Helen & Cleo
Photo by Sally Tagg, courtesy Next magazine
“Helen Brown’s ability to delve into her deepest thoughts and her darkest days with honesty, passion and heart is what has made her an internationally bestselling author.” SheSaid.
Helen Brown grew up in New Plymouth, New Zealand. Her mother, Noeline, hammered out newspaper stories on a typewriter on the kitchen table while her dad, Bill, managed the local gasworks.
Along with her older siblings, Jim and Mary, the family lived in a whimsical house complete with a gothic tower. It was a perfect setting for fairy tales – and the Blackmans weren’t short of dreams. Noeline ached for stardom in the local operatic society productions, while Bill longed to convert the old coal-fired gasworks to natural gas.
Helen fantasised about becoming a prima ballerina like Margot Fonteyn. When that ambition crumbled, she retreated to a magical world with her polydactyl cat Mickey, the fairies in her bedroom and a tribe of neighbourhood kids.
At the age of 16, and desperate to leave school Helen left town to study journalism at Wellington Polytech. A year later, she began a cadetship on The Dominion newspaper, then flew off to the UK to marry a ship’s radio officer, Steve Brown. While in the UK, she worked as a feature writer and theatre critic for the Woking Review.
After they returned to New Zealand, when Helen was just 19, Sam was born. Rob arrived two and-a-half years later. In the throes of undiagnosed post-natal depression, Helen turned to the only craft she knew. Her short, humorous pieces for the local giveaway, the Karori News, started to get noticed.
Her weekly columns for The Dominion newspaper were syndicated to seven other newspapers. She wrote current affairs for Radio NZ’s Broadcasts to Schools and became a regular panellist on TVNZ’s Beauty and the Beast. Helen wrote for television programs including Country GP, Fourth Estate and What Now. Her script for Gayle and Gavin’s wedding on the soap attracted record numbers of viewers.
Tragedy struck on January 21, 1983, when Sam, aged nine, was run over and killed. As Helen and her family tried to piece their shattered lives together, a small black kitten padded over their threshold. Cleo brought laughter and healing to the devastated household.
Two years later, Lydia was born. The family moved north when Helen was offered a job at the Auckland Star. As well as becoming one of New Zealand’s first female newspaper editorial writers, Helen wrote features. Her personality profiles included Margaret Atwood, James Taylor and the Dalai Lama.
Helen’s columns won multiple awards and were collected in a series of eight books. She was awarded a Nuffield Press Fellowship to Cambridge University, UK, where she researched environmental issues from a spiritual perspective.
After her divorce, Helen met and married Philip Gentry. Their daughter, Katharine, was born at home on a stormy night in Ponsonby.
When the family moved to Melbourne, Australia, Helen continued writing columns for New Zealand newspapers and Next magazine. Her stage show A Slice of Banana Cake raised more than $40,000 for hospices and other charities in New Zealand.
Saddened after Cleo’s death (at the age of 23 ½) Helen wrote a book about the cat who had guided her family through the bleakest times. She sent the manuscript to countless agents and publishers to no avail. Cleo eventually found a home with Allen and Unwin’s Friday Pitch (where writers can send their ideas into the publisher on a Friday).
While finishing the Cleo edits, Helen had a brush with breast cancer. After the mastectomy, Helen’s sister Mary visited from New Zealand. Out on a walk one day, Mary spotted a feisty Siamese kitten in a local pet shop. Jonah burst into the household with his own form of rumbunctious healing.
Meantime, Cleo exploded on the literary scene, hitting the New York Times and British Sunday Times bestseller lists while being translated into more than 18 languages.
Not a cat to take the back seat, Jonah insisted Helen tell his story, as well. The memoir Jonah has been published in many languages, and he entertains adoring fans with his tutu obsessed antics on social media.
While promoting Jonah in New York, Helen’s US publisher Michaela Hamilton arranged for her to foster a rescue cat during her stay. Helen was hoping for a comatose tortoiseshell. Instead, she was handed a crazy Persian called Bono. Her Huffington Post blog about Bono was read by more than 22 million people and became the inspiration for her book Bono – The Amazing Story of a Rescue Cat Who Inspired a Community.
After meeting many grieving families, Helen was inspired to write Cleo and Rob – a children’s version of Cleo, beautifully illustrated by Phoebe Morris.
In between writing about the impact cats have on her life, Helen produced a novel Tumbledown Manor. She also released an updated and revised edition of her early columns Don’t Let Me Put You Off.
Helen spent much of Melbourne’s lockdown reliving her quirky upbringing in 1960’s New Zealand. Her next book Mickey – The Cat Who Raised Me, will be released in June 2023.
Meantime, she drinks coffee, obeys Jonah’s every whim, swims in the sea off Phillip Island, and tries not to break anything at twice-weekly Pilates.
- Recipient of the Nuffield Press Fellowship, Cambridge University, UK.
- Qantas Columnist of the Year 2009
- Columnist of the Year 2008
Magazine Publishers Association of New Zealand
- Columnist of the Year 2007 –
Magazine Publishers Association of New Zealand.
- Columnist of the Year 2005 –
Magazine Publishers Association of New Zealand
- Best writer, Sunday Star Times –
Auckland Metro magazine’s readership survey.