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29 November 2012
Very early in her media career, which began on a teen-girl magazine, Lisa Wilkinson was dubbed publishing’s ‘wunderkind’.
The big reputation actually began with a short, three-line ad in The Sydney Morning Herald, which, according to Lisa, went somewhat along these lines: Wanted, secretary/editorial assistant/Girl Friday for Dolly magazine; must be ‘prepared to do absolutely anything’.
At 19, Lisa Wilkinson was the successful candidate.
Two years later, at 21, she was appointed editor of Dolly. The powers that be, she says, took a leap of faith on a young woman who’d proved she was capable, had an affinity with the readership and “good gut instincts about what people want to read, what they respond to, what excites them and what they’re interested in”.
At 25, Lisa was “head-hunted” by Kerry Packer to edit ACP’s Cleo magazine, a role she held for 10 years.
“I said to Kerry when he hired me that he would have to trust me if I was going to do the job successfully,” Lisa explains of their first meetings.
His response, she remembers went along these lines: ‘For the amount I’m paying you, clearly I’m showing you that I trust you, but believe me young woman, if you don’t deliver you’ll be out on your ear in seconds’.
“That was kind of exciting in itself,” says Lisa, “to have someone like Kerry Packer trust you and leave you to your own devices.
“Today, magazines have brand managers and publishers and publicists and marketing departments. For me at Cleo, other than the publisher Richard Walsh, I was it. There was no having covers approved or cover lines checked. I got to test myself every month and joy of joys it worked.”
Following Cleo, and having given thought to where she wanted to be professionally and personally, she chose to be “emotionally smart”.
“I’d met my husband [author and journalist, Peter FitzSimons], had our first child and was about to have a second child when my 10-year anniversary at Cleo rolled around.
“I remember thinking, I could do magazines forever because I love it but I have this small window of opportunity to do something very different with my family. I also thought about the opportunity I’d been given at 21, and what it felt like to have people believe in me… I just felt I was given that opportunity for a reason – to pass it on to others,” she explains of her eventual decision to leave Cleo for full time motherhood.
Lisa may have moved on to her new challenge, but the media had other ideas.
It was only a couple of months after the birth of her second child, when a colleague and friend, Brian Walsh, rang and asked if she would consider being a permanent panel member on pay-to-view TV’s Beauty and The Beast program. She took the punt and, along with her magazine consultancy business, began working part time. The jobs were flexible, allowing her to “juggle” work and family life.
The move to free-to-air TV soon followed, and when a position on Weekend Sunrise was offered, Lisa took it up. Then in 2007, she was approached to co-host the Today Show at the very height of its lows.
The lure of the underdog
“It was popular sport in the media back then to smash Channel 9 and the Today Show. Maybe it’s the Campbelltown girl in me,” remarks Lisa, referring to where she grew up in Sydney’s Western Suburbs, “that drew me to want to support the underdog. Not that I thought I was the answer, but I loved breakfast TV, and news and current affairs. I love the fact that you are bringing the news to people, often for the very first time. It is a privilege to be welcomed into people’s homes at that time of the day, a time when they are most vulnerable, when they need something that makes them feel good, informs and entertains and brings a laugh.”
Five years on, and the fortunes of the Today Show have turned 360 degrees. Lisa now co-hosts the number one breakfast show on the East Coast, with ‘an average of 350,000 viewers across the 5-city metro’ – as they term it in the TV game. She is quick to acknowledge the team work involved in the success and agrees it has been a circuitous route to find herself fronting the top breakfast TV show for 17.5 hours a week.
“I’ve always been more than happy to jump off into the unknown and because people have been prepared to leap off a cliff for me, I figure, what’s the worse thing that can happen if I don’t give it a try? Maybe it won’t be a success, but at least I know what it feels like to give it a go. The adrenalin rush of trying something new, testing and challenging yourself is what’s important,” says Lisa, explaining her philosophy.
Non, je ne regrette rien
“I never have regrets and I learnt very early on the importance of sticking to who I am. When I was at school I was badly bullied. I’d done ballet from the age of 4 and I was going to do it professionally. I did all the solo performances and had a swag of trophies and awards, but I made the grave mistake of allowing the cool group at school to intimidate me. I gave ballet up. I’m sorry I didn’t see how far it could take me…
“I think ballet gives girls a beautiful sense of their own bodies, movement and posture. You get to understand your limits and how hard you can push yourself.”
Lisa believes, pushing those limits has good and bad consequences: “I wasn’t nervous my first day on air with the Today Show but I do remember about the third day getting an email that made my shoulders sag. You get to see the good and the bad from viewers. If you’re honest with yourself, and are going to believe the good stuff you’re told, then you better be ready to take on board the bad stuff, because it’s there and you will have to deal with it.”
Having weathered the media and inevitable viewer praise and criticism that accompanies heading up a high profile TV program, Lisa’s experience is that ongoing success comes back to being honest and authentic. Supportive teamwork and putting together content of which they are proud journalistically, has also played a major part in the formula. Professionally she also finds great satisfaction in giving back to young women and men, passing on the opportunities and experiences she has had and training-up new talent.
And what have been the moments that make her heart sing?
“The people who make me sit forward are usually people who have known adversity and really haven’t taken the safe route to where they’ve found themselves. Jane Fonda, Andre Agassi, CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour are three I can think of. Andre Agassi, for example, has arrived at this time where honesty is at the absolute base of whatever he does now. His autobiography is an amazing book.”
People who have an ability to listen also captivate Lisa: “I find that really engaging. Not that I have interviewed Michael Parkinson, but he is the perfect example of what it is to be ‘clearly listening’.”
As for the unpredictable nature of live TV, of which Lisa does three and a half hours every morning, it must have produced some hairy moments along with the good.
“I can tell you, I am embarrassed on a daily basis,” says Lisa. “This is live TV, if something can go wrong it will. Possibly the most awkward moment I can think of though was interviewing Al Gore when he was in Australia with his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth. Awkward is something I would prefer not to happen.”
Far and away the most controlled guest she believes she has ever sat opposite, the conditions for the interview with Gore included him having to know all the questions before hand. That scenario, believes Lisa, can make live TV feel very stiff, because there is no room for spontaneity.
Lisa did, in the end, move off script, asking him about how good a recycler he was at home: “I asked something like, who is the toilet roll fairy in your house? He looked at me and clearly had no idea what I was talking about. So, I said, do you use recycled toilet paper? He looked blank, and I said, let me guess, you don’t buy the toilet paper and you don’t replace the roll… I thought he was going to shut down the interview then and there.
“You want people who are going to have some spontaneity or a spark about them, particularly at breakfast time. He was dull and dry and boring.”