Sunday Star Times

10 September 2000

Warrior crusade

Lucy Lawless has added her name and butt-kicking approach to the fight against child abuse. She tells Donna Chisholm this is not just another case of a celebrity with a cause.

LUCY Lawless is not amused. Sitting in the makeup room as she metamorphoses into the warrior princess, her mind is in character before her face gets there.

She seethes as she recounts the letter to the editor of a newspaper which suggests because the role of Xena is antithetical to love and care, Lawless is an inappropriate figurehead for a campaign against child abuse.

"It was some old curmudgeon rattling her bones," Lawless recounts with an eye-rolling Xena sneer.

"I just thought `Wow, what part of your psyche makes it okay to say abused children don't need the help of a sinner like me?' Maybe these kids have fallen so low that even somebody like me can reach out a helping hand. Abused children need every friend they can get.

"If they'd bothered to watch, (Xena) is about the triumph of love, friendship and forgiveness in a dangerous world, and mostly about empowerment and that's what these kids need."

Well, maybe, but isn't this gorgeous creature being powdered and pampered, fussed and fawned over in her midnight blue velour robe with the big red X on the back, really too far removed from the gritty realities of abuse to know what she's talking about?

Does she know what it's like to struggle and be without?

A gimlet gaze.

"I don't care to impress on people that I am a worthwhile bloody role model in this. It is enough I am a person and therefore I take it personally. I am not interested in defending myself . . . I think it is ludicrous wasting energy defending a fictional character. Just get off your arse and do something."

The "doing" means passing the hat around at work, starting up action groups in your own town.

"You don't need permission, you don't need a famous person. We need money."

Lawless, one of the richest women in New Zealand with an estimated personal fortune of $11 million, has no truck with those who argue deprivation is the social ill which fuels abuse.

Suggest lack of money was never a problem for her and the eyebrows ratchet up another notch.

"What are you talking about?" At 20, she was a new mother of Daisy, living with her husband and baby in a low-budget one-bedroomed flat in Mt Eden, Auckland.

Before they built a cot for her, they'd even imagined Daisy might have to sleep in a drawer.

"I had great examples from my parents, but I didn't know how to deal with the crying of a colicky baby. When you are an anxious, first- time mother, the baby picks up on that. It's hard to cope. I remember a point where I just wanted to freak out and I just picked the baby up and cuddled her instead of reacting."

Of course there were times she had to leave the baby safe and just walk out to cool down.

But, she says, you don't have to have money to love kids.

"Children are being raised in pretty strapped circumstances up and down the country, healthy children in loving environments. I was privileged because I was born into a home with a great deal of love and that is a privilege every child in the world should have.

"Having no money certainly compounds stress in families--the stress of not being able to pay the rent or buy food or provide nappies certainly makes life a hell of a lot harder, but it is a real cop out to say that's an excuse for what is going on." More important than a lack of money, she says, is a lack of self-esteem for the kids "who are told they are crap from the day they are born".

She bristles at those who suggest the problem is confined to Maori and Polynesian families.

"I can understand the impulse to disown this problem, but you can' t do that. I had someone recently say, `Oh, I thought it was a Polynesian problem. I said to that white male, `So is it okay for our sector of the community to abuse our children because we do it a bit less? Because the pain of abuse hurts just as much if you have brown skin or white'."

Lawless refuses to be drawn on causes of abuse. As the face of the Starship Foundation's Safe and Sound Action Group, she will be lending profile and energy rather than wisdom and advice.

She simply doesn't know enough about it, she stresses. Her opinion is "inexpert, given as a mother and a citizen".

Ask about parenting skills and anger control, and an Oprah show springs to mind.

"They said if there is part of your psyche that you do not understand and do not explore, that part of your psyche will do the choosing for you in certain circumstances. People who are strong enough to override their conditioning of abuse will not go on to abuse kids and may be able to turn it around to do some good. But a lot don't have that strength."

In her debut in the role on the Holmes show last week, she appeared halting and uncertain, as if the leap from actor to advocate was a difficult one; the message too painful to deliver.

She was feeling the pressure of being the face out front.

"I had five people in the back room counting off all the points I was to make and I could feel them through the wall. What I have to do sometimes is say, ok guys, stop yelling in my ears, keep it simple. It's all in me, just let it unfold naturally."

At 32 and now a mother of two--Julius was born 10 months ago to her and producer husband Rob Tapert--Lawless is making her second attempt at becoming involved in an anti abuse campaign.

She recalls offering her help after a documentary on the horrific death of Delcelia Witika in 1991. Delcelia, beaten to death by her parents, had been scalded and sexually abused and punched in the stomach before being left to die alone.

Nothing came of her offer then, says Lawless--"it just vanished into the ether".

Then, of course, Lawless was not quite the phenomenon she is now, at least to New Zealand audiences who used to know her as Stanley' s mum in the ASB Bank ads.

Today, as Xena, her word is law. The minute Lawless backs a campaign, the internet lines buzz with the news, alerting the so-called "Xenaverse" .

Every child abuse article in which she is featured is posted on the net; fans send in their dough without a second thought. If it's good enough for Xena, it's good enough for them. Last year, the Starship Appeal raised $12,000 when Xena fan clubs bought virtual bears on the net--the Starship was selling miniature ones--at $US3 a pop.

In the old days, too, there didn't seem to be the cluster of misery which has ignited the latest debate. More likely, says Lawless, it was going on all the time but just wasn't being reported in the agonising detail it is today.

Lawless can remember kids at school who used to hang around on the football field, kicking a ball, reluctant to go home, just like that kid on the ad for the Safe and From Focus C1

Sound appeal. It never occurred to her they might not want to go home because they were being abused, until she saw that ad.

As the fifth child and first girl in a large and loving Catholic family, abuse wasn't even in her vocabulary.

Father Frank Ryan was Mt Albert mayor, mum Juliet has been described as "a tireless community worker".

"My mother had four boys under the age of six and immediately fell pregnant with me.

"My parents were good and tired, but unfailingly loving, energetic and supportive of my dreams and I just wish that for every kid."

Yes, she was smacked, but seldom.

"I learned not to use verbal abuse and direct it at my parents," she says wryly.

Daisy, too, has felt her mother's hand.

"But this is not about spanking - this is about child abuse. This is about violence for no other purpose except to vent anger.

"You might feel a little better but you have destroyed the child's faith in themselves and others. To discipline your child in that way in a formative moment is not routinely using smacking as a form of discipline. Smacking is not a form of expression and that's what seems to me to be going on."

Lawless says there are two reasons smacking would be acceptable to her - if her child was cruel towards an animal or another child, or placed their own or another child's life in danger, for example, by running into the road.

The contrast between the smack for those reasons and normal discipline should be so great the child never forgets, she says.

These days, she'd intervene if she saw a child being smacked in the supermarket for "naughtiness".

She saw a little boy smacked once for licking the butter and didn' t interfere.

"But I'm not sure how best to respond. If you go up and act angry does that just drive behaviour underground?"

Lawless herself admits she is a "venter" of anger, but laughs at a newspaper gossip column report of her throwing her cellphone in a shrieking rage on the set one day.

She didn't like the cellphone, she says and always planned to get rid of it.

"I thought I'll save it for a day I let rip."

When she was yelling angrily into the phone, she insists, she was calling her own answerphone in Los Angeles so she could see what she sounded like.

"I don't believe it taking (anger) out on colleagues and it felt kind of good to throw something. I don't keep things in but I have learned not to take them out on people around me because I love and respect them."

It was a lesson learned in childhood. She might have lived in the suburbs, but her horizons were unlimited.

Did she always aspire to being world famous? "I think I did and mum and dad told me I could be anything I wanted to be.

"Perhaps people are not inspired to think outside their immediate environment.

"They're not inspired to dream of going off to Switzerland like I did as a kid so I made sure it happened. I always had people say yes you can own a house, yes you can be world famous. No one ever told me I couldn't."

It may sound naive to talk of Switzerland and owning houses in the ghettoes of south Auckland, but in her mind, it is all a matter of attitude.

You can do plenty of good things in New Zealand without spending money - like going to the beach - and yet there are kids who've never seen the sea, she says.

The literally blow by blow accounts of maimed and murdered babies are allowing people like her to feel their pain.

The core of the Safe and Sound Action Group, when it met last Sunday, talked about care overload and the dangers of desensitisation after case upon ugly abuse case mounted.

"But we realised that the article on Tangaroa (Matiu - beaten to death by his stepfather for pooing his pants) actually sensitised us, forced us to do something instead of sitting on our hands saying `I don't want to think about it because it will ruin our day'.

"All those awful Victorian expressions like silence is golden and least said soonest mended . . . What utter poppycock. Least said, never mended."

Donations can be made to Starship Foundation/Sky City Safe and Sound Appeal, PO Box 91 939, Auckland, or through 0800 946 010.