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“Finding my power”: Toni Pearen on how her experience on I’m A Celebrity led to a personal and professional renaissance

We speak to the former pop princess as she steps into a brave new life.
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It’s a jungle outside Toni Pearen’s place, a sea of swaying green treetops stretching down from her hilltop eyrie to the ocean, surf booming far below on the rocky headland.

Safely home again after her attention-grabbing stint on I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! Toni has settled back into the comparative tranquillity of family life on Sydney’s northern beaches.

Everything is the same, yet subtly different since she became the show’s uncontested breakout star. It’s not simply that multi-talented Toni has gained newfound coolness with her children, Lucky, 11, and Ever, eight, and even husband Will Osmond. The most significant shift, perhaps, lies in the 48-year-old’s mindset.

“I really went into I’m A Celebrity with quite low expectations,” she confesses, settling down for a chat at her well-scrubbed vintage dining table.

“I knew I wanted a huge challenge, I knew I wanted to step way out of my comfort zone, so they were reasons I decided to do the show. But in the end it exceeded all of my expectations, just above and beyond.

“Today I can’t believe I actually did some of those things, like jumping off a 50-metre tower or climbing into a box of snakes! I’m A Celebrity was one of those experiences I will always look back on with wonder and disbelief, but also accomplishment.”

By Toni’s own admission, it was “a game changer” of a comeback. Getting bitten on the face three times by carpet pythons – in a “distressing” challenge that outraged viewers and left Toni bleeding – will certainly redefine your sense of self. Especially when you suffer from a serious case of ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes.

“I think I had kind of forgotten my own power,” ponders the perennially youthful actress, singer, songwriter and TV presenter.

“Having that time away from family to reflect, and also being faced with those enormous challenges, it restored that belief and strength in myself. I really felt I had left all that somewhere in the past. So it was a really empowering experience, something most of us search for as women.”

A wide smile crinkles the fine lines around her thoughtful blue-green eyes. “Who would have thought I’d get it in a jungle?” she adds.

Toni Pearen was put through her paces on I’m A Celebrity.

(Peter Brew-Bevan)

There was a time in the ’90s and early ’00s when Toni Michelle Pearen was omnipresent. She shot to fame on sudsy drama E Street, played teacher Beth Armstrong on Home and Away, hosted Australia’s Funniest Home Videos from 2003 to 2007, sashayed onto the eighth season of Dancing with the Stars, and released a pop record (saucily titled Toni Pearen’s Intimate Album) and two gold singles.

Her romantic wedding to Will – then co-owner, with his brother Toby, of two ultra-hip Sydney bars – was a gossip columnist’s dream, featuring a plane-load of VIPs and three days of champagne-fuelled fun in Moree, the groom’s outback NSW hometown.

But suddenly after 2008, the popular performer virtually disappeared from view. Toni stepped back from the spotlight to become a full-time mum to Lucky and Ever – a decision prompted by the premature loss of her own adored mother, Marilyn.

“That’s when we decided to have a baby,” she explains. “Before my mum died, having children was not on the top of my list, which was really strange. Will and I had never even talked about it. But as soon as she passed away, the whole world changed for me. I think subconsciously, or even unconsciously, I wanted to become a mum because I lost mine.

“When you make choices, at the time you don’t sometimes realise their significance. But now I look back, I do think that having Lucky was all part of my healing. Losing your mum is a definite turning point in your life, and I feel like every decision I’ve made since then has been a reflection of that.”

‘Having Lucky was part of my healing from losing Mum’ Toni says of her decision to have children.

(Peter Brew-Bevan)

The ache of that grief walks with her always, even in the Celebrity jungle. Launching into mid-air from that 50m Tower of Terror, Toni’s sobs were only partly inspired by fear of heights.

“I started crying because I was thinking about my mum,” she says. “Amazing! Just hanging there, I was thinking what a strong woman she was, and there I was proving how strong I am – that I’m my mother’s daughter. It was a powerful moment.

“I know Mum would be proud of me and the family we’re raising, but she’d also be proud of me stepping back into the limelight and doing what I’ve always done. Being a parent, I often think how much my parents gave me, supporting my dreams. Because now I know what it’s like, seeing the special potential in a child and wanting to help them.”

At this point Lucky, listening attentively to the interview at Toni’s side, chimes in. “What’s my potential?”

“To take care of your father,” grins quick-witted Will, 52, who has swapped the hospitality trade for horticulture and a local landscaping business. “Toni doesn’t want Lucky

to be an actor, but he loves cricket and I definitely want him to play for Australia. No pressure, mate!”

Toni and her husband Will, who persuaded her to participate in I’m A Celebrity.

(Peter Brew-Bevan)

It didn’t take long for Toni’s parents to recognise their daughter’s shining talent. Growing up in Sydney’s laid-back Sutherland Shire – father Ray worked at the nearby Caltex refinery – she was a born entertainer, which baffled the family. Although Ray possessed a beautiful voice (several generations of Pearens were notable singers), he was painfully shy and hated getting up on stage.

“So it’s interesting,” chuckles Toni, who was only five when she started dancing at her local community hall. “I am not painfully shy – I’m the opposite! I’m lucky because I knew at a very young age what I wanted to do. Probably when I was about eight, I decided this was the world I wanted to live in. It was always, always my happiest place. So my parents just dedicated their lives to it and pursued it with me. I was very fortunate.”

Toni graduated rapidly from neighbourhood dance classes to Keane Kids Studio, a hothouse for future stars like Rebekah Elmaloglou, Charli Robinson, Alyssa Jane Cook and Nikki Webster. School holidays became a blur of live performances, commercials, small guest roles on TV shows and hundreds of auditions.

“We spent lots of time driving all around NSW to lots of sets,” recalls Toni, who now runs a screen acting school, The Talent Co, with fellow soap alumnus Raelee Hill. “Because

I was so young, my parents would have to be my escorts and would sit with me all day. They were so naive to that world. They really didn’t know what it was I wanted to do, what I was actually doing, they just continued to put one foot in front of the other.”

Pearen was just 17 when she debuted as E Street’s Toni Windsor. Already a show business veteran at 23, she then left Australia to try her luck in Los Angeles, where she lived for six “wild” years from 1995.

“It’s not a yellow brick road over there, it’s tough,” she says of her tilt at Hollywood. “You go with stars in your eyes and lots of promises. I had so much fun and I made some great friendships, but it was incredibly difficult, you know, especially being away from home.”

Inevitably, perhaps, #MeToo gender power plays and sexual harassment also featured. “Definitely, I was on the receiving end of things that didn’t feel quite right, no doubt. No doubt. But you kind of discover your own integrity in those moments …

“I’m still so glad I went there. I was always just wanting to see what I could do further afield, working with people in America and challenging myself. It was an important time in my life.”

“Ever says, ‘Mummy why don’t you do another record?” Toni on feeling inspired after encouragement from her children.

(Peter Brew-Bevan)
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Fast-forward to her return Down Under in 2001, the gig on Funniest Home Videos and a fateful meeting with her husband-to-be. It was a quiet Tuesday night at his Darlinghurst bar, Will and Toby’s, where Toni was on an after-work date with someone else.

She and Will started chatting and became good mates. “She would bring in boyfriends for me to critique them,” he fondly reminisces. “I’d tell her, ‘He’s a keeper, that guy!’ And then, you know, a year later … it got romantic. That’s a true story.”

Will proposed on Christmas Eve 2006, while they were watching Carols by Candlelight on television. He had primed buddy David Campbell, who was performing that night, to deliver an on-camera message telling Toni to listen carefully, as Will had an important question to ask. Luckily, she said yes!

Today the tenderness between them, and for their children, helps explain exactly why Toni swapped her glittering career for motherhood.

“It was an easy decision to make, then difficult to live it, you know,” she confides. “Being a performer is such a big part of who I am. There were definitely difficult times, missing the world that I knew so well. Now I look at the kids and realise it was a good choice. But I think, after me doing Celebrity, they’re ready to see me be more of who I am, away from the family. Ever says, ‘Mummy, why don’t you do another record?’ So with their encouragement, I’m definitely inspired.”

Outside the family’s unassuming grey weatherboard house, a hand-made sign reads simply, “Love is all you need,” with a big pink heart. This is a real family home, filled with laughter, memories, slightly shabby couches, flourishing house plants, well-thumbed books (Respect for Acting, Don’ts for Cricketers, Penguin Bloom, Alice Through the Looking-Glass) and a glittering mirror ball.

Toni could not, and would not, have done I’m A Celebrity without Will’s backing. He persuaded her to take up the offer despite initial reluctance – “I don’t generally like reality TV where everything is bitchy and competitive,” she says – and cared for the children while she was in the jungle for a month. Toni placed fourth in the show, but Lucky and Ever still think she should have won, as do her many fans both old and new!

Their mum returned just in time for the Christmas COVID lockdown on Sydney’s northern beaches, and to discover that her 83-year-old father was seriously ill in hospital. “I feel like I’ve got a really new perspective, and that’s what I needed to get through the last two months and beyond,” Toni muses, tears welling up.

“That snake challenge pushed me to places I never expected to be pushed, but now it’s always in the back of my mind. Whenever I find life challenging, I tap myself on the head and say, ‘Remember, you’ve had snakes bite you on the face. If you can withstand that, you can withstand anything, Toni.’ Not many people have that to compare to other life experiences!”

Whatever happens next, Toni will greet it gladly. “I’m open to whatever comes my way,” she grins. “After saying yes to the Celebrity experience, I’ve realised it’s all within my capabilities. So life goes on. Family will always be my biggest achievement and beyond that, who knows?”

Read more in the April issue of Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.

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