back to top

Australia's Fallen Idol: How Reality TV Brought Casey Donovan Back

Reality television rarely shines a spotlight on raw talent. It's an entertainment industry that courts and creates controversy for the sake of ratings. Amid the whirlwind of Australian Idol, Casey Donovan found fame and fans, and then crashed. Over a decade on, can the Idol winner and former Uber driver convince Australia her artistry is more than what's been depicted on reality TV?

Posted on

IN 2016, Casey Donovan was working as an Uber driver in Sydney.

It had been more than a decade since she walked into the Australian Idol auditions as a brooding teenager. She left three months later, having captivated the judges and many of the two million Australians who tuned in each week to watch Donovan and her competitors sing.

The fame that follows reality television can be short-lived, brutal and destructive. But when producers for the TV show I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! approached Donovan for the 2017 season, the lure of TV (and renewed fame) was too strong to resist.

Uber was not where she wanted to be. Some see reality shows as a launch — or re-launch — pad to fame, but Donovan says it had more to do with staring down her fears: “I was at a point in my life where I thought, ‘Shit, do I do this? Do I put myself back out there? Do I even want to do that?’.

"I thought, ‘Fuck it, just do it, go have some fun’. And what’s the worst that could happen?"

“I had doubts about going on the show. But then I thought, ‘Fuck it, just do it, go have some fun’. And what’s the worst that could happen? The show came into my life at the point I needed it to.”

For Donovan, this was a another chance to work her way back on to Australia’s radar as a singer and musician. One that could be taken seriously.

CASEY Donovan was 16-years-old in 2004 when she made her TV debut on Australian Idol. Wearing Converses, three-quarter jeans, a hoodie and mismatched socks, she was clearly a character of interest.

Then she belted out an a capella rendition of Kasey Chambers’ "A Million Tears", and it became evident this young woman from Condell Park in Sydney’s southwest had been blessed with a mighty set of pipes.

“Are you genuinely happy?” asked judge Ian “Dicko” Dickson. “Or genuinely unhappy?”

“I’m usually very hypo,” she answered, to judge Mark Holden’s look of disbelief. What he saw was a nonchalant young woman. But it was exactly that no-fucks-to-give attitude, and her voice, that Australians warmed to.

“I’ve got a bit of a cold, so…” she added.

She didn’t beg for the judges to let her in. She stood with a neutral expression as they delivered their verdicts (yes/yes/yes), only breaking into a wide smile after she had left the audition room.

“I’ve questioned myself many times, if I did Australian Idol too young,” Donovan told BuzzFeed. “I still think it happened at the right time. Everything that was thrown my way, I somehow managed to face it.”

Since defeating Anthony Callea to win Idol in 2004, the road has been a rocky one for Donovan.

Former Australian Idol alumni Guy Sebastian and Shannon Noll had paved the way, dominating charts with numerous singles after the show. While Casey’s first single "Listen With Your Heart" debuted at number one, it was quickly knocked off by Callea’s rendition of "The Prayer".

For anyone who had watched Idol — where she had performed left-of-mainstream songs such as Evanescence’s "Hello" and George’s "Special Ones" (the latter judged a “touchdown” by judge Mark Holden) — the pivot in the studio towards shiny, pre-packaged pop songs seemed unconvincing. This was not the Casey Donovan we had watched on TV.

After Australian Idol she was unable to perform in venues due to her age. “I always had to have a guardian or parent with me at all times,” she said. “I didn’t know how to articulate what I wanted, and how I wanted to do things.”

Donovan’s debut album For You peaked at number two, and the second single "What’s Going On" made it into the top 20. And then everything went quiet.

By 2006 she had been dropped by her label Sony BMG. Other Idol contestants were on the charts, but Donovan’s time seemed to have come and gone. Still in her teens, she was slipping through cracks.

THE peaks and troughs of reality TV played their part in the way Donovan spent the latter half of her teenage years.

In her 2014 book Big, Beautiful & Sexy Donovan admitted to a six-year relationship with a man named “Campbell”, only to discover he never actually existed. She had never met Campbell, only his friend “Olga” who, it later transpired, had orchestrated the fake relationship.

There was an outpouring of public sympathy for her, but people were also left wondering how this could have happened. Donovan opened up about the experience this year on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! citing her lack of relationship experience, and the lonely life of being in the public eye.

“It started at 16; I had never had a boyfriend,” she told her cast mates tearily. “No-one was ever interested in me and this guy was telling me he loved me.

“It started at 16; I had never had a boyfriend,” she told her cast mates tearily. "No-one was ever interested in me and this guy was telling
me he loved me."

Donovan tells BuzzFeed she opened up on I’m A Celebrity... to warn others.

“There was the Catfish show, but when I wrote about it [in my book], it was really picked up, and I think it brought that conversation forward. It’s a lot more dangerous now with social media. It’s not even just dating sites anymore, now we’ve got Snapchat and Instagram. Kids and parents both need to be educated because there are SO many freaks out there.”

After learning her relationship had been an illusion, Donovan says she “spiralled” and took to hooking up with strangers she had met online as a way of trying to get over “Campbell”.

In her memoir she disclosed she was sleeping with a different guy every two days. “I wanted to stop the vicious cycle of sex and one-night stands, but I didn’t know how to get out.”

While she is able to joke about this now, Donovan becomes introspective when detailing her old coping mechanisms. “I’ve done some pretty bloody stupid things,” she said. “I was trying to get away from that situation, I was just moving through things too fast to get over that part of my life.”

Donovan hasn’t heard from her catfish in years. “I never really got an apology,” she said. “Hopefully one day they can feel a bit of remorse.”

While she’s open about her experiences now, Donovan was reticent when approached by the producers of I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!.

She feared revealing so much of her personal life on another reality TV show. Reality TV, after all, was the catalyst for Donovan’s highly-publicised family drama.

After winning Idol in November 2004, her biological father Merv Donovan, who had been absent for most of her adolescent years, made an attempt to re-enter her life.

In her first press conference after winning Idol, she had to face an estranged family member turning up to question her publicly on why she hadn’t invited her biological father to the Opera House for the finale.

And then a year later Donovan took out an AVO against Merv Donovan after an altercation at one of her gigs, where he allegedly dragged her three metres down a flight of stairs. Merv Donovan has denied the allegations.

“It was heartbreaking,” Donovan said. “It was difficult being so publicly open and going to court and having the paps outside … it was full-on for a teenager. Sometimes I don’t know how I get through things, maybe I just put it in the back of my mind and I’ll have to deal with it when I’m 80.

“I was so wary [of appearing on another reality TV show]. Especially in today’s world. When I was on Idol social media wasn’t as big as what it is now. There’s a lot of negativity out there.”

I’m A Celebrity audiences warmed to Donovan and championed her, but while television producers were constructing a false reality for participants, real life outside the jungle rolled on.

Donovan became the first female to win the series, and fans were elated. But she exited the jungle 45 days later to heartbreaking news. “I came back into the world and found out my step dad had pancreatic cancer,” she said. “Then I received Facebook inboxes from my biological father saying, ‘You’re dead to me’, and he was telling me to change my last name.

“I was just like, ‘Right, OK, how do I deal with all of this?!’. You’ve been confined in a jungle with 12 other people and that’s all you knew for 45 days. You come back into reality and everything is different again. Having all that thrown at me, it was like, ‘Oh shit, here we go again, can I just catch a break?’.”

"You come back into reality and everything is different again. Having all that thrown at me, it was like, ‘Oh shit, here we go again, can I just
catch a break?’.”

Donovan refuses to dwell, or play the victim. “I’m A Celeb has definitely given me the boost up in the world where I can release original music again. I had started work on the EP prior to even knowing about the jungle, and then once again my life got fast-tracked.”

Donovan is done with reality TV. For now. “I won’t say no, but for the moment it’s great to be back” she said. “To me it’s great that people got to see an insight into the stupid, silly person I am.

"I spoke with my friends when I got out, and they said, ‘We love you, but now everyone actually knows who you are!’. I’ve recently turned 29, but I feel so much older. I think everything that has been thrown my way has happened for a reason, and it’s led me to where I am today, and given me the ability to reassess things and be like, ‘I can do this’.”

The first single Donovan released this year, "Lonely" , gave audiences another glimpse of the pure magic of Donovan’s voice, recalling the Idol days when it was just her, the stage and a microphone. One thing that has remained with Donovan over the years is the advice — “always stay true to yourself” — from Idol judge Marcia Hines. Recently, that has meant cutting ties with Uber and focusing on music.

I’m A Celeb has given me that boost up in the world where I can release my original music with a bit more of an audience again,” she said.

On "The Villain", a track from the new EP Off The Grid & Somewhere In Between, Donovan sings about her struggle with anxiety. With its tempo changes, evocative arrangement and swooping, ethereal vocals, it's vaguely reminiscent of the George songs she used to belt out in 2004.

It’s taken 13 years, but Donovan is finally in charge of her career, and the direction of her music. Now all she needs is for the audience to come along for the ride.