• Casey Donovan will trace her family history on SBS series 'Who Do You Think You Are?' (Supplied)Source: Supplied
Singer Casey Donovan has "a newfound respect" for herself.
Samuel Leighton-Dore

27 May 2019 - 10:18 AM  UPDATED 27 May 2019 - 10:18 AM

For singer-songwriter and actress Casey Donovan, appearing on SBS series Who Do You Think You Are was not only a cathartic experience, it was an opportunity to discover a long line of incredibly resilient women.

"I’ve had a lot of family trees sent to me over the years, but I had no idea about my mother’s side," Donovan tells SBS Life. "So it was really interesting to find out about my own DNA."

The performer also learned some surprising facts about herself - like that she's three per cent Swedish.

"I now understand my heavy love for flat-packing and IKEA," Donovan laughs. "I was just expecting Indigenous and English - but Swedish was a surprise."

Throughout the documentary, Donovan, whose biological father is Indigenous, opens up about her ongoing struggle to feel a meaningful connection to her family name. It's something she's grappled with, she says, since shooting to fame in 2004 as the 16-year-old winner of Australian Idol.

However, upon tracing her family tree and learning about ancestors including Mary Salmon - Donovan's three times great grandmother on her mum's side - and Florence Randall - Donovan's great, great grandmother on her father's side - it's clear that the musician has walked away from the experience with a firmer sense of self. While Salmon fled famine in Ireland and took her employer to court for wrongful dismissal, Randall - lovingly remembered as Granny Flo - is credited with helping to keep the Gumbaynggir language alive.

"I think they’re both resilient to life, getting stuff done and having to get from one day to the next," Donovan says of both Flo and Solomon. "I think that’s where my strength comes from. All the women in my family are very strong, so that was very interesting."

The series saw Donovan, whose father left home when she was two-years-old, rediscover her paternal Indigenous roots in Gumbaynggir country on the NSW mid-North Coast.

"Driving into Gumbaynggir country is... it's hard to explain," a visibly nervous Donovan says on the program. "This is my journey and my time to really look back at history and find out the answers, it's exciting."

Her time on country brought about high emotions for Donovan, who connected with relatives she'd never met and heard her Granny Flo's voice recorded for the first time.

"It was nice," she tells SBS Life of the filming process. "When you come from a broken family and you grow up with all these questions that rarely get answered... after not knowing who I was and struggling with my identity, to do the show and have these answers given to me, it really was a weight taken off my shoulders.

"All the women in my family are very strong, so that was very interesting."

"I feel like I can go forward and be proud of who I am and know that people love and care about me," she adds.

"I've been at that point in my life where I felt a burden, like I didn't deserve this name. So to go through this and meet a different lineage of my father’s side of the family, it was what I needed to hear."

The performer, who is currently playing Matron Mama Morton in the stage production of Chicago, says that she had unlocked "a newfound respect for myself".

"It was an eye opening, weight-lifting experience," she explains. "It was a moment of realisation for me."

"I definitely feel comfortable knowing who I am and that it’s okay to be 100 per cent me. There’s nobody else I can be."

Who Do You Think You Are airs at 7.30pm Tuesdays on SBS. You can catch up at SBS On Demand.

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