Charlotte Dawson: A media death but a normal illness

The death of Charlotte Dawson says a bit about the media spotlight but more about the realities of mental illness, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes.

It was a strange, sickening feeling this afternoon watching Charlotte Dawson on video. I hadn’t seen it since we published the interview just over a year ago.

But oddly, I thought about her this morning. I was contemplating another person (who I’m not going to mention here) with a high media profile who has suffered with mental illness, to the recent detriment of his career. And I recalled the media trooper who walked into Mumbrella House to promote her (co-written with Jo Thornley) autobiography.

I had mixed feelings ahead of doing the interview. Dawson – best known to Australian TV audiences for her long-running role on Foxtel’s Australia’s Next Top Model – had recently been embroiled in messy Twitter battles with trolls.

And reading her book ahead of our chat, although it was intentionally written in an upbeat way, to anyone who read between the lines, it was clear that she was not okay.

I felt far more nervous ahead of the interview than I usually would because I wasn’t sure how to approach it. It didn’t seem entirely fair to focus on her illness, as this shouldn’t be what defines a person. Yet the book itself was defined by two themes – her illness, and her difficult relationship with the Australasian media.

And in the end, that’s mainly what we did talk about.

I pulled my punches a little. I didn’t labour the point that I felt that she was making a mistake in some of her Twitter battles. Without excusing out-and-out trolls, ordinary TV viewers sometimes feel entitled to talk about a personality off the telly as if they are a character, not a real person who may read their tweets. To a point, that’s the high price of celebrity.

And for somebody who suffers from mental illness that is a high price indeed, leading to the harmful incident she talked about.

And we did talk about whether she was a dark person, “the bad things”, the psychology of trolls, and her relationship with the media. In our interview she pointed her finger particularly at The Sunday Herald in New Zealand, and also The Daily Telegraph’s Annette Sharp and The Herald Sun. But she also made clear that she didn’t bear grudges.

She told me: “Some of my best friends are journalists, and they’re the journalists that do things which have affected me in my life.”

And I have to confess, some of the questions I asked that day were because it felt like today might come. They are the sort of questions you otherwise do not ask.

On a couple of occasions, I’ve been on the periphery of somebody having taken their life, and seen the devastation it causes their friends and family. But worse is the hindsight-driven sense those left behind feel that it was both foreseeable but inevitable.

And that’s the sense I’m left with with Charlotte Dawson, somebody I knew no better than having interviewed her for an hour-or-so and read her book.

The difference between the end of her life, and hundreds of others that end in a similar tragic way is that her media career made public what was going on for her.

Yet I’m not sure that her media career actually had anything directly to do with her death. If you’re ill, you’re ill.

Inevitably the mundanity of coping with mental illness is distorted by the media prism. Only the dramas get reported.

Her Twitter battles and ups-and-downs with the media will end up being linked in the public’s mind to her depression. Which will be an over-simplification.

Just as sad though is that she may not now be defined by her successful career, but by her illness.

Tim Burrowes is Mumbrella’s content director


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