“Connie would be incredibly happy; jigging in the streets at midnight in the rain, with a bottle of vodka, celebrating! I feel chuffed, incredibly proud. I really believe the idea for the book came from Connie. I channelled her! Once the publisher said yes, we had a deadline of just two weeks.”
Thankfully, the celebrities Johnson approached were quick to respond, firing back a range of quirky, upbeat and reflective pieces. “I was bloody thrilled at the standard,” he reflects.
“Nobody wanted to publish something they wouldn’t be proud to put their name to.” His favourite letter? It was one by country music’s Graeme Connors, who wrote songs for Slim Dusty.
“He requested that the hard men of this country revisited their childhoods so they could think about what they’d done,” Johnson says.
He was saddened by the despondence in actor Deborah Mailman’s letter.
“She’s going through some personal sorrow right now, which upset me,” Johnson says. “She deserves all the good things.”
The Molly star admits he’s yet to fully bounce back since losing Connie, one year his senior, who’d fought cancer since the age of 11. “I’d cried so many tears over the seven years before she died,” he admits. “After she died, I couldn’t cry any more. I’m a happy person, but in these last few months, I’d lost my joy.”
In 2013, Johnson famously rode a unicycle 15,000km around Australia, raising $1.5 million for his charity. He admits that after Connie’s death he “lost confidence” at the prospect of being able to keep raising money. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to be enough’,” he recalls. “Our charity is 85 per cent women; it is Connie they related to! I felt like they wouldn’t want me without her.”
Happily, the book’s success has restored his confidence. “After 10 months of feeling like I can’t be my best without her, I finally pulled a Santa-coloured rabbit out of my hat!” he says.
Though last Christmas, his first without Connie, “is just a blur; I can’t remember much about it,” he says this one will be more memorable.
On Christmas Day, he’ll celebrate with Connie’s sons, Willoughby, 12, and Hamilton, 11. “It’s my job to talk about Connie with the boys,” he insists.
“Connie and I grew up not being able to talk about my mother who died when I was little, but that won’t happen with these boys. Christmas is definitely the time to talk about her; she was the Queen of Christmas!”
His nephews, he adds, “are thriving without the trauma of having a terminal mother in the house; which happened for years”.
“Of course they miss her,” he adds. “But they’re reclaiming some of their childhood, and just in time because they’re about to hit adolescence.”
As for what’s next for Johnson, expect to see more of him on TV next year, including a rumoured spell on reality show I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!
“If I can get to the magic $10 million target for our charity, I’ll do anything – and that includes surrendering my ego and embarrassing myself on national TV,” he laughs.
“My dream is to create a legacy for Connie that just continues, the way the eye charity set up by the late Fred Hollows has continued.”
Dear Santa is available now at bookshops and at loveyoursister.org.