Life after Steve: Terri Irwin in her most candid interview
LAUGHTER floats from behind a screen, bubbles of low hearty chuckles matched with higher pitched giggles, and sprinkled with snatches of conversation.
"You look beautiful, Mum."
"Because I feel a bit like a pirate.
"But a beautiful pirate …"
Here, in a small room tucked deep inside the 283 hectare labyrinth that is Australia Zoo, Terri and Bindi Irwin are having a mother and daughter moment.
They have come full circle, these two; today it is Bindi, now 21, encouraging Terri, 55, as she tries on armfuls of clothes for the U on Sunday cover shoot, and wonders if the puffy sleeves of a blouse are "a bit too Jerry Seinfeld" - circa the show's famous pirate shirt episode.
This is the Australia Zoo the millions of tourists who visit the Beerwah wildlife sanctuary don't see; the places where the Irwins relax together away from the public gaze; where Bindi's fiance Chandler Powell pops his head in to say hello; where crayon drawings Bindi and her brother Robert, now 16, did as kids frame the walls, and where this family continues to hold each other tight, just as they have always done since that day in September, 13 years ago.
That day - September 4, 2006 - was the day Terri Irwin's "new normal" began.
The day her husband, Steve Irwin, known around the globe as "The Crocodile Hunter" died at just 44 years old, killed while filming on location at Queensland's Batt Reef, stabbed in the chest by a stingray's barb.
The day, as the world's press began to descend on Australia Zoo, and floral tributes began growing like a strange, wild forest at its gates, Terri had to sit her children down and tell them their father wasn't coming home.
Bindi was 8 years old, Robert just 2, and Terri was 41 and now a widow, a single mother, and a woman with the eyes of the world upon her, waiting for her answers to a dizzying array of questions.
What would happen to Australia Zoo, the family business Steve's father Robert and mother Lyn first founded in 1970? What would happen to the many conservation projects the Zoo had established around the world? The Crocodile Hunter television series? The extensive expansion plans for the Zoo? The 600 staff? What would happen to all of it, now that the mighty Crocodile Hunter had fallen?
And beneath all of that was another, unspoken question, how on earth was one woman going to do it?
WE WENT TO GROUND, BINDI, ROBERT AND I
Terri Irwin, relaxing after the photo shoot (sans pirate shirt) is over, says that in the days following her husband's death, she knew people were waiting for those answers, but she also knew there was another, far more urgent matter to deal with.
First, she says, she had to "gather her family" into her.
"There was just so much going on but I knew that the very first, and only thing to do was just the gathering in of the kids.
"We went to ground, Bindi, Robert and me. We just pulled into each other. No television, no outside world, just the three of us watching documentaries of Steve so we could remember by ourselves before we had to start remembering with everyone else."
There are things that were said between mother and children during that time, things that Terri was helped to say by a psychologist, things about grief and love and longing and in the end, after about three weeks and all the words and all the gathering, it was Bindi who announced it was time to shed the black and get back into the khaki.
"She looked at me and said: 'When are we going to start filming again?' And I think unless you were in our particular family that might sound strange, but you know, that was her normal.
"Some people go surfing with their dad, some people kick a footy, Bindi filmed with Steve, and she needed her normal back."
So Terri Irwin, recently widowed, suddenly single, suddenly in charge of hundreds of people, and all manner of creatures great and small, took both her children by the hand, left the refuge she had created for them, and got to work.
They had a plan, Steve and Terri. A 10-year plan for Australia Zoo; for their conservation projects; for the establishment of a worldwide wildlife foundation; for a wildlife rescue hospital; for saving South-East Asian tigers, Sumatran elephants, Tasmanian devils … it wasn't, as Terri notes smiling, a simple plan.
But it was a blueprint; a guide for Terri to follow as she walked through her grief.
"You know when you buy a red car, you suddenly meet everyone else with a red car? Well, when you lose someone you love deeply, you suddenly meet every widow or widower who has also lost someone they love deeply, and they all want to share their story with you.
"So what I did was listen. And I learnt so much about death, how everyone does it differently, and how there is, of course, no right way to do it.
"I know the woman who can't stop crying, or the man who keeps his wife's perfume on the night stand, and I know the woman who sells everything her husband had, sells their home and walks away because it's done, that part of her life is over.
"For me, it was different because Steve and I did talk about our mortality. We had a deal that if he died first I would keep everything going, so it was never really: 'Am I going to do this?' but it was, 'Oh my goodness, I am actually going to have to do this'. Because you know, none of us really expect our partner is going to die, even if they are 102.
"And I was, to be completely honest, so afraid.
"I was so afraid, and it confused me because I never thought of myself as a fearful person.
"But here's the thing, I knew that for many people around the world Steve was it, you know, he was the Crocodile Hunter, and I knew I couldn't pop on an Akubra and try to be him.
"All I could do was look at that 10-year plan, and make sure I was ticking it off, box by box.
"The one thing I knew was that we had to keep filming our television series and specials, because that's where our income comes from to pour back into the Zoo to make those projects happen.
"So we kept going with Bindi and I and Robert and Wes (Mannion, 49, Steve Irwin's longstanding best friend and Zoo director) and everyone, all those great people in the team who believed in what Steve had been trying to achieve."
Thirteen years after the Crocodile Hunter's death, all the boxes have been ticked, including the African Savannah section and the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, and some projects were completed quite few years ahead of schedule.
The achievement and transition has not come without its costs, including an estrangement from Steve's father Bob, 80, - a situation Terri Irwin has never commented on publicly - and public criticism of Terri for everything from her haircut to the way she was raising her children.
All of it, she says, she understands.
"I get it, I really do. It's one of the easiest things to criticise, isn't it, how we parent?
"I'm sure I've done it myself, in passing, you know that whole, 'Well, that's not how I'd raise my kids'.
"So you see my kids and you think: 'I would never let my kid wrangle snakes, I would never let my kid go on television so young, so I'm the better parent', but you know what I've learnt?
"It doesn't matter who you are, or who your parents are, or the sort of life you lead, what I know now is that all you have to do for your kids is to be there and to love them. That's it."
"What I know for sure now is that what they all need from us is unconditional love. So, if that for you means only one weekend a month, then be there for that one weekend a month, not on your phone, not answering emails. I get how tempting that is too, but the rewards for just showing up for your kids are immense."
And Steve and Terri Irwin's kids are really great kids. Anyone who has spent time with them knows that Bindi and Robert are polite and courteous. Down-to-earth and hardworking. Good natured and kind-hearted. And very, very, understanding of Terri's men friends - all 25 of them.
ON ROMANCE: 'I'M HAPPY TO SET THE RECORD STRAIGHT'
TERRI IRWIN laughs her deep chuckle as she lists just some of the men she's been linked with, engaged to, or having a love child with, since her husband died.
"So far it's 25 men I have had a relationship with," she grins.
"I have kept track because it's kind of funny … let's see, apparently it's all the Hogans - that's Paul and Hulk; Russell Crowe, and most recently, it's Richard Wilkins."
Her head tilts slightly to one side as she considers her apparent never-ending supply of hot and cold running beaus.
"I think the most flattering would be Russell because he is such a good person, and a very good friend to our family, and I actually do really love him because he loved Steve and they were such good friends.
"You know, he stepped up so much when Steve died. Russell was the very first person to call me afterwards, and he just said, 'I am so, so sorry'.
"It meant a lot and now I kind of feel sorry for him because he is forever being linked to me so I could be cramping his style - same for Richard Wilkins.
"So, I'm sorry Richard Wilkins, and I'm happy to set the record straight that we are not dating."
She's also, for the record, not dating Hugh Jackman, a post-Miley Cyrus Liam Hemsworth, Paul or Hulk Hogan or any one of the many men she's been associated with over the years since Steve's death; because the truth is Terri Irwin is not dating anyone, and hasn't done so since that day in September 2006.
"All those stories, you know, some are funny, and some are flattering and some are mean because they have the power to hurt people who are in other, real relationships.
"So, that's not right, but I am not the only person on the planet who has had false things said about them."
"It's no different to anyone's life - we all have or have had someone who says something mean or nasty or not true about us.
"It's just that mine is in a magazine, while everyone else's in on Twitter or in the office or in the schoolyard, so I look it at like that.
"I don't respond, and I don't knee jerk, you know what I do instead?"
Terri Irwin straightens.
"I do the work."
"That's all you can do, just let your work speak for you. And I want to say to other people who might be worrying about what people say about them to ask yourself this question - are you an ethical, hardworking, honest person doing the best you can?
"Then you have nothing to defend. And understand that what you are dealing with is envy. So, if someone is bullying you at work or at school or on Facebook or wherever it is, it is always envy.
"You have something that they perceive that they wish they had."
Terri Irwin straightens her back some more, her voice rises and her eyes flash a little, and in this moment she is that woman who Steve Irwin once described as: "Not just a wildlife warrior, but a dead set warrior all round."
"And the other thing is, you must have stuck your head up, or nobody would be trying to chop it off.
"So, you are not keeping quiet or making yourself less visible because you think that if I do this, then this person might say this, or this person might think that. Don't ever do that. Don't make yourself less than.
"No, no, no, no, no. You have to stand up. Stand up. Stand up. Stand up!"
SUFFICE TO SAY THEY WERE SOULMATES
TERRI IRWIN has always stood up.
She has stood up for what she believes in since she was a little girl growing up as Terri Raines with her dad Clarence and mum Judy in the mountain-ringed town of Eugene, Oregon.
She has always stood up for wildlife, long before Steve and Australia Zoo and everything that came with it, when her policeman Dad brought home injured animals he'd found on the road for Terri and her sisters to clean up, and patch up.
She has always stood up for predator animals like the foxes, bobcats and cougars she cared for and released back into the wild at her own wildlife rehabilitation centre that she opened in Eugene when she was just 22, called Cougar Country.
She has always stood up - and for a young Steve Irwin, she also stood out from the crowd visiting Australia Zoo back in 1991, watching him feed a particularly unruly croc called Agro.
Now, part of that might have been the impressive, '90s perm she was sporting - "Do not make fun of my perm, you know what they say, the higher the hair, the closer to God" - but most of it was that rare moment of looking into the eyes of a stranger, and unexpectedly finding your best friend.
It's not every love story that begins with locking eyes across a crocodile pen, but it was perfect for them, this khaki-clad couple who wed less than a year later and whose honeymoon footage - tracking crocs from a small dingy in Queensland's Cattle Creek in Ingham - became the first episode of the ratings juggernaut that was The Crocodile Hunter.
It's a love story that has been well documented, and played out across a million television screens.
Suffice to say they were soulmates, and now one of them is continuing the work of the other, and their children are continuing the work of both.
STEVE IRWIN IS NOT, AS WE ALL KNOW, HERE ANY MORE
DURING THE BUSHFIRES that devoured this country, in the flames that left our mighty trees no more than charred, smoking stumps, and up to an estimated 480 million animals dead, the Irwins sent out a call offering help to whoever needed it.
They accepted 600 injured flying foxes from New South Wales to care for at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, they sent out care packages to areas affected by the choking smoke and raging flames, and they sent leaf cutters, veterinarians, and work crews to Kangaroo Island.
Then Terri Irwin got on a plane, flew to the island, and got stuck in.
"I've never seen anything like it, and when I was 16 in 1980, Mount St Helens in Washington State where I lived, blew. It was a volcano and it was less confronting than this.
"This was this strange, charcoal landscape, almost like a painting and for me the most terrifying thing about this bushfire crisis is that it stems from climate change, and whether you believe in climate change or not, this is the new normal for us.
"It's not just the weather, weather is what happens in a day or a week or a month, climate change is what happens over long periods of time - last year we had perilous flooding and we better pay attention, because if we don't then this new normal is what we gift our kids and their grand kids and all the wild things on our planet."
Here is Terri Irwin standing up again, sticking her head up above the pulpit, talking in her big American voice about things that some people think she has no business talking about.
And if Steve Irwin were here, he would be standing up too. He would get to his feet and give his wife a standing ovation.
But Steve Irwin is not, as we all know, here.
He is not here to see his son Robert, so like him in gesture and expression, win prestigious awards for his outstanding wildlife photography, or talk with urgency and knowledge about endangered species.
He is not here to see Bindi grow from a tiny girl with crimped hair and dancing eyes into a passionate wildlife advocate who will marry in the grounds of Australia Zoo later this year.
And when Bindi Irwin does marry Chandler Powell (the likeable and thoughtful young American, who like Terri before him, met his future partner on a visit to Australia Zoo) later this year, Steve Irwin will not be there to walk his daughter down the aisle.
But his son will be.
"Bindi has asked Robert to walk her down," Terri says, "which I think is so right, I know Steve would feel the same way too."
And when the young couple wed, a candle will burn at the reception, lit by Terri and Robert and Bindi and Chandler and Wes together, welcoming Steve Irwin into the celebration by its dancing light.
"We want to acknowledge Steve by all of us lighting this candle for him, but you know, I guess in some ways it's not necessary because Steve will be there anyway.
"I believe the people we love always are."
Terri Irwin smiles.
"You know, if you are missing someone, I think it's helpful to know that scientifically you can't actually create or extinguish life, you can only change its form.
"So if you are grieving someone you loved very much, look to science and just remember when you boil the kettle and steam comes out, it doesn't mean the water has gone.
"The water hasn't gone - your water hasn't gone - it's still there, it's just different."
"Oh, and something else too.
"Be kind to yourself, because people often aren't, especially, I've noticed women.
"Losing Steve made me realise that we just don't know how our time will unfold, so get the massage, buy those shoes, even if they are expensive, buy them just this once, and don't take care of everyone else first, and you last.
"Look after your body, stop apologising for it and for everything else you do.
"Practise not saying sorry for everything you do, for being you, for taking up space."
Terri Irwin smiles.
"And eat the damn cake."