Meet the Australian music journalist who could be the world’s first wheelchair astronaut.
Most of us, if we’re lucky, have one thing – one skill, talent or trade we hang our hat on.
Marlena Katene has several things. The Gold Coast native is at once a music journalist, skydiver, base jumper, world traveller (she’s visited over 38 countries and counting) children’s book author and successful small business owner.
Marlena has interviewed everyone from Kylie Minogue and Russell Brand to Ed Sheeran, the Jacksons, Boy George, Andrea Bocelli, Snoop Dogg, Xzibit and many more besides. She’s sipped whiskey in Vanilla Ice’s dressing room and danced on stage with Pharrell Williams. Marlena writes up her interviews for a few magazines on the Gold Coast (often nabbing the lauded cover story in the process) and publishes all her interview videos on her YouTube channel.
Marlena, who’s also a Bank Australia customer, grew up watching ‘Hey Hey it’s Saturday’ with Molly Meldrum, and knew from a young age that music journalism was for her. As a kid, she loved music and enjoyed writing because she was judged on her final output – not how long it took her to write it. “As I grew older, I thought, ‘Why not mix both my interests and passions into a unique career path?”, says Marlena, who’s sitting surrounded by a collection of backstage passes, souvenirs and trinkets in her sun-lit Gold Coast apartment. “I was drawn to it, purely as it's so interesting to immerse myself with talented people. Everyone has a story, and as a journalist, you get to hear that story.”
Marlena is also the Gold Coast’s resident bouncy castle mogul (and a self-described “hustler”). When she was in year 10, Marlena’s mother stopped giving her pocket money and told her to go out and get a job (“I think she forgot I have cerebral palsy,” jokes Marlena). While Marlena’s friends were getting jobs at some of the more typical purveyors of high-school employment (McDonalds, Burger King, Big W etc), none of those jobs were any good for Marlena. So she got creative. “I had to find something that worked for me,” she says. After a little research, she soon found a bouncy castle business for sale at a local market. “We made a ridiculous offer, and a friend offered to support me in the physical nature of the business. Cut a long story short, this business, Burleigh Bouncers, helped me pay for my first car and travel extensively around the world. My business helped me retain my independence and begin to create financial security.”
Speaking of financial security, Marlena started writing children’s books to help offset the precarious nature of life as a freelance music journalist. “I wanted to write kids’ books to share a positive message on disability,” says Marlena. “Simple books with a simple message that explain why I’m in a wheelchair. Bouncy castles and kids’ books have been a great mix from a business perspective, too.”
When she’s not interviewing celebrities or flexing her entrepreneurial muscle (and when there are no pandemics to derail her plans), Marlena is travelling. Anywhere, everywhere, and as much as she can. “Travelling is my drug – I love it more than anything else,” she says. “Travelling allows you to get out of your comfort zone and appreciate what you have when you return home.” Of everywhere she’s been, Japan and Italy in particular have stolen her heart. “The people in both these countries really showed me the importance of community, and how strong we can be if we value a wide range of people.”
Marlena’s adventurous streak doesn’t stop at exploring the world at ground level, either. An avid skydiver, Marlena has (at time of writing) jumped out of a moving aeroplane no less than 31 times. She was also one of the first wheelchair users in the world to base jump (off of Kuala Lumpur’s 451-metre high KL Tower), and her aspirations for skyward adrenaline-seeking go far beyond planet earth. “This idea of being the first wheelchair user in space started out as a bit of banter with Richard Branson,” explains Marlena, who has met and talked with Branson several times. “I cheekily asked him if it’d be possible for a wheelchair to go to space and, if so, whether or not I’d be able to bum a ride with him.”
The pandemic put a temporary hold on Marlena’s plans to go to space, but one of Branson’s marketing people has already paid the deposit for her parabolic space training, and Marlena is looking forward to pushing ahead with her intergalactic adventures ASAP. “Where there’s a wheel, there’s a way,” she says, jokingly.
Through the breadth of experiences she’s had, Marlena’s developed a unique worldview and personal philosophy; one that enables her to see the opportunity and potential for change in everything, everywhere, all the time. She recalls a child offering her a bottle of water when she visited Vietnam, and a stranger offering to help her fix her wheelchair when it broke down in Paris. “No matter where you come from or what you do, you can change someone’s day…or even their life,” she reflects. “Sometimes it’s as simple as a smile, which costs absolutely nothing. Other times it may come at a cost, but everyone has that power. We can all contribute positively and affect the people around us. Hopefully living an active and fulfilling life is allowing me to play my small part.”
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