Late-night read: Paranoid Portia

I’ve been searching for my old Cosmo feature stories, when I was a dyke on a bike and a judge at Miss Nude Australia, so I can post something that’s not about kitchens and meat pies. I don’t want all my new, hip, young Twitter followers – courtesy of @MiaFreedman – thinking I’m terribly suburban and dull. So I ratted around in the attic yesterday, but I couldn’t find my bloody Cosmos. I found lots of Singapore CLEOs and Harper’s Bazaars, and a few Woman’s Days, but nothing salacious, nothing worth bloggin about. The only thing vaguely titillating was my interview with Portia De Rossi (see It was very hot in the attic and filthy and I hit my head. It made me quite cross and determined my efforts would not be in vain. And so … here’s my Portia interview. It’s kinda fascinating, looking back at Portia, 12 years later. Before the anorexia – though I could see that coming as she compulsively jammed corn chips into her mouth over dinner – and marrying Ellen. Portia was not a happy camper when my interview came out – she was expecting to be on the cover (as a big “eff you” to her high school enemies) but the photos didn’t end up being cover-worthy. The mag went with Cameron Diaz instead. Portia didn’t even get a coverline …

“Portia de Rossi is late. I’m just about to send out a search party when a pale young woman with wild blonde hair storms out of the lift. She stomps past me, trailed by a fluffy white dog. Yep, it’s Portia, and she’s in a very bad mood. She flings her dry-cleaning (a few Valentino frocks, no less) on the floor, and starts swearing and stamping her feet. The air snaps, crackles and pops with tension for just a moment, then she whips off her sunglasses and apologises.

“I lost my dog in the hotel where I’m staying,” sighs the Ally McBeal star. “I hate being late.”

Talk about making a dramatic entrance. After saying hello, the Cosmo crew edges off so she can do some deep breathing and dust off her dry-cleaning. A few minutes later, I tentatively ask how much time she can spare for our photo shoot and interview. She cheerfully announces we can have her for as long as it takes. She even tells her agent to blow off an audition for a Bruce Willis movie. This is a girl who knows how to make you feel really special.

As Portia flicks through the rack of dresses we’ve brought along, I can’t help staring. I was expecting Nellie Porter, the lawyer she plays on Ally McBeal. Nellie is cool and coiffed, with her hair tightly wrapped in a bun and body tightly wrapped in business suits. Portia looks like Nellie’s naughty little sister, clad in tight jeans and a leather jacket, without a hint of make-up. She may also be Hollywood’s last unreconstructed star. No boob job, no collagen injections, no skeletal frame … it’s a shock (no, make that a nice surprise) to finally meet a celeb who’s proud of the way she looks, instead of desperately trying to be someone else. OK, so she’s sporting the kind of loud American accent that could warp plastic, but a girl has to make some concessions if she’s gonna be a star.

After exclaiming over our floaty Australian designers, Portia, who’s almost 27, settles into the make-up chair. Her dog clambers into her lap, the make-up artist goes to work and something remarkable happens – she becomes Portia de Rossi, the star. I get the feeling it’s a role she’s been waiting to play her whole life.

SCENE 1: Portia struts into the photographic studio. She’s wearing a clingy mauve dress and soaring heels. She tosses her blonde hair as she poses for the camera. Each time the flash goes off, she chants “fuck you”, followed by the names of various girls she went to high school with.

It’s bizarre that someone in Portia’s position should still hold grudges against her high school rivals. Then again, it’s also endearingly human. I’m sure if I became a Hollywood celeb, I’d recall a few names to curse, too. In fact, the fame trip still seems to be a novelty for Portia. She tells me about the moment she realised she was a star – when she didn’t have to line up, like an ordinary person, to get her driver’s licence. Instead, she was ushered in the side entrance, given the answers to all the questions, handed a new licence, escorted back to the carpark, and waved off with a “have a nice day, Miss de Rossi.” All because she’s on a TV show called Ally McBeal.

“I thought, it’s really nice to be treated well, and it’s nice to feel like I’m special for a bit, but this is not going to happen in three year’s time, so I might as well enjoy it while I can,” she explains earnestly.

Unfortunately, before I can stop myself, I roll my eyes. I mean, come on, how many other Australians are starring on one of US prime-time TV’s hottest shows? When she says it’s not going to last, she’s got to be joking – or at least pretending to be humble for the sake of appearances.

“Well, maybe it’s not,” she says, philosophically. “You know, maybe it will, maybe it won’t.” In the meantime, she’s going to make the most of surreal stuff like flying to the White House to meet the President. (“Better make sure I don’t dye my hair dark and gain 15 kilos …” she laughs), and hanging out with her idols – like the night she met Courtney Love.

“I’ve always admired her,” she admits.  “The early ’90s were my era, you know?” And I finally got to meet her, and I thought, that’s wonderful. I’ve met her, but I don’t really want to hang out with her. Because I don’t know her. But a lot of celebrities do that with each other. Just because they’re both famous, they think they have to be friends. My real friends are in Australia. At the end of the day, I can call up my best friends and talk about my life and they’re not impressed, and they’re also not unimpressed – it’s just whatever is important to me.”

Portia’s real friends were suitably non-plussed when she told them she’d won a role on Ally McBeal. Mostly because the show hadn’t started in Australia yet, so they had no concept of the huge impact of her news. “I walked out of the audition crying with excitement and I got into my car to call my mom and I was like, ‘Mommy, Mommy, I got Ally McBeal,’ and she was like, ‘Ah, that’s nice, dear. What’s that?’ and I was like, ‘You don’t understand, it’s a hit TV show.’ But she had no idea what it was. My Australian friends were like, ‘Ah … good … good for you.’ They had no idea either.

Now, it’s a very different story. Portia is being frenetically touted as the local girl made good. She even qualified as an “international celebrity guest presenter” at last year’s Logies. She’s also attracting lots of welcome – and not so welcome – publicity. One weekly mag even blamed her for causing Calista Flockhart’s eating disorder. Portia was furious, but she’s learning to take it all in her stride.

“If it wasn’t that it would be something else,” she sighs. “I just think when a show and especially a character like Calista’s, is just so much in the media, then the show itself isn’t enough. They have to spin some other story.”

She insists there’s no animosity between herself and Calista. “She welcomed me to the show with open arms. Calista was the first person to make me feel welcome. She sent me flowers and sat in my dressing room and talked about the show and how happy she was that I’d joined, and she’s been amazingly supportive ever since.”

SCENE 2: As she strikes her final pose, Portia invites me out to dinner. I ask if Cosmo’s fashion editor, Ken Thompson, can come too. Nooo, it’s not a social occasion. It’s interview time, baby. And doing it in the photographic studio wouldn’t be nearly as atmospheric as a restaurant.

Portia remembers that she’s anxiously awaiting a call from a director about a movie role. He probably left a message on her answering machine, but she hasn’t been home for three nights. She’s been lying low at a hotel, hiding from some fans who followed her limo home from an awards ceremony. They chased Portia up her garden path, telling her they’d travelled all the way from Seattle to try to meet her. Flattering, sure, but also deeply unsettling. It’s bad enough having the paparazzi loitering on your verandah … tele-zoom lenses at the ready – without having the public pressing their noses against your living room window, too.

I’m recruited as psycho-fan-spotter and we hit the road in her black BMW  her “one indulgence”. Five minutes and a few broken road roles later, she pulls up at an ordinary but cute weatherboard house, in an average suburban street. The house is tiny and sparsely furnished, nothing like the palace I was expecting an Ally McBeal star to own (actually, she rents).

Portia leaves me loitering in the living room while she listens to her answering machine. Around message number 501 she starts swearing and stamping her feet all over again. The director has called to tell her she’s missed out on the movie role, opposite Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman. I make nervous, “maybe now isn’t such a good time for an interview” noises, but Portia isn’t about to let a minor career hiccup put her off her food – or her Cosmopolitan interview. Minutes later, she’s calling a Mexican restaurant on the Santa Monica beachfront to book us a table (“A table for two for Portia de Rossi … I said de Rossi: d-e-R-o-s-s-i.”)

On the way to the restaurant, she’s already working through her angst about losing the part. “I swear I’ll find 20 reasons why I’m the luckiest person in the world not to be doing that movie. Believe me, by tomorrow I’ll be calling my agent saying, Thank God it didn’t happen.”

SCENE 3: Portia sashays into the restaurant with a smile that says, “You must know who I am?” But I’m not entirely sure any of the patrons or staff actually do. They smile back politely anyway. We’re ushered outside to a table. The temperature is sub-arctic, but Portia wants to make sure all her quotes are audible for my tape recorder.

Having dinner with Portia is an unsettling experience. Whenever a camera flash goes off, her head spins around like something out of The Exorcist. It’s just other diners taking photographs of each other, but Portia keeps thinking the paparazzi have spotted her. The third time she does it, she realises how peculiar her behaviour must seem.

“Paranoia, paranoia,” she sing-songs. “But just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you.”

Oh-kay. Pesky paparazzi aside, Portia revels in all the in-the-limelight stuff that comes with the job. (Like you couldn’t guess from the Cheshire grins she wears at every awards night she attends.) Unlike some stars, who loathe posing for the cameras at premieres, she laps up all the attention. “Everybody wants you, everybody wants your picture and everybody’s yelling out your name,” she enthuses.

Somehow, hearing them yell “Mandy Rogers” just wouldn’t be the same. When Portia was 14, she decided she laothed her name, so she changed it. Amanda Rogers became Portia de Rossi. And she’s still very happy with her choice.

While she cleverly chose the perfect movie star moniker, Portia insists she never had any intention of becoming an actor. Ironically, she wanted to be a lawyer. She’d just been accepted to study law when she scored her first acting assignment in Sirens, opposite Elle Macpherson, Sam Neill and Hugh Grant. In fact, the first few times she was asked to audition for the role, she turned it down.

“Acting is a profession where you don’t know where your next job is coming from and it’s totally image-conscious and I just didn’t want that,” she explains. “The thing I loved most at school was studying English literature, interpreting poems and stories and reading amazing novelists and poets. But, when I auditioned for Sirens after them asking me three or four times, I finally realised acting was interpreting someone else’s words and thoughts, but you actually get to speak them and act them instead of writing an essay. It has so much power.”

Sirens made Portia want to act for a living, but the scripts didn’t exactly pile up on her doorstep after the movie opened in Australia. And that’s why she describes her move to the States as a financial necessity rather than a defection. While attending a film festival in the States, she scored a role in an independent production being filmed in Utah. When it finished, she had a one-way ticket back to Australia via Los Angeles. Five hours of soul searching at Los Angeles airport followed, then she caught a cab into LA to try her luck.

After Sirens it was hard for me to get an agent in Australia, an agent. People were thinking that I had attitude or that I was conceited. What’s conceited about starring in an Australian film with international acclaim and a great Australian talent like Sam Neill? That’s how you get another job, that’s not being pretentious. I still don’t know why I couldn’t get work in Australia after Sirens. Unless I totally sucked.”

SCENE 4: Over dinner, we’ve demolished a mound of corn chips and marinated tuna and lobster enchiladas , and it’s time to go. We start squabbling over who’s going to pay the bill. Then Portia begs me to let her drive me to my hotel.

“Cabs are weird in this town,” she insists. “Please let me drive you home. I would feel so much better if you’d let me drive you … as long as you can put up with the Beastie Boys.”

Home for Portia is just around the corner. I’m half an hour in the opposite direction. But she insists on giving me a lift, even though she’s delivering a deposition on set early tomorrow morning. We finally agree that I’ll pay for dinner in exchange for a free ride.

The valet brings her car around, the tape deck is switched on and we’re off. As we drive along the Santa Monica Freeway, it’s like any other girly chat – guys, babies, ambitions … She admits she’s just ended a long-term relationship and is enjoying being on her own, free from the pressure of juggling her professional and personal life.

When she drops me off at my hotel, I wish her luck. But I really don’t think she needs it. She has enough drive and ambition to go all the way. I just hope she resists the lure of Silicon Valley. It’d be nice to think that not all blondes have to look like Pamela Anderson Lee to be stars. “

2 thoughts on “Late-night read: Paranoid Portia

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  1. Great stuff. Serendipitous, too: I’m doing some reviews for Hardie Grant’s book-club thing and I scored -yesterday- a copy of the book she’s written… be interested to see if the Mandy-less cover makes it in there…

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