“I honestly couldn’t wait to get my birthday over and done with. I reckon I’ve been very lucky, until now, but suddenly I had a lifetime of pain in
“I must admit I’ve had some pretty dark thoughts, wondering how I could go on,” reveals Denise, normally a renowned prankster, who sparked a “brussels sprout-gate” uproar in December 2017 by tossing a vegetable at her then-colleague Ita Buttrose.
“I’ve been very emotional, shocking, talking to people on the phone and crying."
“Over Christmas we had a huge storm, which broke me. I was left without power for 40 hours, in the dark, just sitting there. I’d been really good, I hadn’t been drinking, but on the Saturday night after 30 hours without electricity I
just thought, ‘I’m having a champagne!’
“I’d hit rock bottom and I couldn’t take any more.”
The dual Gold Logie- winner’s woes began when a fun-packed holiday with her best friend, Pam Barnes, a former executive producer of Hey, Hey It’s Saturday and The Circle, went horribly wrong almost before it even started.
Denise had been booked to host 26 Aussie tourists on a Panama and Caribbean cruise, which seemed just the tonic she needed after taking a temporary break from Studio 10 last August.
But disaster struck in Miami, when just before she was due to set sail, Denise severely damaged her right knee getting out of a very high hotel bed in the middle of the night.
“I kind of misstepped and crunched down very heavily on one foot,” she grimaces, speaking exclusively to New Idea to explain her mysterious “disappearance” from the public eye over the past few months.
“I knew immediately that I’d done my knee, so I got on the ship hobbling and two days later ended up in a wheelchair, full of painkillers, with Pam as my carer.”
Sadly, she was forced to leave the voyage four days early, missing a planned tour to NASA’s Florida headquarters. It was a place she’d wanted to visit ever since watching Neil Armstrong’s moon landing – from a Saigon bar while she was entertaining Aussie troops in Vietnam in 1969.
“I didn’t get to see NASA because of my knee, and I probably never will now,” sighs Denise, who shelled out $1000 on cruise medical fees and flew home solo with her wheelchair, insisting that Pam stay on to enjoy herself. “It was a shame, but I thought it was more important to get back to Australia, get the MRI I needed and get myself sorted.”
That turned out to be wishful thinking. Waiting for scheduled knee replacement surgery, still in agony, the divorced mother of two realised her right eye seemed to be clouding over and losing focus.
“I thought it was stress,” says the former sidekick to comic Ernie Sigley, amused by her own folly. “Until I woke up in the middle of the night in such terrible pain that I called an ambulance. It turned out that I had a detached retina and needed an immediate operation.”
The surgeon told her she would have gone blind in that eye, had she waited just one more day before seeking medical help. “So I’m really lucky,” grins Gold Coast-based Denise, trying to look on the bright side.
But wait, there’s more! Following her knee reconstruction and rehab – delayed because of her optical problems – she was in and out of hospital again with blood clots, a disturbingly swollen left breast and suspected shingles.
“I had 19 needles in my stomach to stop blood clots and what did I
get? Blood clots!
“Then I had an ultrasound and a mammogram and a biopsy to see what was happening with my breast. That was probably the worst thing of all, although it did discover the lump was a cyst and nothing more sinister. And the ‘shingles’ turned out to be a very bad infection so they pumped me full of intravenous antibiotics every six hours to get rid of it.
“To tell you the truth I was a bit disappointed when all the tests came back negative, because I thought I must have something. There was not one thing really wrong with me, apparently, but I looked like a witch. They would have burned me at the stake in the Dark Ages!”
Today, hopefully planning her return to Studio 10 later this month, Denise can at last joke about her ordeal. In her own estimation, that’s what she does best – and that’s why she and Ita were destined never to be besties. “We are totally different people, darling, we are on different planets,” she chuckles, unrepentant. “I have made a living out of being silly and doing stupid things, which is the very opposite of what Ita has done.
“I’m just waiting for the laughs, I’m the comedy relief. Honestly, if I’d known how much publicity that brussels sprout would get for our Studio 10 Christmas shoot, I would have thrown the whole turkey!”
In reality, Ding Dong’s clowning hides a world of tears. Living alone and fiercely independent – “I drive myself mad, that’s how hard I am to live with and I haven’t had sex in years, it’s been so long I’ve forgotten!” – through her illnesses she has been unable to drive, go shopping or even read to pass the time, let alone work.
“All my plans fell apart, and I just felt so cut off from everything,” she reveals, forever thankful for the kindness of family and friends who have dropped everything to help – sons Pete, 39, and Rob, 36, confidante Jenny Pearce and “beautiful, honest” Jessica Rowe, her friend and co-conspirator on their hilarious One Fat Lady and One Thin Lady podcasts.
With another eye operation yet to come, the grandmother of two says simply, “I just want to get better and be well. That’s all I want right now.
I know there’s people worse off than me, those poor people in Tassie with the fires and people up north with all the floods, and I really feel for them.
“If I could choose a superpower it would be to alleviate pain. That’s a real superpower. When you’re watching people older than you and you can see the pain on their faces, it’s so levelling.
“I’m lucky – it’s been like something from a horror movie but I’m out the other end. You can’t give me anything else. There’s no other part of me that can get another lump.
“But I certainly have been in the wars,” she guffaws, almost back to her old self. “It’s been amazing, like something you’d find in a six-part BBC sitcom!”
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