Kelly McLoughlin-Wilden
Thu, May 15, 2014 at 10:40
Stephanie Hunt

Katherine Gates wrote in to nominate her boss, Kelly McLoughlin-Wilden as the most interesting person she knows on the Coffs Coast.  Immediately it struck me as unusual that anyone would nominate their boss.  She went on to provide a lengthy list of Kelly’s achievements – including the fact that she was the morning host on Radio 2CS.  Yes, indeed.  She sounds interesting.  But the thing that got me was the last line of her nomination, “…and she has pink hair.”  Suddenly this was a woman I just had to meet.

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Behind the Microphone

The hallways are nearly empty as I am escorted into the Radio 2CS broadcast studio.  The Southern Cross parking lot seemed empty when I pulled up, but from the studio window I can see a lone white 4WD, “EJ and Kel for Breakfast” emblazoned across the bonnet and doors. 

As I take a seat in the corner of the studio, Kel checks the computer screens on the wall beside her and glances at EJ.  “Ready?”  EJ nods, pulls the doorstop and the heavy metal door swings shut.  For a moment it’s hard to breath: the black, soundproofed walls seem to be closing in on this tiny room.

But the air conditioner kicks in, the mics go on and EJ starts talking.  “Good morning Coffs Harbour.  It will be a sunny 24 degrees today.  Warm enough for you Kel?”

* * *

Kelly McLoughlin-Wilden has been “Kel”, the radio host, for less than a year, but she has the air of a pro.  EJ, who has been a radio host for three decades, agrees that Kelly is a natural.  “So much of this job is about having a personality on-air.  And she came with plenty of personality.”

From my first meeting with Kelly at her home in Nana Glen to seeing her “live” on air I have been left with no doubt about the force of Kelly’s personality. Her neon pink hair shouts “look at me”, she rattles on at an alarming rate about everything from Albert Camus to female sexuality and a deep throaty laugh erupts from her larynx like a force of nature. 

That laugh was a source of problems at the beginning of her radio career.  She was initially paired with a different co-host, and the pairing was awkward. “Our sense of humour was different.  I’d send something across the desk and nothing would come back.  To cover up for the fact that I didn’t know what to say, I would laugh,” she explains.

The fact that the original co-host is no longer around and the novice “Kel” remains in the seat speaks volumes about Kelly’s talent and indomitable nature.  “I’m the angel of death baby!” she says and that laugh erupts again.

This is “funny” Kelly.  Her sharp-witted exterior, at least in part, a protective mechanism formed as the only child of parents who moved the family up and down the east coast running a pub, news agency, liquor store, post office and takeaway.  “Moving to a new school develops your sense of humour”, she says.  “Laugh at yourself before they laugh at you.”

There is also “clever” Kelly.  From a very young age Kelly was a voracious reader.  Books and videos were her childhood companions and fuel for her imagination.  She completed a Commerce degree and went on to study Law at the University of Canberra.  By the time she moved to Coffs Harbour in 2000, Kelly had graduated dux of her class and spent a year as a successful law lecturer.  Not much wonder local law firm Fishburn, Watson O’Brien snapped her up.

But Radio 2CS did not find Kelly at a law firm – they found her through the theatre. Having started with local theatre not long after arriving in Coffs Harbour, Kelly quickly developed a reputation for playing “the crazy bitch who dies in the end.”

She performed her first role as Charlotte Corday, with her then legal boss in the audience.  “At one point I had to masturbate.  I had to go from non-arousal to orgasm in two lines.” She pauses.  “Clearly a man wrote this play.”  That laugh explodes.

Funny, clever, slightly crazy Kelly is who we hear in our car on the way to work each morning:  quick repartee, the ability to talk across a surprising range of subjects, remarkably confident for a relative novice.

What is not so obvious over the radio is “complicated” Kelly: the woman whose life has often been a little screwed up, who is more vulnerable than her tough exterior allows us to see. 

Kelly did not sail smoothly through her degrees in Commerce and Law.  She met Greg half way through her Commerce degree.  “We became friends, then we moved in together, we became lovers and then we became pregnant,” says Kelly.  Three months after Sam was born, she and Greg were married. 

Becoming a wife and mother at 21 in the midst of a tertiary education is a complication most students manage to avoid.  “I remember (before) my kids, I’d sit in the refectory with my friends and I’d talk about how I have no spare time, and let’s have another coffee and talk about how busy I am some more.  When you have a baby – now you know what having no time is!”

It took Kelly over a decade to complete her commerce and law degrees, while working as an aerobics instructor, taking shifts in her parents’ liquor store and raising her growing brood, which soon included sons Sam, Billy and James.  But it took only two years at Fishburn, Watson O’Brien for Kelly to walk away from the law.  “It wasn’t for me …terrific law student, great law lecturer, crappy lawyer,” she explains with a shrug.

Kelly took a few months off.  The plan was to spend time with the kids and help Greg build Canopi, his eLearning business.  But released from the left-brain rigors of the law, Kelly’s imagination soared.  She decided to write a play.

Two Doors Down launched at the Jetty Theatre to a successful two-week run.  It has since been performed again at the Jetty Theatre, ran recently at Murwillumbah Theatre and is being considered for “The Q” in Queanbeyan. Last year she wrote a sequel, Two Floors Up.

She says she found her element as a playwright.  “For me it’s like skiing on a perfectly beautiful slope.  Some days the moguls are there, but it’s the right fit for me,” she says.  “I feel that I have a strong voice, a unique voice.”

Even without seeing the plays one can hear she has a unique voice just by the way she talks about her characters.  She worries about the fact that Kath’s husband is into internet porn and her 15-year-old niece has been caught sexting with her boyfriend.  She sympathises with Father Gerald’s weariness of the black cloud of paedophilia that hangs over everyone in the church.

The sexual thread throughout the storylines of both plays reflects another complication in Kelly’s life: sex.  In her youth she experienced sexual abuse.  “Not by family and not a horror story,” she says.  And she goes on to say that in some ways the abuse has been a gift.  “This was the obstacle I had to overcome.”

Back in Canberra when Kelly and Greg were juggling children, jobs and study, sexual problems arose in their marriage.  It would have been easy enough to blame the problems on the hectic pace of their lives, but Kelly was convinced that her early abuse was at the core.  The problem was hers.

She embarked on a mission to improve her own sexual health.  “I wanted to be normal…no, scratch that.  I wanted to be great in the sack,” she says.  “I read every personal development book I could get my hands on: even did the exercises!  I was Course-Woman!  You could have bought me a cape.”  From the depths of her belly comes that laugh.

But this is not really a laughing matter for Kelly.  She passionately believes women need to be stronger in voicing their sexual needs.  “I’m a sexual person and I will talk about it,” she says, arguing that the social norms that silence genuine discussion of sex leave room only for sleaze and smut.

Sexual advocate, ex-lawyer, playwright, mother, wife, “crazy bitch” playing actress, radio announcer…and we haven’t even mentioned Kelly’s full time job as “Anal Retentive Detail Nazi”, a self-styled title for her operations role with Canopi, Greg’s now successful eLearning business.  The funny woman behind the Radio 2CS microphone is complicated and almost impossible to pin down.

Even her “Atomic Pink” hair is complicated.  The neon colour, with newly added undertones of Pimpin Purple and Blue Mayhem, seems a mark of her humour and self-confidence. “It makes it easy for Greg to find me,” she says. “He can just ring up wherever I am and say, ‘Do you see a chick with pink hair?’”

But dig a little deeper and you discover that her hair is a symbol of her vulnerability.  “I put out my new play last year and I needed a bit of oomph.  My hair gives me courage.”

* * *

When the mics go off and the pre-recorded advertising messages start to play Kel leans back in her chair.  “This isn’t an easy thing to do,” she says.  “You don’t have the luxury of seeing the audience response.  At least in theatre you know when they’re laughing.”

She looks at EJ.  “Apparently Brad Pitt smells bad…could be an angle,” she says.  She clicks on her computer screen and types “celebrities with hygiene problems” into the Google bar.  “Bingo!  Brad Pitt smells like a sheepdog.”  Her laugh echoes down the empty hallway as I make my way toward the exit.

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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