If you came across a young uni student with an infectious smile at The RUC bowls club in Turner five years ago, and happened to beat her in the weekly game of trivia, consider yourself lucky.
Back then, Mara Lejins was the “most pushy person” on her team, known as Mara’s Angels, and would often face off against Canberra’s other leading trivia team, Texan Prairie Chickens.
But the 28-year-old has now joined ”Goliath”, ”The Governess”, ”The Beast”, ”The Shark”, ”The Super Nerd” and ”The Tiger Mum” as the youngest ”Chaser” on hit game show The Chase Australia, under the nickname of ”The Smiling Assassin”.
“It’s one of those things where you like it and you search it out,” she tells Region.
“I’ve always had very good recall, and whenever we had these trivia games, there would always be general knowledge questions and I would always get them.”
She might have been born and raised in Sydney, but Mara has deep connections to Canberra. And not just because she loves Grease Monkey.
“On my mum’s side, my great-great-grandfather was a farmer from Cootamundra, but when the Great Depression hit, he had to walk off his farm and ended up on a property just outside Queanbeyan on the Old Federal Highway,” she says.
Her maternal great-grandfather, John Seiffert, was a warden at Goulburn jail before moving to Queanbeyan, becoming a Member for Monaro in the NSW government and lending his name to the Seiffert Oval, the spiritual home of the Canberra Raiders.
Her dad’s side is even “more colourful”.
“My grandfather was from Latvia, which obviously had a horrible time during World War II,” she explains.
“He came to Australia as a refugee in 1947 and was sent to work in an old mental health hospital in Melbourne as an orderly. He loved cross-country skiing so much he would go to a nearby oval afterwards and practise on the grass, and one time, he was actually arrested because the hospital staff assumed an inmate had escaped.”
Her grandfather joined many other migrants on the Snowy Hydro scheme, and set up a life in Jindabyne. Mara’s dad, with her aunts and uncles, moved to Canberra when her dad reached high school age, and they still call it home.
“My grandmother is 89 years old and still skis too,” Mara adds.
Her parents met at the Australian National University (ANU) and Mara followed in their footsteps by attending that campus to study law and international relations between 2014 and 2018. She also recalls having the “best job on the planet” during that time.
“I was a security guard for three of those years,” she says.
“Except for the recent events, it was a very safe campus then. My shift was just spent wandering around in the cold.”
She also frequented other local institutions, such as Mooseheads in Civic (often until 2 am) and – after she moved out of Bruce Hall at the ANU and into Braddon – Grease Monkey every Tuesday for ”Cheap Tuesday”.
After watching her in action at the weekly trivia night at The RUC, her friends applied for her to go on The Chase.
She first appeared as a contestant on the Channel 7 game show in 2017, followed by a more successful return in 2020 for ”Beat The Chasers Australia”, when she took home $58,000 as a prize. In 2022, she came on as the youngest of ”The Chasers”.
“I had never thought of trivia as anything beyond a hobby, because all the other Chasers are excellent and ranked among the best in the world,” she says.
She says it was “so scary, so intimidating” to start with, but it all comes down to reading widely and then being able to quickly remember what you’ve read.
“I read about two different newspapers every day, sometimes three, to keep up,” she says.
“Each of the Chasers have their own strengths, and so for example, I find I’m really good with the pop culture of the day.”
Her pink outfit is inspired by Barbie because “who doesn’t want to be Barbie?”. But her nickname among friends and family members, ”Mars Bar”, wasn’t really going to fly on set, so ”The Smiling Assassin” goes back to the time she spent on the tennis court in year 7.
“I’m not a tall person, like barely 160 cm, so back then I would have been tiny. But I was really good at tennis and would just smile a lot while winning against all these taller girls.”
Mara juggles her commitments on The Chase with her job as a lawyer in Sydney, but she still makes time to revisit family and fond memories in Canberra. Just not on a Murray’s bus.
“When I was at uni, I used to get the Murray’s bus every second week and I’ve been so traumatised by the experience, I insist on driving or getting the train,” she says.
“There’s just something about the smell of a Murray’s bus.”