Celia Pacquola on Acknowledging Her Family’s History

The Australian comedian and actor explores her “uncomfortable” heritage in the new series of SBS’s “Who Do You Think You Are?”

Article by Jane Rocca

Celia Pacquola stars in SBS's current season of "Who Do You Think You Are?". Photography courtesy of SBS.

Whether it’s her self-depreciating comedy on stage, her perfectly executed (and hilarious) deadpan acting on “Utopia”, her quick wits (and giggles) on “Have You Being Paying Attention?”, her antics on the latest season of “Rosehaven” or her struggles and wins on last year’s “Dancing with the Stars”, it’s clear that comedian Celia Pacquola is all heart. Not to mention one of Australia’s most successful comedians and actors.

Yet, when she was asked to star in SBS’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” (premiering tonight) she almost refused. But not for any reasons you might think of. She didn’t consider herself suitably prominent. “I just thought I’m not famous or interesting enough,” she says. “It also felt arrogant to do so – it felt like ‘Hey, look at my life’. But the reason I did do it was for my mother, Pam. She was totally into the idea.”

So Pacquola signed up for the adventure feeling a little nervous of what she would learn; what she found was that her family had an uncomfortable past. “I was totally bracing myself for what would come up with this series,” she says, “because as white Australians in this country, our heritage and [my mother’s] English lineage is part of the colonisation story of Australia. I was nervous of what I would find and my fears were correct.”

The Melbourne-based comedian had planned to be back on the stand-up comedy circuit this year but now she finds herself back in lockdown in her home city. She spoke to T Australia about her mother, the revelations of the show and the anxiety diaries she once kept.

Celia Pacquola was nervous about what she would learn about her family in this series. Photography courtesy of SBS.

Firstly, why did being part of “Who Do You Think You Are?” mean so much to your mother?

“Mum grew up in Sydney and both of her parents passed away by the time she was in her early 20s. I guess, the city she had come to love became a place of sadness for her. She packed her bags and went to Melbourne, so she didn’t get to spend much time with her parents and learn about their history. I’m also closer to my Mum’s side than my father’s family, who are Italian – so it made sense to explore her side and find some ancestral stories related to her.”

Your mother has a great sense of adventure herself – tell us about that?

“My Mum is pretty remarkable. My second stand-up show [in 2010] was called “Flying Solos” and it was all about her flying planes. She used to live in the Yarra Valley and felt isolated in her marriage to my Dad. She wasn’t in a happy place at the time – not that I knew back then – but one day while doing the washing, a plane flew over her head. I guess she thought ‘That would be good to try’, because shortly afterwards she signed herself up for lessons and learned to fly in secret. She never told Dad. She would go to the Lilydale Airfield to practice, and actually after she did her first solo flight, she left Dad. She hasn’t flown for a while, but I have been up with her once when I was 20. Let me tell you, it’s the most terrifying thing in the world to look across and see that the person in charge of keeping you in the sky is your mother. She doesn’t know how to send text messages but she can fly a plane!”

What was the greatest discovery you made on the programme?

“It’s complicated because I had two very different experiences with the lives of two relatives. The first is the story of my three-time great grandfather, John Rae. He was a genuine beautiful loving man who took a tragedy and turned it into something that could help the world. He also was a painter and his former home in Sydney is now a public gallery. So I can now take Mum there to see his work and that’s something we didn’t know about and can enjoy. That aspect has been wonderful and worthwhile.

The second relative we investigated [Australian settler William Sherwin] was very uncomfortable, confronting and awful; but in many ways, it was more important and affected me deeply. This story follows an ancestor who came over in the early days of colonisation and it involves stolen land. Seeing the document where he was given stolen land was heartbreaking… All I could think of was how it would feel as a First Nation person watching that. I cried so much.”

How will learning this family history impact what happens next in your life?

“Well, now I am trying to learn about the land in Parramatta that is connected to my ancestors. I also hope that doing something like this show might encourage other people to think about their own personal relationships with history in this country. You know as white Australians we continue to benefit, while First Nations people are disadvantaged. I know I am part of [the problem] and I had a feeling that my family’s past might have had a part in it. But to go there and connect with a generous and kind elder, Uncle Chris Tobin, whose ancestors belonged to the land, was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life. In a way I felt the TV show made it easier to watch and it should have been more uncomfortable; I am still working through these feelings and how I can help.”

What did you learn about yourself by delving into the past?

“Ha! Well, William Sherwin, for all his flaws was a smart ass; I guess I can relate on that front. Artist John Rae was a jack of all trades trying a million things, which I can identify with for sure. He could also paint, write poetry, and perform poetry. He tried a bunch of things, which is certainly a lot like me. I also learned I have feelings… When I was being filmed, I did wonder if I would feel manipulated, watched or exposed, but in the moment of discovery, I really felt like I saw my ancestors as real people and that did affect me profoundly.”

Celia Pacquola with elder Uncle Chris Tobin. Photography courtesy of SBS.

What’s next on the agenda for Celia Pacquola?

“We’re in the middle of editing Season 5 of “Rosehaven” and it was the first time we filmed it in summer in Hobart, which was amazing. I’m also working on another factual series about anxiety for SBS. And prior to lockdown, I managed to film a stand-up hour at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne; to be back on stage and have people in the same room was something I was really craving. I also plan to go with Mum to Sydney when lockdown is finished, so we can see and enjoy John Rae’s artworks together.”

You’ve never shied from discussing your own battles with anxiety and depression. What do you hope to achieve through the new show?

“Anxiety is interesting – it’s hard to pin down. The feeling of being anxious is natural and you need it and it’s useful. But the difference between being anxious and having anxiety comes out in different ways in many people. This new show is for people who have anxiety, who want to know more about it and it’s for people who don’t have it too.”

How do you deal with your own demons these days?

“I have a combination of anxiety and depression. I know when it’s happening at a not appropriate level. For example, like walking to a gig and feeling like I am walking to my own execution is the most obvious way it manifests. It’s a fear of what is supposed to be a straightforward thing. It’s an over-reaction to what I know should be different. Anxiety also stops you from doing things. I think the potential for it is always there in me, but it’s about managing it, getting better at stopping it and catching it when it comes up. It’s still there to a degree, but it was a long time ago that I felt like that.”

You kept diaries during your most anxious years. Where are they now?

“My anxiety diaries are full of jokes of me talking to myself. It all goes back to when I started stand-up and earlier. Yes, I keep everything, but every time I pick them up, I ask myself whether I can handle the content within. Sometimes I say no, not today. As a stand-up you don’t want to throw away material – there might be five minutes of gold in there somewhere!”

What will your future comedy shows look like?

“I’ve not done a show about my time on “Dancing with the Stars” last year – maybe after all these factual TV shows I’m doing, this is where I’ll go next!”


Who Do You Think You Are?” premiers on Tuesday 8th June, 7.30pm, on  SBS and SBS on Demand.