Meet the real Rhonda: How Ketut changed her life

Wednesday, January 30, 2013
Meet the real Rhonda: How Ketut changed her life
Photography by Michelle Holden. Styling by Nell Simpson.

You know her as Rhonda from those car insurance ads, but there are plenty more reasons why actress Mandy McElhinney is hotter than a sunrise right now.

Every so often, a series of TV commercials comes along and everyone can recite the lines. Here's a couple from Australia's current favourite:

You look hot today, Rhonda … like a sunrise!
Eyes on the road, Rhonda!
Kiss me, Ketut!

Yes, they're all from AAMI's "safe driver" car insurance campaign, starring the hands-down most popular couple on Australian TV right now: racoon-faced Rhonda (with her beautiful brake foot) and her Balinese cocktail waiter, Ketut.

The series of ads has been on air for more than a year and they've gone viral. One Facebook page, set up by a fascinated consumer to examine the "sexual tension" between Rhonda and Ketut has more than 100,000 "likes".

In case you haven't noticed — which, in all likelihood, you have — the latest ad is the one where Rhonda has just come back from Bali. A friend picks her up from the airport and on their way home, she looks at Rhonda and says, "So, did you get lucky?"

Did she get lucky? You bet she did and we're not talking about Rhonda any more. We're talking about the smart and spunky actor who plays the role, Mandy McElhinney.

Make no mistake, Mandy was an accomplished stage and screen actor before she agreed to star in AAMI's ads.

She was in New York last year with Cate Blanchett, performing in A Streetcar Named Desire. She's played wonderful characters in All Saints, Blue Heelers and Water Rats, and she appeared in four consecutive seasons of Comedy Inc.

She's currently playing a lusty swinger in the new stage play, Dreams In White, that is based on the secret life and sudden seedy death of a successful Melbourne businessman, Herman Rockefeller, in 2010 (he died while pursuing his secret swinger's sex life).

In addition, Mandy will take the lead role as Nene King, former editor of the mighty Woman's Day, in one of this year's most anticipated TV drama series, Paper Giants: Magazine Wars.

Given all she's done and is still doing, it's such a relief to find that Mandy hasn't gone all snobby and silly about the success of Rhonda.

"Rhonda has created opportunities for me, so of course, I'm grateful," Mandy says during a break in a fun photo shoot for The Weekly, during which she slipped in and out of tiny, silky dresses (she is much smaller in person than she appears in the ad and she's got lovely laugh lines all around her eyes).

"Rhonda is a character. She's not in a book or a film, she's in an ad. But that's okay. People really like her. They like the story. And that's great."

There's no question that the audience wants her to get together with Ketut (maybe they could buy a house, for which they'd need home and contents insurance?), played by Melbourne forklift driver Kadek Mahardika.

It's not yet clear whether they will appear together again. On one hand, AAMI is probably willing to pay whatever it will take to get them both, which is great for Mandy, who has lived the financially uncertain actor's life for two decades.

On the other, she understandably worries about getting so tangled in the role that people won't be able to see her as anyone other than Rhonda.

That is certainly a risk, especially now that Rhonda has cult status in Australia's favourite holiday destination, Bali, where "Kiss Me Ketut" T-shirts now out-sell Bintang singlets.

Mandy hasn't been to Bali since the ad went to air and given that she remembers the island when it still had bicycles and chickens in the streets, it's surreal to think she's now "hot like a sunrise" over there.

Yet she has a sense of humour about it and she's counting on the generous Australian public to back her as she moves into different roles.

"I think they understand that I'm playing a part," she says, "and hopefully they'll like what I can do in other roles, too."

Nothing's ever certain, but that seems bound to happen. Rhonda's a wonderful character, but Mandy, when you meet her … she's the real deal.

Read more of this story in the February issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.

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