Before I can consult my list of questions or ask her what she thinks of the day’s grimmer-by-the moment headlines, she contorts her mouth into a beak. It’s the start of her ‘chicken dance’ – the move she made her signature when she co-hosted The Ernie Sigley Show, a much-loved variety program that was a huge hit in the ‘70s. I burst into laughter, call it the Denise effect!
‘The chicken dance thing started years ago, when I was a confirmation sponsor and then I started it again when I was on Ernie’s show,’ recalls Denise, now aged 70, over a glass of champagne in Sydney’s Pyrmont. She’s wearing a pale-blue blouse and the glossy brown bob that’s been her trademark since her earliest days in showbiz, when she was hired as Melbourne’s first go-go dancer on Kommotion, the 1965 teen music show that also starred a young Molly Meldrum.
To watch Youtube videos of a teenage Denise shimmying to ‘60s anthems like ‘Dancing in the Street’ and ‘Rescue Me’ is a lesson in her contagious physical energy — one that’s as home in discotheques and stage sets as it is on TV.
‘I’ve got a few more tricks now — I can be a piece of bacon, frying in a pan,’ she says, squaring her shoulders. ‘I can be a fly that’s been sprayed with Mortein.’ She trails off and her eyes twinkle mischievously.
One the earliest examples of her ability to use comedy to bring joy in even the most dire of circumstances was on a by-invitation trip Denise took to war-torn Vietnam in 1967. Alongside friend Patti Newton, the pair performed in Nui Dat for three weeks as part of an effort – involving a roster of performers including Johnny O’Keefe and The Sapphires, to boost the morale of the troops stationed there.
As one of only a handful of performers whose career is synonymous with the dawn of the Australian television industry, Denise has always had talent and determination in droves. But her secret weapon might, in fact, be her ability to connect with entire generations of audiences and grant them the gift of feeling good. In the 1970s, her ballsy turn as Ernie Sigley’s barrel girl on The Ernie Sigley Show landed her — along with the nickname ‘Ding Dong’ — her first Gold Logie for most popular female TV personality.
In the next decade, she made regular appearances on shows like Countdown, Young Talent Time, The Norman Gunston Show and Hey Hey It’s Saturday and went on to helm her own daytime talk show in the late ‘90s simply called Denise, aired on the Seven Network for four seasons. More recently, she’s stepped into the role of bipolar patient Ginger on comedian Josh Thomas’s acclaimed dramedy Please Like Me. ‘Josh is fabulous, just brilliant. But I’m really angry that they killed my character off,’ she laughs.
Since 2015, she’s been a co-presenter on the Channel Ten morning talk show Studio Ten, where she breaks down the issues of the day alongside Jessica Rowe AM, Sarah Harris, media doyenne and now ABC Chair Ita Buttrose AO OBE and Joe Hildebrand.
Denise also hosts a wildly funny, no-frills cooking segment on the same show called Ding Dong Does Dinner, where earlier this year, she taught Bill Shorten a recipe for making sausages she had dubbed democracy sausages. ‘No, with your hands you goose!’ she commanded as Bill initially went to stir the sausage mix with a wooden spoon. ‘Get into it Bill!’ she joked, ‘Just pretend its Malcolm’ as the (ex) Labor leader kneaded the mince mix to a chorus of laughs.
Denise was born in 1948 and grew up in the suburbs of Moorabbin and Port Melbourne in Victoria. She started attending the infamous May Downs School of Dance as a three-year-old, where she also got in pantomimes. ‘May was a hard, disciplined teacher but she was wonderful. Some of her stuff still stays with me today,’ she reflects.
At the age of ten, she auditioned to perform on Channel Nine and joined the junior ballet as part of The Tarax Show, one of the network’s first children’s TV programs, where Hey Hey’s Ossie Ostrich character also got a start. In her teen years she struggled to gel with her conservative high school. ‘I went to Kilbride Ladies Convent. They said I was the devil’s work because I was a dancer and I was left-handed,’ she laughs. She later left and went on to join the senior ballet — ‘with Graham Kennedy, Bert Newton and all these wonderful performers.’
Though this would be short-lived. ’I got the sack because I grew breasts at 16,’ she says, grimacing at the memory. ‘A tutu looked more like a three-three on me!’
‘You know, there’s so much talk about sexual harassment now but the things guys used to get away with back then! I actually grew up in a pub and I would come home from school at the age of six or seven and someone would say to me, ‘here’s a box of razor blades, or, just go play in the traffic!’ I had to grow a bit of a shell. I become tough. When a few hard things happened to me when I was younger, I was able to deal with it head-on.’
‘But then I got cast in the vaudevillian stage musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and got into a magazine called Everybody’s Magazine, as Girl of the Week — because an American soldier saw me in the magazine and liked me. So I got to tour with Ray Brown and the Whispers’ she recalls.
Denice is a lifelong fan of comics like Lucille Ball, the Marx Brothers and Jackie Gleeson — legends who use their bodies as tools of comedic expression, showing us that laughter can lighten even the darkest of things. ‘All those Marx brothers movies gave me such joy because they were in their forties when they made them! It had taken them such a long time to get there,’ she remarks. Though the person she credits with changing her life the most is the entertainer and producer Barry Langford, with whom she worked with on the ABC show called Start Living.
‘He made me sing live and it was horrible. They said to him, you’re going to have to get rid of her, but he protested, ‘no, she’s got something’. So instead of singing straight Rock n’ Roll, they gave me all these comedy records to do, from Eartha Kitt to Spotty Muldoon.’ She breaks into a song before me, before adding, ‘It was great! Everyone laughed!’
Denise met one of her lifelong heroes, the late Robin Williams, during his one-man stand up tour of Australia back in 2010. ‘God, I wish I’d known him! I would have been a good friend to him,’ she says, wistful. ‘When he came off the stage he asked, ‘how did I go’ — that insecurity was so deep-seated. I said to him, ‘thank you for everything that you’ve ever done’ and then gave him an alpaca scarf. He was thrilled! When I think about it now, I still get goosebumps.’
Recently, Denise sold all her worldly possessions in what she called her ‘life sale’ (except the two gold Logies of course) and built her dream home – an architecturally designed eco-house up in the Sunshine Coast hinterland – near to her son Peter and his partner. When Studio Ten wraps filming later this year, she’s looking forward to taking a break, and getting into the swing of a new more laid back lifestyle, and the idyllic weather of Queensland. ‘The Queensland government should be paying me, I have been promoting this place to everyone,’ she laughs.
But when you’re one of the country’s most popular, prolific entertainers, slowing down doesn’t come easy. ‘I have so much enthusiasm for every job I get, but when you start to feel tired, you can’t take that away. I’ve always run on adrenaline and I can’t sit still. It was like that when I first started out and I’m still the same now,’ adds Denise.
‘But I’ve been doing this for 55 years and I’m getting a bit tired of all the travel — I’ve built a beautiful home on Hope Island which I love. I’d like to spend a bit of time there.’
Only the day before our interview, Denise had performed a series of songs and even a spot of twerking live on the Studio Ten set. Accompanied by the Double D blues band, who she had originally paired up with back on the Denise Show, she belted out classics like Under the Boardwalk, What a Wonderful World, and even a ‘duet’ with the man himself, Ernie Sigley using historic voice recordings before signing off with an energetic rendition of Kansas City. The studio audience, following her every move, captivated.
For somebody so humble about her achievements, and so prone to ‘mucking around’ it is hard to get the more serious question of what has driven Denise to continue entertaining Australians all these years. What is clear, however, is that she sees her fame as a great privilege, a tool she uses to bring joy and laughter to people from all walks of life.
‘When I’m signing my CDs for fans, if someone says that Doris was going to come today but had to go to the hospital, well then I give Doris a call,’ explains Denise. ‘It only takes two minutes out of my day but it gives so much.’
‘That’s what the highlight is for me. It’s giving back. A lot of Australians out there know who I am and to me it’s a privilege, and one that’s not to be treated lightly.’
Denise’s popularity led to an online push to be added to the Logies Hall of Fame. Following an outcry at the lack of women to have been inducted – just three women, Ruth Cracknell, Noni Hazlehurst and Kerrie Anne-Kennerley, versus 27 men – in its 30-plus year history, TV Tonight has commenced a campaign with the hashtag #makethishappen, stating ‘She’s been a barrel girl, a go-go dancer, television host, singer, actress, panelist and twice Gold Logie winner. Denise is an indelible, cherished part of Australian television.’
Denise isn’t a huge fan of social media, but you can follow her exploits and life commentary on Studio 10, weekdays, from 8.30am until noon.