Born in Greece on 8 April, 1950 in the little village of Agios Georgios in Vion, Lakonia, Adelaide-based actress Chantal Contouri is the first Greek migrant to have ever pursued a career in acting in Australia and also has the honour of being the first Greek Australian to win a Logie award for one of her performances.
Contouri was the first offspring of Fotini and Konstantinos’ five children.
“My parents were really, really poor. We honestly didn’t have anything. They both had to work extremely hard to make a living,” says the 69-year-old award-winning actress in a rare interview with Neos Kosmos.
Chantal’s mother Fotini worked as a maid from the age of nine and Konstantinos did all sorts of jobs to survive.
The young couple met at a very young age and fell in love instantly.
Fotini was only 13 years old when she gave birth to Chantal, something that in recent times might seem outrageous, but was not unusual in most remote regions of Greece at the time.
“To me, it always felt like two children; mum and dad were trying to raise another child but despite their young years, they always made me feel safe and loved,” says Chantal.
After two failed attempts, the Contouri family obtained permission to migrate to Australia in 1954.
The young family boarded the Italian ship Castel Felice and the adventure began for the four-year-old, who during the long sea journey had the time of her life, getting acquainted with a completely different lifestyle to the one she had grown up with back in the village.
“It was the first time I saw what a car, a train and a boat looked like; I heard people speak different languages, I listened to music and got to taste exotic food and fruit that I didn’t even know existed. I will never forget the time my father peeled a ripe banana for me to eat. Its aroma, taste and texture made me feel like I was in heaven,” recalls Chantal.
Once in Australia, smart, studious and determined ‘Σανταλίτσα’ flourished to become an exquisite young lady. She attended Adelaide High School and picked up the English language almost instantly. As she was confident, empathetic and always willing to help others, her parents would often send her off to interpret and translate for fellow migrants that needed assistance with filling out job applications, medical forms and attending job interviews.
Chantal quickly became everyone’s favourite, gaining utmost respect within the community and earned the title of the ‘good Greek girl’.
“My parents were so proud of me. They thought I was an absolute angel, but as the years went by and I got to know the world and myself better, I started challenging the status quo and questioning every rule that I felt restricted my freedom to live life on my own terms.”
THE BEATLES, ZORBAS & THE FAILED PROXY
When in 1964 young Chantal read that The Beatles were coming to town, she just couldn’t contain her excitement. Little did she know that her parents and school didn’t share the same feelings as her. Adelaide High took things a step further, organising a complete school lock down in order to keep everyone away from possible trouble.
Chantal wouldn’t have it and the following day the youngster’s photo dancing at the concert accompanied with a statement in which she called her school a ‘prison’, featured in the pages of Adelaide’s most popular newspaper, causing her to lose her parents’ trust, her school’s vice-captain status and ultimately, the title of the ‘good Greek girl’.
Things got a little darker for the rebellious teenager after watching Zorba the Greek (1964).
“The movie, as extraordinary as it may have been, made my 15-year-old heart sink for all women around the world.
“All I could see was a man living, dancing and celebrating the gift of life, but at the same time I couldn’t see past the female character, who in the same breath was getting stones thrown at her, only for wanting to do the same,” she recalls.
From that moment on, she swore to become a female Zorba and live the life she had dreamt of.
After a failed proxy marriage, the young Spartan ran away from home and her mother’s rage. She sought shelter at her favourite uncle’s house and refused to return home, despite her father’s pleas to come to her senses.
‘I WANT TO BE AN ACTRESS’
Chantal used to tell her parents she wanted to be an actress from the age of seven.
“It was cute at seven but not at 15,” recalls the award-winning actress.
After leaving home, she started working as a dancer and rose through the ranks to the top of the tree as a resident go-go girl at Big Daddy’s nightclub in Gawler Place; a memory she now looks back on fondly.
But even while dancing, Chantal wanted to act. At 16 she left Adelaide for Melbourne, after being bullied and called hideous names by a Greek woman on the street.
She walked onto the pop music television show Kommotion, which featured live dancers, and danced her way through most of The Supreme’s songs.
From there, she relocated to London where she met Olivia Newton-John, who would eventually become one of her closest friends.
Those watching television in the 1970s would remember the Australian hit show Number 96, whose mad and raunchy plot lines included the dreaded pantyhose strangler, nurse Tracy Wilson played by Chantal.
Young and ethereal, the exotic actress featured in a series of movies and comedies including Alvin Rides Again (1974) as Boobs La Touche, Bazza Holds His Own (1974) with Barry Humphries and Barry McKenzie, Snapshot (1979) and the cult horror movie Thirst (1979).
Upon her return to Australia, Chantal got her most significant role, playing Melina Tsangarakis, Tom Sullivan’s first wife, on the wholesome Australian family drama television series The Sullivans from 1976 until 1983, when the character dies at the hands of a Nazi officer.
That was Chantal’s favourite role, but most are unaware that she was initially refused to even audition for it.
“Eventually, with the help of a dear friend of mine, I got my hands on the script, I learnt my lines in two hours and became Melina Tsangarakis – a role that will stay with me forever,” she says.
In 1979, Contouri won a Logie Award for best supporting actress for her role as Melina.
Following the Logie win came some recognition from her parents and also members of the Greek community who had previously slammed their doors in her face.
Contouri continued to work in Sydney and moved to LA after attending Olivia Newton-John’s marriage to Matt Lattanzi where she remained to work on the daytime mega-soap General Hospital.
In her 40s, she returned to Sydney briefly before heading overseas again, this time to Greece, for an extended period of relaxation and self-reflection in the family’s home.
Upon her return to Australia, Contouri accepted a few more roles before deciding to semi-retire from acting in 1998 following her mother’s failing health.
This led her to begin the next era of her life at the Barbecue Inn, a Mediterranean grill restaurant, which Konstantinos and Fotini had bought and turned into a focal point for Hindley Street’s nightlife by the late 1990s.
“My sisters Voula, Gill and Elizabeth had worked with my parents for years, so I told them it was my turn after roaming the world and doing what I wanted, to repay my moral debt to our parents,” she says.
Contouri slowly worked the business back to its former glory until the family decided to close its doors once and for all in 2014.
Last year Chantal featured in the film Hotel Mumbai directed by Adelaide-born, Greek Australian Anthony Maras and also took part in the movie Storm Boy with Geoffrey Rush. She also featured in the short film Unfinished Thoughts for which she received a Sassa Award for Best Performance.
Today, more graceful than ever, Contouri is semi-retired and resides alone in Torrensville, a multicultural suburb she loves. She enjoys gardening, spending time with her family and close friends, and is in the process of writing her own memoir.
“I had a beautiful childhood in every way in my darling Greece and in a tolerant, kind, benevolent and accepting Australia,” she says.
“I couldn’t be more grateful for my wonderful life.”