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Kiwi actress Rebecca Gibney has come home for good

After more than 30 years living across the Tasman, Rebecca Gibney has made the surprise move home to New Zealand – for good. And she has big plans for her new Kiwi future.

She was half way up the Routeburn Track with her husband when a sense of calm came over Rebecca Gibney that stopped her on the spot.

The couple had just wrapped the production of the second season of their hit show Wanted, a kind of Australasian Thelma & Louise, filmed in Queenstown. They’d popped the champagne with the post-production crew, sent off the final footage and were enjoying a hike together.

“There was no one else there, we literally didn’t see one other soul and there were birds flying down and landing in front of us. The minute I get into the forest I feel like nothing else matters, I feel calm and completely at ease,” says Rebecca.

There will be a whole lot more time spent in New Zealand’s forests from now on, because the Kiwi-born star has decided to make New Zealand home again after 30 years of living and working across the Tasman.

She and her husband Richard Bell – who together head R and R Productions – along with their son Zac, 13, had only ever intended to make Queenstown their home temporarily while they made Wanted, but the prospect of returning home to Sydney at the end of filming suddenly had little appeal.

Instead they’ve decided to put down permanent roots.

“My son has actually dictated that, because he doesn’t want to go anywhere,” Rebecca explains. “He is like, ‘I am done, you can do whatever you want but I am staying here!’”

Rebecca and son Zac on a night out.

Over the past year, Zac has developed great friendships in New Zealand and is loving school.

“We can’t take that away from him,” says Rebecca.

“He has been a kid who has had to adapt to our lifestyle. In 2015 we were in Brisbane for a year, before that we were in Sydney and he was born in Tasmania. So we have moved him around and I think now it is really important that he gets a solid base so he can focus on school.”

Zac, who loves the outdoors, is a hot-shot on the Queenstown ski fields and is revelling in New Zealand’s lack of poisonous insects and reptiles.

“He adores it – he runs around barefoot even in the snow and is thrilled that nothing can kill him,” Rebecca says with a laugh.

“He misses his mates and parts of Australia but he loves the fact that he doesn’t have to think about [snakes and spiders]. Particularly in summer when you walk past a bush there [in Australia] you are always really cautious because you are like, ‘Is a snake going to come out of there? Are there any funnel webs?’ We just don’t have that here.”

Richard, a keen skier, is also very happy in his new home, and if he and Rebecca have their way they will be creating more productions in Queenstown, which 52-year-old Rebecca describes as “one of the most beautiful places in the world”.

“Oh yes! We actually have two ideas for films that Richard and I are developing and the great thing about filming Wanted here is we have now worked with and developed some great relationships with local crew.”

In the meantime, the Logie winner, who is best known for her role as Julie in Packed to the Rafters, will commute to Australia, where she and Richard have more projects underway.

She also has a TV role coming up later in the year but can’t talk about it yet; all she’ll reveal is that she has to shed 10kg – which is no mean feat after the age of 50.

The no-carb diet starts next week, so she tucks into sandwiches and tarts during our photo shoot, but only after making sure everyone else is taken care of. She is unfailingly upbeat and accommodating, with an ever-ready belly laugh – the anti-diva of the television industry.

“This,” she says, “is like dress-ups for the day!”

Rebecca, it seems, is only half joking when she credits her career longevity to the sage, if earthy, words of an old colleague.

“Years ago, on Flying Doctors, I asked [the late Australian actor] Maurie Fields, ‘What’s the best advice you can give me?’ and he said, ‘Show up on time, know your lines and don’t be a dick,’” she says, laughing. “I took that advice.”

With close family and friends on both sides of the Tasman, Rebecca says she is unfazed by travelling back and forth from New Zealand to Australia for work.

“Luckily I have places I can stay in Melbourne and Sydney, because a lot of my friends are there. We also have a studio in Sydney so we still have strong ties to Australia.”

While two of her sisters are in Australia, Rebecca, who is one of six siblings, has family nearby in New Zealand.

“My niece lives in Cromwell, my brother is in Nelson and my sister is in Masterton and Mum was over here just a few weeks ago. I have just had my best friend come and my other best friend Jane Hall is coming in three weeks. We have developed some really strong friendships here too so it is very much a family place.”

Rebecca, who grew up with a mother she idolises and three doting big sisters, has always sought and savoured the company of women. Some of her happiest times have been spent with the women she loves best – usually in her “jim-jams”, wine in hand, mulling over life’s minutiae for hours on end.

For Rebecca, female friendship is food for the soul, and the actress has nurtured so many strong bonds it seems as if she has a confidante for every occasion.

“My friendships mean everything to me because they can hold up a mirror to you,” says Rebecca. “I’ve got the friend I can go to for perfect advice, but I’ve also got the friend who’ll just sit and listen and hold a tissue while I sob. I’m the worst fashionista on the planet, but if I need advice on what to wear, I’ve got a friend who’s the most incredible dresser.”

Rebecca insists she has never encountered any cattiness or rivalry among women, and seems skeptical that it even exists.

“Maybe I’m just hanging out with the right girls. I’ve never been jealous of other women. Being the baby of three older sisters who adored me, I was never insecure about females – I loved being around them. I’m just a girl’s girl.”

It’s no coincidence then that her latest project is a celebration of sisterhood – a vehicle for strong female characters that are way more than just a man’s appendage. Wanted is a drama series about two polar-opposite strangers who get mixed up in a murder and go on the run, pursued by a cop and a hitman.

In the upcoming second season, accountant Chelsea (Geraldine Hakewill) and supermarket cashier Lola (Rebecca) are on the road again, this time to rescue Lola’s kidnapped son.

“Really it’s about their friendship and about how far they’ll go for each other,” says Rebecca, who is already plotting season three. “That was important to me – to create a show that was about women.”

The Gibney girls Stella, Theresa, Rebecca and Diana with Shirley.

In keeping with the theme, the vibe for today’s photo shoot could be termed “retro road trip” – the kind that requires a $5000 Valentino trench coat – and Rebecca is loving it. Squeezed into a low-cut 50s-style frock, she wonders if she looks a tad too busty.

“Push those puppies down!” she jokes, as she tucks herself into the bodice.

On a recent flight to Sydney, Rebecca tells us, a 50-something flight attendant told her she never approached famous passengers, but she’d made an exception for Rebecca. “I just wanted to let you know,” the woman said, “that whenever you come on the telly, I just get this really warm feeling.”

It’s safe to assume she’s not the only one. For more than 30 years, Rebecca has played some of the best-loved women on Australasian television and was crowned a Gold Logie winner in 2009, taking the coveted TV Personality of the Year title.

“There’s an elite group of ‘golden girls’ in Australian drama who have won our respect through perseverance, talent and dignified performances,” says media commentator David Knox, “and Rebecca Gibney is up there with the best of them.”

The 1990 mini-series Come in Spinner put her on the map, but over the years she has racked up a string of impressive TV credits, including The Flying Doctors, Halifax f.p. and, of course, Packed to the Rafters, which made her our favourite screen mum. “At over two million viewers week in, week out,” says David, “Rafters was lightning in a bottle.”

When the series ended after six seasons in 2013, Rebecca was offered roles in the same maternal mould, but she wanted to exploit her high profile and branch out into edgier territory – hence the beer-drinking, burger-eating Lola in Wanted. “As I get older, I don’t give a rat’s any more what people think,” explains Rebecca.

“From an acting point of view, that allows me to take risks that I might not have taken 15, 20 years ago, when I was not as comfortable in my own skin. I don’t care what I look like – I want to explore areas that I haven’t before, which is really exciting… I’ve kind of got a new lease on life.”

At 52, as Wanted’s co-creator and executive producer, Rebecca is taking charge of her career. “I have to,” she says. “Roles don’t write themselves. You either have to knock on doors – or bash them down when you get to a certain age – or create roles yourself.”

Her can-do attitude is a complete about-turn from the crippling self-doubt of her 20s. The way Rebecca sees it, she squandered too much of her youth on self-loathing and insecurity. She gave Hollywood a crack at 26, for example, but lost faith and came home after just three weeks. She still wonders what might have been if only she’d backed herself.

Happy family snaps feature regularly on Rebecca’s Instagram feed, showing just how much the actress adores her husband Richard and their son Zac.

“I spent a lot of my 20s self-sabotaging and making mistakes and I ruined relationships,” she says. “I kept [thinking], ‘Oh, I’ll be dried up in a few years or they’ll find out I’m faking it.’

“That would be the biggest advice I would give any young woman: remember you are unique and there is no one else like you – believe in yourself and manifest whatever it is that you want. I didn’t do that… I was blessed that I had people that believed in me, even when I didn’t.”

Universally loved in the industry and a well-known champion of other women, Rebecca has mentored young female actors and given a leg-up to newcomers such as Wanted co-star Geraldine (“She looks like a supermodel and she’s got a giant brain – she’s quite spectacular”).

When Australian actress and former Home and Away star Melissa George was trolled recently and blamed for the abuse she allegedly suffered at the hands of her French partner, it was Rebecca who sprang to her defense: “I couldn’t believe that people could actually have a go at her when she was reaching out and was in obvious pain,” she says.

Rebecca’s mother would have been proud. Raised by an abusive father and married to a violent alcoholic, Shirley suffered regular beatings as she brought up the six Gibney children, at the same time teaching them kindness and compassion.

The youngest of the brood, Rebecca still worships her mum.

“She had such a troubled, turbulent childhood with so much horror and yet managed to become the kindest, most generous woman,” says Rebecca, who has just become an ambassador for domestic violence charity Share the Dignity.

“She could have become bitter and twisted and angry over what she had to endure, and she’s actually turned it around to become the complete opposite. It’s a constant reminder to me that things will always get better.”

Rebecca has inherited not only her mum’s fortitude, but her optimism and equanimity. She has weathered tough times – from her traumatic upbringing to the breakdown of her first marriage (to Southern Sons singer Jack Jones) and an emotional collapse in her early 30s – but there’s no sign of resentment.

Just the other day she was ignored by a store full of young shop assistants, and yet the brush with middle-aged invisibility inspired curiosity rather than anger.

“I actually caught myself and [thought] ‘wow’, but I used to do that too with older people,” she says. “It’s very disrespectful, but maybe it’s a rite of passage that you actually have to move through.”

Rebecca has always been candid about her struggles, mostly because she wants to offer hope – that adversity can be overcome and that the past doesn’t have to define us.

“We’re all trying to get through this mad, crazy thing called life and we all need each other to do that,” she says. “Sometimes it makes me feel vulnerable when I talk about things that are painful, but if that helps someone else, then I’ve done my job.”

That generosity of spirit is a huge part of her appeal. At a time when ego and self-aggrandisement seem to be prerequisites for success, there’s a refreshing humility and lack of pretence about Rebecca. She loves glamming it up as much as the next star, but never tries to hide the artifice – the hair extensions and the glue-on lashes; she happily tells me today that she’s wearing Spanx.

In fact, to mark The Australian Women’s Weekly shoot, she posts an Instagram shot of herself with her hairstylist and make-up artist and a shout-out thanking them “for making this old girl feel young again”.

As she says, “It’s all fake!” She won’t pretend her diet is all chia seeds and activated almonds either: “I’d love to say I’m a saint and I meditate and eat well every day. I don’t.”

She still gets stressed too, but when the odd panic attack looms these days she has the tools, after two years of therapy, to quell it.

When she was lost 20 years ago in a terrifying fog of anxiety and depression, her psychologist brought her back from the brink by teaching her to look at life through a lens of gratitude: “My motto for a long time was, ‘Lower your expectations and raise your appreciation.’ That’s sort of how I

live my life.”

Hers is a confidence born of contentment – and for that she can thank Richard, her husband of nearly 17 years, and their son, Zac. Richard, 53, is her best friend and “kind of my everything”, she says.

“He gets me utterly and we’re each other’s biggest fans. It doesn’t mean we don’t have issues, but we always work through them because I can’t imagine growing old with anyone else. He’s my rock and I think I’m his.”

Once ambivalent about having children, Rebecca now wishes she’d started earlier and had two or three – because having one child, she says, is intense. “I just want him to have that stability and the knowledge that we love him more than anything,” she says. “Now that he’s 13, he’s trying to step back and grow up and I’m struggling a little bit with that.”

She is, however, happy he encouraged the family to stay put in New Zealand.

“There is something about New Zealand – it’s a small country with a big heart and big attitude. I step off the plane here and I feel at home.”

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