“I had been reluctant to expose myself in that quite personal way, but I’m so glad I did."
By
Sarah Thomas

14 May 2018 - 7:57 AM  UPDATED 14 May 2018 - 9:50 AM

Justine Clarke is, for a moment, lost for words.

“That’s a really interesting question,” she says, on being asked about how an almost total lack of family history affected the formation of her identity growing up.

She pauses and after some thought says, “I suppose I didn’t know until I had some history and some sort of background, I didn’t know what impact it had.”

The children’s TV presenter, actor and singer has long been a warm, familiar and comforting face in popular culture, but her own DNA, her own make-up, has always been a mystery to her.

That newfound history and background is the outcome of her stepping up as a subject for Who Do You Think You Are?, now in its ninth season. 

“I had been reluctant to expose myself in that quite personal way, but I’m so glad I did,” she says. “Once I was asked this time, I really just took the bull by the horns and I felt very grateful that I had been asked because I genuinely did have things that I really wanted to know, and now that I know them I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface in a way and there’s so much more to connect with.”

At the start of Clarke’s journey on Who Do You Think You Are?, she states “family is everything to me”. But unlike her husband, actor Jack Finsterer, with whom she has three children, Josef, 16, Nina, 15, and Max 8, information was scarce about either side of her parents’ backgrounds. While Finsterer and his Irish Catholic background have an abundance of family tales and what she calls  “folklore galore”, very little is known about her own heritage. “It’s pretty sad, isn’t it?” she confesses on the show.

Her dad Leonard Clarke and mum Beverley separated when Clarke was eight months old. The only information she has ever been privy to about her ancestry was that her maternal grandfather had emigrated to Australia from Russia when he was 18.

Other than that, Clarke’s family history is a blank page, and so begins a journey for the 46-year-old that spans time and continents, uniting her with long-lost relatives and connecting her with family roots in Belarus and Moscow.

The format of the long-running Who Do You Think You Are? Is by now hugely familiar, where delving into records uncovers convict histories, a family scandal or two, or previously unknown geographical links. Clarke’s story covers all these bases, but takes on a deeper meaning in that it’s a journey to find her own identity and fill that blank page with a portrait of her composition as a person.

Clarke’s detective trail takes her on her father’s side back to colonial times where her great-great-great grandmother Mary Wright lived a very unconventional existence featuring family plot twists that would be perfect soap-opera material. In the ancestral mix there is also an Irish Catholic rebel and Jewish heritage from her maternal grandfather, Meyer Levine, who fled persecution.

 “You get to go on the journey with somebody who like me, knows nothing. You get to learn and hear a great story at the same time as seeing somebody who is very, very close to it and responding to it. It’s a pretty intimate show.”

She says people had suggested to her for years she should step up for Who Do You Think You Are?

“I had been reluctant to expose myself in that quite personal way, but I’m so glad I did,” she says. “Once I was asked this time, I really just took the bull by the horns and I felt very grateful that I had been asked because I genuinely did have things that I really wanted to know, and now that I know them I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface in a way and there’s so much more to connect with.”

She says she thinks the appeal of the show for viewers is in sharing the revelations as they come. “You get to go on the journey with somebody who like me, knows nothing. You get to learn and hear a great story at the same time as seeing somebody who is very, very close to it and responding to it. It’s a pretty intimate show.”

Embracing the concrete connections with the past she never knew she had has been an enormously transformative experience, she says.

“I suppose I just feel now that we are so much more than just this one moment in time. When you can trace your relatives back to say, on my Dad’s side the First Fleet, for me, it made history far more concrete. I think I’d always felt history was another story, that history wasn’t necessarily real in some way, like it hadn’t really happened.    

“I got so much from it. I’m so incredibly grateful. It was a very profound experience and the changes are still occurring. It changed me. Definitely.”

Watch Who Do you Think You are on SBS or catch up on SBS On Demand. Join the conversation #WDYTYA at 7.30pm (AEST) on Tuesday. 

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