When Sophie Monk did her first bikini shoot, for a men's magazine, she cried in the bathroom. "It was against everything I believed in," she says. "But I had to do it, because of Bardot."
In 1999, Monk auditioned for what she thought was an ABC documentary. In fact, Popstars became a major hit on Channel Seven, opening the reality TV floodgates. Watch it now, and you see a low-budget prototype of Australian Idol and The Voice. Instead of glossy studios, auditions were filmed in grey conference rooms. Contestants sat on the floor while awaiting their turn. The judges' desk was a trestle table.
Popstars tracked the creation of Bardot, a five-piece pop group. On the cover of their debut album, Monk and her bandmates are portrayed as dolls, seemingly controlled by an outside hand. This wasn't far from the truth. "It was like being a robot," she says. "The hours we did would have been illegal. It was horrendous."
You might expect Monk to have spurned reality TV. Instead, she will star in a new season of The Bachelorette, Ten's popular dating show.
When her mother suggested she apply, Monk was appalled. "I was like, 'You think I'm that desperate?' Then I realised: I am that desperate!"
But romantic misfortune wasn't her only motivation. Over a seafood lunch, in a harbourside Sydney restaurant, she explains what led her to this point. How she went from resenting her sex bomb image to posing for Playboy. The friends who stole her money, and the men who broke her heart. How working in Hollywood made her depressed. And why - after two decades of fame - she's living with her parents.
"I learned everything from those experiences," she says, her broad Queensland accent intact despite 10 years in Los Angeles. "You lose something, you gain something, you lose something else. That's life. But I know what's important now."
Several weeks earlier, I observe a cocktail party on the set of The Bachelorette. Monk glides out of the mansion in a red fishtail gown, her hair swept to one side. She looks like Jessica Rabbit, and her appearance halts the conversation. "Holy shit," whispers a chisel-jawed admirer, suitably agog.
Host Osher Gunsberg interviews her in front of a tree draped in fairy lights. When he asks how it feels to evict contestants each week, Monk frowns: "Like I'm breaking up friendships."
Apollo, a professional magician who resembles Eric Bana, confirms the men have formed a tight bond. "You probably spend five hours a week with your best friend, max," he says. "But we're together 24/7. It's hard to say goodbye."
In the past, Monk would have tried to fix this. It was her job to keep boyfriends happy; to regulate their emotions like a parent soothing a child. Never mind how she felt. "My self-esteem got kicked a lot. It always ended in tears and hurt. Then I'd fill myself back up - and do it again with a different person. It kept repeating. What I was attracted to wasn't actually good for me."
Perplexed by this cycle of heartbreak, Sandi Monk sat her daughter down. "I'm completely fine with you being a lesbian," she said. "I just want you to be happy."
Except Monk was not in the closet. What she really needed was some serious self-reflection. "I kind of sat for a year, caring for myself," she says. "Learning to want the good things [in a relationship]."
A close friendship helped. Five years ago, she became mates with Oscar Gordon, a former producer at 2Day FM. Initially, she paid for everything, including business class flights to LA. "But if someone loves you," her sister said, "you don't need to do all that."
She was stunned to discover this was true. Gordon didn't view her as a means to an end; he just enjoyed her company.
Monk was barely out of school when Popstars launched. "I was a very young 19," she says. "I'd only had one boyfriend. I'd never really been naughty."
Living in LA, she became easy prey. Rivals gave her address to paparazzi, who documented every cigarette break and takeaway coffee. Men fell for her bombshell image, then expected round-the-clock glamour. And a "friend" - whom she trusted with her finances - siphoned off the money she'd saved to buy her family a house. (This was several years after Popstars contestant Chantelle Barry allegedly stole Monk's weekly stipend. Barry has denied this claim.)
Depressed, she returned to Queensland and moved in with her parents. "I remember sitting by their pool and thinking, 'I will make that money back'," she says.
As a teenager, Monk convinced herself she was thick. In high school, she flunked test after test. When English teachers looked at her book reports, they'd ask if she'd read the wrong text. The culprit: attention deficit disorder. Its diagnosis, in adulthood, came as a relief - and she's come to view her ADD as an advantage. "I'm impulsive and I think differently to other people. But I've realised that's not a bad thing."
She began to question previous choices. "Why not?" she thought, when Playboy made its umpteenth approach. "They're beautiful photos. It's art." Monk hosted a breakfast radio show and won The Celebrity Apprentice, replenishing her bank account. Now she's using this money to build her parents a house on the Gold Coast, next to her own.
"They've gotten me through everything," she says. "It was my dream to look after them. I worked my arse off but it was worth it."
After Monk's time in LA, she has little patience for self-important celebrities. "We're all full of shit. We're meant to be entertainers, not whingers. If I can make someone laugh, I'm happy."
Hence her enthusiasm for The Bachelorette. While the US version features largely unknown women, Monk starts with a high profile. This is why falling in love on camera felt surprisingly comforting. She didn't have to worry about Tinder dates taking sly photos on their phones; instead, she's the one making her relationship public.
Helicopters, mid-air kisses, tearful rose ceremonies: of course, it's a spectacle. And she has no problem with any of it, as long as her audience is entertained.
"On the first night, I was standing at the red carpet going, 'What are you doing? You're embarrassing yourself and your family. But I wanted to find love - and I have. This guy has my back, and for once I feel relaxed and safe. It's frickin' awesome."
WHAT: The Bachelorette
WHEN: Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7.30pm on Ten