LYN DI CIERO.
Denise Pepper back in Perth. Photo Lyn DiCiero.
For those plucked from their normal lives to face national scrutiny on reality television shows, the journey is a rollercoaster ride of trepidation, elation, frustration and appreciation. Local Perth artist Denise Pepper found just this and more as the only person in WA and one of just 13 selected from thousands across the country to participate in the new series Making It Australia, screening on Channel 10 Wednesday 15 September from 7.30pm – 9pm. The series is the first in Australia, following three successful seasons of Making It in America, drawing on a worldwide surge of interest in creativity and making. The reality show celebrates enthusiastic, professional and amateur craftspeople, and is hosted by comedians Susie Youseff and Harley Breen. Contestants must complete two challenges per episode, focusing on a theme inspired by popular trends in crafting and DIY, with the winner awarded a patch. Judges are Deborah Riley, an award-winning production designer who worked on Game of Thrones, winning four Emmy awards, three Art Director’s Guild Awards and a BAFTA, and Benja Harney, a renowned paper engineer who has created constructions for the world’s leading brands including Google, Nike, Facebook and Hermes. Ultimately, one person will earn the title of Master Maker and receive $100,000.
Her activities shrouded in secrecy and bound by a confidentiality agreement, Denise Pepper disappeared from view earlier this year, given just days to get her life in order before spending a gruelling six weeks on set in Sydney, after which she hit a creative and emotional brick wall. “It’s as though a coloured sheet of wrapping paper was pulled out of my brain and replaced with a wide blank sheet, because there’s nothing there,” she says. “I shut the door of the studio for months, and I couldn’t allow myself to think too creatively. I class myself as having burnout. I will have work at Castaways Sculpture Awards this October, but I have cancelled everything else.”
She first heard about the show when she saw a call out to enter on her Facebook feed. “I didn’t read it too well, but saw it was a competition. It was the words ‘Making It’ that caught my attention. I love making. It’s what really keeps me happy, grounded and mentally sane.”
She successfully completed various rounds of entry. One of these was to interview herself. “I was going to have it done professionally, but I’m so impatient, I just did a couple of takes with my mobile phone and thought ‘that’ll do.’ I didn’t put much effort into it. I had no idea what I’d entered. I tend to jump into things and don’t really over consider it, or think it through. I then realised it was a TV show – a family show, encouraging people to get out and make.”
A pseudo boot camp followed. Over three weeks, potential participants were asked to come up with 24 concepts and prototypes, and list all the materials required to make the works. “I was doing Sculpture by the Sea at the time as well, and the Mandorla Art Award exhibition was coming up. Then it was like ‘you need to get COVID tested because you’re flying out on Monday.’ And this was on the Friday,” she says.
The thirteen participants of Making It were accommodated an hour from Sydney, woken at 4.30am and COVID tested at 6am, before taking buses to the production set an hour away. “We wouldn’t be back until 9pm at night,” says Pepper. “You didn’t have time to get homesick, or know what was going on in the world. We were just locked into this bubble – an exhausting, creative bubble.”
Denise Pepper on the set of Making It Australia. Photo Channel 10.
Being the first season for the show, trial and error is par for the course but Pepper says, participants were having emotional breakdowns. “You can’t put creative people under that that kind of duress and pressure because our brains don’t work that way. We’d have meetings to explain, and they were trying to work through it themselves. They were truly beautiful people, who will no doubt learn from the experience for any future series.”
Typecast as the groovy granny/university lecturer who exhibits regularly at Sculpture by the Sea in Cottesloe, Pepper found participants in Making It covered a range of demographics, skills and interests. Among the group is an Aboriginal artist, an architect, a graphic designer, a party planning mum, a costume maker, a scrap metal artist, and an apprentice electrician, all ranging in ages from 22 to 62. She says they all became very close and protective of each other. “In all the turmoil and upheaval of being in front of a camera all day – the insecurity, loss of identity, physical and emotional exhaustion, we developed relationships I’ve never developed with people before. We’d get on the bus at the end of the day and cuddle each other – seriously! And there’d be days when it’s say 6pm, and we’d been there since six in the morning, and we’d lie on the floor and spoon and cuddle each other because we were cold and tired.”
Pepper says she still keeps in touch with several of the group. “Even now, we are still super protective and look after each other. We talk every day, checking on each other, because we all came out of it pretty emotionally destroyed.”
A psychiatrist was employed to ensure all participants were mentally fit enough to cope with the rigours of life on set before the show started, and is still employed to care for their mental health. “I can ring him at any time,” says Pepper. “And you don’t know how you’ll respond to yourself being on TV – I might seriously end up hating myself!”
She says her initial plan was to be true to herself and not to cry on set. “Well, I did one out of two,” she says. Tired and exhausted, she lost control after being challenged about a concept. “I was trying to be a conceptual artist as much as I could, rather than the folk art road. I was really angry I allowed myself to get to the point of crying, but everyone was fantastic and helped me get through it. You have to remember you have a cameraman on you watching every single thing you do, and they can hear every single word you say all day. Next to the cameraman is your personal producer who knows everything you’ve submitted about yourself. They would throw questions at you while you were making stuff, trying to entice emotions, like ‘how long since you’ve spoken to your grandkids?’ In the end it felt like I was on this treadmill and I thought ‘what have I done to myself? It’s too late, I’m in it now,’ so I just worked as hard as I could.”
Pepper says she’s always tried to be a professional artist, rather than a craftsperson. “I’ve worked really hard at that. My fear is that people will think I have sold out and won’t take me seriously for being on a kind of crafting show, but I gave myself a lifetime experience and I’ll never get it again. I’m 61, and I’m going to be too old for this stuff later on, and may never get selected again for anything like it. It’s an experience in my journey of life. The hardest thing was not telling anybody. You can imagine people saying to me ‘where have you been for the last six weeks?’ Thinking, ‘boy, you look haggard!”‘
Making It premieres on Channel 10 Wednesday 15 September from 7.30pm until 9pm.
Denise Pepper’s work can be seen at Castaways Sculpture Awards on Rockingham Foreshore from 23 – 31 October. Denise will present an Artist’s Talk at Castaways 10.30am Sunday 24 October. No bookings are required.
Denise Pepper on the set of Making It Australia. Photo Channel 10.