Celeste Barber never wanted to be the face of the bushfire relief effort. The actor, comedian and author wears many hats, but “expert” is not one of them.
Barber says she was always “acutely aware” of not stealing the spotlight from firefighters on the front line. She simply wanted to contribute to the cause, which was the point of her fundraiser in the first place.
“I didn’t donate $52 million,” she says.
“I just had the stupid face that everyone’s probably sick of seeing.
“The focus obviously has to not be me. Turns out it was – my face was on a mural in Melbourne – but that was not the intention.”
The money is currently in the hands of the NSW Rural Fire Service, and a small fraction of it has already been distributed to individual brigades.
“As you can imagine, they’re shit deep in just trying to make sure that it goes to the best places possible,” Barber says.
Being thrust into the national spotlight was not a completely unfamiliar experience for the former All Saints star, and she tried not to let the attention get to her.
“I didn’t feel a massive responsibility because I’m always very clear with everyone about what my role is: I’m a comedian and I’m an actor, and I happen to have a platform,” she says.
“I reached out because my family were severely under threat and there was noone there to help them, so I just picked a random number, and then it just became what it was.
“I felt quite overwhelmed by how much support there is in the world – not for me, but for the people who need it – that was quite overwhelming and awesome, that was such an amazing feeling.
This isn’t without contention. Since launching her Facebook fundraiser in early January, critics have debated whether the money should go to firefighters or to victims of the fires.
Some contributors to the fundraiser said they thought the fund was for victims to rebuild, while some from other states and even overseas had assumed that the funds would be spent nation-wide.
However Barber estimates these people to be a tiny minority of around 100 people out of the 1.3 million people who donated.
“A lot of other people are very trusting and they know what they’re donating to,” she says.
“People aren’t idiots, they see that it’s going to the RFS.
“There’s experts that know what they’re doing, and I don’t think I’m an expert in really anything, aside from joke-making.”
However Barber reiterated that she is still looking into whether the money can be shared with other states.
The rest of the response to the fundraiser has been overwhelmingly positive, Barber says.
When she took the the stage to host Fire Fight Australia in Scotty Marsh’s “Merry Crisis” t-shirt, complete with the Prime Minister’s mug, Barber took a stance in the most public way possible. She slammed the government’s response to the fires, receiving cheers from the 70,000-strong crowd.
“He’s excellent, he does such great stuff,” she says of Marsh, whose mural in Melbourne took aim at Prime Minister Scott Morrison for being on holidays in Hawaii while Australia burned.
Barber’s fundraiser began as a small, personal response to a crisis she felt was being ignored by the government.
When her mother-in-law’s house was threatened by bushfires, Barber shared photos on Instagram. The photos of the house in Eden on the NSW South Coast quickly showed the rest of the world what the fires meant on a personal scale. There were no burning trees or fire engines on the road – just an ordinary house engulfed in orange smoke.
Thankfully, the house was saved from the blaze, and none of Barber’s family were injured. However, her husband’s cousin did lose their home. Even now that the fires are gone, there are still less tangible impacts which remain.
“There’s a lot of rebuilding to do, there’s a lot of economies down there that people need money injected back into,” she says.
“We talk about it a lot, because they need to talk about it.”
One of the reasons Barber’s fundraiser got so much attention so quickly was her Instagram presence. The comedian has amassed almost 7 million followers from around the world thanks to her #CelesteChallengeAccepted series, in which she recreates models’ photos.
The fundraiser was the first time Barber posted a serious call to action on social media, and her online reputation was “absolutely” what made it go off. While other celebrities post studio shots and sponsored posts, Barber posts her authentic, funny self, taking aim at those same celebrities in the process.
“I don’t really ask anything of anyone on my social platforms, I’m not an influencer,” she says.
“So when I do, I think people trust me, really – social media’s good for that.”
But the comedian doesn’t think everyone think everyone with a platform necessarily needs to follow her footsteps.
“For all we know, a lot of people are doing things that not everyone knows about.”
Since unintentionally entering the national spotlight, Barber has been on the move. Between visiting family around country New South Wales and hosting the Fire Fight Australia concert in Sydney, her life has become much busier than usual.
Barber credits audiobooks as one of the ways she stays sane while constantly travelling, and has partnered with Audible for their latest campaign.
“Who has time to sit down and read a book. Do you?” she asks.
“If you do, you need to write a book about it, and then record the audiobook.”
Barber speaks from experience. It wasn’t until she narrated her own book Challenge Accepted in 2018 that she fell in love with the medium.
“It’s nothing I’m proud of, I know, I should’ve been doing it for years,” she says. Among her favourite titles are Bossypants by Tina Fey (“she’s my queen”) and Becoming by Michelle Obama (“her voice really soothes me”).
But being the author of one book is enough, says Barber, joking that writing Challenge Accepted “nearly killed me.”
She is also adamant about not writing about her more recent escapades: “I’m not going to write about the bushfires, I’m not a firefigher.”
Barber’s fundraiser was a moment of hope across the nation at a time when people felt utterly helpless. Be it government inaction, a lack of preparedness, or just the sheer intensity of the fires, the crisis seemed at times to be insurmountable.
What Barber took away from the experience is a feeling shared by many Australians, she says.
“We have more power than we know, and that’s really exciting.”
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