Kelly defied doctors who said she wouldn't live to see her 20s

Holly Hales
Lifestyle & Entertainment Producer
Brian Donovan’s close relationship with his sister Kelly – who had Down Syndrome – left him ‘richer and stronger’. Photo: Supplied

To Brian Donovan, his sister Kelly was magic. She was a near-constant presence in his life, to the point he regarded them soul mates.

Passionate, curious, kind and effervescent, is how he describes Kelly’s personality, qualities viewers can share when a documentary about her life, Kelly’s Hollywood is released to Australian audiences next month.

Kelly, who sadly passed away in 2009 at age 40, had Down Syndrome, and defied doctors who said she wouldn’t live to see her 20s.

“Up until she passed away I was constantly enamoured by her,” Brian tells Yahoo Lifestyle. 

“She was funny, she could turn a phrase,” he says, “She was a lover, a full throttled lover, she loved life, she loved men, she loved music and dancing and singing and performing – and was always driven by her dream to be a star.”

The brother and sister’s close bond began in their snowy hometown of Buffalo, in Upstate New York, and while they both enjoyed a comfortable childhood in a close-knit community, the unknown of Kelly’s condition initially shocked the family to its core.

“My mother has since, very vulnerably admitted she cried for three days after Kelly was born,” Brian revealed.

The brother and sister’s close bond began in childhood and lasted until Kelly’s death from a related heart condition at the age of 40 in 2009. Photo: Supplied

“It wasn’t an easy thing to digest and it’s not how you want your baby to start in the world, but when my sister was put in my mum’s arms she immediately realised ‘this is my daughter, this is my baby’ and we kind of ran with that from there on out.

“I credit my mum with leading us all by saying ‘this is it, this is how it is.’”

As they grew up, Brian and Kelly’s relationship only grew closer – driven by a shared love of the spotlight and an age-gap of only two years.

“I was constantly in awe of her. What was so magical for us both growing up, was our love of performance, each other and life,” he said.

“When Kelly was five, she was diagnosed with a heart condition, when she was 12 they said they’d never seen anyone live past 20.

“She had a remarkable run and I firmly believe it’s because she had a dream, she loved life and she was well supported and loved.”

As a young adult, Brian began building a career in film and felt inspired to convey his sister’s zest through a feature-length documentary.

Decades later, after moving to Los Angeles in order to build a film career, Brian felt inspired to convey his sister’s zest through a feature-length documentary – Kelly’s Hollywood. Photo: Supplied

“I would bring her out to California for two months every year and the time we spent together would always see us super excited about it coming and super sad when it was over,” he said.

In the documentary, Brian reveals how the intensity of his and Kelly’s bond almost came at the cost of he and his wife Tempany’s relationship.

“They come as this package deal and that started to freak me out a little bit, I’m supposed to be your other half but there’s already a half there,” Tempany revealed in the documentary.

However, the trio ultimately found their balance and remained close until Kelly’s death a decade ago.

“Our lives were better, richer and stronger because of her – and look of course there were struggles, but there is for every person and every life,” Brian said.

“Everyone around Kelly was richer for it. My sister loved life and consequently she lived twice as long as doctors said she would.

“(Kelly) had a remarkable run in life and I firmly believe it’s because she had a dream, she loved life and she was well supported and loved,” Brian told Yahoo Lifestyle. Photo: Supplied

In honour of World Down Syndrome Day, Brian wants to stress the importance of emphasising the visibility of people with disabilities across all sectors of society.

“I always tried to bring Kelly everywhere – as many places as I could – so people would get used to seeing someone with Down Syndrome and interact with them.

He explains that the more we accept people’s differences, the more we realise that everyone is different and we shouldn’t be afraid of the unknown.

“The love my sister gave me was incomparable – and in a lot of ways when she died, I wasn’t even sure who I was without her.”

Got a story tip? Send it to

Want more lifestyle and celebrity news? Follow Yahoo Lifestyle on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Or sign up to our daily newsletter here.