Trigger Warning: this article deals with sexual assault and may be triggering to some readers.
She was the Dolly cover girl everyone wanted to be. Golden-skinned and sparkly eyed, Alison Brahe was as well known as Elle Macpherson – but somehow more relatable.
Looking back, it was clearly her smile. Wide, natural and occasionally cheeky, it made you believe that if you couldn’t actually be her, you could at least be her friend.
But what no-one knew – even those she loved most – was that behind the relaxed summer-girl image, she was grappling with a horrific secret, one that she is only now ready to share.
What happened occurred nearly 35 years ago, a few years before she married the nation’s most eligible bachelor, television host Cameron Daddo (in December 1991). It was before children, before moving to America and becoming the teacher’s assistant she is now.
Yet for all the time and life that have passed, she remembers that traumatic evening in forensic detail. She hesitated writing about it in her new memoir, Queen Menopause, and is equally cautious as we speak via Zoom, after our planned face-to-face interview at her home on Sydney’s northern beaches had to shift online
while she battled Covid-19.
But even in pyjamas and speaking from her bed, the 52-year-old mother-of-three knows it’s a story she needs to tell. Not necessarily for her own sake, but for others.
“I was 17 and working as a model in Japan when another model invited me to a party,” Brahe-Daddo recalls, explaining that she was excited to go out since every other night had been spent in her apartment block eating packets of noodles and phoning her boyfriend back home in Australia.
Not that it should matter, but she wants to point out what she was wearing when she arrived at the party: “High-waisted jeans with rips on the knees, a black belt – tightly fastened – and a long-sleeved black T-shirt, which showed a slice of my belly.”
She and her friend were chatting on a couch when two men she didn’t know ran towards her. “One minute I was talking to my friend and the next two guys [had] lifted me up under my armpits and shoved me into a closet,” she recalls. “They had their hands up my shirt and were grabbing my breasts and my vagina, shoving their tongues into my mouth. I could see flashes of people dancing and drinking – I was fighting and screaming to get out, but no-one could hear me because the music was so loud.”
Suddenly there was another guy pulling at the two guys and telling them to get off her.
“If she’s going to dress like that, she was asking for it,” she recalls one of them muttering.
“I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but I remember feeling mortified,” she says. When her rescuer asked if she’d like him to get her home, she agreed. He was kind, a bit older, strong. As they caught the train then walked to her apartment, he told her he was a professional boxer.
When they reached her room, he asked to come in.
“I didn’t want him to come in, but I remember thinking, ‘How do I say no to this man who walked me home and rescued me from a horrible situation?’” she says. What happened next is etched clearly in her mind. “He forced himself on me,” she says.
“I kept saying, ‘No, I don’t want to. No, I don’t want to.’ But he was a very strong man.” He pushed her back on the bed and lay on top of her, gripping her arms. “I sort of left my body,” she says quietly. “I let the rape happen.”
Decades on, as she revisits that awful night, Brahe-Daddo’s feelings align with so many victims of rape. At the time she felt it was her fault and wondered why she didn’t fight harder. For years she lived with shame and compartmentalised what had happened to her. “I did my best to shut it down and not say a word to anyone,” she recalls. “I just thought if I could pretend like it didn’t happen, then maybe it didn’t happen.”
After repressing the rape for more than a decade, she finally disclosed it to her therapist, then her husband and later her parents. It was only when her therapist pointed out how smart she’d been not to fight back since the man could have caused her physical harm, that she was able to shift the shame.
For years it informed how Brahe-Daddo felt about herself. “I was frightened of my own sexuality and frightened of looking pretty, which was a funny place to be as a model,” she says.
“Was it going to be dangerous for me to be pretty in public? That was a trauma in itself. I felt it was my responsibility to keep myself safe by dressing down and not being too pretty.”
She knows that any time someone shares their experience of sexual assault they are heralded as “brave”, but she worries that it can be retraumatising. She’s also baffled by the need to sanitise the enduring anger.
“Grace Tame’s experience is fascinating to me because [some] people don’t like how angry she is. They overlook the fact this girl was groomed and sexually assaulted by a much-older man [her schoolteacher] … That doesn’t seem to matter – people just don’t like that she’s angry. [Women] have to smile through. What the fuck is that? If that’s not a societal issue for women, I don’t know what is.”
If Brahe-Daddo worries that she has played second fiddle to her husband’s high-profile career, her manifesto on menopause places her squarely at the forefront of a new agenda, where an issue that affects all women is being openly discussed. Yet as well as chronicling and destigmatising her own and others’ experiences, Queen Menopause is a memoir exposing the underbelly of modelling, the challenges of motherhood, and the highs and lows of sustaining a marriage for more than three decades.
Looking back, she’s alarmed that her parents didn’t stop her dropping out of school in Year 11 to become a model, and she certainly wouldn’t have felt comfortable letting her own children travel alone at such a young age. As she recalls being burnt by a hairstylist, having her breasts gaffer-taped together to give her a cleavage and being asked by a photographer whether she’d had sex with her boyfriend, she makes the point that she didn’t feel she had a voice. She says being loved for an image is “a fragile and thin form of admiration”.
Yet despite the powerlessness she often felt and the crush to her self-confidence that results from working in an industry that, she says, only cares about how you look, Brahe-Daddo also has happy memories of her time in front of the camera.
“I loved the work that I did for Dolly, I loved being on the cover,” she says. “I was so honoured to work with that magazine as much as I did and it was always fun and lovely. So that smile on the front of the magazine was genuine, even if there was a part of me that was terrified of the public eye and what could happen.”
If you are experiencing sexual abuse or other unwanted behaviour, please contact Full Stop Australia or call 1800RESPECT.
Queen Menopause by Alison Daddo (Allen & Unwin, $32.99) is out now.
The story originally appeared in the June issue of maire claire Australia.