Rob Mills: ‘Stop asking me about Paris Hilton’
ROB Mills hesitates to declare himself a feminist.
It's a peculiar predicament for a man who strongly believes in equality and confirms he unreservedly supports women's rights.
The 36-year-old actor tells Stellar when his character Finn Kelly on Neighbours was aggressive towards women, he found it so distressing he would get into his car and cry the whole way home from set.
He's also eager to stress that his desire to champion equality is one of the many reasons he feels so uncomfortable when people ask him about that famous dalliance with reality star Paris Hilton.
"It's bizarre and weird. It was 16 years ago now," he says of the ongoing public interest.
"I have had many other partners - well, one long-term partner; I shouldn't say many others - and I would get asked about Paris in front of her by random people.
"For some reason for blokes it's like: 'Hey Millsy, well done mate!'" He shakes his head and then wonders aloud, "For what?"
While Mills may be puzzled over the ongoing messages of congratulations from strangers, Stellar is puzzled by his reluctance to label himself a feminist, when his words and actions seemingly indicate otherwise.
He offers an explanation. "Em Rusciano, my friend, told me I am not allowed to say I am a feminist. She said I can say I am a supporter of feminism."
Mills and comedian Rusciano have a tight bond. They both found overnight success as contestants on Australian Idol and had to weather the attendant highs and lows that came with it.
While Mills may not have won Idol, his cheeky nature and good looks ensured he won over the Australian public.
The show enabled him to leave behind his days of mowing lawns, collecting glasses at pubs and serving food at Fasta Pasta to forge a career as an actor, host and musical theatre performer.
"I started writing a record at the end of 2003, it was released in 2004 and then we toured. It was great," he recalls.
And the Paris Hilton connection was a further springboard for fame and column inches during her zenith in the early 2000s.
But what started off as a successful recording career ended just as abruptly as it took off.
"The record company dropped me by the end of the year because the album only sold 30,000 copies - which is pretty good for a first album, I would've thought."
He shrugs and continues. "But they were like, 'Nah, there's a new series [of Idol], new people,' and then I realised [they had already moved on]."
Despite the blow to his ego, says Mills, "I didn't worry about it too much; I chose the option of not dealing with it. I just put it aside to deal with in therapy [years later], and looking back now I would say I was pretty hurt."
What's more, "I realised that industry isn't for me. I didn't wake up each morning wanting to write songs. That's not my MO."
Instead he realised that what gave him the most joy was simply performing - "Whatever that may be: acting, or hosting or a musical theatre show or doing a rock gig. That's enough for me. I like that. I just want to make people happy. That's my MO."
With refocused energy, Mills went on to star in musical theatre productions of Wicked, Grease and Legally Blonde.
He appeared as a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice and Dancing With The Stars and hosted the Young Talent Time reboot.
He's also a popular face on Ramsay Street, where he'll play the show's reformed villain for the foreseeable future.
"I am here until the end of the year with Neighbours but, the life of an actor, you never know where you'll be after that. It's kind of cool."
Staying in Melbourne comes with an upside. It is where Mills's girlfriend of one year, ABC journalist Georgie Tunny, is also based.
"I slid into her DMs [direct messages on Twitter] after seeing her on television," he explains. "We had lots of awesome chats and went on a few dates. She was new to Melbourne and I was offering to be a tour guide."
And it's a good thing he's familiar with the city's streets, since he has signed on to become an ambassador for this year's Run Melbourne charity event.
Across two days, participants run around the city's famous landmarks to raise money for their chosen cause.
For Mills, it's the Australian Children's Music Foundation, which provides instruments and music programs to disadvantaged children.
"I've been a runner since I was a kid," he says. "Running is my go-to if I am feeling down. I don't suffer massive bouts of depression but if I am in a lull, I realise I haven't run for a while."
Former Idol judge Ian "Dicko" Dickson tells Stellar he is not surprised to hear about Mills's commitment to charity.
"We were in Perth for the Idol tour - a real sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll tour," recalls Dickson. "Everyone was out partying. I was in the hotel having breakfast and I saw Rob. I asked if he was just getting home and he said that he was actually on his way to the Children's Hospital.
"I wasn't across that being part of the publicity and he told me he had organised it himself. He did it not because someone was forcing him to, but because he wanted to."
The two are now firm friends. "People underestimate Rob," says Dickson. "They think he's just this cheeky larrikin, and he is. But he is also one of the hardest-working, professional, big-hearted guys I know."
Mills admits he had his sights set on impressing the former Idol judge from his first audition, picking a song he thought would win over the notoriously hard-to-please Brit.
"I sang a really bad boy-band song - a Westlife one. I did my research and knew that Dicko had managed them. I thought that might work."
He thinks for a moment, then smiles. "And it did, because I am still here - still doing it."
Run Melbourne takes place from July 27-28; events.solemotive.com/run-melbourne/.