for Coustas’s career. She describes her experience in those shows as “electrifyingly dangerous”.
“We’d never watched anything that we could relate to in Australia. Everything was token and a little hard to identify with. I certainly didn’t see anyone I could really call a role model on TV or theatre at the time,” says Coustas.
“Wogs Out of Work was based on racism and identity – that word was obviously a very toxic bullet aimed in our direction growing up and still when used in a hateful way has the same impact. We wanted to somehow detoxify it and claim some of that power back – to own it and use it affectionately.”
The birth of Effie
While Acropolis Now had many great and distinct characters, Effie stands out for many reasons. As a character, Effie broke the mould of how women in Australian society were represented and depicted – especially immigrant women.
She wasn’t a wallflower. She wasn’t just seen and not heard. She had big hair and an even bigger personality. She was relatively smarter than her male counterparts, and she was sassy and assertive.
The character so perfectly articulated the archetype of the new generation of immigrant women that the word ‘Effie’ became part of our lexicon. And she didn’t just become a beloved Aussie icon, but a valued positive point of identification for immigrant women. It even garnered her Australian TV’s highest honour – a TV Week Logie award.
According to Coustas, these achievements weren’t conscious and deliberate goals when creating Effie, but a by-product of basing her creation on genuine affection and authenticity.
Describing to me the moment Effie was ‘born’, she says: “I was in the toilets at a cafe in Lygon Street, an area that is very ethnic, and I overheard a conversation amongst some girls. I never saw them but I heard them talking and getting ready. I heard their particular accent and I loved it. And then they came out and did their hair spray and had the big hair. They were having coffee before going out to a nightclub. It was magic. I thought, ‘This is it! I need to play a girl like this!’
“Effie’s spirit is very generous but she’s nobody’s fool. She’s streetsmart, confident and she maxes that out, and really, I think that’s the best thing we can all do in this life.”
Since those stellar days playing Effie, Coustas has gone on to many acclaimed roles and ventures across TV and film over the years, including on Skirts, Wildside, Always Greener and The Secret Lives Of Us, to name just a few.
There have been stage shows and she’s written books such as All I Know – a personal exploration of life, loss and love.
In 2013, she shared her harrowing journey through infertility to become a mother on 60 Minutes Australia. It’s an incredible tale of persistence-beating hardship that included 23 IVF attempts over a decade.
The agonising period included the stillbirth of her daughter Stevie – but ended in joy when, in November 2013, Coustas gave birth to her daughter Jamie, with husband George Betsis.
There is so much about Coustas to explore and unpack that it’s beyond the scope of a single article such as this – but it’s without doubt that the character she created, Effie, is still so loved and celebrated that she’s taken on a life (and a career) of her own.
“I had and still have enormous affection for Effie,” Coustas explains.
“To have such a great authentic character with so much heart, that people love so much and connect with … well, that’s a gift. People can complain about anything, but I could never resent or complain about Effie overshadowing my other work. She has made it so I can do all that work in the first place – and more.
“To complain would be like having a child and then complaining about all the things I can’t do because I’ve got a child. Effie is like family to me and just like family, we are sometimes dysfunctional, but that doesn’t change that I love her.”
Good thing, too, because we just can’t seem to get enough of her. 30 years on and there’s still such love and demand for Effie that Coustas is still performing headline shows as her, such as the new show Hello Good Thanks – Better Out Than In, which is playing several dates in Sydney in April and May, as part of the 2021 Sydney Comedy Festival.
The show steers us through an hilarious and satirical storyline of Covid regulations and pop culture celebrity. Effie is back, more thought-provoking, hard hitting and satirically hilarious than ever. And this time, that is deliberate, says Coustas – and important and necessary in the time we live in.
“There’s always an agenda with me … More often, it’s through the comical capsule that I prefer to tackle the difficult issues in a way that makes them approachable. I want to make people laugh and think. I want to make a difference and I want to do something real. Always,” she says.
“Above all things, I’m a communicator … I’ve always been driven by a huge desire to tell stories.”
Hello Good Thanks – Better Out Than In plays The Concourse, 409 Victoria Avenue, Chatswood at 7pm Saturday, 24 April, 2021; and the Factory Theatre, 105 Victoria Road, Marrickville at 8.45pm Saturday, 8 May and 4.15pm Sunday, 9 May, 2021, as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival. For more info and tickets, visit https://premier.ticketek.com.au/shows/show.aspx?sh=EFFIESYD20.
Following the Sydney Comedy Festival, Hello Good Thanks – Better Out Than In will play multiple venues across Sydney in June, July & August including: The Juniors Kingsford, 558A Anzac Parade, Kingsford at 8.30pm Friday, 11 June; the Camden Civic Centre, Cnr Oxley & Mitchell Streets, Camden at 8.30pm Saturday, 19 June; the Bankstown Sports Club, 8 Greenfield Parade, Bankstown at 7.30pm Friday, 23 July; the Ryde–Eastwood Leagues Club, 117 Ryedale Road, West Ryde at 8pm Saturday, 24 July; and the Central Coast Leagues Club, 1 Dane Drive, Gosford at 7.30pm Friday, 6 August. For more info and tickets, visit https://maryandeffie.com/tour/.
Listen to our full interview with Mary Coustas on the Sentinel Speakeasy podcast, below. The Sentinel Speakeasy is the official podcast of the Sydney Sentinel, with new episodes released on Tuesday afternoons.
NOTE: This article was amended on Thursday, 13 May, 2021 to include additional show times, dates and locations.