Finding the words: Tara Moss in the 1970s caravan, "Betty", where she sometimes works. Photo: Courtesy of Tara Moss
A few things Tara Moss has done recently: finished writing her 10th book, broken news about the alleged murder of an asylum seeker on Manus Island, worked as an ambassador for UNICEF, spoken publicly about feminism, children's rights and breastfeeding, promoted her best-selling crime fiction in Spain, celebrated her 40th birthday, researched her doctoral thesis and put on a snake show at her daughter's third birthday party. So she's a little tired of being described as a model who - amazingly! - writes books, and sometimes as a bimbo, a whore or worse. She's almost as impatient with admirers who see her as a perfect vision of success, beauty and happiness. Enough with superficial labels.
Determined as I am to avoid them, it is hard not to take a sharp breath as Moss emerges from her sprawling weatherboard house in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney; a long-limbed, ageless Amazon in jeans, boots and black camisole, a peacock feather tattooed on her arm, her red lips and nails neon warning signs in the misty rain.
With her husband, Berndt Sellheim - a philosopher, poet and novelist - and their large dogs Beauvoir, Camus and Leroy, she leads me into the old tearooms they've made home and I gasp again. We seem to have entered a gothic nightclub decorated with antique chandeliers, deer heads, a human skull, a vast movie screen and a bar where Sellheim serves up coffee and cake. Moss apologises for the unironed linen cloth on the table. A small sign of an overachiever in a world where few people even own a linen tablecloth? Or the nerves that jangle under the surface of her poised good humour?
Cover image of Tara Moss's new book, The Fictonal Woman.
Moss's first non-fiction book, The Fictional Woman, published next week, was not intended as a confessional autobiography, but as an analysis of archetypes that define and limit women's roles in society, such as the femme fatale, the feminist, the mother and the crone. The book ties in with her enrolment as a doctoral candidate in the department of gender and cultural studies at the University of Sydney.
She realised, though, that if she was going to address the fictions in other women's lives, she had to expose her own. Indeed, loss, violence and harassment are not just the stuff of statistics for Moss, but real traumas under the shiny public surface. But she hopes to show that, like many other women, she is a survivor - not a victim - and to scuttle some lingering taboos.
''I had to write this book because there are things that need to be improved, that matter and influence real people's lives,'' she says in a Canadian accent only slightly dented by 18 years in Australia. ''But I also had to make it part memoir, because one of the fictions about me is that I'm Teflon Tara and nothing has really chinked my armour. I very consciously over many years had armour on and knew that I was doing that from about my late 20s onwards, and before that it was there, but I didn't know it was there. What I've done with the book is finally throw my armour off, and I feel I'm fit enough underneath the armour that I don't need it.''
"One of the fictions about me is that I'm Teflon Tara": Tara Moss. Photo: Peter Brew-Bevan
She knows she has contributed to her image by modelling for advertising, which is ''designed to make everything look wonderful and make you envious'', and as a TV presenter, celebrity party-girl, snake-wrapped nude pin-up and clothes horse for hire. But when I suggest her beauty has been important in shaping her life, she stops me. "When you say 'your beauty', I want to laugh,'' she says. ''I do recognise that in a technical way I have at times had a conventionally attractive appearance that fits with commercial ideas, and that means I have been able to earn my living from it. But as a model you get told all the time what's wrong with you; you don't get told you're beautiful.''
Growing up in the Canadian city of Victoria, British Columbia, Moss was an athletic girl who hated the Barbie doll she won for coming first in a running race, until her mother helped dye its hair black and create a Vampirella monster. Even then she ''wanted to be Stephen King'' and used to sneak his horror fiction out of the library. She wrote her first story at 10, based on his novel Christine, about a car that murdered its owner's classmates (named after her classmates at their request). By the time she was a tall, skinny, shy 14-year-old with buck teeth and a mullet, her parents thought appearing in a local fashion show might boost her confidence. A model agent saw her potential and, after hesitating, her parents took her to try out in Europe.
Within a year of their trip, Moss's Dutch-born mother was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. In the hope of staying alive for her husband and two daughters, she became one of the first 100 people in the world to receive a bone marrow transplant for her disease. She died soon after the operation.
Baby bloomer: Moss, with her husband Berndt Sellheim, after the birth of their daughter, Sapphira, in 2011. Photo: Courtesy of Tara Moss
''It's a huge part of who I am and who I've become,'' says Moss, who still visits her father and sister in Canada every year. ''The way she handled what she was dealt with has been enormously influential in the person I have become. Who knows, maybe I wouldn't have become a model, maybe I wouldn't have gone away from Victoria.''
Her mother had kept Moss's first modelling photo - a demure lingerie ad - on the wall above her hospital bed and the 16-year-old felt she must achieve something worthy of her mother's pride.
''That was the fire that was lit under me that didn't go out for a couple of decades,'' she says. Two years ago, when she took her then one-year-old daughter, Sapphira, to her mother's grave, she realised she had stopped running. ''Which isn't to say I don't have some of the same impulses, but there was some manic, kamikaze part of it that stopped. Maybe it was something to do with having a child. I'm not a manic person, but there was this force that was unfocused but extremely powerful that kept driving me. Finally, the embers cleared and it was okay and the pain that was keeping me going didn't hurt any more.''
Modelling was her ticket out of small-town life, but there were stretches of unemployment, loneliness, hunger. She soon gave up the catwalk work that demanded a ''Paris thin'' body. But in her early 20s she had a year of bulimia, until a psychologist helped her see her binge eating and vomiting were a way of ''pushing my grief down''.
In those years, Moss endured an extraordinary number of sexual assaults and near-misses, though their ordinariness is her point. She was followed, groped, pinched, physically and verbally abused. In Munich, she was sent by her agency to an apartment where, instead of other models, she found a man who showed her a photo of his ''last wife'', and wanted to slip a wedding ring on to her finger and have her share his bed. On an escalator in the London Underground, a man grabbed her hair and hissed, ''I love blondes.'' She'd been doing self-defence training and hurled him over her shoulder down the stairs. ''There is something outrageous and funny and terrible about it,'' she says as we laugh uncomfortably at her superhero escape. ''It's fun to tell that story and it's shocking. I sound like a mythic figure.''
But there's nothing amusing about the night she was walking home in Milan and four Americans - she thinks they were marines - cruised by in a car. While one man held the door open, another jumped out and chased her until she reached her apartment building, where she managed to get in and slam the door on his fingers. ''That was the closest I've come to being dumped by the side of the road, and maybe not alive,'' she says. She was dressed defensively in a long, hooded coat, jeans and motorcycle boots, and trying to walk like a man; at least the boots meant she could outrun her assailant.
There's a story Moss has ''kept locked up in me for 20 years'', and it comes out in a tight voice and then in a rush. ''The one time I was raped was as typical as every stat you hear: someone you know and trust.''
She was 21, living in Vancouver, married to the first of three husbands, and taking acting classes with a group that included a ''cool guy'' who'd had some success as an actor. One day he offered her a lift home, but drove to his place instead and invited her in for a cup of tea. Moss decided it was all right. Inside, he threw himself on her and would not take no for an answer; as he raped her, she mentally floated out of her body in disbelief. Afterwards he lay pinning her against the wall for hours while he slept, and when he woke he gripped her jaw and said, ''Tell me you love me.'' She did, but as soon as he went into the bathroom she pulled on her clothes and fled down the stairs. He ran after her naked until she reached the street.
''Everything that you are gets removed,'' Moss says, staring into long-buried memories. ''You're not there any more and everything you thought you were and thought the world was gets vacuumed out; you lose your footing.
Because I knew the person, there was that trust thing, which I was not good at for a long time. I'm not that great at making myself vulnerable with someone now, which is okay because it gives me other strengths. I'm a good person to have around in an emergency.''
Moss says she recognises a knowing, wary look in the eyes of other crime survivors, police officers, morgue attendants, paramedics - people who have seen that life is not safe or fair. Experience has made her brave and also compassionate. She wants to fight the misconception that if we are careful, everything will be all right. ''The problem is that when someone isn't okay, the tendency is to believe they've brought it on themselves, and this is extremely problematic when it comes to sexual violence.''
After Moss reported her rape to the police, others came forward and the man was charged with raping about a dozen women. He was eventually jailed for two years, but for only one rape because friends he had boasted to about it testified against him. In Moss's case, there was no witness.
She does not name her attacker in her book or in our interview, but a 1997 newspaper report identifies him as Canadian actor Adrian Hughes, who had a small role in The X-Files and now goes by the name Adrian G. Griffiths. Other newspapers have reported that an American actor, Gabrielle Carteris, sued a film production company for not protecting her against serious injuries she suffered in 2006 while shooting a scene in which Hughes was playing a ''bad guy'' who held her in a headlock and dragged her down a staircase.
It's easy to understand why Moss began writing crime fiction at 23 and created her beleaguered feminist heroine, ''psycho-magnet'' Makedde Vanderwall, a former model studying for a PhD in forensic psychology who becomes a private investigator after being attacked by a serial rapist and murderer of young women. Moss spent 15 years on the six-book series, which has been published in 18 countries, and in the final episode, two years ago, alarmed her fans by having Mak turn vigilante killer to avenge the evil she has seen.
In the name of research and adventure, Moss has learnt to drive racing cars, ride motorcycles, shoot guns, earned a certificate in private investigation, visited morgues, police stations, courtrooms, prisons and the FBI Academy, been choked unconscious and set on fire, and half-seriously took a lie-detector test to dispel gossip her books were ghostwritten. She's a risk-taker who faces her fears, she says, and although her life is not as dangerous as Mak's, it is more exciting than most.
After her second marriage to Australian film producer Mark Pennell, and a bout of depression following an ugly divorce plagued by ''gold-digger'' gossip, Moss met Sellheim anonymously on a dating site where her profile asked, ''Do you prefer Sartre to sport?'' She was kicked off the site for "impersonating" Tara Moss, but they continued intense email conversations for a year before meeting.
There was no let down in the flesh. The couple exchanged vows and tattoos - ''Amor Eterno'' on Moss's neck, a wizened tree on Sellheim's shoulder and chest - in 2009, then left city life for the mountains and to share the care of their daughter. Sellheim says Moss has become less emotionally guarded since he met her, and ''her resolve has strengthened''. She's ''incredibly tenacious and, if need be, she can be absolutely fierce. If she feels there's an issue of principle at stake, then she will dig her teeth in and she will not let go.''
Moss's face lights up as she says motherhood has made her surprisingly fierce, driven to make the world better. Since her daughter's birth, she has become the UNICEF patron for breastfeeding and was filmed feeding her. Sapphira is smashing stereotypes, too. When a stranger told her, ''You are very pretty'', she replied, ''I'm very brave, too.''
Moss writes in The Fictional Woman about the sorrow of having two miscarriages, one late last year, breaking the silence on yet another difficult subject. The absurdity struck her when, days after losing the baby, she appeared at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House with a man who warned his fellow panellists he had been sick and might throw up, yet decorum prevented Moss from saying she was in the last stages of a miscarriage.
In February, while finishing her book, she heard from a crime-research contact who was working inside the Manus Island detention centre. He had witnessed the violence that led to the death of an inmate, Reza Barati, and gave her details the media had not yet reported. After verifying the facts, Moss posted them on Facebook, and for days stayed ahead of the news as others on the island fed her information. She was determined and anxious, especially when friends suggested she would be under surveillance and her phone and computer started playing up.
Her prominent voice attracts a mixture of praise and abuse. One day, consecutive emails came from an Indian man who had done his doctorate on ''Crime in the selected novels of Tara Moss'' and another who said her books were cheap and she looked like a man.
Mostly she laughs, but she often engages her critics. Only a stalker brought back the old fears. On an Australian book tour in 2012, Moss called the police, cancelled an event and stayed in her hotel room after the man, who had a criminal record, threatened staff at the venue. It ''cut her up'' to be silenced.
While we're speaking, Sellheim comes in from the garden to say he and Sapphira have seen a snake. Moss strides out to investigate. ''It's a diamond python,'' she says. She has owned snakes since childhood. Her black-headed python, Thing, lives in a tank in the family room and comes out occasionally to socialise. But her real bond was with his predecessor, Gomez (note the Addams Family influence), a huge diamond python that she rescued from a pet shop and held in her arms when he died.
There's a playful, ironic side to Moss. Her motto remains ''Life is too short to live the same day twice'', and her recent activities included serious rock-climbing and a spot of mediaeval jousting. She's a ''vintage geek'' who has taken to wearing 1940s and '50s clothes, which she says suit her curvaceous figure, and loves old B-grade films, Wonder Woman comics and ''Betty'', her 1970s caravan, which is her favourite mode of family travel and a peaceful writing spot parked in the garden. Her ongoing second fiction series is set in a paranormal version of Manhattan and features an orphaned writer and a gothic mansion. It seems Moss is recreating that world in her house.
''I have a need to adopt broken, old and forgotten things,'' she says, pointing out walls hung with Victorian and Edwardian wedding photos, a rosewood writing box containing a young woman's death card, old luggage found in second-hand shops. ''It mattered to someone and it's forgotten; it breaks my heart, so I have to bring it home and give it new life.''
Lead-in photograph by Peter Brew-Bevan. This story first appeared on Good Weekend.