Chrissy Amphlett is much slighter than I’d imagined. But every bit as scary.
Three weeks earlier she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. In just two days, the woman who made Australian rock raunchy will have a double mastectomy.
Today though she’s full of good humour and tells me repeatedly, she is just enjoying the moment.
“How can you remain so positive?” I ask tentatively. She looks at me, incredulous.
“You don’t know me.” She says, and then growls. “You only just met me.”
She puts her head down and glares from under a heavy fringe, her lips pursed. It’s just a few minutes after we’ve met and I’m terrified.
She’ll either walk out of the interview before it has even started – or eat me alive. Right now, I’m not sure which.
Then suddenly she smiles. The day gets much better and at its end she confesses she was actually terrified of me.
Recording feature interviews for Sunday evening TV programs is not something she’s ever been attracted to doing. As lead singer of the iconic Aussie rock band Divinyls (no “The”) she enjoyed hits in the eighties and nineties like “I Touch Myself”, “Ain’t Going to Eat out My Heart” and “Science Fiction.”
Molly Meldrum once labelled Amphlett a brat that loves performing outrageously on stage, but seems reluctant to reveal too much of her real self.
Today she says she’s agreed to do a long set-piece interview to warn other women about how easily breast cancer can be missed.
“This is no criticism because I know everyone’s working really hard… science, doctors, researchers, everyone’s working really hard but for some reason I was having these mammograms and ultrasounds because I had this thing… and you know it wasn’t reading. Don’t trust machines. Trust yourself. You know your own body.”
After finding a lump in her left breast Chrissy went to the doctor and had a mammogram which came back negative, but she knew something was wrong.
The lump in her breast hurt when she lay down. She went back to her doctor and demanded a biopsy. Chrissy was right. It was cancer and it needed to be removed immediately. She also decided to have her healthy right breast removed as a precaution.
Her plastic surgeon, Cap Lesesne, says being a hard bitten Aussie rocker, probably saved her life.
“Her not accepting authority. Her self-confidence, her persistence and maybe her little unorthodox nature of just going through it cause I know most women would say well I had a mammography and it was checked out by my doctor, it’s fine, I’ll wait a couple of months. And that could make all the difference in the world. It would have been a very bad outcome for her.”
Truth is Chrissy Amphlett is in no mood for dealing with this disease.
Her medical dance card is full. For nearly a decade she’s been dealing with multiple sclerosis, a debilitating condition that attacks the central nervous system.
“I never thought about having cancer. I had MS. I wasn’t going to get cancer. Wasn’t that enough?”
“The first person I thought of was, oh poor Charley. It was kind of like shock and emotion, right. It’s kind of like ‘Oh now you’ve got to go through this. You’ve been through the MS – you’ve gotten me through that – and now you’ve got to go through this.”
Charley is Charley Drayton, the talented American drummer she married a decade ago who is clearly devoted to her. They met when he joined Divinyls in 1995. He’s toured regularly with artists like Keith Richards and Paul Simon. She moved to New York to be with him. As chilled as she is wild, they obviously “get” each other.
“Charley is a very good human being. I did something right. I’m really not marriage material but somehow we are together because we like hanging out together. We want to be together and we want to be in each other’s lives. Through all of this he has not run, he has been there riding with me.”
“Chrissy makes out like it is incredibly difficult to be with her all this time?” I say to Charley.
He bursts out laughing. “It is always entertaining, as we are all experiencing. It’s just a hell of a ride.”
“What words would you use to describe your wife?” I ask.
There’s a long pause as he considers a suitable response. “Confident, optimistic, willing and curious. Dangerous!”
“I am happiest in a storm. Calms are boring.” Chrissy chips in.
“I didn’t say calm!” Charley laughs again at the absurd notion Chrissy Amphlett could ever be described that way.
“Did I say calm?” He grabs her hand and they both laugh.
But calm and focus is something Chrissy is mustering up as she deals with her cancer.
She found out on a Saturday, left the Sunday to be in shock and anger and the next day hit the net, found the best surgeon and booked in for surgery.
“Own yourself, own your life. Whatever that takes, find a way. I think first of all you just have to breathe. First of all you get your spirit, your strength and your resolve. Do you want to live or do you want to die? Are you going to be a warrior or a victim?”
Chrissy Amphlett is utterly determined to be a warrior.
With our cameras alongside, she checks into one of New York’s most prestigious hospitals for surgery.
A day later she invites us to her room. Feisty, occasionally flinty but also warm and funny she’s the model patient who has all the hospital staff, from the nurses to the cleaners, laughing along with her constant patter of larrikin humour.
We’re there when she’s released. She’s exhausted and in discomfort. But even then the trouper inside Chrissie takes charge of the situation. There’ll be no TV pictures of her as an invalid.
So she insists on getting out of the wheelchair at the hospital door and walks slowly to her car waiting in the street outside. She smiles and tells me she’s okay, her surgery has gone well.
It’s impossible not to be moved by this woman’s strength and spirit.
She’ll need every bit of it. She needs to get breast cancer out of the way, and fast so she can turn her attention back to fighting Multiple Sclerosis.
In the meantime she has a message for Australian women.
“Touch yourselves!” Every time you hear her biggest hit, she wants you to do a breast examination.
“You know I really wish now that I touched myself. It is so appropriate now more than ever. Don’t be prudy, touch yourself. It really should be the breast cancer song for us all.”
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