Thinking of decorating your front verandah with fairy lights? Then expect a stream of unfamiliar men knocking on your door in the wee hours.
"That's one sign the house is a brothel," says comedian Meshel Laurie, who used to be a receptionist at several such establishments — including one that specialised in transsexuals. "If there's a back entrance, lots of cars and girls wandering out to smoke bongs all night, you're on the money."
Yet when I mention her autobiography, to be released next year, she buries her face in her hands.
"It's embarrassing," says the co-host of Nova's popular national drive show. "It's like, 'Why am I writing this? Who cares?' There are plenty of other people with incredible life stories."
Yes, but few as interesting and varied as Laurie's. In addition to her brothel work, there's her time at university, where she "majored in hard-drug use". Her rebellion against her strict Catholic upbringing and her embrace of Buddhism. Her battle with depression. Her volunteer work with Father Bob Maguire.
There's her marriage to artist Adrian Lewinski, whom she met on the smokers' balcony at a work-for-the-dole scheme in Brunswick. (They now have twins, conceived via IVF.) Her five miserable years hosting a top-rating breakfast radio show in Brisbane. ("I hated the people I was working with and they hated me . . . we almost killed each other and then it imploded."). Not to mention her blossoming career as a writer, penning compellingly honest columns about her nightmarish withdrawal from antidepressants and the challenges of long-term monogamy.
"This is the first time ever that I'm not trying to change my life — and that's massive for me," Laurie says, snuggling into a couch in the green room of Channel Ten's South Yarra studios. "Even as a small girl, I was always wanting to change, desperate to leave home, to become a different person."
It's hard to reconcile the vivacious, confident woman in front of me with the picture she paints of her younger self: a shape-shifting people-pleaser who hid behind an edgy, cool facade.
"The reason I'm so open and honest now is because I spent a very long time trying to be something I wasn't; putting so much energy into creating an image," she says.
What kind of image? "Whatever you wanted me to be. I'd try to figure out what would make you like me, then I'd do it. It was exhausting."
To wit: her stint on the ABC's late-1990s comedy show Smallest Room in the House. In it, Laurie spoke of "overcoming" her body image issues — while still plagued by those very issues. Other comics riffed about their "former" drug addictions and dysfunctional relationships.
"It was basically a bunch of comedians pretending we no longer did what we were still doing," she says. "But we were young back then and we did what we thought was expected of us."
These days, Laurie says what she thinks and shares almost every detail of her life, warts and all. Don't approve? She couldn't care less. She does what interests her and accepts that not everyone will like it.
Of course, her honesty makes her more likeable to others. Her Nova drive show, which she co-hosts with Marty Sheargold and Tim Blackwell, is neck-and-neck with Triple M and Mix and a few points behind FM leader Fox. A former cast member of Rove Live, she's now a regular on The Circle and The Project. Everything she does is live: a testament to her quick wit and sharp comic timing.
Buddhism, she says, is key to her contentment. She meditates and reads Buddhist texts but her focus is on good deeds. Hence her involvement with Father Bob's food van (you'll find her there every Sunday night, next to the notorious Gatwick boarding house in St Kilda) and her plans to establish an Aboriginal mentoring program with fellow comedian Nelly Thomas.
"I'm much more generous with other performers now," Laurie says. "I want other people to get guest spots on The Circle, whereas six years ago I'd be thinking, 'No! That's my spot!' I used to feel I had to fight my way to the top and beat everyone else."
In 2007, she visited a Buddhist centre in Brisbane, hating her radio job and having hit rock bottom emotionally. After escaping "oppressive" Toowoomba in her 20s and falling in love with her adoptive home town of Melbourne, she viewed her return to Queensland as a backward step.
"My job was not fulfilling at all and I felt like I was failing miserably at life," she says. The mutual dislike between her and co-hosts Ashley Bradnam, David Lutteral and Kip Wightman didn't help. "You end up going into battle every day and it's exhausting. But that's the chemistry the executives wanted and that's what listeners tuned in to hear. Once I realised that, I felt like an idiot for falling for it. It worked, though. It was the No. 1 show.
"Brisbane radio is really sexist," she adds. "But so is Brisbane."
By 2009, the wheels had fallen off and Laurie found herself with new breakfast co-hosts Sheargold and Blackwell, both of whom she adores. She looked forward to going to work and the absence of tension was no hindrance. Indeed, the Meshel, Tim & Marty show was promoted to the national drive slot last year and the team shifted to Melbourne.
She vows she'll never leave this city again, except perhaps for a "gap year" in Asia with her family. For her, the Sunshine State never felt like home.
Laurie's Catholic school in Toowoomba, where the nuns branded the girls "sluts" if their tunics were "too short", played a big part in her desire to flee.
"They were absolutely obsessed with female virginity," she says. "The message was, 'We've got to keep our eye on you at all times because heaven knows what you'll get up to if left to your own devices. You'll probably end up a fallen woman.' So as a rebellious teenager, you react by going, 'Tops! How about I show you just how far I can fall?' "
Her mother had attended the same school, boarding there briefly during a rough patch at home. Just five at the time, Laurie's mother was regularly beaten by the nuns, who belittled her for being a "charity case". When she developed a bed-wetting problem, the sisters made her drag her stained mattress into the hall and announce to every passer-by what she had done.
By the time Laurie enrolled in the early '80s, however, just a handful of nuns remained. "We had fantastic role models like Cyndi Lauper and Madonna," she says. "These nuns were just a weird concept to us; a curiosity."
Occasionally, she'd climb the convent wall and peer at their enormous, dowdy underwear billowing from the clothes line, wondering why they chose such a life. "In reality, many had no choice," she says. "Back then, one girl from every family became a nun and one boy became a priest."
Does she think these women, as cruel as they were, had their own struggles?
"Of course. I think they had it incredibly tough when they were young. That sadism has to come from somewhere."
Like many former Catholics, Laurie has little time for the church but is in awe of Father Bob and his grassroots support of the poor and the marginalised. Recently, she learnt his van has been feeding some homeless Melburnians for 30 years — since they were children.
"The idea that poor people are responsible for their poverty and should 'just get a job' is both ignorant and cruel," she says. "Some are disadvantaged from birth and it's extremely difficult, if not impossible, for them to fight their way out. These are good, kind, loving people but this is the hand they've been dealt."
With 2½-year-old twins Louie and Dali, it's surprising Laurie finds the time to volunteer. But if you wait for "more time" to pursue the meaningful things in life, she insists, you'll be waiting forever.
Louie and Dali, unlike many pregnancies, were not the result of drunken fumblings or a contraceptive mishap. In fact, Laurie recalls their conception with perfect clarity. "It was me and three scientists in a room," she says. "Adrian was downstairs parking the car."
The children have brought incomparable joy to the couple, who have been married for 16 years. They've also provided a fresh list of things to fight about, including "massive blues" about whether or not they should drink Milo.
It's a long way from that fateful work-for-the-dole meeting at the Salvation Army store on Sydney Road. Their attraction was instant and "we locked ourselves in a flat in St Kilda for the next 18 months". But when the infatuation inevitably faded, Laurie wondered if it was over. As she wrote on mamamia.com.au, marriage is "two people in a constant cycle of falling in and out of love with each other".
"Don't walk away the first time you don't love your partner," she says. "You'll get it back. Just when you think, 'It feels like we haven't fallen in love for ages,' it happens again."
She pauses, then smiles. "Adrian texted me a photo the other day. It was the door of the Salvos store where we met."
Lewinski is now supporting her through her withdrawal from Effexor, an antidepressant she began taking during her dark days in Brisbane. Unfortunately, it gave her "brain shivers": uncontrollable shudders that would seize her without warning. Her recent column about it drew a huge response.
"It always shocks me when people go, 'Wow, I can't believe you're talking about this,' " she says. "Haven't you heard? Everyone's on antidepressants. Why don't we talk about it?"
Having battled suicidal impulses in the past, she believes the pills did their job at the time. Now, she wants to be drug free.
This is not the prelude to an anti-drugs lecture, however. While studying arts and drama at university in Toowoomba, she devoted most of her time to getting high — and feels no need to hide it.
"I planned to be a drug user from a very early age," she says frankly. "I never listened to the 'just say no' campaigns. I always thought, 'I'm going to have a go at this one day and be that person for a while.' Fortunately, I was lucky enough to be able to shrug it off."
Later, she saw the dark side of addiction at the brothels. Having worked her way up through Melbourne's live-comedy scene in the 1990s, she wanted a break from performing. A friend told her that a transsexual brothel in Port Melbourne needed a receptionist and she thought, "Why not?"
Needless to say, her job was a little different from your average clerical position. Each night, she'd greet the clients, run them through the prices and introduce them to the women. After they picked one, she'd take their money. "Then when the girls came down, they'd throw the towels in my direction and I'd go and wash them."
She worked at several other brothels and loved her colleagues. Yet she refuses to sugar-coat what she saw. "Unfortunately, the idea that a lot of prostitutes are troubled women is true," she says. "Many were abused as girls. They were taught that their sexuality is a commodity; that it's not for them but for someone else. They use drugs to block off the experience, then they need to keep working to buy the drugs.
"You're going to get letters to the editor from prostitutes now who say, 'No! I'm an emancipated woman and I'm a sex worker, not a prostitute.' But all I can talk about is my own experience, where I saw a lot of sad girls."
In contrast, she says her transsexual colleagues were generally sane, sorted and enjoyed their work. "If that place was still running, I'd ring up and ask to do a shift, just for fun."
Most of their clients were straight, Laurie says.
"In Western society, we have so many hang-ups and we lock ourselves into these false constraints. You only have to look at other cultures in other times where homosexuality and bisexuality weren't an issue. Working in brothels taught me to see the shades of grey."
Having hosted a talk with the Dalai Lama in Brisbane last year, she hopes to do the same when he returns to Melbourne next year. But as much as Buddhism has enhanced her sense of self, she's not entirely free of the craving for others' approval.
"I wish that were true," she says. "My career is still a really big part of my identity, though I appreciate what I've got now instead of constantly seeking the next hit.
"And I have so many other great things in my life, like the fact Adrian and I are getting chooks soon. I love that we've reached that stage of our life. That's what makes me truly happy."
Meshel, Tim & Marty airs 4-6pm weekdays on Nova.