fashion

'The first time I attended the Brownlow, I was labelled a sl*t, a skank and a stripper.'

Content note: This is an excerpt from Cassie Lane’s new memoir How to Dress a Dummy…

That year, Alan and I went to the Brownlow. I remembered watching the red carpet when I was little, back when we only had four channels and the Brownlow was a rare opportunity for an Aussie girl to get her mug on the telly. I thought the women on the red carpet looked like princesses and I fantasised about being one of them. When Alan and I went, the WAG-cum-TV-presenter epidemic hadn’t yet hit Melbourne, so we weren’t all flooded with designer-dress offers. I was earning a meagre yoga-teacher’s salary and I wasn’t keen on breaking into my savings. I approached Belinda Fairbanks, a designer I loved. She agreed to lend me a dress, and we decided on the style and material. When I’d heard nothing from Belinda’s assistant a week before the event, I rang to check in.

‘Sorry?’ the assistant said, every sentence ending with an upward inflection. ‘That dress has gone to another footballer’s girlfriend?’

‘But the Brownlow’s in seven days! And we’d already agreed on the dress!’ I said.

‘Yeah. I know? But the other girl came in at the last minute? And she’s, like, on Neighbours?’ the assistant said/asked.

A designer had contacted Alan, offering to dress me, but I’d declined because her style was different from mine. But these were desperate times. Now she offered to make me a dress that would be ready two days before the event, on the condition that I had to wear it.

Image: Getty.

I drove to the store when the dress was almost ready. While the designer pinned the material onto me, she became animated bemoaning her previous Brownlow experiences. I flinched as she waved sharp pins millimetres from my eyeball.

ADVERTISEMENT

‘She just didn’t get that I was the designer!’ she said.

‘Ouch!’ I squealed, as a pin pierced the skin under my arm.

‘Sorry, darl!’ she mumbled, mouth full of pins. ‘What was I saying?’

‘Last year’s Brownlow.’

‘Oh my God, yes! She wanted to change the entire design. She just couldn’t get it through her head that it’s all about the designer. This was my bloody brand at stake! My livelihood! In the end, it’s all about the dress.’

I nodded, terrified of this woman and her stabby pins.

‘Done!’ she said.

I turned to look in the mirror. I didn’t love the dress but it was okay. I smiled and said thank you.

The day of the Brownlow, I asked my hairdresser to blow-wave my hair. ‘Just, you know, long and full-bodied.’

‘I’ve got a way better idea,’ my hairdresser said excitedly. ‘Trust me!’

Alan, having just had knee surgery, hobbled on crutches to meet me at the hairdresser’s, looking debonair. We got in the limo and headed to the Brownlow.

Nadia Bartel on the realities of being married to an AFL player. Post continues after audio.

We walked the red carpet, had our photo taken, a TV presenter interviewed us, I was asked to turn around, much like a dog on show, and then we sat down for the most tedious event I have ever been to. I sat at the table listening to Stephen Quartermain reel off a bunch of numbers, like the world’s shittiest game of bingo.

I again remembered watching the Brownlow red carpet as a young girl, yearning to be like the women I saw. And here I was, my dream manifest, doing everything I could not to fall asleep in my lobster bisque. I felt a pang of pity for my former self and her substandard aspirations. At the end of the night, Alan’s knee was hurting, so we shuffled off to our hotel room as soon as the infernal count-fest ended.

The following day we hailed a taxi and, seeing that the Herald Sun had Brownlow photos on the cover, I bought one before jumping into the back seat. Under a bold heading declaring ‘Worst-dressed at the Brownlow’ was my name and photo. ‘The only thing worse than her dress is that hair! The poor darl appears to be nothing but lips!’ began the anonymous, scathing report about my outfit.

Once at home, I threw myself on the bed and sobbed. I was devastated. Not because of that stupid article, but because my sense of self had withered away so much that the slightest nudge made me crumble. I’d returned from LA with the intention of immersing myself in more meaningful things, in the hope I would find a healthier form of fulfilment. Instead, I’d just floated along until I found another proxy to cling to, another reason not to have to stand on my own feet, another excuse not to face my fears. Although my experiences while travelling had taught me a great deal, I realised in that moment that I still believed I couldn’t achieve anything on my own; that I needed an external thing, or person, to make me feel whole – that is to say, not broken.

ADVERTISEMENT
Cassie made the worst dressed list for this look at the 2006 Brownlow Medal.

That afternoon my friend Anna Skyped me from LA. In filthy pyjamas, my hair tangled into one giant dreadlock, I shuffled to the lounge room, where the wi-fi was better.

‘You look like shit,’ Anna said squinting at me.

‘I got “worst dressed”!’ I wailed.

Anna gasped. ‘No! What for?’

‘Just some shitty event that everyone in the whole of Australia cares about, for some stupid reason.’

Anna covered her mouth but couldn’t stop chuckling. Her boyfriend’s face appeared in the background. She turned to him. ‘Kissie got worst dressed at some big Aussie event!’ They both giggled.

‘They attacked me!’ I said.

‘Oh no!’ Anna again tried to stifle her laughter. ‘What did it say?’

‘That the only thing worse than my dress,’ I frowned, ‘was my hair.’

She gasped again. ‘What did they do to your hair?’

‘A giant beehive … with a fringe.’ I paused, unable to stop the corners of my mouth curling upward. ‘It was pretty bad.’

ADVERTISEMENT

Anna lost it, which set me off too. It was a good three minutes before she could speak. ‘Why the hell did you get a beehive?!’

I shrugged and then laughed hysterically.

‘Oh my God,’ Anna wiped the tears from her cheeks. ‘You have just made my day! Will you send me a copy? Please! I want it for the fridge!’

I was soon over the whole Brownlow saga but the rest of Australia obviously didn’t get the memo. There were a heap of awful online comments about me and, even though my dress was in no way revealing, I was labelled a slut, a skank and a stripper. Once again, a newspaper article gave the public permission to attack and publicly shame me. To judge if I was pretty enough, and to criticise my face, my body, my moral character.

Most of these comments were from women, and don’t we women love to tear other women down? But I didn’t feel like I could blame anyone. In my time, I’d given as good as I got. It felt satisfying to judge how another woman looked. And it’s no wonder, really. We are born on a battleground, taught that we must be seen to exist, that the way we look constitutes our worth and then we are told that our image, our currency, is deficient. When you hate your body so much, you want to hurt it, starve it, slice pieces off it, it sure is liberating to funnel that hatred elsewhere for a while; to pilfer someone else’s worth. But it also keeps you imprisoned in a cycle of hatred. Sometimes I liked to imagine what would happen if we women were allowed to accept ourselves just as we were. With no more incentives to tear each other down, would we lift each other up instead?

That week on Nova 100, they discussed the ‘worst dressed’ article. Outspoken (and much loved) radio personality Kate Langbroek, defended me, saying that footballers’ girlfriends shouldn’t be fodder for newspaper sales. She chided the journalist for being so nasty and for hiding behind anonymity. By the end of the week, there were a bunch of articles about me in various newspapers, many of them positive. In the Herald Sun’s ‘What’s Not Hot’ section, the top item was ‘Cassie Lane bashing, leave her alone!’

I was grateful for the support but tired of the whole thing. I’d seen women fall all over themselves to be with footballers and the Brownlow seemed to be the yardstick of WAG success … to be seated at the most boring event of the year, spinning in front of cameras like rotating kebab meat, and talking about someone else’s dress. My scary, pin-brandishing designer was right: it was all about the dress. I wished the young me watching the Brownlow red carpet had been taught to channel her ambitions into achieving an accolade, rather than striving to be the brainless dummy smiling nervously beside the contender.

This is an excerpt from Cassie Lane's new memoir How to Dress a Dummy which is available here for $29.99.

FROM OUR NETWORK
00:00 / ???