Portrait

Mary Coustas on comedy, her quest for motherhood, and not losing her ‘floral bits’. By Kate Holden.

Hail Mary Coustas, aka the irrepressible Effie

Credit: Supplied

My first instinct was to portray Mary Coustas as a kind of unexpected oracle. I was led back through the courtyard of her brother’s Richmond cafe, behind a trellis and around a rockery, to find her in a secret house, sitting behind a desk with her dark brows and her composure, prepared to tell me her wisdom. She’s of Greek heritage, and she has a lot to say, but she has no predictions for the future. Instead, I get an hour’s frank, perceptive and almost pauseless talk about life and determination and death. There are moments when I struggle not to cry. 

I didn’t come here for this: Mary, comedy icon, is preparing another show featuring her irrepressible Effie character. I knew she’d had a terrible experience with fertility and IVF programs, losing first twins then the remaining triplet, Stevie, to midterm stillbirth before finally having her second child, Jamie, at the age of 49. She’d written a book, All I Know, about it, and I gathered there’d been media – actually, a firestorm of magazine features and two 60 Minutes stories. Mary is slim, spry, groomed, brisk. Gleaming shellacked nails. Lavender bracelet, pink lipstick. A latte the colour of chocolate is placed in front of her. She closes the lid of her Mac and turns to me. 

Almost immediately she’s telling a story about determination: daring herself to do a live interview in Greek. A fable – acceptance of fear, surrender to reality, pride in her own qualities, a lesson learnt. “I try to bring things down to a level where it’s manageable to me.” No trace of Effie’s hoarse broad accent. “In the purest Australian spirit it’s ‘have a go, you mug’. Go out and have a go, and then you’ve got something to complain about, or celebrate.”

She goes on: the pleasure and privilege of performance – she was a wonderfully severe magistrate in ABC’s Rake – her awe of tradesmen, honouring of makers, the discipline of her work and her austere privacy around it. I wonder if she believes I expect motivational wisdom. I’d figured we’d just shoot the shit about each having two-year-olds. She’s off and talking, intensely, used to an audience: a torrent of philosophy of life. So, the gig? “No one put a gun to my head and said, ‘You will act. You will be funny. Or else!’ ” She offers me a sesame slice. “It’s the ultimate social exercise, performing, because while they’re looking at you, you’re looking at them. While they’re reacting to you, you’re reacting to them. It’s a great dance that you have. And that’s why I love life so much, because I can have that.”

Already I am reduced to smiley-eyed, non-interrupting murmurs. She’s magnificent. Perhaps practised, but so what? She has thought stuff through, felt it hard. What must it be like, to be so sure? “I’d always rather try something, to know what’s possible, than just live in what they call that filthy word ‘potential’,” she’s saying fiercely, “which is a sort of blessing one minute, and then if you don’t do anything with it, it’s like a noose. 

“I’m not a big fan of wanting things that aren’t going to happen. Like, I’m never going to be tall and blonde.” Mary’s public stories are: Effie, legend of; and motherhood, travails towards. Effie is ebullient, a clumsy mystic of modern life: huge hair, tight dress, holy fool, nobody’s fool. The trying for a child, in the real world, dominated Mary’s life for 10 years, and now that story is her “thing”: the harrowing of a strong woman; the funny lady in tears; luminous portraits of her smiling with child. The sorrow, doubt, triumph. It’s a neat parable. Her Facebook page is filled with grateful and sympathetic comments from those who’ve found solace in Mary’s story. The telling of the story is one of her works now. 

“I wanted motherhood more than anything and that was my biggest challenge. Not work. And it wasn’t identity. It was fertility, it was a whole other wing of my wanting that I didn’t even think was there.” Is her story about determination? Sometimes. “It took a long time. It took everything I had. But I got there in the end.” She did 23 IVF cycles, eventually with donor eggs, and finally birthed a healthy daughter. A fable of agency and will, of personal responsibility: “I made choices along the way. It goes back to the very beginning of this conversation: what deals do you cut with yourself, and with God, life, the universe, whoever the person is that you turn to, hoping that things are going to work out, or looking for answers.” A story of vulnerability: “Because you fall in such a violent way. You think, there’s just no way I can survive this.” She tells me the story of Stevie’s death, of the doctor saying, “Right now she’s alive, but in five minutes she won’t be”, and sitting now in this elegant room I swell with tears. Oh, those of us who tell our sadnesses in public, over and over: how do we bear it? A story of pain, salted bread to share. A memento mori. “I wanted Stevie to be not-invisible. And I knew that through that book, she would exist.” A myth, perhaps Demeter mourning Persephone. 

Something in me wants to resist this story, to judge Mary for selling it publicly, for the number of times she’s talked it out to cameras and people like me. But my God, this woman is no one’s fool either. She’s strong. She’s tough and warm. The story isn’t worn thin by telling. Perhaps it’s my metaphor that is trite, but it’s impossible to resist: beyond the shadows of the room the bougainvillea, crimson, ignites incandescent against grey sky. “It thrives on indifference. It will still flower even in the harshest conditions.” That’s why she planted it. “And that was kind of a metaphor.” Momentarily, Effie surfaces. “You know: I’m not going to lose my friggin’ … floral bits.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2015 as "Hail Mary". Subscribe here.

Kate Holden
is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.

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