She has a new show, a newish conservative commentator boyfriend and is about to break into fiction. Gary Nunn speaks to Rosie Waterland ahead of her Sydney Comedy Festival shows.
I’m probably not the first journalist to ask Rosie Waterland how her mother is before I actually enquire about her own wellbeing.
It’s something she often gets asked by fans of the podcast the duo recorded together.
Rosie says she’s doing great but her mum, Lisa – who struggles with alcoholism – less so.
Having made her name writing witty recaps of The Bachelor for Mamamia (the ABC’s Richard Glover called her “the best TV commentator since Clive James”) Rosie and her mum recorded an award-winning podcast which has now had almost eight million downloads: Mum Says My Memoir Is A Lie.
It features Rosie reading excerpts of her memoir, The Anti-Cool Girl, and her mum challenging elements of it. Their infectious banter makes their tempestuous relationship seem in a good place, despite the odds.
It isn’t anymore.
“I’m no longer in contact with her,” Rosie, 34, tells the Sentinel. “I haven’t been for four months.”
“She was tracking down people I work with and saying things about me”
Having stayed sober for almost a year during the podcast recording – her longest stretch in years – Lisa began drinking again. “Of course she did,” Rosie says, sighing.
Lisa had moved in with Rosie but things spiralled again – a pattern Rosie says she has seen countless times.
“It got extremely bad. Her eyes were going yellow, she had liver failure and was in hospital for six weeks. She was told she’d die if she kept drinking like this,” she says.
Rosie says she tried maintaining a mother-daughter relationship by instigating some ground rules: she didn’t answer the phone to her mum after 5pm; if Lisa became belligerent, Rosie disengaged. They’d have lunch once every few weeks and other than that only see each other for birthdays and special occasions.
Then, six months ago, things deteriorated.
“She was doing awful, nasty things – like tracking down people I work with and saying things about me to them.”
What kind of things?
“She has a lot of resentment about the podcast – she thinks I used her to make money, which is ludicrous,” she says.
“When she’s drunk she gets fixated on schemes,” Rosie says. “There’s not a lot going on in her life except waking up and drinking.”
Australia’s unlikeliest couple
Rosie says it was her boyfriend of 18 months who made her see things clearly: “He came in as this objective observer and heard her abusive drunken calls to me and he said, ‘Rosie – you’ve got to stop this.’”
So she did.
The boyfriend in question may surprise: he’s Caleb Bond, the 22-year-old conservative commentator who has been a News Corp Australia columnist since his teens.
Rosie herself seems shocked by the pairing. Upon first meeting him in 2019, Rosie captioned a pic: “Australia’s unlikeliest bffls finally meet in person.”
They became much more than best friends for life; the following year she posted a picture of the new couple stating: “No filter just very unexpected love (trust me, VERY ).”
These days, she’s tweeting about Caleb looking “very sexy” on Sky News Australia but “the second he’s done we’ll be arguing for an hour about everything he just said”.
They still disagree – she tells me all their arguments are on “politics or who should clean the toilet” and assures that he’s “much more progressive than people realise”.
A real ‘Sophie’s choice’ on the new relationship occurred when Rosie recently took her new show, Kid Chameleon, to Perth. It was due to open in 24 hours when lockdown was announced and the show cancelled. Her manager rushed himself and Rosie two tickets back to Adelaide before the midnight curfew dictating they’d have to quarantine for a fortnight. He’d forgotten Caleb had come on the tour.
“So I had to choose: return to Adelaide now or quarantine with Caleb. I chose the latter. I guess that means it’s true love!” she says.
The rescheduled Sydney show, which covers all the ways she shapeshifted to survive as a kid from a broken home and chaotic family, has added an extra date due to demand.
She says the show is about owning your story: “I’d handed my story over to others without realising how much power and growth I’d got from it,” she says. “I’d let people like mum and ABC’s Australian Story define it on their terms instead of mine. This show is getting it back to a place where it’s mine again.”
In the podcast with her mum, she said it felt like being gaslighted: “Memories are notoriously messy and complicated but I essentially sat across from my abuser and let them deny it. I had to smile, nod, giggle and make jokes – the survival tools I’d learnt growing up,” she says.
She says the challenge was keeping her mum sober enough to complete the project, but also level-headed enough: “I couldn’t push back as much as I wanted. She doesn’t like being confronted,” she says.
Did her mum put up any resistance when Rosie first suggested the podcast idea?
“No … Getting a bit of spotlight and performing was appealing to her.”
Professionally, Rosie doesn’t regret doing the podcast but says it was a mistake, emotionally.
She’s now keen to move on to other projects, tired of mining her own trauma for stories and laughs, not dissimilar to Hannah Gadsby in Nanette. It’s a comparison she prefers to Lena Dunham, someone she isn’t fond of being compared to: “I find her a bit navel-gazing and insufferable.” There’s a pause. “Says the girl who’d written two memoirs at 30!” she adds with characteristic self-deprecating flair. She’d prefer, she says, to be labelled the Australian Phoebe Waller-Bridge (writer and lead of Fleabag).
Rosie sips green tea from a deconstructed green teapot, which she finds hilarious: “I’m definitely back in Sydney now,” she says, gesticulating at the ridiculousness of it. She grins generously. “I couldn’t imagine a better situation for myself professionally than right now,” she says, reflecting on her career, which started with a pot-luck submission to Mamamia’s overcrowded inbox. Rosie’s article was picked from hundreds of hopefuls and published on the site, leading to a wider public coming to adore her wry, frank writing style.
Her show is going to be filmed and televised. After Sydney she’s taking the show to Perth and Brisbane later in the year.
Fiction, TV and green tea
In the meantime, she’s writing fiction in a book deal she’s signed with Harper Collins: “It’s like the new Bridget Jones but less insufferable and more feminist,” she says. “It’s the diary of a woman living in Sydney who works at a women’s website – not inspired by any woman I’d know! It’ll be an easy read. I’m having fun writing it!”
There’s also a TV show in development, where Rosie re-imagines her mum, an adoptee meeting her biological mum and forming a relationship with her.
It’s based on a true story: Rosie’s mum really wanted to find her biological mum. “She’d read this book every night, Living Mistakes, filled with interviews with women who’d given up children for adoption, fantasising that her mum was one of these women in the book,” Rosie says. “Then she discovered her mother was actually the author of that book.”
Their meeting “wasn’t the fairytale mum wanted it to be”, Rosie says. “Her mum, Kate Inglis, was this harsh, cold pragmatic academic – very feminist. Then here rocked up my mum: 19, already pretty much alcohol and drug addicted, sex working. Mum was looking for the maternal love she’d always craved. And Kate must’ve been thinking: ‘I gave up my daughter so she could have this great life and be the next Gloria Steinem.’ They met and were like: ‘What the fuck?’”
The TV show imagines a more enduring relationship than the estranged one Lisa had with her biological mum before she died.
What would the 15-year-old Rosie Waterland, who’d already experienced so much trauma and bullying, think of the 34-year-old Rosie today?
“She’d be thrilled,” Rosie says, beaming and sipping the last of her deconstructed green tea.
Given how much pain the teenaged Rosie was in, does she now wish she could go back and tell her how things would pan out?
She thinks deeply. “I don’t think I do wish that,” she says. “I think it all just happened the way it had to happen.”
“It’s like the butterfly effect” she says. “Don’t mess with it!”
Kid Chameleon by Rosie Waterland plays The Factory Theatre, 105 Victoria Road, Marrickville at 8.45pm Friday, 7 May and 5.15pm Saturday, 8 May, 2021 as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival before travelling to Perth and Brisbane. For tickets ($24.90 to $32.90 plus booking fee) visit https://moretalent.com.au/tours/rosiewaterland/ .
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