'Being Sydney Rose was the best and worst year of my life'

Brianna Parkins on dealing with the fallout of her abortion stand at the Rose of Tralee

The 2016 Sydney Rose, Brianna Parkins, calls for a referendum on the Eight Amendment while on stage in Tralee. Video: RTÉ

 

There’s no rule book on becoming a minor international controversy. Last August, after I called for a referendum on abortion and segued into a samba at the Rose of Tralee, one of the first things I did was send my boss an email. It read: “Am I in the s**t?”

I am a journalist. Not a full time Rose. Despite going to 52 events this year as the Sydney Rose, being a researcher on one of Australia’s longest-running and politically sensitive news programmes is how I pay my rent. These two responsibilities don’t sit side-by-side easily.

Before I left Australia, my friends worried I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a journalist once I’d done a party piece in a tent in Kerry. After I came home they were worried I would be seen as a plant and stripped of my Rose title for writing about the festival from the inside. One of those people may have been my mum as I tapped out my first Irish Times piece on a bodgy iPad on the train back to Dublin.

A few months later, I investigate a journalist for beating up a story. He calls me a failed beauty queen. When I call out the Daily Mail for fabricating a photograph on one of their stories, I land on their website complete with photos in my ballgown on stage. Whether I like it or not, the YouTube footage of my Rose reign is forever a quick Google away.

For almost 12 months, this has been my life: smile, sash and other women’s stories of suffering

I settle back into work. The news cycle moves on. Even the anonymous emails calling me a “baby murdering whore” dry up. But I have accidentally started a pen pal club no one wanted to be a member of. Emails trickle in from women who have had abortions, who are waiting to have them, on their way to have them, are going with friends who are going to have them, whose daughter needs one.

For almost 12 months, this has been my life: smile, sash and other women’s stories of suffering. The things they’ve faced force out the doubts I’ve carried since I said my bit up on the stage in Kerry.

Did I burn too many bridges? Did I scuttle any chance of a broadcast news career, an industry that likes its women scandal-free and neutral? Did I do a bad job? Will I be welcome in Tralee again? Have I ruined the next Sydney Rose’s chances? Should I care if old ladies are right and I never meet a man with road frontage? These issues are embarrassingly small compared to the women in the emails.

Most of those women are already mothers. Most are Irish. Most say they can’t afford another child – financially or emotionally. They explain their reasons: their partner is between jobs, they have children with special needs, they’ve just started back in the workforce, they don’t have a permanent place to stay, and their relationship is breaking down or is abusive. Sometimes they just don’t want a child and don’t feel the need to supply an excuse. I don’t need them to.

I try to answer them back and a couple of us strike up back-and-forth correspondence. Often I’m at events as the Sydney Rose, fighting safety pins and fixing a crooked sash. In between the speeches and mini pies and the forgetting of names, I check my phone.

Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins with Dáithí Ó Sé in 2016. Photograph: from Twitter
Sydney Rose Brianna Parkins with Dáithí Ó Sé in 2016. Photograph: from Twitter

The emails keep me going through the best and worst year of my life. I raise money for women’s reproductive healthcare. My relationship with a good bloke fails, the existing cracks made wider by stress. I’m bought many pints by the Sydney Irish and I grow grateful for the family of expats who look after their own. I lose friends and some family. I get asked to speak at events. I consider getting police involved after threats to my safety keep me up for days at a time.

One moment of clear-eyed conviction last year has turned into months of debate and doubt

A man comes up to me at a party, his opening line “You’ve got some balls on you!” He later donates $5,000 to a pro-choice organisation. My kidneys get infected; again doctors warning me against stress. I find out I’m an Irish Times person of the year on Christmas Day. Later that day, at lunch on my aunt’s cattle farm, my grandma looks at me and declares without any prompting: “Well, I didn’t want an abortion and I’m glad I didn’t have one.”

One moment of clear-eyed conviction last year has turned into months of debate and doubt.

Why did I bother becoming a Rose if I’m that much of a feminist? Because you can be both, and many Roses are.

Am I sad I ruined it for myself and didn’t win? I stand by what I said, but I hope future women competing in the festival aren’t trapped between their Rose ambitions and their beliefs.

Have I done enough or did I make a lot of noise without getting much done? You can’t be an activist and journalist. Each compromises the other. I feel about as entitled to being a Rose as I do a journalist: not very. I often feel like an imposter, desperate not to be found out that I don’t belong. But the one thing I do have enough confidence in is my views on reproductive rights, even if I can’t campaign as much as I’d like.

My views were shaped 10 years ago. I am from one of the poorest suburbs in Sydney. You can still hear it in my accent. It’s pure back blocks of Western Sydney, a long way from Bondi beach. Most of us there knew at least one girl who had an unwanted pregnancy. Dads sometimes disappear. School gets put on hold. Public-housing waiting-lists are 10 years long.

In this part of Sydney, it’s always the women who can least afford it who get left to deal with limited access to their reproductive options.

Everyone says their mum is the strongest woman they know but mine was an unmarried mother with a part-Indigenous child in the 1970s

I am also very aware of women who make difficult circumstances work. The adapters and overcomers. My mum would have made a better Rose than me but she wouldn’t have been able to enter, because she became a mum at 19 and a single one not long after that.

Everyone says their mum is the strongest woman they know but mine was an unmarried mother with a part-Indigenous child in the 1970s. She poured every fibre of herself into getting ahead, giving her kids advantages she didn’t have and she succeeded. Every bit of grit and fight I have comes from her. Some of my parts that I’m most proud of are inherited from Mum.

She is a poster model for pro-lifers except for the fact she is pro-choice and entirely unafraid of making it known. I found this out one day when she was picking me up from the train station. Across the road is a Marie Stopes clinic and two or three protesters would show up sporadically to wave signs with bloody foetuses at passersby without much interest. As we drove past my mum slowed down. I thought she was reading the signs until she elegantly leant her blond head out the window and calmly said “P**s off already, will ya?”

My mum explained to my mortified teenage self why she had reacted that way. “They’re not protesters – protesters complain to politicians. They’re harassing women going through a rough time, not protesters but bullies.” She had made her choice but was willing to fight for the rights of women who want to make a different one.

Brianna Parkins (centre, holding phone): 'I still Skype a few of the Roses regularly and we WhatsApp every day.' Photograph: Perry Duffin
Brianna Parkins (centre, holding phone): 'I still Skype a few of the Roses regularly and we WhatsApp every day.' Photograph: Perry Duffin

Choice is important too in my relationship with other Roses. They might not have agreed with what I said but the majority accepted my decision to say it. Since the festival others have come out publicly – and some privately – to support a referendum.

For Irish Roses the cost would have been incredibly high to do what I have done. I was able to jump on a plane heading to the other side of the world. I didn’t have to stay and face the nudging and whispering in the counties. I still Skype a few of the Roses regularly and we WhatsApp every day.

Although there have been slight tensions within the Sydney Irish community, I have instantly inherited a bunch of fiercely protective aunts, uncles and cousins in the Sydney Rose committee. We fight like family but – in the great tradition on Irish immigrant communities – we look after our own.

I remember my boyfriend at the time being annoyed I didn’t tell him the Rose of Tralee was this big. Now his reaction makes sense: the closest thing we have in Australia is the country show girl who gets quizzed on her knowledge of irrigation and sustainable livestock production.

Despite this, he’s been fiercely supportive of me through the whole year. He used all his holiday leave to wear a T-shirt with my face on it and wave to me in parades. I have spent a year feeling guilty for dragging the people closest to me into a fight they didn’t see coming and I feel frustrated at their inability to understand the fallout’s effect on me.

On a beach in Barcelona, my boyfriend gets tired of me fielding interview requests. He reminds me that I signed up for the Rose, not him. He’s still in my corner. Even months after I moved out of our place and we ended things on a handshake and a tentative plan to catch up for a beer.

We sit together at the ball as I hand over to the next Sydney Rose: a good, sound woman from Kerry. Last year my boyfriend and I were so sure I wouldn’t win, we didn’t practise the waltz and spent the long verses of the Rose of Tralee standing on each other’s toes. A year on we’re still finding our feet but we klutz our way through.

Two months ago, I was in a doctor’s waiting room thinking about the year. Things were breaking up and my kidneys felt like they were shutting down. Stress, I’m told; stress and a kidney infection. I’m left holding a jar of my urine in a room full of strangers. I’m feeling delicate. My nurse is Irish. I feel embarrassed when she recognises me. After she takes my blood, she asks me for a selfie. “It’s for my sister. We couldn’t believe it when you said what you did – but I’m glad you did.” And I realise that, despite everything, I am too.

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