'I Was A Complete Mess': What Saved Sam Dastyari After His Disgrace
"I’m a much sadder person... this kicked the shit out of me."
Sam Dastyari is rubbing his chin.
Until a few days ago, the now clean-shaven former senator had a hipster-chic beard.
"They told me I had to get rid of it," he laughed in a Pyrmont cafe.
Such is the life of a new, albeit unexpected, TV star.
He's days away from launching his new Channel Ten show 'Disgrace', the latest step in a comeback tour for the former Labor politician who experienced one of the most dizzying rises and falls of any MP in recent history -- party powerbroker by 26, resigned in disgrace by 35.
"I’m a much sadder person, without a doubt," he told ten daily over a beer, talking of the past eight months of his life.
"I don't think I was ever a really happy person, but this kicked the shit out of me."
Some called Barnaby Joyce 'Australia's best retail politician', but Dastyari in his heyday would have been a podium finish. He was the guy most journalists could rely on at any time of the day for a cheeky quote, a meme, a text, a tweet, a photo-op, a bit of social media gold. He'd personally return your calls, invite you into his office, laugh at your jokes and let you in on the parliamentary scuttlebutt.
He was the guy who brought McDonald's to a Senate doorstop, who kissed Derryn Hinch over a gay wedding cake, who delighted in driving the 'Bill bus' during the last election, who dressed as 'halal Elvis' and helped turn halal snack packs into a national cult meal by trying to break a world record.
But you live by the sword, you die by the sword, and Dastyari found himself hounded by and hiding from the very same media outlets he once courted.
"It's a lot more fun being on this side of the camera. It’s much more fun to point the camera than have it pointed at you, because you can choose when you turn it off," he said with a wry smile.
He calls it "the outrage machine" -- the 24/7 news industry of cameras and social media and vans parked outside homes. Dastyari experienced this after a string of scandals relating to his links to Chinese interests, from asking a political donor to pay his travel bills, then allegedly warning that donor he may be under surveillance, and defending Chinese policy -- in opposition to Labor policy -- on the South China Sea, led to his resignation from the Senate in December 2017.
He was a rising opposition star, set for ministry positions in a future Labor government, but it all went up in smoke.
"I went into a very dark place. To quote my doctor, I had a depressive episode," he said.
"I couldn't cope. I was drinking heavily, doing drugs, everything. I was a complete mess."
One of the most popular, gregarious and outgoing figures in the parliament before he resigned, Dastyari said he found himself quite alone in the aftermath.
"Two weeks later, everyone stops calling and the quiet descends, and there’s nothing more horrible," he said.
"The thing that is as horrible as the noise of everyone in your face is the silence of nobody. You get these long silent periods. Most people just move on."
His new show, 'Disgrace', is about the outrage industry --"what happens after the cameras are turned off."
The show has been put together by crew behind the Gruen Transfer and Chaser, and Dastyari said Disgrace is like a cross between the two -- a panel format, plus some filmed segments on location -- focusing on how people recover after their lives are turned upside down by their own wrongdoing.
"Does Monica Lewinsky ever stop being Monica Lewinsky of the sex scandal? Can Schapelle Corby move on with her life? Does it ever end?" he asked.
"What is your life like now? Can you walk down the street? Can you ever stop being haunted by these moments in your life?"
"While there is lots of funny stuff, there's quite a darkness to it as well. You are really answering the question of what happens to people's lives afterwards."
Dastyari is still funny and witty, a true character in every sense of the word, but now tinged with a sadness. In our half-hour chat, he speaks quickly and freely, his mouth at times battling to keep up with his mind. At multiple junctures he trails into deep, contemplative musings on fame, media and celebrity -- before pulling it back with a joke.
"I don't think there is any rehabilitation for me," he said in response to whether he'd ever consider a return to the political arena. He said Labor had to "look to new people" and said he was "done, politically".
"If I was going to rehabilitate myself, I wouldn't do a show called Disgrace. I don't think there's any path for me. This isn't about rehabilitating myself, it's about accepting that there isn't any for me."
"Wow that got very dark for a minute, didn't it?" he added, breaking into a wide grin.
Speaking to him now, seven months removed from his own disgrace, you get the feeling these are questions he has craved his own answers to. He said he has left party politics, moving into work with a communications agency and appearing in regular guest spots on the Kyle and Jackie O radio show, trying to put the incident behind him
But it still dogs him, both internally and externally. Some columnists and radio shock jocks still derisively call him "Shanghai Sam".
"What happens if this is it? What happens if there's an event that is 'it' in your life and nothing will replace it? What happens if you have these moments in your life and that's the end? When you catastrophically fail, what happens to your life after that? I don't have the answer," Dastyari said, swirling the dregs of his beer around the bottle.
"Being in the middle of it, it goes from a soft breeze to a typhoon in hours. I was a national disgrace. Fair cop, people will ask why I’m doing the show, but I’m the exact right person for this show."
"Part of it is probably therapeutic in a way. Maybe if I can look at understanding and fixing these problems, maybe I can help me."
Disgrace airs Sunday night on Channel Ten.