A painter and a pedophile. Those are the two words used to summarise Rolf Harris, a man who seemingly embodied the Australian spirit — hardworking in nature but a larrikin at heart. From appearing on The Wiggles to painting a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, he was globally-adored by adults and children alike, but behind the humble facade was a calculated predator waiting to strike. From audience members to autograph hunters, Harris struck wherever possible, with his youngest known victim revealed to be just seven years old.
His guilty conviction wouldn’t have been possible without the women who came forward to testify against him. Among them was Suzi Dent, who during the trial would only be known as the ‘Australian makeup artist’ who spent an afternoon at work being touched by a man who was old enough to be her father.
Suzi Dent was just 23-years-old when she was called for the biggest job of her life — working as a makeup artist for Harris, a man whom she had grown up watching on television.
“It was a really exciting day,” Dent recalled to marie claire Australia. “I was a few years into my career as a makeup artist and Rolf Harris was the biggest star I’d ever worked with, so it was really exciting.”
It wasn’t long, though, before her dream day quickly turned into a nightmare, as the man she’d once admired soon began touching her inappropriately.
“Each time I went to touch him, he would run his hands up both sides of my legs and my shorts, trying to get further and further up each time,” she recalled.
“I looked into his eyes and he knew exactly what he’d done. It was like a challenge, you know, like ‘I dare you to say something.’”
The inappropriate touching continued all day, with Dent being subjected to his unwanted advances for at least eight hours.
When it came time to remove his makeup, Dent made the decision to hide in a broom cupboard rather than endanger herself by being in a room alone with him. Looking back on her decision, she said she really did “feel that unsafe.”
“I thought, ‘if I go in that room with him, I’m putting myself in danger. Like real danger.’”
Given how early she was in her career, Dent knew that upsetting the client was considered taboo, meaning it was probably safer to keep her mouth closed than it was to speak up.
After confiding in her boss, she realised the situation was far worse than she could have imagined. As it turned out, everyone was aware of Harris’ proclivities and was remaining complicit to avoid confronting him. Dent’s boss revealed that the entertainer had been nicknamed ‘the octopus’ because he had a reputation for touching all the makeup artists.
“It really pissed me off that she didn’t tell me,” Dent said. “I felt so betrayed by her.”
When news broke that Harris would be taken to trial over allegations of child sexual assault, the world was in disbelief. Dent was in a state of disbelief too, but in a different way. She couldn’t believe a man who held such power would be held responsible for his actions.
Despite her reservations, it was a segment on A Current Affair which saw another alleged victim come forward that ultimately changed Dent’s mind about speaking up.
“As soon as I saw that, I felt like I had to come forward and support her,” she recalled. “She was really being crucified because nobody believed her.”
During the eighties, it was uncommon for women to come forward and disclose incidents of sexual assault. The #MeToo movement didn’t yet exist and men disproportionately held positions of power, making it even more difficult for victims to speak out.
Had this movement existed at the time, Dent said she would’ve come forward immediately, but in some ways, she was already championing the core concept behind #MeToo before it actually existed.
“I just really wanted to be there for them,” she said, of her decision to testify against Harris as a bad character witness.
To this day, Dent hasn’t met any of the witnesses and doesn’t even know their names, but for her, it was about standing in solidarity with them and letting them know that they were believed, at least by the people who had seen through Harris’ facade as a harmless entertainer.
On the 6th May 2014, the trial against Harris officially began and Dent was flown to the United Kingdom to give her testimony. While she was notably older than most victims involved in the trial, she related to them due to her own horrific experiences.
“I was sexually assaulted when I was 12 and it changed my life,” she revealed. “The trial was like having my 12-year-old self with the other victims’ little girls. We were standing up for our rights and for ourselves as adult women. It was so powerful.”
In July 2014, a then 84-year-old Harris was sentenced to five years and nine months jail time, but only ended up serving three years. In 2016, he faced seven more indecent assault charges, but was later cleared of four in 2017 after the jury failed to reach a verdict.
His guilty conviction was monumental, bringing yet another male entertainer to justice, with once-esteemed names like Jimmy Savile, Stuart Hall and Gary Glitter also being exposed around the same time.
Once known as some of the world’s biggest stars, each of these men have since been charged as child sex offenders. At the height of their careers, they abused their power, coercing their victims into silence and relying on their A-list status to protect them from their crimes.
Despite several decades having passed, these men are still well-known names, for all the wrong reasons. It’s a reminder not only of the dangers of being blinded by public profiles, but a reminder that we shouldn’t doubt victims.
A documentary titled National Treasure, National Disgrace: Savile, Harris & Hall details the rise and spectacular fall of these predators, ensuring that their crimes are never forgotten. It has been screening in the UK and will soon air in Australia, likely reigniting the conversation around these men.
Dent, who appears in the documentary to detail her experience with Harris, says it’s important we keep talking about these historic cases to educate the younger generation.
She appears with her full name, having made the decision to waive her lifetime anonymity in 2019. Dent credits the #MeToo movement for spurring her decision, crediting it as the “biggest healing movement for women”.
“In an instant, we saw millions of women around the world come forward in solidarity with each other,” Dent said. “For many women who haven’t told their story, that was a really big move.”
As someone who has dedicated the last few years of her life to publicly speaking out against a once-powerful man, Dent believes that sharing our stories is one of the most powerful healing tools we have.
“The only way we heal is when we speak,” she said. “We often get to a place in life and realise that we have some unfinished business and healing to do. So, when people come forward and speak, they’re going to find out who they really are.”
That day back in 1986 changed the course of Dent’s life, but arguably for the better. The convicted sex offender whom she describes as a ‘dirty old man’ ultimately forced her to confront aspects of her past which she’d long been running from. Now, she has dedicated her life to helping other victim-survivors come to terms with their assault and finding the inner-strength to speak about it.
“I work with people to give them the confidence to tell their story and provide a safe space for them to do so, like a trusted friend with no judgment,” she explained, before praising the power of reclaiming your narrative by speaking with others.
For Dent, who is incredibly passionate about supporting other women in their time of need, it’s the perfect career path. It may have been eight years ago that she stood with fellow victim-survivors in court, but it certainly wouldn’t be the last time she extended a hand to pull someone from the darkness.
If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service or contact Full Stop Australia.