The quiet death of Sylvania Waters matriarch Noeline Donaher, Australia’s ‘first reality TV star’

Pip Christmass
Noelen Donaher released one song, No Regrets, in 1993.

She was Australia’s first reality TV star — but Sylvania Waters matriarch Noeline Donaher’s death last year went completely unreported by the media.

Donaher was the bold, brassy woman at the centre of a Sydney family from a wealthy suburb who allowed cameras into their home to film their lives in 1992, well before the concept of “reality TV” took hold on a global level.

WATCH THE VIDEO ABOVE: Noeline Donaher’s song No Regrets.

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The show aired both in Australia and the UK, where viewers were horrified to discover that the Donahers were nothing like the good-natured Aussie families depicted in shows like Home and Away or Neighbours.

Donaher was loud, both in style and personality, and she was constantly at loggerheads with the rest of her warring family, which included her husband Laurie, her sons Michael and Paul, stepson Mick, his partner Yvette and their two small daughters.

She drank bourbon, smoked Winfield cigarettes, swore and seemed to thrive on drama — so much so that one Australian news outlet called the show “Neighbours gone mad, Home and Away on drugs”.

She became the target of media and viewer ridicule, but a year after the controversial show aired, she released a single that seemed to sum up her attitude to the backlash — it was called No Regrets.

Donaher also wrote her own book, The Sylvania Waters Diary, and appeared on various talk shows before retreating from the spotlight.

Noeline Donaher was the matriarch of Sylvania Waters.
Noeline Donaher was the matriarch of Sylvania Waters. Credit: @MattFultonComAU/X
Noeline Donaher and her husband Laurie on Sylvania Waters.
Noeline Donaher and her husband Laurie on Sylvania Waters. Credit: @MattFultonComAu/X

Her son Mick Donaher posted a message to a car racing Facebook page called Appendix J Old Boys on May 29 last year announcing that she had died.

“Dad has asked me to share with you all, in the Appendix J association, the sad news that Noeline Donaher, his partner of 40 years, recently passed away,” the message read.

“Noeline absolutely loved Appendix J racing ... Together they raced everything from a couple of Valiants to a Lotus Cortina ... More importantly she made lots of great friends over the years and had many laughs/memorable times at tracks all around Australia, including Tasmania and WA!

“I’m just with (her husband) Laurie today and going through some old pics on the wall and in albums so thought I’d share a few of them with you all and say THANKS, on their behalf, to the Appendix J Old Boys for many years of fun, friendship and great memories.”

Matt Fulton shared this Facebook message announcing in May 2023 that Noeline Donaher had died.
Matt Fulton shared this Facebook message announcing in May 2023 that Noeline Donaher had died. Credit: @MattFultonComAu /X

However, most Australian media outlets did not pick up on the news that this once-famous TV personality had died.

Australian pop culture writer Matt Fulton shared Mick Donaher’s Facebook post about Noeline’s death on Tuesday, expressing shock that it went unreported.

“Holy c*** — Noeline Donaher DID pass away May 2023, and there wasn’t a blip in any news/media,” he wrote on X, sharing footage from the show, the video for No Regrets and an interview with Norman Gunston, aka Garry McDonald.

“The year was 1992. Reality television didn’t exist,” Fulton wrote in a separate post.

“The ABC in conjunction with BBC produced a show that broke the rules for its time.

“Sylvania Waters was the name. $-ed up bogans, Bourbon & cokes, Winnie Blues and personal conflicts was its game.”

Noeline Donaher released a song in 1993 called No Regrets.
Noeline Donaher released a song in 1993 called No Regrets. Credit: YouTube

Viewers who remembered the show gave their own hot take on the news that Donaher had died.

“Sad. I grew up around the corner and went to school with their kids,” one follower wrote.

“One of the world’s first reality TV series, and one that put Sylvania Waters on the map.”

“Get me a bourbon, Laurie,” wrote another, citing one of her oft-repeated lines.

“Vale the original Kath Day-Knight,” added a third, referring to hit Aussie sitcom Kath & Kim.

When one person asked why her death should have been reported in the news, Fulton had a succinct reply.

“You obviously underestimate the iconic status of Noeline and a bottle of bourbon,” he quipped.

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