Author Kaz Cooke helps Ada take a final bow
KAZ Cooke reckons she'd like to be "a fully vaccinated time-traveller".
The 54-year-old author, best known for her advice books for modern girls and women, such as Up the Duff and Girl Stuff, has just released her new book Ada and, although it still mixes fact and humour, it's a complete switch from what we have come to expect.
In it, Kaz travels back to the 1890s through the true-life character of Ada Delroy, who escaped the humblest of beginnings in a mill town in Lancashire to become an acclaimed dancer, comic and singer, with her own vaudeville-style troupe which toured Australia and the world.
That would be quite an accomplishment even now, but how much more so for a woman over 120 years ago?
Kaz first 'met' Ada in an old theatre scrapbook while doing a fellowship on a completely different subject at the State Library of Victoria.
"I came across a photo of this woman that completely arrested me. There was something really feisty and modern about her," Kaz said.
Unlike most photos of women in the day, Ada's hair was not scraped back into a severe bun, as she stood or sat, straight-backed, looking morosely directly into the camera.
Instead, Ada's hair was out and curled, escaping from a huge feathered and bowed hat, and she was bejewelled in a thick necklace, two butterfly brooches, and another spelling out her name in diamantes, as she looked into the distance with a secret smile playing around her mouth.
Kaz soon discovered there was a huge body of information about this woman and the exploits of herself and her troupe, and became "transfixed by her story".
Thus began two years of research and another of writing to give this incredible woman a voice.
"She wasn't an angel. There was definitely a naughtiness to her - her whole act was stolen," Kaz said. "But there was so much life in her and I wanted her to be able to tell her own story."
The book begins in 1911, with Ada in reduced circumstances, suffering tuberculosis, dependent on morphine, and being assessed to live out her last days in a charity cottage for those in the theatre profession.
"Dying is a bit like being poor," Ada says. "You don't get much in the way of choices."
It's a hard end for someone who once danced for the Maharajah, was friends with Houdini, brought the first films to many Australian country towns and was the first female to ride a bike through those same towns, causing men to literally fall off their horses.
There are gaps in Ada's story, including a baby mysteriously left in Adelaide, but Kaz said didn't have to add any drama herself to this funny, poignant and dramatic tale which includes carriages hurtling off cliffs and a train catching fire.
"I sometimes wonder if Ada would be a bit cross with me that I've taken liberties, but I think she'd be proud that she's put on a good show," Kaz said.
And you could say the same for Kaz, whose advice books - constantly updated with the latest medical information - have been best sellers now for some 20 years. (An updated version of Kid Wrangling - about caring for babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers - is about to be re-issued under a new name.)
Asked her secret, Kaz said she reckoned no one else could be bothered doing all the work and research involved!
Her consultants include professors and hospital heads of departments, but their expertise is complemented by parental anecdotes, and her cartoons, keeping the books friendly, practical, and non-judgemental.
Kaz said it was a balance that ensured people knew they could trust the medical, nutritional and other important health advice, while also relaxing enough to have a laugh when appropriate.
While her books have, to an extent, traced Kaz's own development, from 1994's Real Gorgeous, looking at body image, to pregnancy, with Up the Duff, and then her child-rearing and teen books, Kaz said she's not quite ready to write an advice book for the over-50s.
"I'm a bit worried my next book after that would be 'How to Cark It', so I really don't want to rush that!" she laughed.
She also admits she knows she'd probably have to take a bit of her own advice and do more exercise "which is my personal goal and my personal terror really".
Not that she's worried about getting old, saying "I'd rather worry about not laughing, more than laugh lines".
Besides, Kaz has a few other ideas in the pipeline, including losing herself in history again for another project, and the possibility of another children's book, for those who remember reading The Terrible Underpants and Wanda Linda Goes Berserk to their kids and grandkids.