The Weekly

Interview: Julie Bishop gets personal

In a candid, personal interview Julie Bishop shares with The Weekly her halcyon country childhood and the pain of losing her mother.

By: Juliet Rieden

Julie Bishop's first Barbie was a Jackie Kennedy doll. You couldn't make it up. "It was about 1962, one of the very early Barbies, which I still have by the way," she says with a broad grin tucking her hair behind her ears and gazing down at today's shoes – elegant black courts with a giant pearl orb tucked inside the nape of the heel.

I am shadowing Julie, out on the road around her Perth electorate and the first thing I learn about the Minister for Foreign Affairs – who these days hangs out with living, breathing First Ladies – is that she really is surprisingly girly.

The chic Giorgio Armani suits and frocks, the blingy jewels and immaculate scarlet manicure, this is not power play, not a mask to strike a pose, but an insatiable passion for dressing up – personally funded, she is quick to underline – which started when Julie was a toddler, the youngest of a trio of daughters on her family's cherry orchard.

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"One of my earliest, earliest memories was as a little girl – I think I was three – sitting perched on the back of a dining room chair while Mum sewed the most beautiful gown for a masonic lodge ball," Julie recalls to The Weekly.

"My father was the Grand Master of the lodge up in the [Adelaide] Hills – that's what you did in the '50s. And Mother had a Vogue pattern of a Grace Kelly-type dress. It was pink tulle and pink lace and it was fitted here," she explains, clasping her hands around her sculpted rib cage, "with ruching, ruching, ruching and then layers and layers of tulle. She'd do all her work in the day and then at night she'd sew her dress and I'd crawl out of bed and perch on the back of her chair and pat her on the head and stroke her hair while she sewed.

"On the night of the lodge ball, Dad was in white tails and Mum came out in this dress and I sobbed my heart out because they were the most beautiful people I'd ever seen in my life. I couldn't believe it. I cried and cried and cried."

"So, my earliest memory is of my mother looking like Grace Kelly and my father looking like Cary Grant. We still have the dress. My sister Patricia, who hoards everything, has it and I wore it to a My Fair Lady fancy dress once … but I don't think I'd get into it these days – Mum was tiny!"

When she's home in WA Julie crowds her schedule, ensuring her face is seen. There are no security men on her tail. The locals all know Julie, she's one of them. "I try to make every minute count. Mind you, that's my philosophy on life," she says. "I meet as many constituents as I can, even on weekends."

Today she starts with the opening address at the Latin America Down Under conference – largely a room full of suited men in the mining industry – then heads to Mt Claremont's Moerlina primary school to catch up with pupils she had previously hosted in Canberra who each wrote her letters about issues they wanted fixed.

The topics are surprisingly daunting – from tackling drug abuse and adults with alcohol addictions to domestic violence and the destruction of the environment.

Sitting with the kids on the floor, Julie hands out individual letters answering each query.

These constituents are the future – and I'm reminded that while the Minister may refuse to engage in a discussion of her move to the top job, many believe her to be a Prime Minister-in-Waiting.

Next we head to Breast Cancer Care WA to an intimate morning tea with care workers.

"My mother [Isabel]died of bowel cancer and I remember the sessions of chemo and how she would start throwing up before the treatment," Julie tells the group.

"It's very personal for me, I was very close to Mum, so when I'm sitting with a group of women who are talking about a cancer support group, it reminds me of what my mother went through and how difficult it must have been for her," Julie tells me later.

"She had family with her and my two sisters and my brother and I worked very close by, but she died at 75. I think that's very young. I miss her every day.

"She died when I was Minister for Aged Care so she didn't get to see me in cabinet. She was quite political herself, she was the local mayor of the district in which I grew up and she was in local government for many years and a community welfare supervisor in an after-school activity centre in South Australia. I think that certainly had an influence on my decision to go into politics. She was very much a role model for me.

"She had a life that was perhaps typical of the times. She came from a property in the mid-north of South Australia. Her brothers went off to war, her older sisters left home, her younger brother died when she was very young and her mother became very ill with cancer – the same cancer she had, bowel cancer. So I know all about bowel cancer screening!

As Julie talks of her mother, you can sense she is picturing her somewhere in the middle distance and I suspect it's something she does all the time. "My mother was very warm, loving, hilariously funny, she had a wonderful sense of humour and could make me cry with laughter she was so funny," she says smiling. "I really appreciated her sense of the ridiculous and she could see the funny side in anything.

I'm now thinking back to that Jackie Kennedy Barbie, Julie's prized possession as a little girl, and wondering if in the future there may be a Julie Bishop Barbie, only this doll won't be of the First Lady, but the Lady in charge, the Liberals' first female Prime Minister, and she'll be wearing diamante-studded stilettos and dressed in Armani. Read more about Julie Bishop in her most revealing interview ever in the October issue of The Australian Women's Weekly. On sale now.