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IWAS trundling round the supermarket, trying to work out the big issue of the day - tinned tuna or salmon for dinner? - when my mobile rang. It was my flatmate, Libby.

"How would you like to be Ewan McGregor's nanny?" she blurted. "Because I've told him all about you. How fantastic you are with kids, how you were the presenter on Play School for years, how you're trading in your telly career for a more normal life."

Well, she got one out of three right. I had been a bouncy, cheery presenter on kids' TV for years, leaping about with Big Ted, Jemima and Hamble.

For a whole generation of Australian kids, I'd forever be Merridy-from- Play-School. But did that qualify me to be nanny to Clara, three-year- old daughter of one of the world's mega-movie stars?

"He wants to meet you," Libby went on, "now!" As a film production co-ordinator, Libby was working on Moulin Rouge with Ewan.

That's how I found myself having dinner with Ewan, his stunning French wife, Eve and film director Baz Lhurmann. They were fantastic company and made me feel relaxed right from the off - Ewan asked me for a light.

I whipped out my lighter, quite forgetting the slogan emblazoned on the side. `International Escorts,' it read. `Gorgeous girls for every taste.'

Maybe that was why I didn't get the job. Eve said later, very sweetly, they needed a nanny who could speak French and drive. That was me out, then. Still, at least I already had a day job - or rather a night job - even if it wasn't quite what I'd imagined in my days as a telly presenter.

When I'd graduated with my acting diploma nearly 20 years before, I never thought I'd spend years singing Incy Wincy Spider to an audience of under- fives. Far less end up working in a brothel.

But here I was, at Arlington House in Sydney. An out-of-work Aussie actress working as a receptionist for Boris and Didi, who'd been in the sex industry for 20 years.

Currently they ran a dozen different escort agencies, with 60 `working girls', from a lovely terraced house, surrounded by palm trees. It was a posh front for what was, in real terms, a knocking shop.

Well, what's a girl to do when acting jobs are thin on the ground? I had rent to pay and the only qualifications I had, other than acting, were making tea and answering the phone.

I just had to keep quiet and make sure no-one found out who I really was. I could just see the headlines: Play School presenter works in brothel.

What if people thought I was a hooker, not just a humble brothel receptionist? There wasn't much danger of that. In my calf-length black suit and sensible flat shoes, I stood out like a sore thumb among the minis, stilettos and red lippy of the working girls. They were a revelation. When I was introduced to the girls I realised I'd led a sheltered life and had all sorts of preconceived ideas about prostitutes - like how they led seedy lives of vice and shame.

In truth, I soon discovered, they came in all shapes, sizes and ages. Victoria, Heather, Gigi, Lola, Maya, Delilah - the only thing they had in common were their exotic names.

Because, I found out, like me, many of them lead a double life. By night they were hookers, but by day they were Sandra, Marjory, Ursula, Jenny - most of them working to provide for their kids, families or elderly parents.

From teenage university students to 40-plus housewives, from teachers to accountants, lots of them had ordinary, respectable day-jobs. So far as I could make out, no- one else was a moonlighting telly presenter.

Most of them were superb actresses, judging by the screams of ecstacy that pierced the brothel corridors. When I saw some of the clients, I reckoned most girls deserved an Oscar.

EVEN more amazing was how many large women were in the trade. In an industry built on men's sexual desires and fantasies, there were so many hefty, plump girls.

Were they paranoid about their size? Not one bit. They confidently regarded their ample flesh as their sexiest asset. They were always fully booked, too.

Lots of the girls came from the UK. Most had come to Oz to get away from problems at home. Like Sapphire, from Newcastle. Pushing 40, she was a skinhead blonde with as fit and toned a body as Demi Moore.

It was my job to answer the switchboard, make bookings and check credit cards were genuine, not stolen. Compared to what the girls had to do, I thought it would be a doddle. Wrong.

A dozen different lines came through the switchboard. We had most of the sex ads in Yellow Pages, all advertising different services: Asian Fantasy, Aussie Girls, Exotic Ladies. All the same girls got sent out, whatever the agency clients were ringing for - but the clients didn't know that.

I had to change my voice for the men ringing on the Wild Lovers line, to something quite different for Voluptuous Vixens. Just in case the same punter tried several `agencies'. Being an actor came in handy, after all.

And according to which ad they were chasing, they'd pay a different price. From bog- standard Seductive Ladies at pounds 200 an hour, up to Exclusive service at pounds 500- plus an hour, the service was the same, although the Exclusive girls tended to stay just that - at the top end of the market.

Like Genevieve, a tall willowy blonde, who oozed good manners and class, from her designer outfits down to her Bulgari diamonds.

She was mad as a fish sometimes though and threw strops, cursing the management for treating her like a packhorse, since he was always busy.

But other times, she'd drift in on a cloud with a smile a mile wide. Like the day after she'd `serviced' a famous Hollywood actor. She was just miffed to see him on the telly news a couple of hours later, with a brunette on his arm, at a premiere.

"Who the hell is SHE?" Genevieve exploded, lthinking that, after spending the night with this sex bomb star, she owned him.

Most girls weren't like that about their clients. Not surprising if you saw them. "It's the ones with the money that treat you worst," Pandora told me. "Or the prats in therapy who want to quiz you on why you went into the game, after they've had sex."

And Dr Darius - a top gynaecologist who'd had every girl on the books. Often two at a time. With his wife.

I didn't ask. Not that the girls would reveal any details. After seeing a client, they simply came back to the office with blank looks. Job done. In the early months, I just had one problem. Some of the girls treated me with suspicion. They were wary of me and I couldn't work out why. Did they think I was a spy? An undercover cop?

While waiting for clients, the girls would laze in front of TV in their lounge. I lived in fear of my face popping up on the screen. Apart from kids' telly presenting, I'd done a few ads and was still appearing in re-runs of Neighbours and Home And Away.

Of course, it had to happen. I turned up for work one night to be greeted with a chorus of: "Open wide, come inside - it's Play School!" It turned out one of the girls had a nephew with an old video of the programme.

The girls were gobsmacked. "How the heck," said Sapphire in her broad Geordie, "did someone as educated and successful as you end up in a whorehouse?"

I laughed: "Paying the bills. It's work. Pure and simple."

Oh, okay, maybe not so simple - and certainly not pure. But hey, it was a job. And I'd never seen sisterhood bonding at such an impressive - and genuine - level. The world of telly suddenly seemed to fickle and bitchy.

I was accepted as one of the girls after that. I even thought about crossing over to the other side. Could I do what they did? The answer was no.

I was still registered as an actress, still had my agent scouring for jobs for me. And finally, she came up trumps. Fox TV offered me a regular character role in a new sitcom, Flat Chat.

It was time to move on. I came out of Arlington House with a reinforced belief in the strength and compassion of women. And in our saving grace - a sense of humour in the face of well, just about anything.

My year in the sex industry was over. Forget Play School. I'd just done my diploma in the School of Real Life. And I was all the richer for it."

As told to Ingrid Millar

Merridy Eastman's There's A Bear In There - And He Wants Swedish is published in the UK by Profile Books on August 25, for pounds 7.99.
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Title Annotation:Vital
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Aug 12, 2003
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