Listen: June Dally-Watkins chats to Leigh Hatcher on Open House
The story of June Dally-Watkins is an epic, classic, Aussie rags-to-riches tale. ‘Miss Dally’, went from a small country town, to being an internationally known style leader, rubbing shoulders with Hollywood icons. For 60 years she has uniquely influenced hundreds of thousands of young Australians. But June also hid a painful side to her life. In an Open House interview, Leigh Hatcher started by asking her about the two principles that have guided her business life: Love and Care.
June Dally Watkins, welcome to Open House.
Oh, it’s such a joy to be here. Thank you.
That love and care at the center of your business philosophy – of all the strategies you could adopt, why that? Where did that come from?
Well, if you don’t have love and love yourself and care for yourself I think you will be very empty and very unhappy. I believe that all human beings should love and care the person who lives inside them, and then that will help them to give love and care to other human beings. People who don’t have love and care for themselves and other people, you can see it in their faces. You can see it; hear it in the tone of their voice.
People need to be loved and cared for and that’s why I just am so happy what I do, and after 62 and a half years I’m still doing it. This morning I was in my office at 8.15am and love it!
June can I take you back to Watsons Creek in Northern New South Wales where you were born and grew up? Your mother was enormously influential woman in your life. Tell us about what she was like.
My mother had to stay at Watsons Creek to care for me until I was old enough for her to leave with me. She always wanted me to be the best that I could be. She’d say “June if you don’t present yourself well in life, you won’t be successful in life”. So she would always just flick me on the top of the arm and say “June don’t talk like that, June don’t say that, June don’t do that. You have to be the best if you want to do well in life, if you want to be successful in life you really have to be the best you can be”.
Why do you think she wanted you to be so successful?
Because she’d had a very lonely sad life; she gave up her life for me and stayed at this funny little deserted mining village called Watsons Creek and stayed with my grandparents where she helped run the property and cooked for them, she was very beautiful and a delightful lady and she missed out on her opportunity in life and she didn’t want that to happen to me. She wanted me to make up for what she had lost.
Your grandfather set the lead for manners and etiquette?
My grandfather was a wonderful man. I loved him, he was always strict with me, always wanted me to write well and to read well, study, he was always so gracious. He was a tin miner and then he was allotted some land and he turned that into a sheep farm.
Your first introduction to the world of glamour that defined your life came in a mail order catalogue at the Watsons Creek Post Office?
Yes, I walked two and a half kilometers to a one teacher bush school and to go to the Post Office – an isolated house where I had to walk nearly another half a mile to get there. Then [the mail] would be handed out from old Mrs Hubbs’ ‘hole in the wall’ that she cut, and the mail order catalogues started to come from Farmer’s Department Store in Sydney and there were models way back then.
What did that do to you?
I wanted to be one of those and I thought: Oh if I could ever get to Sydney, I wonder where Sydney is? I would copy the poses of the models, light the candle in front of the mirror and pose and copy what I saw there and think – that’s my dream, if I could ever get there. Then the Women’s Weekly [magazine] started to come and I read about movie stars and Hollywood and I thought – that will be better. And I would be so dumb: I would go out at night and look at the stars and millions of stars up there at Watsons Creek and I’d think – ah would I ever be a movie star? I wonder on which star is Hollywood. How would I ever get there?
I was “dumb”, I heard the school teachers say that to my mother one day.
That you were dumb?
Yes he said “Junie will be a failure in life, she will never make it”.
Well you proved him wrong!
Yes, he said “All she does is sit and look out the window all day and daydream”.
Well that wasn’t a bad thing after all.
No, daydreaming is wonderful.
You were discovered simply walking down the street in Tamworth, weren’t you?
One day we were walking down Peel Street in Tamworth and this gentleman came to my mother and said “I’m a photographer and I’d love to take photographs of your daughter”. He said to my mother “You should take Junie to Sydney; I think she would make a great model”… I was thirteen.
Wow, so your mother takes you to Sydney and when I hear of the adventure on which you two embark, it sounds so wonderful, so innocent, maybe even naïve, yet brimming with ambition.
And we had nothing, my mother and I had no money. My mother had a Singer sewing machine so when we came down we rented, took a little room at Kensington and she made clothes for people. That’s how she made the money and that’s when she took me to Farmer’s [Department Store].
What did she say to Farmers?
Well she did the talking because I wasn’t bright enough, I didn’t have the confidence and they looked at me and said “Oh well, would she like to model a hat for our catalogue tomorrow?”
I’m thinking “Everyone in Watsons Creek will see me!” And my mother was thinking of how much money I would make and they said “Oh its ten shillings and six pence – It’s a lot of money, a half a dollar and that was a lot of money.
June do you think you would have made it as a model today?
No. I was a bit too plump, I was the country girl, fresh and wholesome, not skinny as they are now, and I was five feet six inches tall. You have to be five feet ten or nearly six-six these days, so I would have been too short and I wouldn’t have been skinny enough.
But within a very short time you were Model of the Year and Australia’s most photographed model. What a dizzying ride that must have been?
Oh my mother and I went up to Watsons Creek for Christmas and we went over to the Post Office and the newspaper arrived and there was a photograph of Junie and it said “Voted Australia’s most photographed model” – and I was at Watsons Creek when that happened.
Amidst this you remained and remain to this day a proud ‘bushy’ as I said before, and well able to still give us a ‘bushy’ accent.
I will never forget that I grew up at Watsons Creek. I’ve just come back from Hong Kong and a lady stopped me, she said “Are you from England?” She said “I’ve heard you speaking and you sound very English”. And I said “No, I come from Australia”. She said “You don’t sound Australian”! And I said (with a broad Australian accent) “Oh mate I can be an Australian, I can talk Strein like anybody else from Australia!”
You’re well bred for it, yes.
The very next year after you become Model of the Year your mum comes up with this idea of a school of deportment. Australia’s first, but she didn’t want it to be one of the charm schools that were springing up in London and New York – why not? And what was her vision?
She said “I’ve heard of charm schools, why you don’t start one?” And she said, “I wouldn’t want it to be a charm school though, it has to be real, not just charm because that would be too shallow”. When all my girlfriends were going out and having a good time and marrying the rich young men, I was there putting together a program that I thought it was needed – personal development – and it’s still going sixty two and a half years later.
And you come up with the phrase ‘How to start the day the Dally way’ – which involved what?
Yes. It started showering, taking care of our skin, with lovely skin care. I used baby cream. I would say to my students “If it’s good for babies, it has to be good for our skin”. Under-arm deodorant, and then to dress themselves in a way that is very acceptable, not this common way now that I see of short shorts and short skirts and plunging necklines and those stiletto heels which they are falling off. I wanted our students to have style.
Fashion changes every season, but style goes on forever, and style gives quality and it makes a female look like a lady, and style, it’s the same for a gentleman. Gentlemen come now because their parents make them come – because you know what, the Aussie blokes are like, “Oh I don’t need that, I just want to just go out and be with me mates”, but when their parents make them come, they have pride in themselves.
Yes I am sure they do. Where did you get all these ideas from – because you were a pioneer for all this?
Yes, in my brain! It’s all that thinking walking to and from that one teacher bush school. I was always dreaming and imagining. After I did that photograph for the magazine, for Farmers, then my mother said “June my daughter would love to be in your mannequin parades”. So I didn’t really know how to be a mannequin but I watched the other models, so I thought about posture and the turns and how to put the clothes together. We had to do our own makeup and so I put all those things that helped towards my success as a model and a mannequin I wrote them all down and developed a course and that is still the same one.
You were both very ambitious, weren’t you?
Oh my mother was ambitious. She knew that she had to encourage me to do well in life otherwise I might just be stuck back there in Watsons Creek the way she was with no life.
And you caught it?
Oh I did, she encouraged me to have a dream to imagine, to look at those stars and to think of what might be. All I had was dreaming and imagining and I still do that.
June at the age of 25 you embark on Australia’s first fashion show to the US. I wonder how a girl who still had not long been out of Watsons Creek, how do you deal with a culture shock? Suddenly you are at Marilyn Munroe’s birthday party?
The fashion show I took was a one woman fashion show, just me. I would put on a dress and walk out in front of the audience and I would tell them about the dress and then I’d model it go back and put another dress on. Then I went to Hollywood and I was invited to Marilyn Munroe’s birthday.
And your ‘stars’ you saw at last. Then to Rome, and Gregory Peck, in what you deliberately call a romance, not an affair.
Yes a romance, I was a very naïve girl. I believed you had to have pride in yourself. I met Greg on the set of Roman Holiday and he very kindly invited me out and he said “I’m going to show you Rome” and he did, he took me to dinner and was very charming. Then Audrey Hepburn left, she had finished her part to make another movie. As you know, at the end of every movie they have breakup dinner so I was invited to sit in Audrey Hepburn’s chair, with William Wilder on one side and Gregory Peck on the other.
He invited you to go to Paris with him?
Yes, Greg said “Now that I’ve finished Roman Holiday come with me to Paris”. I said “Thank you very much but I really have to move on”. But we stayed friends – a delightful, charming, sincere gentleman, Gregory Peck.
You had a choice of whether to go with him, but you felt drawn back to Australia and especially to your mother?
Yes because my mother had given up her life for me, I would not let her down so I flew back to Australia.
And you meet John Clifford who you thought was in looks an Australian Gregory Peck, and you two marry. Tell me what your father-in-law said and did to you on your wedding day.
Yes, I already had my school and lots of students and the model agency the first outside of London and New York. I wanted to be part of a family for the first time in my life and I looked across this crowded room and seen John Clifford who did look a lot like Greg Peck. And on my wedding day I remember my father-in-law patting me on the head, looking up at John and smiling and saying, “Don’t worry son, as soon as the children start coming she’ll want to give up her business”. And I’m smiling and saying—
(interrupts) He patted you on the head?
Absolutely, patted my head and looked at John and said “Don’t worry son, as soon as the children start coming she’ll want to give up her business”. And I’m saying to myself “No way, no way will I ever give up my business”. But you see in those days, Leigh, a woman’s job was in the home. She was supposed to stay at home, have the children, look after the children, cook the meals, do the housework while the husband went out and worked or had a good time.
“Fashion changes every season, but style goes on forever, and style gives quality and it makes a female look like a lady.”
In fact you received angry hostile calls from people complaining about your lack of care for the children and the fact that your husband was not having dinner.
Poor John! Your husband, why are you neglecting your husband and why aren’t you home looking after your poor starving children? But there was food at home and I employed a nurse, I employed a housekeeper and nobody starved, but do you know I used to give my children a hard time and I was insistent that they were well mannered and all the things that my mother insisted that I follow through, I insisted that they did. And they used to object but now I hear them telling my grandchildren exactly the same things.
So many years go by, 60 years of your school’s 300,000 students it is estimated. What has been your greatest desire for them as you’ve equipped them for their lives?
To feel happy in life, and to be self-contented, to do well in life and not waste their time. Wherever I go they could be anywhere, ladies come up to me and gentlemen and say “Miss Dally remember me? I did your course 50 years ago, 60 years ago”.
I know some of them myself, I do.
And the students who come now they say “Oh Miss Dally my grandmother came to your school and my mother”.
Confidence is a big thing.
Self-confidence – to feel good about yourself, to be able to cope with life anywhere you are in the world that’s what my mother used to say “Junie where ever you go in the world you have to be acceptable”
I wonder how much of that came from that painful side of your life I mentioned before, that did remain hidden for so long. Can you take us into that world and why that was so painful?
No one ever discussed with me about my father and I didn’t bring the subject up either.
Your mum was a single mum?
Absolutely and that’s why she had to stay at Watsons Creek with my grandparents so that I could be raised there. I often wondered who my father was, and when I came down to Sydney I always pretended that I’d lived always in Sydney. People would say “why don’t you write a book June about the early days of modeling”? I started to do that and I realised that I had to write about myself. So I started to face the reality of my life and I grew up as June Skews, and David Dally Watkins adopted me when my mother married David and we came to Sydney to live.
Your mother had suggested that you needn’t talk about your earlier days?
No she never did, she just never talked to me about it. She never discussed who my father was; it was never ever discussed by anybody.
Should she have mentioned him?
Oh nowadays it would have. When my mother died I was teaching at my school in Dymocks building in George Street and one of the teachers came in and said “Miss Dally there is a man outside who wants to meet you”. I went out, as soon as I saw him I knew from time to time among the audience when I was doing the mannequin parades I would be walking along the catwalk and I’d say “There’s that man again” and on other times “That man’s back there” and I started to wonder who he was. It didn’t surprise me when I went out to the reception area and it was, I realised, and he said “I’m your father and now that your mother is no longer I want to look after you and take care of you”. Then I did get to know him – I didn’t like him.
That must have been such a challenging experience to go through?
Yes, and hurtful, emotionally hurtful. John and I had gone to the Gold Coast for a holiday with our children. He invited me to go and meet his wife and two sons and I thought this will be really nice, I will have brothers. And he introduced me as his niece.
Yes. Isn’t that incredible?
Yes, it was. “At last”, I thought, “I am going to have some relations.”
And you were still denied that?
Yes. That’s why, Leigh, it was for me, I wanted to have children. And I had two boys and two girls and now seven grandchildren.
But you see, Leigh, the Lord has always played a part in my life. I used to think my grandfather was my guiding light. He was the one that looked after me and was now looking down from Heaven, and then I realised that it was all happening before my grandfather died anyway. There was someone in my heart and soul, and somebody there who seemed to guide me. And Leigh, still, it’s amazing.
And it wasn’t until the 80’s that you started to see that light in your life of Christian faith?
And then I met by accident, it wasn’t by accident that I met the Crossroads people, Malcolm and Sally Begbie, it wasn’t an accident the Lord led me to them. The Lord led me to Youth With a Mission. I had a school in Hong Kong; I was walking down Pedder street and this lady stopped me and she said “June what are you doing in Hong Kong”? And I said “Well I have a school here. What are you doing here Norma”? She said “I’m with Youth with a Mission”. And she [used to be] the Playgirl of Sydney! And she said “Come and join us for our prayer meeting on Wednesday night”. I did, and I became absolutely addicted, and they took me over to Lantau Island and ‘dunked’ [baptized] me the South China Sea and christened me.
What a story.
Isn’t that wonderful?
“I didn’t feel alone and lonely, and whatever happens in my life, being a Christian and loving the Lord just gives me such comfort, I’m not alone any more.”
Why do you think you so ‘became addicted’ to this Christian faith?
I didn’t feel alone and lonely, and whatever happens in my life, being a Christian and loving the Lord just gives me such comfort, I’m not alone any more. I don’t mind living alone; I want to do something that is worthwhile. And having met Malcolm and Sally from Crossroads I travelled over to Bosnia and Herzegovina after the war there, twice taking goods. I remember the first time I had raised quite a bit of money to take to the people in need over there. My family said, “Nonna, you’re so stupid to do that, you might be arrested for carrying that money with you”. I put it in a belt around my waist and took it over to the people over there in Bosnia who needed it. We took goods there and I’ve been Crossroads ambassador to now, I guess its 16 years.
What a wonderful work. What do you say about Jesus Christ, June?
I just feel that he is part of my life and real. I feel the Lord. I just feel Jesus. Part of my life. When these miracles happen, I know where it is coming from. Everybody has miracles every day in their life, but they just recognize them. They don’t know that there’s this miracle happening and waiting for them to take and make something of it. I say to our students “You know you have to understand that there are three parts of the human being, there is our body which is the house we live in. So you must carry it well and tall and straight and with confidence. There is our mind which is our control tower which tells us what to do, tells us to listen, tells us how to speak, makes our ears listen, it is in control of us. And the third part is our soul. And it’s the soul which gives us love, accepts love, gives love, it’s what keeps us in peace, all those beautiful things that you can’t buy”. You can’t buy that.
June Dally Watkins you’re an absolute inspiration, and as I said your story is an epic classic Aussie story. I’m so glad that you’ve joined us on Open House. Thank you so much for coming in.
Thank you Leigh with lots of love.