real life

Suzi Dent was sexually harassed by Rolf Harris. Almost 30 years later, she helped put him in prison.

Content warning: This post deals with sexual assault and could be triggering for some readers.

As a child, Suzi Dent adored Rolf Harris. She'd grown up watching the children's entertainer on black-and-white TV, as he sang funny songs and charmed millions of Australian kids and their parents.

So when she had the opportunity to work with him in 1986 on a TV show in her capacity as a make-up artist - Dent was then 24 and Harris was 56 - she jumped at the chance.

"He was the biggest star to have walked through the Channel Seven doors at that time. He was huge in 1986," Dent told Mamamia.

Her excitement quickly turned to horror when Harris began to grope her - and she was powerless to do anything about it.

"The number one rule in film and television is you don't upset the talent. He could have walked, he could have chucked a dummy spit and walked off. It could have caused Channel Seven millions, it would have been the end of my career, it could have been the end of everybody on set with me," she explained.

"I had a rip in my shorts and he'd try to shove his hand in. I'd have a tissue box in one hand and grab [his hand] with the other and say, 'Please don't do that because you'll make the rip bigger'. I ended up spending a lot of time out of the studio. There were two young guys on the crew and they knew I wasn't happy, and they'd come out and get me when I needed to go in and blot the sweat off him.

"And every time I went in, bar one time when he had the script in his hand, he touched me. He touched my legs, he grabbed my belt and tried to crotch grind me and pull me towards him. It was seriously full on."

There were a number of people in the studio that day, but no-one raised a finger to help.

"None of the men in the studio did anything. The director was the same sort of age as Rolf. And he was kind of egging him on," she said.

"They were literally talking about me whilst I was standing there next to them. Like I was a piece of meat. Talking about my legs, what I looked like, what my body was like. 

"And I'm standing there listening to them thinking, 'You guys, it just sounds like the whole casting couch thing is alive and well in your mind. But hello! Fat chance! You're old enough to be my grandfather'."

Listen to The Quicky's How Can We End Sexual Harassment At Work? Post continues after audio.

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Layer after layer, Dent packed the make-up on Harris's face, a normality for anyone working under the glare of studio lights. Harris continued groping her throughout - in all, he touched her inappropriately more than 24 times.

So when it came to removing the make-up at the end of the day, Dent was not having a bar of it.

"There was no way I was gonna go back into the makeup room and take his make-up off. Because I did not feel safe," she said.

"I knew without a shadow of a doubt that he would full on sexually assault me because he'd been doing it all day. There was no way I was going to be alone in a little room with him. That just would have been the worst thing ever. There happened to be a broom cupboard in the corridor, so I hid in the cupboard."

Only when Dent was sure he was gone did she leave her hiding place.

"Then I went and saw the lady who was in charge of the make-up studio and I told her I'd just had a bad day with a dirty old man and been groped all day. And she said to me, 'Oh, I thought you knew'. I said, 'Knew what?' And she said, 'His nickname is the octopus. He does that to all make-up artists'. To be quite honest, I was actually really upset at her for not telling me, for not giving me a heads up," Dent said.

"She also passed on a message to me. She said the powers that be, that's the people who run the network, had wanted to commend me on how I behaved with Rolf Harris... And then I realised they were all upstairs in the control rooms, in the edit suites, watching the whole thing. So they all watched Rolf manhandle me and touch me and grope me, and nobody, none of them did anything.

"It was a real shock to be sexually groped by a children's entertainer that I was really excited to meet. I looked into his eyes and he knew exactly what he was doing. He completely took advantage of the situation. He knew I would do nothing. He knew it was my job on the line."

"Back in the 80s, the saying was 'Boys will be boys'... That was told to women all the time. And all it is, is basically, 'There's a woman, I'm going to touch her because I can't control my sexual urges'. And women have to go, 'Okay, we'll just grin and bear it'. Slap your hand away and go, 'Oh, naughty boy. Don't touch my boobs. Don't don't do that. Don't touch my body, I really don't like it'," Dent continued.

"I had so many things like that happen when I was a young woman growing up. I worked in a bank and I was the only woman that wasn't allowed to wear trousers. The accountant liked to look at my legs so I was literally sent home at 19 years old to go and put the short uniform on so he could look at my legs while I made him a cup of coffee. And I went home and did what I was told because women didn't have rights back then."

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It wouldn't be until 28 years later that Dent would come face-to-face with Harris once again.

This time, though, their situations were markedly different.

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In October 2012, British police began "Operation Yewtree", an investigation into sexual abuse allegations against popular English media personality Jimmy Savile. Savile had died a year prior, in October 2011.

There had been rumblings of abuse allegations against children for years, but it was not until Savile passed away that official investigations began. While the initial investigation was based on abuse allegations against Savile, it eventually delved into other child molestation claims against other celebrities, including UK pop star Gary Glitter, newsreader Robert Hall... and Rolf Harris.

The full scale of the investigation is covered in documentary National Treasure, National Disgrace: Savile, Harris & Hall, which has screened in the UK. It will be shown in Australia later in the year.

In 2013, Harris was charged with indecently assaulting four girls in the UK between 1968 and 1986, and his trial began the year after.

Dent was called to the stand as a "bad character witness".

"I didn't come forward for me. I was watching was a current affairs programme back in 2014 and a woman had come forward because she was assaulted by Rolf Harris when she was a teenager," she said.

"At the time, the press was absolutely crucifying her because of the culture of disbelief that we live in. That women - we're all lying. That we're doing it for money. People have said that to me and past, 'You just came forward for the money'. People come forward and tell their stories because it's about healing. They don't do it for the money, and there's never any on offer anyway.

"I was actually first sexually assaulted when I was 12. Not by [Harris]. And it completely changed my life. So when I actually saw the interview on TV with this woman who was 15, my 12-year-old self, who never said anything to anybody, who never healed, was not going to let me be quiet. I came forward for this woman because I had to, because I've never kept it a secret, because I saw her treated badly by the press, because I knew that she wasn't lying.

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"I've never met her or any of the women that came forward because we were all kept in separate rooms and some were live via satellite, but I really felt that in that courtroom, I was there with a 14-year-old, a 15-year-old, a nine-year-old, and my 12-year-old. All our little girls just getting our feet on, and getting our warriors on, not being quiet, stepping up and taking the stand and being powerful."

Dent was told by the police to not look at Harris when she was on the stand. To keep her eyes on the judge, the jury, and the lawyers.

But, towards the end of her testimony, she felt she couldn't look anywhere but at him.

"It was a packed courtroom, wall to wall, as you can imagine... I didn't look at him. But when I was called a liar by his lawyer, and I'd literally been talking about my knickers and how hard he was trying to shove his hand up my shorts because he couldn't feel my knickers, and then I get called a liar... It's like being slapped in the face," she told Mamamia.

"When I got off the stand, all these emotions were coming up inside me... As soon as I got off the stand, the only person I could look at was him. I couldn't look at anybody else. And I literally stormed out of that courtroom. My girlfriend was sitting there as well, I had someone with me, which was great. I grabbed my bag, I said, 'Let's go'.

"I was still looking at him. He turned his entire body away from me. Never made eye contact with me once."

In July 2014, Harris was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison on 12 counts of indecent assault. He was 84 years old.

After serving three years of his sentence, he was released in 2017. He currently resides in the UK.

Watch: Rolf Harris has been found guilty and sentenced to 5 years and 9 months' jail. Post continues after video.


Video via Sky News.
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Dent, who is now an inspirational speaker, author, confidence coach and sexual assault victims advocate, was only referred to as the "Australian make-up artist" during the trial, due to being granted lifetime anonymity by the British courts. 

"In 2014, my son was 12. It would not have been good for me or my family to have been throwing my name around, to be put out there to the press. My husband was having a breakdown," she explained.

"Society wasn't really ready to actually accept that, 'Oh, gee, maybe women can actually be assaulted. And maybe they can be believed'. It's a generational mindset of feelings towards women and women's place in the workforce. It comes from my grandparents' day, and before that. Sayings like, 'A woman's place is in the kitchen', or 'A woman's place is in the home', and 'Women should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen'... It takes a while to remove that generation mindset that we've been raised with.

"For me, it has to be done gently. It can't be done with going up to some man who's older and saying, 'Mate, we can't talk about women like that', and getting aggressive. Because that's not the way. It's about the younger generations, I feel, stepping up, picking out when they hear things that they don't like, or they see things that are wrong... they have to stand up to their mates and say, 'Oy, don't do that'."

In November 2019, Dent decided to waive her lifetime anonymity.

"I really felt the defamation laws needed changing in our country. So I decided to come forward on [ABC program] 7.30 Report and waive my anonymity and to support the cause if you like. And to remind Australia that we started this in 2013. We actually started with Hey, Dad [child abuse case against actor Robert Hughes]," Dent said.

"I look back on 1986 and I really, truly believe that God chose me for that moment in time - have a bad day with a dirty old man - to be the strong woman that I am in 2014, to be this sexual assault victims advocate, to be a voice for many.

"I run a coaching business now and I actually work with men. I help them get ready to go to trial and take the stand against their perpetrators of childhood sexual assault. I'm just so grateful and so blessed that this is where my life led me to - to support other people and people in this situation. They don't want to go talk to a shrink or a psychiatrist or anything like that. They want to talk to another victim."

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Image: Supplied.

Dent believes things have changed considerably in the years since her sexual harassment by Harris, and that the MeToo movement had a lot to do with it.

"[Sexual abuse] was happening until the hashtag MeToo went viral in 2017. Women all around the world, who may never have told their stories of sexual assault, put it up on social media to stand in solidarity with their sisters," she said.

"All of a sudden, the world went, 'Oh my god, wow, they are numbers that we've never seen before'. And to me, that's when [court proceedings] started to happen. Here in Australia, the UK, and America. That scared everybody in 2017.

"Society is changing and things are getting better. The MeToo movement has done a lot of shaking up. We need to listen. Having come forward in the Rolf Harris court case and being one of the women who is now recognised as being at the forefront of the movement, it's so exciting to be able to continue to encourage victims and survivors of childhood sexual assault to come forward and tell their stories.

"Because the only way we heal is when we speak. Women have always been encouraged to not speak about it and to sweep it under the rug. But we have to keep the conversation going. I don't think we'll ever stamp out sexual assault because there's always going to be deviants out there. But we can certainly educate people on the signs to look for.

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"And we can just keep encouraging people to talk and to heal. The more of us that are healed and can help others, then the better the world will be."

Suzi Dent. Image: Supplied.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

You can also call safe steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

The Men’s Referral Service is also available on 1300 766 491 or via online chat at www.ntv.org.au. 

You can also access the Are You Safe At Home's website service directory.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner. If you're based in Australia, 24-hour support is available through Lifeline on 13 11 14 or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636. 

Feature image: Mamamia/Getty.

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