Showbiz survivor Casey Donovan is at the top of her game with a new role as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton in the musical Chicago. She spoke with Peter Hackney.
Casey Donovan probably shouldn’t be in the public eye.
But if that sounds like a sledge, it’s not. Far from it. Since she won Australian Idol in 2004 at the tender age of 16, Donovan has achieved what few alumni of reality TV talent shows have managed: a lasting career in the entertainment business.
Guy Sebastian, Jessica Mauboy and a handful of others aside, the career aspirations of Donovan’s peers from Australian Idol, X Factor Australia, Australia’s Got Talent and The Voice Australia have fallen flat.
By contrast, Donovan has enjoyed #1 single, a #2 album, starred in big ticket musicals such as The Sapphires and We Will Rock You, been the face and voice of supermarket giant Coles, won Deadly Awards and Sydney Theatre Awards – not to mention season three of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here – and now she’s returning to the stage as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton in the new production of Chicago.
“Chicago feels like coming full circle,” she tells the Star. “It was the first musical theatre of any kind I ever experienced.
“I was about ten when I first saw it. We went to see it after my grandad’s brother passed away. He was a big musical theatre fan and at the time he died, there was a production of Chicago in town. Mum was like, ‘OK, Chicago was his favourite, let’s go see it,’ and that was my introduction to musical theatre.
“I pinch myself when I think that all these years later, I’m in it myself.”
Donovan says the production has put her out of her comfort zone at times – but as rehearsals continue, excitement has replaced nerves.
“What I really love about my job is that I’m a singer first and foremost but then I get to walk down different avenues like musical theatre and television, and expand my comfort zone. I’m like a mixed bag of lollies,” she laughs.
“‘Mama’ is a great character. She runs the whole prison, she loves the girls in there – but she doesn’t do nothin’ for nothin’. She wants her own way but she’ll never turn her back on anyone. I’m really excited to embody her and I feel so lucky to have this opportunity.”
Luck, of course, has little to do with it. The real reason Donovan is where she is today is because of her immense talent, coupled with sheer hard work. But despite her powerhouse voice full of colour and texture, things haven’t come easy to the 31-year-old Sydneysider and her diverse career encompassed a stint as an Uber driver during a “quiet period” several years ago.
“I’m sure a lot of people think, ‘Oh, she’s a celebrity, all these celebrities must be making millions’,” she says. “But the Australian entertainment industry is small and the money isn’t always huge – and at the end of the day, I need to pay my bills.
“I loved driving Ubers. it was a nice change in my life, I got to meet new people and drive them from A to B safely. Sometimes, people would look me over and ask, ‘What’s going on? Am I getting pranked?’ and I’d have to say, ‘No, I’m just an Uber driver right now’,” she laughs.
Donovan’s candour extends to a difficult period of her life, which saw the singer catfished for six years when she fell in love with a man named ‘Campbell’, to later find out he didn’t exist and was invented by her then best friend, Olga.
True to form, Donovan is recasting the experience as a positive one, turning lemons into lemonade: the singer is working with the Star’s own Patrick Abboud on an Australian version of MTV’s Catfish, which will follow everyday Australians who are suspicious of their online relationships.
“I jumped at the opportunity because this gives people closure and I can nurture them, and I can certainly empathise because I’ve been there myself,” she says.
The experience has given Donovan new insight into her own ‘catfisher’.
“I don’t think Olga was confident in herself and looking back, she wasn’t comfortable with her sexuality. I don’t think she knew how to navigate what she wanted and so she had to create this persona to get close to another woman,” she muses.
As for her own sexuality, she says: “I always get questioned, ‘Casey, are you a lesbian?’ and I’m like, ‘I’m not anything.’
“You like who you like and you love who you love and you can’t just switch things on and off. I feel you miss opportunities if that happens.”
A pilot episode of Catfish Australia will see Donovan host the program with Abboud and is set to air on Channel Ten during pilot week.
But for now, her life is all about the Windy City, with Chicago opening as the Star goes to press.
“It’s selling really well, some of the shows have already sold out, so get tickets, escape reality for two-and-a-half hours and let us transport you back to the 1920s with some amazing dance moves and Bob Fosse choreography. It’s just timeless entertainment.”
Chicago, starring Casey Donovan, Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Alinta Chidzey, Tom Burlinson (Sydney and Brisbane seasons) and Jason Donovan (Melbourne) is now playing at Capitol Theatre, Sydney. Tickets from $59.50 are available at chicagothemusical.com.au.