Stephanie Ney
Mon, August 1, 2011 at 8:00
Stephanie Hunt in Alison Page, Carol Malcolm, Coffs Coast, Coffs Harbour, Interesting, Person, Stephanie Ney, Stephanie Ridgeway, Stephanie Small

Alison Page says Stephanie Ney is the most interesting person she knows on the Coffs Coast.  “She has all these lives,” Alison says.  “I’m inspired by her every day because of her incredible drive and passion.  She’s like five people rolled up in one for me.”  I head out to discover the many lives of Stephanie.


Stephanie Ney:  A Life Transformed

The mid-north coast has changed Stephanie Ney irrevocably.  It’s changed her name, changed her life style, and changed her way of looking at the world. 

The 39 year old Stephanie who arrived in Sawtell was a somewhat burnt out high achieving, high flying alcoholic.  Her marriage to Aboriginal politician Aden Ridgeway had unravelled and she was still figuring out how to be a mother to 4 year old daughter Sancia.  Almost five years later, the Stephanie she became is the organisational force behind the Saltwater Freshwater Arts Alliance Aboriginal Corporation, loves being a mum, has published a book glorifying women in their forties, goes to Girl Fit four mornings a week on Sawtell beach, and hasn’t had a drink in over 4 years.   Both Stephanies are extraordinarily interesting and compelling!

 “I played piano from the age of 3, I was on the school debating side and the school musicals and I also played representative soccer and hockey,” she explains. I was a participative little achiever. “  Growing up on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, Stephanie was a high achiever from the beginning.  Her native intelligence, gregariousness and drive virtually guaranteed career success.  Dabbling initially in publishing and advertising, Stephanie found her niche in the Arts and sponsorship.  After six years honing her organisational and schmoozing skills with Bell Shakespeare Company and The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, she established her own sponsorship consultancy in 1998.  For the next seven years she worked with major arts organisations such as the Sydney Opera House and the Bangarra Dance Company to help raise funds and with large corporates to help them invest their sponsorship dollars.  “The Arts was perfect for me,” Stephanie says.  “And it was also perfect for my drinking.”

Drinking came as naturally to Stephanie as achieving.  She says she started drinking in her teens, and by HSC she was drinking 4 nights a week.  A career that involved entertaining high rollers until late into the night sealed drinking as a way of life.  “I think alcohol very quickly became my off switch,” Stephanie explains.  “I’m on, on, on, on, on, on – off!  And once I’m off I switch off altogether; no responsibilities.”  Most people never recognised her drinking as a problem.  “The only one who really knew I had an issue was me,” she admits.  Everyone else saw a successful, fun-loving, party girl who used her gregariousness to lure in sponsorship dollars.

Stephanie’s outgoing charm was a perfect foil for Aden Ridgeway’s introverted soul and political lifestyle.  They met while Stephanie was working at Bell and although she was travelling in lofty circles of her own accord, marriage to Aden took Steph’s high flying lifestyle to new heights.  “I had dinner at the prime minister’s house with Nelson Mandela.  I got to go to the World Economic Forum in Davos.”  Stephanie exclaims.  It was wild and it was fun, but competing for the limelight with the ever more brightly shining star that was Aden proved hard.  “As an extroverted person who loves being the centre of attention, I hated being pushed into the background,” she explains.  The sense of unevenness in the marriage was accentuated when their child Sancia was born.  “I couldn’t be number one cheerleader anymore,” Steph explains. 

The marriage crumbled.  Stephanie sought stability in her career, working hard four days a week and ‘switching off’ with drink starting on Friday.  “I was just burning out, running myself into the ground, daughter in daycare, not spending much time with her.”  Stephanie had been to the mid-north coast to visit Aden’s family and had friends in the area.  Somehow the idea of moving to Sawtell felt like a solution.  She worked up the courage to tell Aden she wanted to leave Sydney, packed up her daughter and her belongings and forever changed the path of her life. 

 “I’m hard; I’m judging; I’m critical.  I didn’t want to be that person ever again,” Stephanie decided.  And so she set out to reinvent herself. 

Her drinking came first.  Steph stopped drinking 3 months before leaving Sydney; just to clear her head she had told herself.  “So when I moved up here that was my turning point,” she explains.  “Do I just continue pretending as I’ve pretended all my life or do I get real?”  She chose the latter and hasn’t touched a drink in over 4 years.

A new awareness came next.  To prove to herself that she no longer needed to be a high flyer, she took a job as a sandwich hand.  The experience was ego deflating.  “There were very serious career sandwich hand women there.  They treated me like I used to treat other people: like I was a complete waste of space,” Stephanie explains.  She was ‘let go’, retreated in tears, and learned some important life lessons.

A humbler and sober Steph enrolled in digital media and photography at the local TAFE.  She may have lost some of her ego, but she hadn’t lost her drive.  “I was the usual overachieving mature age student,” she explains.  She turned her newfound skills toward a celebration of everyday Australian women in a self-published book titled Defining 4orty.    The book features 16 women, many from the mid-north coast revealing more than you might expect about their lives: posing naked and talking openly about life in their forties.  It’s inspiring and, reading Stephanie’s chapter on herself, cathartic.

Into this newly created life walked two people to put the final touches on the new Stephanie:  Alison Page and David Ney.

Alison brings fulfilment and a role as Operations Manager at Saltwater Freshwater.   Stephanie loves working for a regional Aboriginal arts organisation.  It brings out all the strengths from her former life - her skills in organisation and sponsorship, her connections to the Aboriginal community - in a kinder gentler environment.  “We work in this office buzzing with laughter, songs and ideas  inspired by Aboriginal communities.”  And working with Alison has special significance for Stephanie.  “She sees being Aboriginal as an advantage.  I can’t tell you how much I love that for my daughter,” Steph explains.

David brings love, marriage and a new name to mark the new Steph.  “I’m so grateful every day,” says Steph.  “I have a beautiful husband, who is on the same path.  We live in a really lovely home in SawtellIt’s a joyful life!

In her book Defining 4orty Stephanie says of herself, “I feel like I’ve retired from life as I knew it and have now created a life where I live each day as consciously…as I can.”  Stephanie’s metamorphosis calls to mind the caterpillar becoming a butterfly, the transformation is that great.  But in fact both Stephanies are butterflies:  the high flying big city butterfly was bright, beautiful and destined to a brief but shining life; the mid-north coast butterfly is more softly shaded, takes time to drink the nectar of life and appreciates the smaller joys to be found just floating on the breeze.


Here are some links to find out more about the many lives of Stephanie. 

Please note that to add to the confusion of Stephanie’s many lives is yet another name.  Stephanie Small is the name Steph chose as a professional name for her photography and the name under which she published her book. 

Saltwater Freshwater

Defining 4orty

Stephanie Small Photography


The most interesting person Stephanie knows on the Coast is Carol Malcolm.  Carol is the chick with the surfboard on p121 of Defining 4orty.  She’s also Stephanie’s friend, a breast cancer survivor, a mother, a human resource consultant.  “She has an inspirational story,” says Steph.  “She’s doing amazing stuff and she doesn’t think she’s doing anything worth noting.”  This clearly appeals to the new humble Steph.


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Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (
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