LEE, SOPHIE

Australian Actor

Australian actor Sophie Lee shot to national fame as the teenage presenter of the Bugs Bunny Show in 1990 (Channel Nine). With a combination of daring fashion-sense, verve and beauty she secured high ratings among adults as well us children. Lee went on to host the first series of Sex (a.k.a., Sex with Sophie Lee) for Channel Nine in 1991. The show scored a high rating (32) and propelled her further into popular notoriety, especially in tabloid and consumer journalism, where she was the undisputed cover-girl of the year, appearing, often repeatedly, in Australia's biggest-circulation magazines; Woman's Day, New Idea, TV Soap, TV Week, Cosmopolitan, Cleo, Dolly, Who Weekly, Truth, Playboy (in a cover/interview as sax-player with Melbourne rock band The Freaked Out Flower Children), and The Australian Woman's Weekly.

Her celebrity was organized around her youthful good looks, but Lee exceeded the image from the start, being associated with forthright views on sexism, feminism, and on the need for young people to get accurate sex-information in the HIV era. The combination of her popular reach, sexy image, and widely reported comments on sexism, made her a contributor to and icon of the modernization, democritization and feminization of sexual attitudes in Australian popular/public culture. Her television career coincided with the rise of supermarket journalism and the supermodel phenomenon (she was also used as a fashion model), both of which blurred traditional distinctions between public and private, politics and entertainment, male and female "domains," urban and suburban culture. Lee herself was constantly critical of the tendency of TV executives and tabloid journalists to confuse sexuality with sleaze, and as a result she was seen as an unofficial spokesperson for a postmodern, post-political generation and its concerns.

Lee was reluctant to continue as the role model of sexuality for Channel Nine, since her commitment to democratized sexual lifestyles was exploited to run segments on voyeuristic topics (such as topless barmaids) over which she had no control, instead of stories she did herself on topics such as abortion and the campaign to put condom vending-machines in schools. As a result of these concerns she dropped out of the Sex show after its first season. She continued to appear as an actor in the internationally syndicated prime-time soap opera The Flying Doctors and its short-lived successor RFDS, playing the character of Penny Wellings. She also appeared in the launch episode of the successful "forensic psychologist" series Hallifax fp (starring Rebecca Gibney) in 1994. But effectively Lee withdrew from TV-celebrity altogether to concentrate on acting, spending 1995 on tour with the classic Australian stage-play Summer of The Seventeenth Doll.

Lee is known to an international audience through her role as Tania in the 1994 suburban tragi-comedy film Muriel's Wedding. Tania is notable for her sobbing, mascara-spattered, uncomprehending line "But I'm beautiful!" uttered when she loses the plot to the despised, ugly, fat, uncool Muriel. This line sums up an ironic, Australian displacement of the standard Hollywood teen-film where the good-looking girl wins out in the end precisely for that reason.

Within the constraints of possibility offered by her public persona, Lee works against the grain of "suburban terrorism," not uncritically endorsing or exploiting it, but offering glimpses of other powers than being "beautiful" but "dangerously short of brains." She has consistently used her own beauty and brains in opposition to the "power thing," to talk through the expected stereotypes to the suburban audiences who were hooked on her Bugs Bunny persona. Sophie Lee was among the first of a new generation of politically astute popular performers in Australia who allowed a virtualized, postmodern public to think even as they admired.

-John Hartley

 


Sophie Lee
Photo courtesy of Sophie Lee

SOPHIE LEE. Born 1969 in Melbourne, Australia. Worked in local theatre groups and as an international model; first film role in the Australian telemovie Raw Silk, 1988; host of GTV Channel 9 Bugs Bunny Show; major roles in The Flying Doctors, 1985, and its spin-off R.F.D.S.; talk show host, 1991; also pursued a singing career in this period with a small Melbourne band.

TELEVISION SERIES

1985- The Flying Doctors
1990 The Bugs Bunny Show (host)
1991 Sex with Sophie Lee (host)
1993 R.F.D.S.
1994 Hallifax, fp

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIE

1988 Raw Silk

FILM

Muriel's Wedding, 1994.

THEATER

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, 1995; Gary's House, 1996.

FURTHER READING

Hartley, John. Popular Reality: Journalism, Modernity, Popular Culture. London: Edward Arnold, 1996.

O'Regan, Tom. Australian National Cinema. London: Routledge, 1996.

 

See also Sex