Alumna in Focus: Alexandra Joel BA (Hons)'77

Alexandra Joel BA (Hons)

Alexandra Joel is the author of Rosetta, a story about her scandalous great-grandmother, a daring Australian woman who enchanted British society. Alexandra is a former editor of the Australian edition of Harper’s Bazaar and Portfolio, Australia’s first magazine for working women. She has also been a regular contributor of feature articles, interviews and reviews for national and metropolitan publications including The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald Good Weekend Magazine.

1.What are your happiest memories about your time here as a student?
The early seventies was a period of huge social and political change in Australia. The Whitlam government came in, suddenly 18-year-olds could vote, feminism, gay rights and Indigenous rights were very much on the agenda. Surrounded by some great minds as well as many passionate and committed people, it was a particularly exhilarating time to be studying Government at the University of Sydney.

2.Who was your favourite Professor while you were a student at the University of Sydney and why?
The Professor of Political Theory, Henry Mayer, was an inspiration. He was a pioneer in the study of mass communications and had a profound understanding of the field that went far beyond the academic. I thought he would only want me to use secondary sources for my honours thesis, but when I suggested that I do original research he was enthusiastic. The wide range of interviews I went on to conduct gave me my first taste of what it would be like to be a journalist.

3.What is your proudest achievement?
Raising two kind, responsible citizens!
Professionally, it would have to be my new book Rosetta: A Scandalous True Story. When writing it, my greatest challenge was coming to terms with the conflict I felt between my fascination with my great-grandmother Rosetta’s extraordinary life - which included running away with a half-Chinese fortune teller called Zeno the Magnificent and forging intimate relationships with leading pre-WWI writers, scientists, members of the British aristocracy and European royalty - and the fact that she abandoned her only child.

4. Who inspires you?
After a first career in the media, I undertook further study in applied psychology and began working as a psychotherapist. My former clients, many of whom live with unimaginable distress and pain and yet continue to strive forward, remain an enduring source of inspiration.

5. Please may you tell us more about yourself, your background and how you came to write your latest book, Rosetta.
Both of my parents read extensively, and they passed their love of books and the joy of writing on to me. In fact, it was my late father Sir Asher Joel, himself a former journalist, who not only first began to uncover the truth about my mysterious great-grandmother but urged me to write the story of her life. However, I could never have done it without the research skills I learnt at Sydney University, my experience in the media and then as a psychotherapist. They all came together in what was a challenging, but immensely fulfilling undertaking.

6. What is the mantra you live by and what drives you?
My family has the motto: “Of Good Courage”. For me, this means everything from helping others in ways that might be far out of your comfort zone, to tackling something you secretly think you might not be equipped for. I know I have fallen short plenty of times, but if you try to be brave, to exceed what you think you’re capable of, it’s amazing what can be achieved.

7. What has been the most memorable success you have had?
When I was President of the Royal Hospital for Women Foundation I was privileged to lead a wonderful team; together we raised millions of dollars from both the corporate sector and private benefactors which helped build a number of state-of-the art-facilities for the hospital when it was relocated from Paddington to its new home in Randwick. These included an integrated Breast Cancer Care Centre and specialised facilities for the treatment of premature and other high-risk babies.

8. What are your plans for the future?
I am planning another book. This one will be a novel, though based on a remarkable true story about another fascinating woman and the far-reaching impact a single, secret decision will have upon her life.

9. What advice would you give to students graduating from the University of Sydney?
Embrace each opportunity. Sometimes life’s unexpected tangents turn out to be the most rewarding experiences of all.