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  • The good life

    Laura Csortan is no Barbie

    A motorcyclist dismounts at the local service station to fill up. Clad in skinny True Religion jeans and a Gucci leather jacket, shaking her blonde tresses free of a shiny helmet, if this were a scene in a movie, it would be played out in slow motion.

    The girl could be forgiven for thinking that the guy in the ute might have been eyeing her up. After all, when you’re a blonde on an impressive motorbike, an ex-Miss World and Miss Universe entrant, as well as being a long-standing presenter on one of the countries best-loved lifestyle TV programs, causing a stir is a daily event.

    The blonde with the bike smiles politely at her admirer. He’s practically drooling and responds thus: “Nice bike, love…. Oh s**t, it’s you!”

    Laura Csortan (it’s Hungarian and pronounced Sor-tan) laughs uproariously when recalling the welcome home she’d received the day before.

    “I was like, ‘Gee, thanks mate,’” she says, all mock indignation.

    “My bike always gets the attention.” Not that Csortan is vain. Far from it. The 29-year-old The Great Outdoors veteran arrives at sunday magazine’s photo shoot wearing not a scrap of make-up.

    Having just returned from yet another long-haul trip, her skin bears testament to the effects of the journey. While undeniably glamorous, Csortan looks tired and a teeny bit blotchy.

    “One of the few pitfalls of my job,” she concurs breezily as she plonks herself down on a wooden stool ready for the make-up artist to work her magic. “That and the killer jet lag. I should be an expert at dealing with it by now, but I spend my life in a permanent haze.”

    Not that she’d have it any other way. “I have well and truly been bitten by the travel bug,” she admits. “If I’m not heading through the departure gate every few days, I get the shakes.”

    She has a point. Even when not on assignment for the show, for which she’s just completed her seventh season, (she appeared onscreen for the first time in October 2000), Csortan loves nothing more than taking herself off somewhere exotic in her down time.

    “My sister, Elisa, and I take an overseas trip together every year,” says Csortan of her younger flight-attandant sister. “She’s in Croatia without me at the moment, and I’m so jealous.”

    The sisters are incredibly close – “apart from that time when she tore down my Wham poster,” remembers Csortan, laughing – and grew up with parents Judy and Joe in the Adelaide Hills.

    Days were spent on, in or under the water, as well as riding dirt bikes, rounding up sheep on their grandparents’ Tumby Bay property or building cubbies in the bushland surrounding the family home.

    “Mum and Dad were never the sort of parents who said, ‘Don’t touch that; don’t jump from there; don’t swim here,’ says Csortan, remembering an action-packed, sport-filled childhood that fired her interest in all things outdoorsy. “We never sat around watching telly,” she says. “There was too much fun to be had outside.”

    Csortan’s best friend Sasha Grossett agrees. “I think Laura and I are such great mates because we’re both action girls at heart. When we were younger, we loved to wind up all the boys by hitting the river and driving the ski boats better and faster than they could. We’ve calmed down a bit now.”

    It’s this can-do quality that has endeared Csortan to the big bods on the Seven Network’s The Great Outdoors. After all, you don’t last seven seasons if you’re merely eye candy.

    Series producer Daryll Maguire explains: “Laura really loves to get stuck in and rugged. She’s not just in this to wander around glam hotels; she really loves to do the rough stuff. People wouldn’t expect this gung-ho attitude from an attractive girl like Laura, but she doesn’t rely on her looks like that. She’d rather be in the thick of the action than sitting by the pool.”

    Which makes Csortan’s stint as a model and beauty-pageant entrant all the more unexpected.

    How did the girl who loves rock climbing, horse riding and skydiving fit in with the fashionista crowd? “I actually loved my time modelling,” recalls Csortan, who first stepped in front of the camera to supplement her meagre student finances while studying for her bachelor of applied science at the University of South Australia.

    “The weirdest thing for me, though, was seeing how skinny all the other girls were. I’d look at them and think, ‘She couldn’t go for a jog. How could she waterski?’ Surviving on an apple and a glass of water a day definitely wasn’t and isn’t my thing. I’m athletic and to be able to do all the things I want to do, I need to be strong and healthy. The girls’ fixation with diet was frightening. I’m not a fusser and one of the major downsides of modelling for me was the continual obsession over appearance.”

    That’s not to say that Csortan is all grease and no glam.

    “I may be a tomboy, but I have a pronounced girlie side, too. I love to dress up, get my hair and nails done and hit the red carpet in a fab frock. That’s why doing Miss World and Miss Universe was such fun for me.”

    Csortan represented Australia in the Miss World and Miss Universe competitions in 1997 – the first Aussie model to appear in both pageants.

    She may not have won the top tiara, but she was crowned Miss Congeniality at the Miss Universe bash, suggesting that personality was just as much a part of the Csortan package as looks.

    “I knew I wouldn’t model forever,” she says. “I wanted more of a voice, so TV was the obvious choice.”

    After making a name for herself on local television in Adelaide – highlight: hosting Drag Racing Today; “I was the chick who had to go into the mechanics sheds looking blonde and then start talking about V8s to revheads. Luckily, I knew my stuff but it was hilarious!” – Csortan then used her minimal contacts and limited experience to lobby for an audition on what she knew would be her ideal program, The Great Outdoors.

    After loading up her battered car and driving herself to Sydney for the audition, aged 21, Csortan suddenly found herself in the enviable position of being in possession of her dream job; a gig she beat over 600 other hopefuls to, including some household names.

    “I couldn’t believe it. I think I just screamed when I heard I had it.”

    Six years, seven series and countless air miles later, Csortan is still in situ.

    “I’ll have to be weaned off this job when the time comes,” she says, looking glum at even the thought of quitting. “It’s my life.”

    When she does leave, Csortan admits that she’d like to devote more time to another of her passions – speaking out on environmental issues.

    “I’m in such a privileged position to have seen so many beautiful things in the world,” she says, citing Positano in Italy and trekking through the jungle in Borneo to visit an orang-utan orphanage as personal highlights.

    “But one thing that kills me is the damage and destruction I see every day. Oceans polluted, rainforests decimated, habitats destroyed – by man. We don’t know how lucky we are, yet we carelessly harm our world. It’s heartbreaking.”

    While first-class travel and flashy hotels are perks of the job, Csortan’s also endured her share of mishaps on the road. Most notably, she was stung by a deadly stonefish while on location in the remote island of Aitutaki (halfway between Australia and Hawaii).

    “As soon as I stood on it, I knew I was in trouble,” she recalls, shuddering at the recollection. “The pain was indescribable. We were a day away from the nearest hospital and I honestly thought, “This is it, Csortan.”

    Fortunately, a local resident was on hand to offer some unconventional assistance in the form of a herbal remedy.

    “He opened up the wound with a fish hook and applied some herbs that he’d chewed up and then regurgitated to the cut. I was beyond caring, I was in so much pain, he could have lopped my foot off without anaesthetic and I would have thanked him, but he obviously knew what he was doing. Soon after, I began to feel better.”

    Csortan is in no doubt that the natural remedy saved her life.

    Unfortunately, this incident followed swiftly on from her recovery from doses of both glandular fever and Guillain-Barré syndrome, a debilitating inflammation of the nerves, causing loss of balance and strength, pain, weakness and even paralysis to one or more of the limbs. Recovery can take months. Csortan was afflicted at the end of 2003.

    “I had a rough trot there for a while,” she admits quietly. “I’d worked through the glandular fever, not taking off as much time as I should have and then, one day, I woke up and couldn’t support my own weight on my legs. I couldn’t even hold my head up straight.

    Sasha came to visit me and when she rang the bell, I literally had to crawl to the door. When she saw me, she burst into tears and I started c

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