But behind the scenes, Roula can now reveal that she has been fighting her own secret war for the past 10 years – her devastating battle with multiple sclerosis (MS).
The 34-year-old says she was diagnosed with the disease – which attacks the body’s central nervous system, leading to paralysis in some cases – when she was just 23.
Since then, the illness has taken a very heavy toll on Roula, leading her to suffer from kidney failure, blindness in one eye, hair loss, depression and anxiety.
She currently has more than 90 lesions on her brain. Other MS episodes have seen her lose all feeling in her arm and one side of her face, as well as the use of her right leg twice, meaning she had to learn how to walk again.
The strain of the illness was so severe during her MKR journey that she suffered from hypothermia and flare-ups with a hiatal hernia, a condition related to her MS that resulted in her having doctors visit her hotel room at night – a secret she kept from fellow MKR contestants.
‘I didn’t want to talk about it on the show. I didn’t go on the show to talk about MS... but it did affect me on the show,’ Roula says in an exclusive interview. ‘I got sick a few times, I had a doctor come visit me at the hotel. With MS you get very fatigued and I got hypothermia after the very first Instant Restaurant. My hiatal hernia was also the reason I couldn’t eat fried food in episode one – which I could never explain to the table. It was full-on.’
It was November 2007 when Roula says she first started noticing pins and needles in her fingers and toes, which doctors initially dismissed as a pinched nerve. But when she woke up on Christmas morning that year with no vision in her left eye and pins and needles so severe she could hardly move, she was rushed to emergency.
Over the past 10 years, Roula reveals she’s suffered some ‘very dark days’ in her battle with MS.
‘When I was first diagnosed I had 20 lesions in my brain at the age of 23. Now I’ve got 90 – that freaks me out,’ she says, breaking down in tears.
‘I do an MRI every year, and every year I just see those lesions go higher and higher. My neurologist shows me the difference between a normal brain and the holes in my brain andIlookatitandgetalumpin my throat and think what’s going to happen to me in the future?
‘When I joined the MS Society years ago I had to stop going there for a bit because every time I'd go there, someone new would be in a wheelchair. I started getting really scared... and I’d worry about my future, when I was going to be in a wheelchair.
‘I’ve had some very dark days. I had optic neuritis in my left eye – which is when you completely lose vision – when I was 23 and again when I was 25. I lost feeling in my right leg a couple of times.
‘In my last episode, which was probably the worst one I’ve had, I was at work and I started feeling tingly on the right side of my face and it went all the way down the right side and then I started drooping and lost feeling in my right arm. I went to hospital and they gave me steroids and it took six weeks for the feeling to come back in my arm. But then with all the medication my kidneys failed so then I had to go on new medication to fix my kidneys.
‘So that was a very hard time for me to get out of bed. I got really bad anxiety, every time I’d leave the house it would hit me. I’ve gone through depression because of MS, I have to take a s***load of medication every day just to be the way I am now.’ One of the hardest things for Roula is her inability to hold a steady job due to repeated hospital stays and the effects of stress on her health.
‘As soon as you have an episode, you have to drop everything, call the neurologist and go to hospital, and one month later you leave,’ she says. ‘I was a national event manager for Vodafone and I had a really good job. But because of the stress of the job, I started getting more lesions on brain and I started having more episodes and my neurologist said I had to leave.
‘But I always try... I tried a few years ago to get a full-time job. I wasn’t there for very long and then my hair started falling out. On one side I lost all my hair, and then on the other it just went really, really thin.’
Roula says as well as taking handfuls of drugs to stabilise the disease, she’s also spent the last four years listening to motivational speakers to help build her mental strength.
‘My motto is “Your vibe attracts your tribe,” ’ says Roula. ‘People might look at me and say, “Oh, she’s OK.” But they don’t know that I’m taking a cocktail of medication to get myself through the day – and I’ll be taking that for the rest of my life. And it’s only going to stabilise me up to 70 per cent – anything can happen to me at any time.’
Roula is speaking out in the hope that people might start to see another side to her, rather than the tough-talking fiery brunette we know from MKR.
‘I went on MKR to prove to myself that I can be me – I can be fun, I can be loud, I can be Roula,’ she says. ‘My parents were very worried about me, worried about my health – but I told them “No, I want to do this... I want to go be me for a little bit.”
‘But all these people judging me by what they see on TV, they don’t really know what I’m going through deep down.
‘I might be on a reality TV show at the moment – but dealing with my MS is my real-life reality.’
For the full story, and you all access pass to My Kitchen Rules, see this weeks issue of New Idea - out now!