Elle Halliwell is the picture of health: smooth, flawless skin, golden blonde hair, big green eyes and bright white teeth. Although she isn’t wearing a scrap of make-up, it’s hard to believe she is sick.
A former entertainment and fashion journalist, reporting on beauty, style and celebrity gossip for the Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Nova Entertainment and Channel 9, Halliwell was diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia four years ago – then two days later found out she was pregnant.
She opens the front door of her Bondi Beach home with a big, friendly smile, coughs, then smiles again. She retreats a few steps and says she won’t kiss or hug me as she has a terrible chest infection that has been lingering for five weeks, but it isn’t Covid-19 – she’s been tested three times already.
Halliwell’s three-year-old son, Tor, is at home today, since her mother-in-law, who usually looks after him, has the same horrid chest infection. Mother and son are both wearing navy head to toe, and the house is surprisingly calm in the presence of a toddler, much to her credit.
The open-plan kitchen and lounge room are bright and surrounded by glass, and the only sounds I can hear are the animated voices from Toy Story.
“Just wait a minute, I really need to turn this down,” Halliwell says, walking over to the couch and grabbing the remote. “Actually, I might just take it,” she adds, with a soft laugh.
Halliwell laughs a lot these days as she spends more time with loved ones. She no longer works as a journalist, toiling seven days a week, driven by anxiety, eating crap food and staying up all night worrying about a story she’s had published. She is calm and living moment to moment, because that’s what cancer has taught her.
Halliwell was 30 when she was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia, which affects the blood and bone marrow.
Her former Daily Telegraph colleague and best friend, Briana Domjen, says she never saw Halliwell not hold herself together throughout the pregnancy and cancer treatment.
For Domjen herself, the news was devastating. “I remember when I found out it was leukaemia, I was driving, and I stopped and had, I guess you could call it a breakdown-type thing,” she says. “It was quite traumatic.
“I think everyone around her handled it worse than she did, she was very composed and philosophical about it.”
While Halliwell was still digesting her cancer prognosis, doctors warned her it would be safer not to go ahead with the pregnancy. However, she couldn’t face that – and Domjen was not surprised.
“I was so scared for her, because I knew how much she needed to have this baby,” she says.
“I knew how brave she would be, and I was worried she would put the baby before herself and it wasn’t going to be pretty.”
Halliwell’s husband, Nick, who works in property finance, supported her decision to go through with the pregnancy. He even found someone who had had the same experience his wife was about to go through, so the two women could talk.
When Halliwell herself describes how she coped, she is very matter of fact. Once she decided to keep the baby, she says, she decided she had to just keep moving forward and live day to day.
“I stopped thinking of the future at that point, which was so good, because, without realising it, I started practising mindfulness.
“And that was the one thing that got rid of my anxiety.”
Her mental picture of the world changed. “I felt I was looking at a technicolour photograph whereas before I felt I was living in sepia almost, because I wasn’t present,” she says, sitting up straight and taking a deep breath.
It wasn’t until after giving birth that she began to come to terms with her illness. She wrote a book in just eight weeks, called A Mothers Choice, while looking after Tor.
“Writing the book was a form of therapy, and I really got to unpack a lot of the grief I just stored up,” she says.
Thinking back to herself pre-cancer, she reflects: “I look back at me before 30 and I feel a bit sorry for her, and, you know, all of her values are just misaligned,” she says, holding back tears.
Elle Halliwell grew up in Newport, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches, in a tight-knit community, and describes her childhood as idyllic and pain-free. Her parents were loving and supportive and she had close friendships.
Fashion and beauty were things that she became interested in while growing up. Once she started working at the Telegraph, she just fell into entertainment reporting. She liked the idea of it, thinking people would consider it “cool”, but it was never really her.
Journalism was initially a shock to her system. “I came from a family where nothing really terrible happened and I was constantly given positive rewards,” she says.
“Then I went into the big wide world and into the (Daily Telegraph) newsroom and was told that my copy was shit.
“And I was like, ‘What do you mean? My mum said I was amazing!’”
Halliwell looks back at her time as an entertainment journalist as both exciting and exhausting. She met the likes of Seal – he was lovely but didn’t stop talking – as well as Kim Kardashian and Harry Styles, her all-time crush.
Styles actually asked her out after she interviewed One Direction but she was already engaged to Nick by then.
Halliwell’s sister-in-law, Chrissy Biasotto, remembers her in those days as “a mad stress head, writing during the day and going to up to five parties a night chasing gossip stories”.
These days, Halliwell has a quieter life. Having left the Telegraph in 2018, she’s a freelance magazine writer and motivational speaker. She has also been studying naturopathy and will graduate from her course at the end of this year.
She has started her own online business, selling “ear seeds”. A natural remedy, these are said to work like acupuncture and to help with nausea, dizziness and insomnia.
They look like little gold studs and are placed at certain points around the ears – Halliwell points to six of them in her own right ear.
Chrissy Biasotto is full of admiration for her. “She’s just so courageous – to be able to walk away from this with a huge smile on your face always, and nothing is ever an issue,” she says. “You just take your hat off to her.”
Pouring Tor a bowl of sultanas, Halliwell says: “Before I got sick, I would’ve said, ‘Oh no, that [cancer] would be the worst thing – you want to have a life free of adversity and free of bad things happening to you.
“I think that pain helps you grow and gives you character and builds you into a person who can go through the next crisis with strength and resilience.
“My time is precious and the little things don’t get to me anymore. I just have everything in perspective now.”