This acclaimed actor’s work reaches millions of Australians every single day, yet no one would be able to recognise her face in the street.
This acclaimed actor’s work reaches millions of Australians every single day, yet no one would be able to recognise her face in the street.

She is the famous Aussie you probably won’t recognise

Every day, from dawn to way past dusk, more than a million Australians listen intently to what Taylor Owynns has to say. Sometimes, multiple times a day.

Yet ask them to point her out on the street and they'd fail; few would probably even know her name despite her voice being part of the fabric and rhythm of their lives. And that's OK with her.

"I'm just this disembodied voice," she says over a drink in a pub in Sydney's inner west. "I'm happy not to be recognised".

Ms Owynns isn't a host on the radio; if she was, you'd at least be able to name her. Rather she's the voice of trains and trams in New South Wales.

She has been the purveyor of the familiar sonorous sound heard on platforms from Central to Penrith and from Newcastle to Nowra for two decades. And for a time at Melbourne's Flinders St station too.

The soothing sound of this Melburnian's voice, telling you where the next train will be stopping, upcoming engineering work, or to always remember to tap off with your Opal card, is part of the background hubbub of the Harbour City.

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Taylor Owynns is the voice of the Sydney and NSW Trains’ networks, heard by millions each day. Picture: Christian Gilles
Taylor Owynns is the voice of the Sydney and NSW Trains’ networks, heard by millions each day. Picture: Christian Gilles

If it wasn't for a childhood illness, she may never have become one of Australia's leading voiceover artists - albeit one that is regularly mistaken for presenter Gretel Killeen. That, and acute nerves, has kept her off the stage and behind the mic instead.

During her career she's played a starring role in Bananas in Pyjamas and became the ABC's first female announcer as well as narrating countless ads and audiobooks. One man liked her voice so much, he wanted to her to speak at his funeral. But it's the trains where her voice is mostly widely heard.

"I do catch the train; I went for a holiday to Newcastle and did it all by public transport," she said.

"I listen to myself on the platform and I find myself going 'no, that's the wrong inflection' or a bit flat. And then I think 'no Taylor, just walk away'."

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The Melburnian‘s tones have become part of the fabric of Sydney. Picture: Benedict Brook
The Melburnian‘s tones have become part of the fabric of Sydney. Picture: Benedict Brook

Ms Owynns grew up in Melbourne, "110 years ago," she laughs, but it was a difficult childhood marred by chronic bronchitis and asthma.

"Dad used to put the two o'clock radio play on and when you were, well, struggling to breathe, it was a wonderful distraction."

She became enamoured by the words, the sounds and the diction.

Fast forward a few years to the 1970s, and in her lunch hour while temping she went round ad agencies and studios dropping off cassette tapes filled with samples of her voice.

"I'd cut out ads from the paper, write my own script and record them."

Her big break came in an ABC radio play swiftly followed by a radio ad for Avis car rental opposite actor Robbie McGregor. And it snowballed with Ms Owynns becoming the voice of Estee Lauder and Clinique.

"I remember one week where I played a young mum, an orange, a sheep and a blackboard."

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Taylor Owynns with played and voiced Rose in ‘Thank you for being a friend’, an homage to TV sitcom The Golden Girls.
Taylor Owynns with played and voiced Rose in ‘Thank you for being a friend’, an homage to TV sitcom The Golden Girls.

She became the voice of announcements at Flinders St Station and then, shortly afterwards, jetted off to New York for several years to peruse her acting dream.

"My father told me that when he missed me, he would go down to the platforms at Flinders St and listen to my announcements," she said.

"One day, he was sitting next to two women when one them said 'shut up you b****', when my announcement came on.

"My dad turned to her and said, 'do you know you're talking about my daughter?'"

Ms Owynns adored acting, but she began to realise making a career from it would be a struggle.

"When you connect with your audience it's magic. But I probably had too much self-doubt, I wasn't as confident.

"And besides, I was busy with voice over work, really busy."

Taylor Owynns said her aim is bring a calm warmth to sometimes stressed commutes. Picture: Christian Gilles
Taylor Owynns said her aim is bring a calm warmth to sometimes stressed commutes. Picture: Christian Gilles

COULDN'T PRONOUNCE THE STATION NAMES

She was picked up by RMK, which represent many of Australia's major voiceover artists, and became the first female announcer on ABC television, a role she did well into the 2000s. Being the voice of the NSW transport network was a gig that came "out of the blue" just before the Sydney Olympics.

"I'd spend hours and hours reciting names of train stations, saying each of them with three inflections - up, middle and down.

"Not being from Sydney I didn't always know how to pronounce the place names, especially the country ones.

"So, I'd phone the local post office or pub, in say Tahmoor, and ask them how do they say the town's name properly."

Before she records, she warms up her vocals and has a little, but not too much, to eat.

"You don't want to be rumbling away on a microphone".

Then, in the recording booth, she tries to visualise a station.

"I see the platform and the people. English might not be someone's first language, or they might not have great hearing; there might be a lot going on at home, or they might be anxious.

"And all they want to hear is where that train is going and not feel stressed so I try to make it calm, warm and clear."

Gretel Killeen is not the voice of Sydney Trains, despite the rumours. Picture: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images.
Gretel Killeen is not the voice of Sydney Trains, despite the rumours. Picture: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images.

GRETEL KILLEEN

For years, there was a rumour that Gretel Killeen was actually the voice of the trains. Ms Owynns chuckles at the thought of her deep tones being mistaken for those of the Big Brother presenter.

"Gretel's a brilliant artist - how flattering,"

Did Killeen steal her Sydney Trains' thunder?

"There's no thunder to be stolen," she insists.

Ms Owynns said she's been recognised from time to time from her voice alone, but chiefly through her work on audio books. She's currently part way through narrating Mary's Last Dancer, due out in November, about Australian ballerina Mary McKendry, the wife of Li Cunxin who wrote the acclaimed Mao's Last Dancer.

One listener, she recalls, was particularly taken by her Audible narration of Mary Ann Shaffer's book, now a film, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

"He sent me a lovely message when I was a celebrant and said whenever he felt blue, he would play it and my voice reassured him.

"He saw that I (officiated) at funerals and that he would love for me to do it but hoped he wouldn't have to ask for my services in the near future."

For many years, Taylor Owynns played Lulu the bear (in pink) in Bananas in Pyjamas.
For many years, Taylor Owynns played Lulu the bear (in pink) in Bananas in Pyjamas.

BANANAS IN PYJAMAS

For a good couple of decades, Ms Owynns had another starring role - in the hit kids' TV series Bananas in Pyjamas. She was Lulu, one of the three bears.

She said it was her "dream job" simply because it was fun and "gave so many kids so much pleasure".

But, like her voiceover work and narration, being in a bear suit meant the viewers would delight at her appearances but would never know who she was out of the costume. Occasionally, that happened.

"A parent would say 'darling, this is Lulu,' and they're looking at me going, 'sorry. It doesn't cut it'".

Ms Owynns said it didn't faze her because she's naturally an introvert. Train announcements, narration, audiobooks - they're all out of the public gaze and can be done again if you stumble your words.

For many years, Taylor Owynns, was a regular voice on ABC promos. Picture: Marco Del Grande.
For many years, Taylor Owynns, was a regular voice on ABC promos. Picture: Marco Del Grande.

But officiating at weddings, funerals and acting we're all live in front of an audience. At one point, she married three couples on stage in front of thousands at the Sydney Festival.

"I was very hard on myself, it used to stress me so much. I never felt like I quite got it right."

She'd like to act again but is worried the audition would take "too much of a toll on my nervous system".

Nevertheless, she is pushing through and working on what she describes as a "proactive, satirical" play around the subject of domestic violence that she hopes to get funded.

"Anonymity is no bad thing for me. Behind a mask on Bananas, or doing these voiceovers on the trains, nobody knows who I am.

"If you've got a lot of money or you're very famous, there's lots of attention. I'm just happy pottering about doing my work, doing a good job".

The light slips away, and so does Ms Owynns off into the Sydney evening. Perhaps to catch a train home, where she would be surrounded by some of the million daily commuters utterly unaware that the person announcing each stop on their trip home was sitting just a few meters away.

Taylor Owynns' audiobooks can be found on Audible. Mary's Last Dancer, published by Penguin, will be available on November 3.

benedict.brook@news.com.au

Originally published as Famous Aussie you won't recognise

A bout of childhood chronic illness was the unexpected springboard for her voiceover career. Picture: Benedict Brook
A bout of childhood chronic illness was the unexpected springboard for her voiceover career. Picture: Benedict Brook

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