“I have no doubt my success is all because of my upbringing,” Todd McKenney says as he begins his family history journey in Who Do You Think You Are?
That success was spun out of the love of two women, the performer’s mother Peta Norton, and maternal grandmother Dorothy Dyson, who raised him in Perth (McKenney’s father David McKenney, a prison warden, left when he was nine-years-old, and his parents divorced).
And the multi-award winning McKenney - best known for his long-running portrayal of Peter Allen in smash hit musical The Boy from Oz, and as the “nasty” judge on Dancing with the Stars - has also made some enduring female friendships throughout his career that continue to shape him.
Peta Norton: Mum
The close bond between McKenney and his mum Peta Norton is no more evident than in the photos of them together that smatter his social media feeds. The affection is palpable.
“I think mum has given me strength, and she’s given me my craft,” he says in the episode. “Dancing consumed my childhood.”
McKenney has been dancing since he was three, and during his school years would practice into the night at his mother’s dancing school in suburban Perth. Though his mum never pushed him into dance, she did make him work hard to develop his skills.
“Mum's probably the best dance teacher I've come across, as she's a stickler for technique,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald.
McKenney also credits his mum for her unconditional acceptance of him, including being a gay man. He recalls when he was 19-years-old and about to embark on his first theatre tour, her going out of her way to allow him to spend quality time with his then boyfriend, inviting him to stay at the family home.
“Mum even moved out of her bed and onto my single bed for those three weeks,” says McKenney.
Dorothy Dyson: Nanna
McKenney was thrilled to have the opportunity to explore his maternal grandmother Dorothy Dyson’s family history. She died in 1991, and McKenney’s family had little knowledge of her ancestry.
“It means the world to me to follow Nanna’s line of ancestry because she was so dear to me,” says McKenney. “We had an amazing relationship.
He remembers his nanna, also a dance teacher, with a fondness that only comes with an innately close bond.
“Nana was a big influence on my life, and watched everything I did. She used to confide in me like a friend. She called me Boy and I called her Girl,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald.
“On her deathbed, Nana said to Mum: ‘I don't know where I'm going, but I wish Boy was coming with me.’ I'll never forget her. She's always with me.”
Sonia Kruger: Lifelong friend
Television personality Sonia Kruger, and Todd McKenney go way back, meeting on the ballroom dancing circuit as youngsters. They dated at the ripe old age of 12 and then again at 17. McKenney calls Kruger his “first female crush,” and counts her as one of his best friends.
“Sonia makes me laugh like no one else,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald last year. “She is really bright and is great at doing a million things. She has a big heart, too. Sonia is driven – I like driven women.”
The pair’s professional paths have crossed several times, memorably dancing up a storm in Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom in 1992 as Nathan Starkey and Tina Sparkle, co-hosting breakfast radio in the late naughties, and appearing together as judge and co-host respectively on Dancing with the Stars.
Anne Wood: Mother of his daughter/ Best friend
McKenney says musical theatre actress Anne Wood (Mamma Mia!) is “one of my best friends.” In 2007, that friendship transitioned to parenthood with the birth of their daughter Charlotte, through IVF.
News Corp reported that, knowing Wood wanted to become a mother, McKenney rang his friend with a special proposition.
“I rang her and I said: 'I'm offering to provide you with the other half that you need to have this baby'. Blow me down, she said yes," he recalled.
“Charlotte lives with her mother in Melbourne and is a gorgeous, thoughtful little girl,” he tells The Sydney Morning Herald. “I love her to bits.”
Georgie Parker: Honorary sister
Caption: Friends for over 30 years, Georgie Parker and Todd McKenney performed together in their stage show Duets in 2017]
It was at a pas de deux class in Sydney that McKenney first met actress and singer Georgie Parker over 30 years ago.
“She was my partner and, for two hours a week, I'd throw her above my legs and between my legs. When you're dancing with someone like that, you become friends quickly,” he said last year. “Georgie is like a sister to me. We have so much fun together.”
The pair appeared together in the George Gershwin musical Crazy for You in 1997, and teamed up again 20 years later for their stage show Duets, crooning some of music’s greatest collaborations.
“We’re incredibly cheeky and can remember jokes from 20 years ago, so anything is fodder!” Parker said of their friendship in an interview with Now To Love. “It’s a delicious mix of hard work, taking the mickey out of each other and knowing when someone needs a cup of tea.”
Nancye Hayes: Bosom Buddy
McKenney and musical theatre veteran Nancye Hayes have been performing together on and off for decades in the likes of musicals 42nd Street and Annie, and Richard Alfieri’s play Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks. The friends are currently touring their tales of showbiz in their stage show Bosom Buddies, and Hayes tells Stage Whispers that they share a trait of being exacting performers.
“He’s willing to push boundaries, and nothing fazes him, except people not giving 100% - we’re alike in that way,” she says.
And McKenney wholeheartedly agrees, paying tribute to his dear friend’s professionalism.
“We share the belief that if you’re lucky enough to be paid for being up there on a stage, you give 110% at every performance,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a matinee for senior citizens, they are entitled to the best performance you can give. Nancye wouldn’t know how to do anything else. She’s a national treasure.”
Watch Todd in Who Do You Think You Are? at SBS On Demand: