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"Life is all about friends, family and laughter": Maggie Tabberer shares her memories and musings on what really matters

Australia's dynamic and dazzling icon, Maggie Tabberer, sits down with The Weekly and shares her wisdom and secrets for a fulfilled and happy life.

By Juliet Rieden
Maggie Tabberer has graced the cover of The Australian Women's Weekly many times but confesses she never thought she'd still be a cover girl at 84.
"Darling, I'm thrilled," she tells me settling into the make-up chair at our photographic studio.
It took some coaxing to persuade the former model and Aussie icon out of retirement to step in front of the photographer's lens once more for a full-blown photo shoot, but she is clearly having a ball.
No sooner has she arrived than she's talking through clothes, fabrics, hats, wraps and jewellery with The Weekly's Style Director Mattie Cronan and sharing reminiscences from her days back in the 1960s as famous photographer Helmut Newton's muse.
And when she's ready for her close-up Maggie doesn't flinch and picks up right where she left off, albeit decades before, inspiring gasps from our photographer Peter Brew-Bevan, who whispers incredulously "every frame is pure magic".
While she may be "pretty old now" – her words not mine – Maggie's approach to life hasn't changed, which I suspect is her secret.
She's fun and innately laid-back, enjoying every moment while trying not to stress over the detail, which is not to say she hasn't endured times of darkness along the way.
Maggie loves deeply but also possesses a powerful resilience. She guards her independence ferociously, cherishes family and friends and, according to her daughters Amanda and Brooke, "is a very kind soul".
Later in the week I go back to her Sydney home and I ask Maggie to take a trip down memory lane, ponder on the good times and the bad and share her wisdom.
"She is a very kind soul" - Maggie's daughters Amanda and Brooke. (Peter Brew-Bevan)
You were raised in suburban Adelaide, the youngest of five. What is your earliest memory?
Maggie: I think that has to be me at the window absolutely starving watching for Dad [Alfred Trigar] to come home. My mother, Molly, would stand at the gate waiting for him because we were never allowed to have what she called 'tea' – it was never dinner, it was tea – until Dad came home. He was a groundsman at the Adelaide Oval and then later the Unley Oval and he was the slowest bike rider in the world. Finally, he used to come up our street and he would have called into the pub and he'd weave from one side of the road to the other with a little dog that he adored, called Toddles, and took everywhere with him, in the pocket of his jacket. It was tiny and he loved it beyond everything. I think he loved it more than the rest of us.
What age would you have been?
Maggie: About 10. My mother used to stand there and she'd be so cross. She'd get tears in her eyes, and say, 'Get inside, Alf, how dare you come home like that, what'll the neighbours think?' It was always 'What'll the neighbours think?' with Molly.
Any other abiding memories?
Maggie: Yes another, just as strong, also of Dad, which is when he used to chase the chooks in the backyard. He'd snatch one up and chop its head off; it would run around for a while and lie down and die. Then he'd sit outside our back door where there was a little brown sink, and because he was very lanky – he was a long, skinny man – he'd sit on the sink and then Mum would come out with the kettle full of boiling water and pour it over the dead chicken. Then he'd pluck all the feathers out and it would be on the table for lunch the next day.
Were you at all squeamish? It must have been quite an alarming sight.
Maggie: No, I was all right. It was just how things were done. But I never killed a chook myself.
Do you think you and your mum are alike?
Maggie: Well, yes and no. I'd like to think I was like her, but physically I was more like Daddy. She was very caring and a great mother with a generous soul. [My daughter] Amanda says I got the best of both parents and inherited my laid-backness from Alfred and my sense of kindness and compassion from Molly, which I think is a really sweet thing to say and I hope it's true.
"Amanda says I got the best of both parents" Maggie, reflecting on her childhood and family. (Peter Brew-Bevan)
What was the best thing about being the youngest of five?
Maggie: I think the youngest in most families are the lucky ones because the parents are inclined to spoil them. I like being spoiled. I still like being spoiled. But I have no siblings left now. They've all gone. Ron was the eldest and the only boy. He went off to war when I was three so I wasn't raised with him but he came back later. Then there was Joan and Betty – who had six kids. She was lovely. And Nancy who was the beauty and took after Molly, my mother. She was the sister with the big brown eyes and the black hair. Stunning. And then me. When Ron came home we used to go to Adelaide railway station to pick him up. I loved going there because apart from the trains coming in which was exciting, offering this idea of a world outside mine, there was gypsum in the cement and I thought it looked so pretty, sparkling in the sunlight.
With a family of seven you must have been quite notable in the community.
Maggie: We were known as 'the rowdy Trigars'. And I think we did stand out a bit. I don't know whether it was because we were poor or perhaps because Dad liked to drink, but we had a horse and trap even though everybody else I knew had cars by then. We'd go and visit my grandmother and grandfather every weekend which was a good half-an-hour in the buggy. Nancy and I used to sit on the 'dicky seat' facing Mum and Dad, with Dad driving. So my back was to the horse and me and Nancy travelled backwards. If old Giftie [the horse] was getting a bit slow to get across a busy street Dad would give him a tick with the whip to get a move on and old Giftie would chug across and he'd always let out a big fart right behind Nancy and me. We'd hold our noses and laugh like mad.
Were your parents very sociable?
Maggie: No darling, but Molly was a Baptist churchgoer. She had a wonderful voice and used to sing in the choir. That's where [my daughter] Brooke got her voice. We always wore our best dresses to church. I remember once Joan, who was the elder sister and could sew, she made me a special dress. It had little apples and pears all over it on a blue background and on the morning we were going out, she was ironing it and burned the whole sleeve. It didn't look good at all. I was devastated. So, Joan whipped out a bit of scrap fabric, cut a new one, sewed it back in and off
we went. Amazing.
Were you already interested in fashion and style?
Maggie: I think I was, yes. Mum used to tell me that I wouldn't go to school unless my hair ribbon matched my dress and it became one of those things in the family about Maggie.
Did your mum dress well?
Maggie: She was very neat and tidy but I can't say she was a fashion plate. She wore a fresh pinny – full apron – every day. I guess she was interested in clothes and she always looked 'bandbox' [perfectly turned out] but she was not concerned with the latest style or anything. We were poor. She couldn't afford it. Later on, when I'd started modelling and I was finally earning my own money, I remember meeting her to go out in Adelaide. It was freezing cold and she just had a little dress with a jacket over the top. I said, 'Mummy, you're going to die, it's freezing out there!' So I took her to a shop and bought her a beautiful coat. It was blue mohair and felt so soft. She loved it.
How close were you to your sisters?
Maggie: We were a pretty tight family but I was probably closest to Nancy because she was the nearest in age. They all married young, as did I of course. When I met Charles Tabberer, who's Brookie and Amanda's father and was a car dealer, he had a push-button hood convertible. I thought that was just the bloody ants' pants and was smitten. I think my parents agreed for me to be able to marry at 17 because they were so worn out. They thought, let him take her off our hands.
"Mum used to tell me that I wouldn't go to school unless my hair ribbon matched my dress and it became one of those things in the family about Maggie." - Maggie's fashion sense and style started young. (Peter Brew-Bevan)
You went to modelling school in Adelaide's Rundle Street, learning deportment, and soon found work in fashion parades, but was there a moment when your life shifted gear, when the girl from Adelaide became the swan?
Maggie: There were a few times when everything changed for me, but the first – and probably the one that set me on my way – was when I was booked to do some modelling for the Australian Wool Board at David Jones. There I met Diane Masters. She had very aquiline features and long hands and beautiful nails. She said to me 'You've got to get out of Adelaide'. I said, 'Why?' and she said, 'because the fashion centre in Australia is in Melbourne and that's where you belong'. I discussed it with Charles and at that time he was feeling the pinch with the car business, and so we packed up, put the kids in the car and drove to Melbourne. We found a big old apartment in St Kilda and moved in there and it took off from there. Charles soon went back to Adelaide but I stayed with the girls and the rest is history.
Can you remember when you first met the famous fashion photographer, Helmut Newton?
Maggie: Again, it was through Diane Masters. She has been very important in my life. I was in Melbourne. He terrified me, but he was also funny. He had that German accent and I hadn't heard many foreign accents before but he loved my look.
What was different about Helmut?
Maggie: In those days they used to take Polaroids so you could see what you looked like and those images were so sexy, like nothing I'd ever been in before. For instance, I've never smoked in my life but Helmut loved me to have a cigarette in some of the shots, sometimes in a long sleek holder. That was something that he really loved. I felt like Greta Garbo, it was all so European.
You soon stopped being terrified and forged a deep bond with Helmut in front and behind the camera.
Maggie: Yes. We finished up having an affair. I was separated from Charles by then but Helmie told me, ages later, that when he confessed to June, who was his wife – she was an actress – she said she didn't blame him. I think she could see what was going on between us.
Were you at all worried about having an affair with a married man?
Maggie: It didn't sit easy with me but it was very enjoyable.
You have said before that despite the mores of the era you enjoyed the same sexual freedom as a man.
Maggie: Yes, that's true.
Was that attitude shocking to other people?
Maggie: I didn't ask them. I just did it.
Do you think women today have that freedom?
Maggie: Oh, I think most women today can, if they're independent. I think you have to be independent, because once you are you've got a right to do what you feel you want to do when you feel you want to do it. It's your life to grab hold of and you don't have to answer to anyone else.
"It's your life to grab hold of and you don't have to answer to anyone else." Maggie on embracing her life as a young woman. (Peter Brew-Bevan)
Would your mum have approved of your affair?
Maggie: She wouldn't have approved, no, and I'm sure she knew but we never discussed it.
When did you first feel happy in your own skin?
Maggie: When I started to earn my own money, that gave me true independence and then when Charles and I separated I felt my own person at last.
Would you call yourself a feminist?
Maggie: Yes, I think so, but I fight dirty within a relationship. I don't like to be cheated on.
How so?
Maggie: I'm dreadful, shocking … I throw plates. When I found out my second husband, Pross [restaurateur Ettore Prossimo], was cheating, I hadn't been married much more than about a year, and we lived in a big house in Bellevue Hill in Sydney with a big staircase. You know when men are playing up. They go and buy half a dozen pairs of new underpants.
Is that the first sign?
Maggie: It was with Pross. I found out that he was still seeing an old girlfriend. He was always late because he owned the Buonasera restaurant in Kings Cross, which was pretty famous, and I confronted him with it when he came home. He said, 'Oh, where would I have time? I work, I work morning, noon and night. How do you think I go finding time to have an affair?' I said, 'Well, I know you are'. He said, 'Don't be ridiculous, she's just a nice friend, she gives me things'. I said, 'What did she give you?' He said, 'That nice ashtray there'. It was a big, heavy, marble ashtray. I said, 'Oh really, did she!' and I picked it up, and threw it at him with all my might and he ducked down the stairs and it smashed on the ground. If that had hit him in the head I'd have killed him.
Did it stop the affair?
Maggie: No. Eventually that was the reason we broke up. I adored him but he was terrible. Because he was so bloody good looking, he had a lovely beard and he was very handsome and very Italian.
Do you think relationships have a time limit?
Maggie: Mine certainly did. But then I look at Molly and Alfred. Despite Dad's drinking they loved each other very much. My mother had been adopted and while I don't think it made a difference to their relationship I think it shaped her. She was independent but she also wanted to belong.
What does love mean to you?
Maggie: My wonderful grandson, Marcolino [Amanda's son, Marco, who currently lives in Italy]. He's the apple of my eye. I can't say anything wrong about him.
And back in the day, what did love mean to you?
Maggie: I guess I'm a romantic inasmuch as I always think this is the one, this is it; I'm going to be happy ever after.
Who would you say has been the love of your life so far (Marco aside)?
Maggie: I'd say Pross. For me, but also because he loved my little girls so much, he was just incredible with them. A very good father.
With hindsight do you have any regrets romantically, things you would have done differently?
Maggie: Lots. But the big one was being foolish enough to have an affair with [journalist] Richard Zachariah. That was a big mistake and the silliest thing. Brooke and Amanda never liked him. But he was younger than me and he was fun. He took me to my first football match, which then seemed to be a good thing!
Describe a perfect Maggie day.
Maggie: It can be very simple – being at home and enjoying the tele or reading a book. Mainly I like to read in bed. Barack Obama and a book about the Kennedys at the moment.
You're 85 in December, how do you plan to celebrate?
Maggie: I've got to make it first … I'm going to let my children do something for me. They normally do. I'd be p*ed off if they didn't!
Is there more love for you around the corner?
Maggie: No, I don't think so. Well, for my grandson and for my daughters but not a partner. The last one fixed me up. I'm not going to make that mistake again.
You went to church as a child and your mother had a strong faith. Do you believe in God?
Maggie: I did until I lost my son, Franceschino, when he was 10 days old from SIDS – a cot death. Then I didn't believe in God. It broke me and Pross. It was terrible. I thought 'where is God now?'
Did you go back and think, now I need God again?
Maggie: Yes, as you get older you realise that you need God. I think He was just giving me a hard time and possibly that's a lesson. I don't know.
Do you have a bucket list of things you still want to do?
Maggie: No. I just want to go on as I am and have more of what I've got. A good accountant, friends and family who make me laugh and are happy to see me. All those nice warm things are what life's all about.
Read more in the August issue of The Australian Women's Weekly on sale now.

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