Debra Byrne returns with Ripe
After a tragically tumultuous childhood, Debra Byrne made it through the fire and found happiness, courting a successful career and a rich family life. Now, for the first time in over 20 years, she will take to the stage for a solo concert.
In the 1970s, when flared jeans, platform shoes, three-piece disco suits and jersey wrap dresses ruled supreme, every Australian kid wanted to be like the stars of Young Talent Time. But in particular, every kid wanted to be Debra Byrne. She was the cool one, whose make-up, bell-bottomed trousers and wispy hair were relentlessly emulated.
But few knew that behind Debbie Byrne’s smiling face was a child imploding. As has been widely reported – in the media as well as Byrne’s 2006 autobiography Not Quite Ripe – from the age of two until she joined Young Talent Time, she was sexually abused by her maternal grandfather. Byrne’s mother, who was regularly beaten by her alcoholic father, was a largely absent figure. While on Young Talent Time, when she was 13, she had an ongoing sexual relationship with a 24-year-old boom operator, who was eventually charged with statutory rape. Byrne spent a long time trying to remove herself from the world – alcohol, heroin, cocaine, and messy suicide attempts.
According to Byrne no one ever tried to help her, or even comfort her – least of all the people at Young Talent Time. “My welfare was not their main concern,” the now 55 year old tells SX. “That was very clear. A girl leaves a courthouse after experiencing the shame and humiliation of having to talk about sex with a man who was 24 when she was 13 – which alone is enough to damage someone – and then has to go to a studio, sit in the make-up chair and be happy Debbie Byrne.
“No one wanted to talk to me about it or even give me a hug. No one thought I should be counselled. What I received was the opposite – I was yelled at by Johnny Young for forgetting my words.”
When I ask Byrne what she would say to that teenage version of herself if she could go back in time, her answer in viscerally clear. “I would say to her, ‘come with me. We are going to find you the right person – a therapist, psychiatrist or whatever – and spend however long it takes sorting all your stuff out, and downloading all your pain and confusion. And I will be with you through the entire thing. I will never leave your side.”
Thankfully, Byrne’s story has a happy ending. Her name has topped the marquee of many hit musicals including Cats, Les Miserables, Jerry’s Girls, and Sunset Boulevard alongside Hugh Jackman. After Young Talent Time, she moved into a recording career with hits ‘He’s A Rebel’ and ‘Da Doo Run Run’. As well as her outstanding vocal ability, Byrne is recognised for her acting talents, with stints on television shows such as GP, Police Rescue, Law of the Land, Naked, The Secret Life of Us, and City Homicide, as well as a starring role in feature film Rebel alongside Matt Dillon.
But it’s Byrne’s three children and two grandchildren that mean the most to her. “I spent so many years just getting through the day,” she says. “It fills me with joy to be now so much a part of life when I spent so much time trying to remove myself from it.”
Byrne will take to the Factory Theatre stage later this month to perform a one-woman show for the first time in over 20 years. Titled Ripe, the concert will showcase the most memorable moments from Byrne’s career in the theatre, whilst also embracing songs from around the globe. The story of each song – and why she is singing it now – will be skilfully crafted into the performance.
“Storytelling is the most important part of a song for me,” she says. “I’m also attracted to songs that show the vulnerability and the strength of a person. There also has to be a reason for me to sing it. Even if it’s a great song, if there’s no reason, I won’t sing it.”
Debra Byrne in Ripe, Factory Theatre (105 Victoria Road, Marrickville) on Tuesday, November 29. Bookings 9550 3666 or www.factorytheatre.com.au