Anna Leask

Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

The real Charlotte

When TV celebrity Charlotte Dawson took her own life last month, the emotional tributes missed some awkward home truths-not from strangers but from those who knew her best. In the first of a three-part series, friends speak frankly about their fears for her.

Charlotte Dawson lived life "by the seat of her pants", according to a friend.
Charlotte Dawson lived life "by the seat of her pants", according to a friend.

Charlotte Dawson's closest friends want you to know they loved her, they valued her, their lives are not the same without her. But they also want you to know the truth and they don't want to dish out the same sugar-coated tributes of the past three weeks. They want you to know the real Charlotte Dawson - the good and the bad.

"It's been a very weird few weeks after her death, during which all these 'friends' have come out of the woodwork," said one, who has known Dawson for more than a decade.

"It was quite strange, their construction of Charlotte and who she was."

Dawson was found dead in the living room of her apartment at Sydney's exclusive Woolloomooloo Wharf three weeks ago today. For legal reasons, the Weekend Herald cannot give any more details of how she died, other than to say she took her own life in a brutal fashion that was at odds with the glamorous image she had worked so hard to cultivate over the decades.

She was found on the morning of February 22 by a real estate agent, about half an hour before her apartment was to be auctioned.

It is thought Dawson killed herself late the night before, after putting on one of her favourite dresses - a glam green number.

Those who knew her proclaimed shock when news of her death broke. But for those in her inner circle, her death had been "just a matter of time". Sure, they were devastated and grief stricken - but they were also acutely aware that Dawson was severely troubled and did little to seek real help.

Dawson's real best mates agree - she was fabulous, talented and generous. But they also agree that the 47-year-old simply struggled with life.

Flatmate Tony Sheahan staged an intervention five months ago.

"At times, her dark side shone through. She would try to put on a persona in which she was coping OK. But at other times, her moods were really pretty dark and that came through in her spoken words and her behaviour," he said.

"I was worried about her, of course. At various stages I talked to her about it. Once I got three of her girlfriends over. It was a Sunday afternoon about four or five months ago and we sat her down and voiced our concerns about her behaviour, which she didn't take too kindly.

"But in more recent times, her behaviour was encouraging and positive. She was going back to the gym, getting up early and cutting back on cigarettes and alcohol.

"It was no secret that she had her demons but there was a lot of good in her life too; she just couldn't see that. There were options galore for her, because people loved to work with her and be around her.

"She was very caring and empathetic and very giving of herself. If only she took as much care of herself as she did others, she'd probably still be alive. She was incredible. I just wish she would have realised that."

Several other close friends spoke candidly about Dawson, but did not want their names published. They knew that what they had to say would ruffle feathers.

"In the lead-up to it, we were talking about how we were sure that she was going to hurt herself," said the first.

"If you asked any of Charlotte's closest friends about how we thought she'd die, the answer would have been, 'At her own hands'. Recently, people have been saying that Charlotte making it through to the end of this year was unlikely," he said.

"I always thought it was a cliche to say you were shocked, but not surprised. But that's what I am."

One of Dawson's favourite things in life was chardonnay - and you could be sure that when her chips were down, there was a bottle nearby.

"When she was sober, she was normal. As soon as she had any kind of intoxicant, that's when we started seeing the demons spearing through. That's when she would be irrational, impulsive. It would take nothing to spur on a bender. Someone would say, 'Let's have a bottle of wine', and then it would be all on."

Another friend said Dawson's "crazy" was usually charged by bottles of chardonnay. It was then, under a heavy wine haze, that her insecurities would fester and the havoc would begin.

"She could drink three or four bottles of wine easily. Sometimes her fridge would be full of food and she would cook for you, but the majority of the time the fridge was full of chardonnay," he said. "I might be completely wrong, but I would imagine that when she was found [dead], the television was on, there was an ashtray full of cigarettes and a number of empty bottles of wine - all of which added up to a state in which she wasn't thinking straight."

Dawson, he said, lived her private life in a "by the seat of your pants" fashion.

"Catching up with Charlotte was usually impromptu. You didn't arrange things, and if you did, she didn't show up or often cancelled at the last minute. People who saw her all the time were reporting she was being increasingly difficult to deal with... but they were just finding it hard to be her friend. They didn't know what to do, didn't know how to respond to some of the things that were coming up."

Just months before she died, Dawson's ties with Foxtel, which she'd worked for since 1997, were severed piece by piece. It was well known among her trusted friends that she received an annual retainer of more than $100,000. On top of that, she earned a salary for additional work, including Australia's Next Top Model.

Her contract included "business travel, drivers and all the baubles of celebrity you'd expect", one said.

"When the retainer was gone, that meant she didn't have weekly money coming in. That was her bread and butter," her friend said.

"She was devastated at the time. The relationship between her and Foxtel was tense."

Foxtel executive director of television Brian Walsh said he and Dawson "mutually agreed not to continue with the fixed arrangement" in September because she indicated she had other interests she wanted to pursue outside of her Foxtel work.

But her friends said leaving Foxtel was not a move Dawson really wanted to make, and it was a massive blow.

"Why would a woman with no money choose to leave a job?" one mate said. "Work stuff was drying up and people were finding the brand a little bit too crazy. What she was facing at the time she died was no work, no money.

"Those close to her have been saying she wouldn't make it to Christmas 2014. And what did those friends do about it? That's what you want to know, and it's a fair enough question.

"Charlotte was always a great one for telling you things were good. What could we do? In some ways she was very open, in other ways she was very private and the two intersected."

Another friend pointed out: "You cannot be with someone 24/7, you can't lock them up and make sure they don't do anything."

Dawson moved into her rented luxury apartment at the Woolloomooloo Wharf several years ago. She loved living there and injected herself into the social scene.

"There were other celebrities who lived there. She liked that. She owned that wharf, she was the wharf," said one friend.

Sydney-based Kiwi journalist Jonathan Marshall was Dawson's first flatmate at the wharf. "She fitted in. It was as though the wharf was missing Charlotte, she completed it. I've been down there since, walked along it and now she's not there, it's a different place, it's a darker place."

David Herkt, a friend of 14 years, felt the wharf lifestyle wasn't good for Dawson. "She was really familiar with the duties of being known. Going out with Charlotte meant you had to deal with the public. It was really quite amazing to watch - she was not simply seeking adoration, she was giving it out and getting it back.

"Now, that's quite a fair whack of energy to give out, and there was a downside to it. Charlotte at home by herself was a slightly different person to what she was as a public 'thing'.

"Her first place in Sydney was like a bank vault. It was on the 14th or 15th floor and you'd get behind the door and it was silent, and high up away from everything. She used to like that.

"When she moved to the wharf . . . she didn't have that vault of silence and quiet to get home to and to rest herself. If you are putting out that amount of energy you need a bit of time to recharge your batteries."

Mr Herkt was also of the opinion that Dawson's drinking led her down a path of self-destruction. "She was fun, but she drank too much. She had a very good head for booze but she drank too much. She could sit down and knock it off . . . those bloody chards," he said. "She made impulsive decisions when she was pissed ... It was an unhealthy space."

Mr Herkt said Dawson's prolific use of Twitter was also damaging. But no one could stop her. "She opened herself up in a way that was really unhealthy. She would sit at home and it would be late at night and she would engage with people. For somebody in her position, Twitter should be used as a means of public relations - you don't sit there and open yourself up to the great masses... to really nasty shit.

"It wasn't nice to watch, it wasn't nice to read and God knows what that on a daily basis would do to you."

Dawson's relationships and the risks she took with her wellbeing constantly worried Mr Herkt.

"She had awful taste in men. I really hated that because I thought she was really valuable."

Mr Herkt said though he always worried about his friend, he never thought she would end her own life. Even if he had thought that, there was little he could have done.

"I'm not sure Charlotte thought she needed help, to be frank. I really did love Charlotte an awful lot. She was wonderful, but then she would have this little mess... It always turned up. Charlotte was a high-wire act ... but sometimes it was really too high off the ground."

anna.leask@nzherald.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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