Schapelle Corby: ‘I’m thankful to be able to grow old’
A few months ago, Schapelle Corby received a call from someone claiming to be from the tax office. The caller accused her of not paying her taxes and insisted if she didn't pay the outstanding money immediately, a tax officer would come to her home and take her to the local courthouse.
As she reveals to Stellar in an exclusive interview on the eve of her television debut, she was terrified: "For 15 minutes my heart was breaking. I couldn't calm down. I was so, so scared."
But then the caller said something that stopped her in her tracks. "If you don't pay this money you could go to jail for six years," he said. "Do you really want that? I've pulled up your file and I can see you're a law-abiding citizen with no criminal record."
Corby, 43, chuckles as she recalls how she was duped but ultimately got the last laugh. "Are you kidding me?" she told him. "Actually, I was sentenced to 20 years in prison in another country and I was deported back home three years ago."
Whatever you think of her - and, as she points out, no-one in the country aged over 15 doesn't know her name or have an opinion - Corby is finally emerging from the trauma and mental breakdown caused by the nine years she spent in a Bali prison after being convicted of drug trafficking.
Even as recently as three months ago, she was still rattled for days after the scam "tax" call, but her decision to take part in the Seven Network's new reality show SAS Australia has been pivotal in her healing.
Conquering a series of physical and psychological tests in a punishing environment alongside 16 other Australian celebrities could have led her to breaking point but, as she speaks with Stellar on a video call, it is clear she flourished under the challenge. "I saw it as the ultimate psychological test," she says.
"I knew I was strong physically, but I've suffered severe catatonic mental illness. There's always this little thought in the back of my head that I could lose my mind again."
She takes a deep breath and pushes her black-rimmed glasses further up her nose. "I live in such a safe bubble that I've created for myself. This was the ultimate test: to see if I truly am 100 per cent cured of my mental illness and in control of my mind."
While SAS Australia differs from other reality formats in so far as "recruits" are able to voluntarily withdraw at any time, Corby knew the gruelling physical challenges - including falling out of a helicopter into freezing water, sleep deprivation and interrogation by ex-Special Forces soldiers - could backfire.
"Being shouted at is completely normal for me but, don't forget, I've been sitting down for a good part of the past 15 years," she says. "Jogging up hills with a 20kg Bergen [military backpack] was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do."
Plenty will presume that Corby's decision to join the ranks of reality-television contestants 16 years after she was arrested at Bali's Denpasar airport with 4.2kg of marijuana in her boogie-board bag is an attempt at public redemption.
Following her conviction, she served nine years of her 20-year sentence and another three on parole in Bali before returning home to Australia in 2017, where she remains a polarising figure. Some may even question whether as a convicted criminal she should be termed "a celebrity".
Instead of side-stepping the issue, Corby tackles it head-on when asked as much, her emboldened expression in stark contrast to the images of the frightened and weeping young woman photographed outside court or in Indonesia's notorious Kerobokan Prison.
"I am putting myself out there in the media again and there is a lot of hate towards me, I get that," she says carefully.
"But it's not about what people think of me. I'm not trying to change their perceptions or give them more to hate. I really don't care what people think of me. I'm at that point of my life now where I am not hurting anybody. This was about whether I could get control of my mind. It was for myself, and I'm so proud I did it."
If the show allowed Corby to test her physical and mental strength, it also put her in situations that have a curious synchronicity to her time in prison.
At the beginning of the show, a hood is put over her head, not unlike the scarf and hat she wore when she was released in 2014. And, as she writes in her autobiography, when she was first in prison, she used to fantasise about escaping via a rope dropped from a helicopter.
Flying in a helicopter for the first time on the show, she says, she felt exhilaration - after freefalling into a freezing lake and having to swim to shore. What was confronting, the former beauty-therapy student admits, was having to go make-up-free. "There's going to be some unflattering footage," she cracks. "That's for sure."
Although for the seven weeks in the run-up to the show she jogged and trained in the gym five times a week in addition to two weekly personal-training sessions, Corby says she wasn't as fit as most of the other contestants.
But she was taken aback by how supportive they were. On one occasion, she was running up a hill with her pack when fellow contestant and former The Biggest Loser trainer Shannan Ponton held the weight of it so she could scramble up more easily. "I was pleasantly surprised by how encouraging they were towards me," she says, adding that she hopes some will stay in touch.
While she lives a relatively contained and introverted life at home with her mother in Brisbane, Corby's quick wit is indicative of her returning confidence. Asked what she enjoyed most about the show, her answer is unexpected.
"Oh, James Magnussen's body," she says, laughing. "I'm not a pervert, I do have a boyfriend and I love him dearly, but just to see this magnificent, sculptured body… he was just exquisite to look at. I had to ask him, 'Like, are you a Viking?'"
In some respects, Corby comes across as a twenty-something in a middle-aged woman's body. Just as she wouldn't have seen Magnussen swimming in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, she is only now learning about certain technologies and she missed out on many of the milestones of womanhood.
She met her boyfriend Ben Panangian in prison, but because of his criminal convictions he's unlikely to be allowed entry into Australia. The pair have a long-distance relationship and haven't seen each other since February 2019. Nevertheless, one wonders if she finally feels as if she's catching up on normal life.
"On womanhood, no, but on life, yes," she says. Then, without prompting, she reveals what her conviction has cost her. "There are no children. I do have motherly instincts, but they are aimed towards my dog Princess. My boyfriend lives in another country, so I am not sexy or anything."
She still holds a kernel of hope that she will become a mother. "I don't put too much emphasis on thinking about what I've lost," she says. "If it's possible for me to have a child, OK, but I'm not going to dwell too much because there's nothing I can change about that. But I could be still young enough."
With no immediate plans to see her boyfriend due to the pandemic, Corby is focused on retaining her health and fitness after losing a considerable amount of weight in preparation for the show. She makes salads from the family's vegetable garden and spends her time making resin clocks, which she sells via social media.
The day after her photo shoot for Stellar, she was going away with three girlfriends for a mini-break after it was pointed out to her that she needed to embrace her freedom.
"I was having dinner with one of my girlfriends and she suggested I seem to be institutionalised," she tells Stellar.
"She was right. When I was in prison I was always waiting for someone to visit or waiting for the time of day to eat or waiting for the block to open. I found I was still waiting. I didn't have the initiative to call friends and make a plan. That's why the clocks have been important in my healing process. If I make a sale, I have to go out to get them posted as soon as possible."
While she is no longer on medication and has not had the suicidal thoughts that plagued her in prison, Corby still has flashbacks to the times she suffered hallucinations and delusions. "I do suffer from open spaces. I feel like there are shadows behind trees, but during the show I dealt with it because I was so busy."
These days, she says, she values her family, her art and her dog. "I'm very, very lucky to have the family I have," she says. "If I didn't have my sister Mercedes I would not have survived. She put her life on hold for me. She started a campaign to save me and she didn't stop until I was saved."
Perhaps it's a legacy of losing so many years to prison or perhaps she is simply growing into her age, but Corby admits she is still finding her way in the outside world, even if her Instagram following (164K) suggests otherwise.
She says the show made her appreciate our military and she is thankful for our public-healthcare system after being denied breast checks and pap smears for so many years. Mostly, she's just grateful to still be alive.
"I'm privileged," she says. "I didn't think I'd turn 40. I didn't think I'd be released from prison. I am just so thankful to be able to grow old. A lot of people are denied that."
As for her name, she accepts it will always be associated with her drug-smuggling conviction, but she won't change it. "I'm resigned to it. I have to be. I have learnt to deal with it so the public needs to accept it. Like it or not, it's what it is."
SAS Australia premieres Monday October 19 at 7.30pm on the Seven Network.