When Mary Coustas says that “Greek women are super powerful,” it’s hard to argue with her, because when talking to the Ouzo Talk podcast, it becomes very apparent – very quickly – that she’s one of them.
To say that Coustas is a strong Greek woman, is an understatement. Not only has the comedian, actor and writer managed to scale the heights of her profession in a career spanning over 30 years, she’s achieved it all while battling years of setbacks and emotional trauma – the likes of which would be enough to break the hardest of people.
After 23 rounds of IVF, miscarriages, the death of her child Stevie, plus all the physical and emotional challenges associated with those experiences, one would forgive Coustas for being a little cynical – or even bitter. She’s neither.
In fact, the woman most of us know as ‘Effie’ has managed to take the boldness and courage of the character she portrays to overcome those setbacks, by incorporating her experiences into her comedy.
Take her new show: This is Personal for example – a candid one-woman show that combines Coustas’ migrant upbringing in Melbourne’s suburbs and her recent experience of motherhood. During the course of the evening, the audience gets to meet characters from Mary’s family who have shaped her life – including Mary’s younger self, who created the suit of armour we all know as ‘Effie’. The result is a show that explores love, loss, laughter and fear, and the way in which all four come to define us all.
But this isn’t life imitating art – it’s art inspired and informed by an all-too-real human story, the roots of which first took hold in the turbulent years of the early 20th Century in the Aegean.
“My mother is a Pontian Greek,” says Coustas.
“Originally her family were in Turkey – a very dramatic story as everyone would have from those days.
“My grandmother came across (to Greece) with her mother. Her father had died in earlier fighting, and so it was her and a couple of siblings, her mother, and a new-born baby. They finally made it to water and they boarded this boat to head for Greece.
“Now, the baby had died, but my grandmother’s mother – so my great-grandmother – didn’t want to tell anyone, and so she held the baby as though it was not in fact dead.
“Someone outed her and said; ‘that woman is holding a dead baby’, a few days into the journey.
“They threw the baby overboard.
“My great-grandmother never ate fish again, because she said; ‘they feasted on my child’.”
Fast-forward a century or so, and in poignant symmetry, the great granddaughter of the woman who held a dead child in her arms as she crossed the Aegean, also held a child that left far too soon.
Following the stillbirth of Stevie, one would forgive Coustas for throwing in the towel on her dream of becoming a mother. But to quote Coustas herself; “nothing good comes from giving up” – words that were eventually spoken in victory to 60 Minutes journalist Michael Usher, mere moments after giving birth to Jamie.
Where did Coustas find the strength to keep going? In addition to her husband George, a group of strong women Coustas affectionately calls her ‘Pussy Posse’.
“The secret for me is that I have an incredible group of friends,” smiles Coustas.
“My friends only loved me, and they had the tough conversations with me. They were in my corner, and I love that. With every failed attempt – and there were so many – we cried together and then we’d drink, we’d go out, we’d laugh. Like the Six Million Dollar Man, they’d re-build me.”
The result of all that rebuilding is not just a mother and individual who is stronger than ever, but a performer with a rich story to tell. And while taking off the suit of armour known as Effie for This is Personal scares her, that fear is something Coustas is leaning into.
“All the best work I’ve done, I’ve been very afraid of,” admits Coustas.
“We know that the best of us is in exceeding our fears. That’s where we’re truly free – that’s where we extend ourselves.
“I’ve been very monogamous to Effie, but the time has come for me just momentarily to step away from the puppet and reveal the puppeteer.”
Find out more about This is Personal.
Find out more about Mary and Effie's shows.