Bindi has big shoes to fill
17 October 2006
Since the death of her famous father, Bindi Irwin has stepped into
the spotlight, but at what cost, asks Robert Wainwright.
In his last interview, published a month before he was killed by a
stingray in a freak accident off Port Douglas, Steve Irwin gave this
homespun assessment of his daughter's future: "We've connected a
big green cord from the ground to Bindi's butt to keep her earthed.
She has celebrity parents, lives half the year in America and the
other half in a zoo with 1000 animals.
"She travels to amazing places, is part of a multimillion-dollar
conservation foundation. It'd be easy for her to develop an 'I don't
need to work, I'll do whatever the hell I want' mind-set, thinking
that life's only about fun. That just ain't true. Bindi has to earn her
own money. She has to earn respect."
The first of her father's desires appears to be well on the way to
fruition. The second has already been achieved, with aplomb, at
his memorial service.
The diminutive eight-year-old moved many to tears as she stood
before a crowd of 5000 and a television audience of millions to pay
tribute to her daddy.
It wasn't just her delighted gap-toothed smile in response to the
applause as she walked onto the stage at the Crocoseum, or the
183 words she wrote herself the day before.
What left its mark was the way she read them, tracing the words
to avoid any mistake. The crowd could see the shadow of her finger
behind the paper, blown up tenfold on the giant screen above the
stadium, carefully following the lines of simple text, complete with
an endearing lapse into present tense:
"My daddy was my hero. He was always there for me when I needed
him. He listened to me and taught me so many things, but most of
all he was fun.
"I know that daddy had an important job. He was working to change
the world so everyone would love wildlife like he did. He built a hospital
to help animals and he bought lots of land to give animals a safe place
"He took me and my brother and my mum with him all the time. We
filmed together, caught crocodiles together and loved being in the
bush together. I don't want daddy's passion to ever end. I want to
help endangered wildlife, just like he did. I have the best daddy in
the whole world and I will miss him every day. When I see a crocodile
I will always think of him.
"And I know that daddy made this zoo so everyone could come and
learn to love all the animals. Daddy made this place his whole life.
Now it's our turn to help daddy. Thank you."
Even then she did not rush from the stage back to the comfort of her
distraught mother, but stayed to feed a trio of elephants led into the
stadium, peering out into the stands while the crowd cried and fell in
love with her.
So what were we witnessing? How could a little girl be so capable at
such a traumatic moment? Was it genuine or practised; the product
of a childhood sacrificed to ensure a television legacy? Will the weight
of expectation snuff out the flame?
The day after the service when Alison Garton, a professor of
psychology at Western Australia's Edith Cowan University, dared to
suggest that too much pressure was being placed on her tiny shoulders
it caused an outcry.
"She's obviously a very poised and mature eight-year-old, but I think
some of these public statements are probably a bit extreme in this
point in time," Garton said.
"She probably doesn't even understand properly what it means not to
have daddy around anyway. It's a rare child that would actually live
up to those expectations and thrive in them."
Garton told me her comments elicited a mixed response: "A lot of
colleagues supported my concerns but, yes, I got a few emails from
people telling me to butt out because I didn't know what I was
Among those who disagreed with Garton was Karen Brooks, a senior
lecturer in Australian and cultural studies at the University of the
Sunshine Coast, who argued Bindi would simply be continuing to do
what was already familiar.
"Bindi has lived an exceptional life," Brooks said. "It is different to a
lot of other young people, and I think what we see as extraordinary
and incredible expectations are probably within her world of reality."
Garton and Brooks are probably both right. Bindi is a rarity who has
already lived an extraordinary life. She took her first overseas flight
at just two weeks, joining her parents on a film shoot in Texas chasing
She made her television debut in the US just after her first birthday
and by the time she was seven had boarded more than 400 flights,
visited 14 countries and crisscrossed Australia dozens of times as
the Irwin caravan lurched its way from desert to swamp and reef
to mountain range.
She sings and dances with a band - Bindi and the Crocmen - as part
of the Australia Zoo entertainment, has her own line of clothing and
next year will debut in a 26-episode pay TV program in the US.
Understandably, the family has shielded the children since the
memorial service, although Bindi and her mother appeared last week
at a children's TV awards show in Sydney to honour a commitment
given before his death by Irwin.
This time there was no script. She faced questions with an innocent
frankness that seemed to confirm the family's confidence: "It's kind
of sad that he [Irwin] couldn't be here but it's nice that I can be here
to do it," she nodded with amazing assurance.
Bindi has made clear in several interviews to promote her coming TV
show that she wants a career in entertainment.
"I love being photographed, it's cool," she told the Women's Weekly.
"When people clap and cheer me, it makes me happy because I feel
I've done something well. When I grow up, I want to be doing exactly
what I do now - sing, act and work with animals."
The local paper, the Sunshine Coast Daily also did a short profile. It
found she liked what normal eight-year-old girls like - dolls, the colour
pink, chocolate, Britney Spears and The Simpsons.
When asked to describe herself, she replied: "Well, she's a wonderful girl
who loves animals." And her parents? "They've given me a lot of good
advice. Mostly how it's good to protect animals, and now that they've
done that I'm like, 'No, don't kill that mosquito, don't step on that bull ant'."
Her mother feels the same way. When Bindi was three years old Terri
Irwin wrote: "I will do my best to make the world a better place for
Bindi, and I'm really not terribly worried about her. Life will be filled
with adventure and challenge and I know Bindi will do well. She has to.
Like her family before her, Bindi is a wildlife warrior."
But there are distinct differences between Bindi and her father, which
Steve grew up inside a tiny and struggling reptile park, attended
Caloundra State High School and went surfing on weekends in a rusty
Mazda with his mates. He even trained as a diesel mechanic before
pursuing his madcap career as a crocodile trapper and conservationist.
By comparison, Bindi is growing up inside a major tourist attraction -
a zoo come theme park that has no neighbours. She is home-schooled -
by "Miss Emma" - because the family is too famous and travelling too
frequently to keep up with lessons at the local primary school.
Even when they travel, the Irwins are mostly isolated in bush camps.
Bindi's hand-written letters reprinted on the zoo website - some
delightfully skewiff, and complete with spelling mistakes - talk mainly
of trips, croc research and animal encounters. There is little time or
opportunity for friendships with children her own age.
Fame and fortune has its price for a family that prides itself on being
ordinary - in an extraordinary kind of way.
The ubiquitous John Stainton, Irwin's long-time manager and film
producer, doesn't look like a man who should be slopping around muddy
creeks pouncing on crocodiles. He admits, ruefully, that often it was not
much fun on a shoot with the Crocodile Hunter. Swathed every day in
insect repellent, his ginger hair and pale, freckled skin a poor match for
the Queensland sun. Perhaps that's why he is the only member of the
Irwin crew who doesn't wear khaki, but it doesn't mean he is any less
fierce in his defence of the family.
Behind his now trademark sunglasses, Stainton's eyebrows twitch at
the suggestion that Bindi's welfare might not be at the forefront of
their thoughts or that she is too young to have clear ambitions and a
path in life. After all, her father caught his first crocodile when he was
just nine, albeit with the help of his dad, and Stainton (in his mid 50s)
insists he was the same age when he realised he wanted to make films.
"Bindi's really lucky that she has a direction at the age of eight," he
says. "Most kids get to 17 and still have no idea where they're going
or what they want to do."
Stainton, who met Irwin in 1992 while filming a beer commercial at the
zoo, recalls a moment when Bindi was five.
It was during a pause in shooting around the zoo with Steve. "One of
the crew asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up," Stainton
says. "We all thought she would say that she wanted to be like her dad
but she didn't. Instead, she said, 'I want to be like John because he tells
my daddy what to do'."
The point he is making is that she has very strong goals for such a
"Until this year we hadn't done anything with her. She'd just come along
and filmed and was, well, Bindi. "It happened suddenly. She wanted to
do things. I sent her off with a cameraman and told her to go around
the zoo and talk to the camera about all the animals. She didn't stop
talking for 30 minutes; a single take on everything she knew on this
tortoise, just like her father - who could talk under wet cement.
"Look, those kids have got fantastic parents. Terri is very different
to Steve. She's very, what would you say, together. She's articulate
and thoughtful. Those kids have the best manners."
Like a good filmmaker, he reverts to story-telling to illustrate his point:
"Terri was always tolerant. She'd come home from the office after
making the bed to find Steve was hiding [his son] Bob jr under the
covers. So she'd make the bed again and then Steve would do it all
again. Sometimes she'd make the bed three or four times in a morning
because he'd keep mucking it up hiding Bob.
"As parents Steve and Terri made a decision to take the kids with
them when they went on a shoot. They didn't want to leave them
behind, so filming and travelling is part of their lives. As a producer,
I would never ask anyone to do anything they aren't comfortable
about. There would be no point.
"I know where Bindi is going and she knows where she's going.
We all know that she will end up a much bigger star than Steve ever
was. Things will explode when we get this series done, just like Steve.
I knew it with him and I know it with Bindi. You can just tell."
It is this statement that seems so hard to understand. How can he
be so confident about the future of an eight-year-old?
"Bindi is compelling. You can get any eight-year-old up on television. In
America there are thousands of them, in soapies and series but they are
very much little actors, set in what they can do.
"Bindi is natural, and being natural is the hardest thing on television. She
has no fear; it's like a walk in the park for her. Everyone who has seen
the early stuff we've done has the same reaction." And her character?
Surely, not another Crocodile Hunter?
"Dunno, dunno; it's too early to tell. Maybe she'll be a famous Hollywood
actor like Nicole Kidman or a singer like Britney Spears or Madonna.
Maybe a dancer. Or maybe she could be a great wildlife presenter like
David Attenborough. Who knows?
"Whatever she does she will be in the public eye. She loves performing;
she's comfortable, it makes her happy. She may change within that
scope, but that's her choice.
"If she wants to drop out and be a nurse at the age of 18 then no one
is going to stand in her way. The saving grace for Bindi and for Bob is
that they don't live in Hollywood; they live here, in Beerwah, which is
very levelling. They will always be fine as long as they have this base.
Australians will keep those kids on the straight and narrow."