The Evolution Of Bindi Irwin

03/11/2015 5:55 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST
Adam Taylor via Getty Images
DANCING WITH THE STARS - 'Episode 2106' - The remaining nine celebrities returned to their original professional dance partners to tackle 'Famous Dances Night' on MONDAY, OCTOBER 19 (8:00-10:01 p.m., ET) on ABC's 'Dancing with the Stars.' Special guest Olivia Newton-John joined the judges' desk to see how the couples re-created iconic dance routines from movies and music videos. One couple was eliminated at the end of the night based on the lowest combined judges' scores and viewer's votes from the 'Switch Up' and 'Most Memorable Year' performances. (Photo by Adam Taylor/ABC via Getty Images) DEREK HOUGH, BINDI IRWIN

We all held our breath.

That tiny figure in khaki, seemingly with the weight of the world's expectations on her eight-year-old shoulders, strode across the stage at her father's memorial service, a single piece of paper in her hand. As she took her place centre stage, right in front of her in the packed stadium, was mother Terri, her eyes red and swollen behind big black sunglasses.

Terri, in turn was cradling young Robert, who, at just two, was mercifully, far too young to comprehend the sudden shock loss of his croc-wrangling dad Steve at 44.

And then she started.

"My Daddy was my hero -- he was always there for me when I needed him. He listened to me and taught me so many things, but most of all he was fun.

"We filmed together, caught crocodiles together and loved being in the bush together. I don't want Daddy's passion to ever end. I want to help endangered wildlife just like he did."

For two compelling minutes, little Bindi Irwin, mini wildlife warrior, delivered a eulogy that brought a nation to tears. Not a falter, not a stumble, not a tear of her own. Just a finger carefully following the words on the page she had written herself, the only help coming from mum who had helped type the words just hours before.

Where on earth did that courage come from? How could she be so composed?

I love you. Thank you for always being with me, wherever I go.

A photo posted by Bindi Irwin (@bindisueirwin) on

In the years since, we have watched as that little girl became a teenager, then burgeoning adolescent blossoming into a gorgeous and passionate young woman of whom her father would have been more proud than ever.

She was everywhere: launching clothing lines, the made-for-cable movies, the kids' exercise videos, all the while as she kept his legacy alive with her ongoing work at Australia Zoo. Beside her, always, mum Terri, and young sandy-haired Robert who, with each passing year looked and sounded more and more like his dad. The family unit always stayed tight, always positive, and always, well, there.

And yet, despite our sadness for this young family's sudden loss, Australia hasn't always been kind... hasn't maintained the flood of empathy that surrounded them in those first catastrophic weeks after Steve's death.

Where was the grief? The tears? Did we miss Bindi's teenage rebellion? Surely puberty would deliver a nose ring? Something, anything, that meant Bindi, who always seemed to represent the nucleus of Steve's legacy, was well... human... vulnerable like us. Too polished. Too positive. Too camera-ready, were the accusations.

Through it all, Bindi seemed oblivious. Didn't she realise? Why didn't she react to the whispered criticisms? Doesn't that stuff hurt, dent her confidence, convince her she should live a smaller life? She's an Australian after all, and here we don't encourage Tall Poppies, because we know what happens to them.

But she kept on. Dreaming her dreams. A bright sunny presence committed to carrying on her dad's conservation and environmental work, saving injured and endangered animals and keeping the Irwin vision well and truly alive.

I watched from afar, and then a little closer as I got to know Terri, and then a little closer still as Bindi grew, until, now... here before me, last Monday in Los Angeles, sits the young woman herself, the most in-demand star in America right now courtesy of an incredible knack we discover she has for, of all things, dancing.

And Bindi is more shocked by that knack than anyone.

See? Courage, determination. And if she'd bothered to ask permission from the naysayers, you can guarantee they would have poo-pooed the whole idea. But that's Bindi. In her world, everything is possible.

America has always had a soft spot for this tiny dancer. But what is happening now is on a whole other level. From guest spots on Ellen and Jimmy Fallon, to being the willing and even unwilling covergirl on just about every celebrity magazine in the country, to her spot on Time Magazine's List of The World's Most Influential Teens, to her more than three quarters of a million followers (and growing) on Instagram.

I can't wait to have you back in The City Of Angels with me. #HappinessLooksLikeThis

A photo posted by Bindi Irwin (@bindisueirwin) on

This is the girl America just can't get enough of -- in some ways, bigger than Steve ever was -- and all keen to share in Bindi's special brand of positive joy.

And at 17, it seems to be that same well of courage and determination she displayed at her dad's funeral that's driven her to the top spot in Week 8 of the U.S. version of Dancing With The Stars. America -- and now Australia -- wants Bindi to win!

In fact, the last seven times the judges have scored Bindi, she's received -- let's see -- a perfect 10 EVERY time. That's unprecedented in the show's history.

And it seems perhaps the dancing bug has hit the whole family. Brother Robert has already starting practising the now-famous Dirty Dancing lift Bindi mastered two weeks ago, and Terri says she would probably say yes to a stint on Dancing With the Stars if asked, herself.

Where did this infectious dancing gene come from? Terri isn't sure exactly, but "definitely not Steve", she says with a laugh.

Meantime, Bindi's newly-revealed boyfriend, wake-boarding champion Chandler Powell, is there by her side each week as she comes off stage, with backrubs and warm words of encouragement -- a reminder that our little Bindi really has just about all grown up.

Where will she go from here? Who can predict. Certainly not Bindi. Nor does she want to. She says she just wants to keep jumping off into the unknown, testing herself, being brave, trying new things.

And in a world that seems to so often glorify a certain type of external beauty, where we struggle for strong female role models, I say more power to you Bindi.

Keep flying.

And don't ever let yourself be defined by those who want to confine you. As someone once said, in a society that profits from self-doubt, liking yourself is a rebellious act. But you already knew that.

Your dad really would be proud.

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