1 April 2013
By ALYSSA BRAITHWAITE
Between takes at WHO’s Sydney photo shoot on March I3, Bindi Irwin, in a white sundress, with her olive skin lightly made up and honeyed waves of hair framing her features, draws a double take from a passerby. At 14, she’s no longer the little girl with crimped pigtails and a gap-toothed smile. "It’s funny because I guess I have grown up a little bit," says Bindi, who has graduated from the small screen to make her feature-film debut in Return to Nim's Island. "My voice has deepened a little. I don’t sound like I’m on helium anymore."
But while she concedes "it’s fun to dress up and be a bit of a girl" every now and again, Bindi is still her father’s daughter: "Khaki is my chosen colour - it’s not just a colour, it’s an attitude."
It’s been more than six years since Bindi lost her dad, "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin. The wildlife crusader was 44 and Bindi 8 when he was fatally pierced in the chest by a stingray barb while filming near Port Douglas, Queensland, on Sept. 4, 2006. Just over two weeks later, she was given a standing ovation after delivering a eulogy to a crowd of 5,000 and a global TV audience of more than 300 million.
It’s hardly been a typical childhood for Bindi and her brother Robert, 9, who live with mother Terri, 45, at their home at Australia Zoo, in Beerwah, Queensland. Birthdays, for exanple, tend to be marked by wild animal experiences. For her 10th, Bindi was allowed to feed a saltwater crocodile for the first time. "It was probably the biggest moment in my entire life," she recalls, her brown eyes wide.
"You grow up watching your mum and dad feeding salties, so it’s kind of like graduating from croc school."
Bindi and Robert are schooled by correspondence, with tigers or elephants occasionally stopping by their outdoor classroon. Bindi, whose favourite subject is English, is a "straight-A student," Terri tells WHO. By keeping her schooling flexible she has been able to fit in filming commitments for shows such as Bindi the Jungle Girl, Bindi's Bootcamp, Steve Irwin's Wildlife Warriors and the 2010 DVD Free Willy: Escape from Pirate's Cove. So when she was approached to star in Return to Nim's Island, the sequel to 2008’s Nim's Island, which starred Abigail Breslin as a girl trying to save her island paradise home from developers, it was a perfect fit.
"I’ve done a little bit of acting in the past, hut nothing to this scale," she says. "I’m really excited about my first theatre-release movie."
Working with costars including John Waters, Toby Wallace, a couple of sea lions and a bearded dragon on the action-adventure flick was "such a wonderful experience," says Bindi, who praises the movie's "beautiful message" about family, conservation and wildlife. "Nim’s trying to save her island from development, and in real life at the moment I’m trying to protect a place called the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve in Far North Queensland, which is under threat of being strip-mined for bauxite. So I understood where Nim was coming from."
Growing up with parents passionate about animals and the environment (US-born Terri ran a wildlife rehabilitation centre before she met Steve), it’s no surprise that for Bindi "conservation and wildlife is kind of in my blood." She was raised in front of the camera (Terri was even filmed giving birth to her) and that’s something Bindi feels grateful for, "especially after losing Dad." In quiet moments, she and Robert "watch Dad’s DVDs and all these memories come flooding back," says Bindi. Her brother, she reports, is keen to emulate his father: "He studies Dad so carefully."
Determined to honour Steve’s 1ife, the tight-knit family deemed Nov. 15 Steve Irwin Day. "Time, I don’t think, heals wounds, it just kind of changes things," reflects Bindi. "So you're not desperately sad every day, but there’s always a piece of your heart that’s missing and you’ll never get back."
Watching her father in action is a "nice reminder of whv you’re doing what you’re doing, because everything I do in life is to make Mum and Dad proud," says Bindi. "I want to make sure his legacy lives on and never dies." Terri sees "a lot of Steve" in her teenage daughter: "She is very sweet and lovely, and very determined," she says. "When she grows up, she will be a force to be reckoned with."
She might be a self-proclaimed wildlife warrior and a "girl on a mission," but there’s more to Bindi than her beloved khakis. She’s "obsessed with books" (everything from Wendy Orr’s novels to The Teachings of Buddha, which she is reading now). She cooks almost every day - stir fries are a specialty - and is a keen surfer. She is terrified of scary movies but enjoys Modern Family and loves singing and dancing along to the Veronicas, Jessica Mauboy and, thanks to her dad’s influence, AC/DC.
As for finding a boyfriend, spending time with rhinos and giraffes is still higher on the priority list for Bindi, who turns 15 on July 24. "I have friends that are girls and friends that are boys. Why make things complicated?" she says with a laugh, though she adds that one day she would like to have a family.
In the meantime, she lhas a budding acting career to tend to. Chris Brown, the producer of Return to Nim's Island (which opens nationally from March 25), believes Bindi has real potential in the movie industry and "has matured into an amazing young actress." But if that’s the path she chooses to go down, it won’t be the glitz and glamour of Hollywood that lures her. She doesn’t have any celebrity crushes and her favourite superhero is still her dad. "I love filming, because with filming I’m able to bring my message of conservation to a wider audience," she says. "So in the future I’d love to broaden my horizons and see where my film career takes me, and I’m really excited about it. But wildlife and conservation is where my heart lies." It’s a sentiment that wouldn't surprise Steve if he could see his girl today, according to Terri: "Steve used to say, 'I think Bindi’s going to be a much bigger deal than I ever will be.’"
Bindi's spreading the word
When she’s not studying, filming or working at Australia Zoo, Bindi is trying to initiate discussions on the issues that most concern her. "I want to start talking about problems that people seem to be avoiding, like overpopulation and the non-consumptive use of wildlife," she says. Bindi was recently asked to write an essay for Hilary Clinton's e-journal, in which she urged action on overpopulation. But when it was returned to her heavily edited, she pulled it from publication. "I was really sad," she says. "I always say, the true test of freedom of speech is when someone says something that you don't like." Is there a politician in the making in Bindi? "Maybe!"