Drugs and prison took her parents. Her grandmother was part of the Stolen Generation. She suffered horrific domestic violence. But Shanell Dargan is a fighter, and she’s just getting started.
She pulled on the boxing gloves as a way to find resilience due to the domestic violence she was enduring at home.
Now, 10 years later, Shanell Dargan plans to become the first Indigenous Australian female world champion boxer.
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“I’ve literally been fighting my whole life,” said Dargan, whose grandmother was part of the Stolen Generation, whose parents have been in and out of jail since she was a baby, and who is raising four-year-old son Oryn Davis in the same Campbelltown suburb she grew up alongside five cousins.
You may recognise the face.
Dargan went viral in 2014 when her audition for singing show The X Factor brought the house down.
Mentored by Ronan Keating, Dargan made the final stages of the competition, one of the last six female contestants who flew to New York to sing in front of John Legend.
But now, a new pursuit has captivated the sparkly-eyed talent.
“I grew up with my grandmother (Patricia Dargan), my mum’s mum, and she raised me practically since I was born,” Dargan said.
“Both my parents have been in and out of prison, still to this day, on drugs and just, I guess lost really.
“And they weren’t able to raise me. So my nan thankfully put her hand up and took me and about five of my other cousins in.
“I grew up singing, I think I had a hairbrush for a microphone when I was two. Nan told me I’d hum along and sing to everything, it was pretty much country music that she played in the house, I wasn’t allowed to listen to any other music until I was 15.
“Before my mum got on the drugs, she was a very talented tennis player. My nan saw that I had a talent for singing and didn’t want me to waste it like mum had, so she took me all over the place to perform, we went to Tamworth quite a few times.
“I would have been about 18 when I did boxing training for the first time. I did it for exercise, but then I went through some pretty bad domestic violence with a previous partner.
“So it was just more like the mental side, just getting all that pain, and things that I went through, to get it out in a positive way.
“And I was like thinking, ‘Oh my parents, maybe that’s what they wanted to do, get that pain and trauma out’. But they did it in the in the wrong way.
“So I just wanted to do something that would help me mentally and physically.
“Then I had my son after that. So I didn’t box. I just was focused on him. He was about three months, me and my partner separated amicably and I wanted to find something that would just help me get the baby weight off, and help me mentally, physically.”
Dargan, 29, walked into Campbelltown PCYC three years ago and met coach Aaron Bailie, a life-changing moment.
“He said, ‘Do you want to fight?’ And I said ‘Yeah, if I’m good enough’. He said ‘Let’s do it’, and within three months of that, I was in the ring for the first time and having my first amateur fight, which was incredible.”
Dargan quickly realised that her singing aspirations would need to be put on hold.
“I’ve done really well with singing and gone quite far, but boxing is a sport you need to put 110 per cent into,” Dargan said.
“And I know I’ll always have my voice, I can come back to it. But with boxing I’ll only have so many years.”
She has quit her job in child protection to become a professional fighter.
On three weeks’ notice, she made her debut against Ashleigh Sims in April, in what has entered folklore as the greatest female boxing match witnessed in Australia.
It finished as a draw after four rounds, and plans are underway to stage a rematch in December.
But Dargan, a super-featherweight (59kg) plans to fight well before then, and in doing so, wants to inspire other women who are also suffering domestic violence.
“There’s so many women that are going through these similar circumstances and you believe that you’re alone,” Dargan said.
“You get so lost in what’s happening to you that you don’t understand that there’s other women going through similar circumstances. And honestly, I would tell every single woman that is going through it or has survived domestic violence to come in and do a combat sports, come in and learn some self-defence.
“Boxing is a sport that people think is violent, but it’s not. It’s really, really technical and it’s a really beautiful sport. The more you get to know it, the more you fall in love with it.
“And even if the girls just want to do it for fun, fitness, to lose weight or for their mental health or to learn self-defence, I would honestly recommend to do it because you will not regret it, and you never know, you might have a hidden talent that you didn’t know of and you could be a professional boxer.
“I feel like Indigenous women as a whole, we have gone through so much, the intergenerational trauma. But if we have that push, that drive, I know we have so much talent that we can do anything we want to really. We’ve just got to put our minds to it.”
Dargan is comfortable with her lofty ambitions.
“The goal is that I want to be the first Indigenous female world champion,” Dargan said.
“There’s been males, and it’s a male dominated sport, but I think that with my drive and my work ethic and where I grew up to where I want to go now, I’ve literally been fighting my whole life. It’s one of those things that‘s been embedded in me.
“This is just another goal and like I’ve always said, if your goals don’t scare you, they’re not high enough. So it’s a massive thing to want to do that.”
Dargan feels a close connection to her Wiradjuri and Mununjali roots, but that has largely been made possible by the Irish grandmother who raised her.
“On my father’s side, my grandmother (Barbara Stacey – nee Sandy) is from Beaudesert in Queensland, so that’s Mununjali,” Dargan said.
“But she was removed, she was forcibly removed and taken to Cootamundra Girls home. She was part of the Stolen Generation.
“She passed away last year, and on my son’s birthday actually, so it was a pretty tough time.
“But seeing her and what she went through just really gives me another push to just say, ‘Look, man, our people have gone through so much’. We’ve got so many good opportunities now, I just want to take everything with both hands because my nan would never have had that opportunity.
“So to be on this path I am on, comes down to them and the sacrifices that they’ve made for me. When my nan was forcibly removed, she was taken to Coota, she stayed there until she was of age and then moved to Redfern and she lived there on The Block.
“My Irish grandmother would take me in and I’d stay in Redfern with my family there.
“I have two sisters as well on my dad’s side, so I’d go in and see them and when my dad was out I’d see him as well.
“So I’m very grateful that my grandmother, who is Irish and who raised me, she knew who my people were, she always made sure I knew my culture, knew who I was related to.
“I’m very fortunate that I had an Irish woman that knew Aboriginal culture.”
Discovering her natural talent for throwing a punch got Dargan curious about her lineage.
“I did some research about my family and especially on my grandmother’s side, she’s a Sandy from Beaudesert in Queensland and that’s a huge name, I have a lot of family that I didn’t even know,” Dargan said.
“I found out my great-great grandfather was taken to a mission in Cherbourg and he met his wife there.
“She was sitting under a tree and saw him walking in chains around his neck and around his arms and legs, and she said that the pride that he had in his eyes, she said, ‘I’m going to marry that man’. Didn’t know him. And it was all written out.
“And they married and they had 16 kids. And he was a boxer.”
Originally published as Shanell Dargan swaps microphone for gloves in quest become first female Aboriginal world champion