Georgia Rickard talks to one of the Australian media’s most familiar faces, Lisa Wilkinson, about magazines, social media and finding ‘real’ Australia (Photography by Elise Hassey, styling by Anna Santangelo, hair & make-up by Maria Wassef).
In a world where professional detachment and gravity are prized, Lisa Wilkinson has become known, and loved, for being just the opposite.
Ask around Sydney, and stories of her character pour in thick and fast; all of them positive (and that never happens). One anecdote, from a long-standing Nine Network staff member recently made redundant, is particularly telling: Lisa, they say, was one of just three people to get in contact after their sudden departure, to say goodbye and express her regrets.
Her past is equally well known. A humble upbringing in outer Sydney suburb Campbelltown was followed by high-school years filled with bullying; on graduation day, she promised herself she’d never again allow herself to be intimidated in such a way. By 21 she was editing teen bible Dolly magazine; in the same decade she found herself on television and the rest, as they say, is history.
Yet it is not, perhaps, the story of Lisa herself that is most telling, but the stories she has told over the years that say the most. Indeed there is much to be learnt about our country by looking at one of its most consistent voices; Lisa and the Australian mediascape have gone through a period of great change in tandem, over the past three decades. And on that, Lisa has much to say.
She is gracious when she arrives at the Australian Traveller shoot – if a tad cooler than her television persona, though that’s nothing out of the ordinary for anyone with a high profile – and memorises the entire crew’s names straight up. So far so good; the reputation stands.
Two hours later she goes one better, delighting us all by delivering a series of playful pictures that contradict every assumption commonly made about celebrity being deliberately calculated. Even if you’re not an ardent admirer, it’s hard to disagree with her obvious generosity of self.
When we sit down to speak in her hotel suite two days later, she is still gracious – despite having worked all weekend – and warm to the point of being totally disarming.
“Downs are very important,” she is saying, in response to the interview’s very first question. “Downs are what keep you grounded, what make you appreciate when things are going really well.”
“Losing my dad,” she replies immediately. “I was not ready for it at all. He was diagnosed with cancer and, three weeks later, we lost him.”
She says it simply, but there is obvious emotion attached – the kind most people would vehemently push away rather than show a virtual stranger (and a reporter, at that). To be frank, I am not expecting the honesty, and I fumble over my next question. Perhaps in sympathy – or perhaps because she is as surprised by her grief as I am – she keeps speaking, sharing moments and memories about a man she clearly adored.
When I listen back to the recording later, the silence that follows this interlude lasts a long time. In it, Lisa is sitting soundlessly, dabbing at eyes bright with tears, looking at me with a mixture of apologetic grief and bemusement.
Lisa’s guiding light
“Sorry,” she says, eventually, composure regained. “It doesn’t take much, does it?” She shakes her head. “It’s been twenty-four years, and I still miss him – every single day. He was really my guiding light in how to live life, because he lived a life of great generosity.”
Such a display suggests, of course, that she is doing precisely the same thing. It’s a fitting example of the Lisa magic that TV executives love (and admittedly, it’s the moment I also totally fall for her). To live so openly – and not just on a regular scale, but in the Petri dish of daily live television – wow. That’s brave.
“I’m so glad I came to this particular job at the age that I am, and the age that I was when I first started,” she says, reflectively. “When I make mistakes, and when people can see that I’m screwing up, or I’m, you know, laughing too loud, or I’ve put on a couple of kilos… I want people to realise that it’s actually okay. It’s good.
And that young women who look at my job – and I hope they do – I hope that they can see you don’t have to be a stick insect, or have plastic surgery, or always say exactly the right thing, or be a supermodel [to be successful]… You just have to be yourself.”
Much has been made of her admissions of a painful teenagehood, in which she suffered at the hands – both physically and otherwise – of high-school bullies. A ballerina with a promising future, she recalls enduring such intimidation that, by age 14, she had given the practice away in the hope it would help her “fall between the cracks”.
“You don’t want to give people a reason to single you out and humiliate you,” she recalls. “Ballet meant that I didn’t fit in; it meant that I stood out, and that was very uncool. And so I gave it up.”
There was a silver lining to the experience though: how that affected her career. Aged just 19, the insights from teenagehood still fresh in her mind, she was picked from dozens for an entry-level role at Dolly magazine.
“There was no other magazine for teenage girls at that time – Dolly was it,” she says. Sitting in the editor’s chair two short years later, she had the blueprint for a publication that would, arguably for the first time in Australia, take its young audience seriously. “I just wanted to be brave,” she says, simply. “I didn’t want to know what the response would be if I got brave; I just wanted to do it. It was a new feeling for me.”
So too, it seems, was the case for her young readers. In a time of – well, if not innocence, then at least conservatism – the 12- to 15-year-old girls of Australia embraced Lisa’s brand of honesty with staggering enthusiasm. Would it be too far to suggest she played a key role in influencing the minds of a generation? Perhaps not.
Under her editorship, circulation of the magazine almost tripled. With its revolutionary content and messages of honesty, Lisa’s Dolly became a generational icon.
It was just the beginning of what would become a long relationship with the Australian public; three years later, as her young readers were graduating to Dolly’s big sister, CLEO, Kerry Packer took her out to lunch with designs on having Lisa graduate to CLEO, too.
“That was right in the middle of the Costigan report, and there was some really ugly stuff being printed,” she recalls. “I only agreed to have lunch with him because I thought ‘Here’s one to tell the grandkids!’”
Over the course of lunch however, he changed her mind.
“It was that thing of, ‘I just don’t want to die wondering. What’s the worst that can happen? He’ll sack me. No one’s got any expectations that I’ll do well anyway, and I can be a receptionist again. I’ll fade into the distance, I don’t care! But I just don’t want to die wondering.’”
Over the next decade, her particular brand of honesty would continue to resonate. Lisa would go on to take CLEO to new heights (removing Ita Buttrose’s legacy from the magazine, the male centerfold, in the process); the magazine would become the world’s biggest-selling lifestyle magazine on a per-capita basis.
Since then, of course, the publishing landscape has changed dramatically. Lisa has been openly critical of the way in which titles are being handled in the current financial climate; she has also challenged the amount of photoshopping, and the ‘unrealistic’ images now being used to illustrate their pages.
Last year, as the first woman to give the Andrew Olle Media Lecture since Jana Wendt in 1997, she called for greater honesty, less emphasis on the female appearance and for an end to the perpetuation of sexism and misogyny through reportage.
“I think we’re finally starting to question the lack of authenticity when it comes to women’s magazines,” she reflects now, still absent-mindedly holding a tissue. “On every level. From the weekly trash mags, through to the high-fashion mags.”
The next challenge is social media, she adds, mentioning Instagram, the app that allows you to share images of your life in real time.
“It’s such a dangerous playground for young women, when the number of clothes you take off is in direct correlation, it seems, with the number of likes you get,” she observes. “You’re basically handing your self-esteem over to an audience that doesn’t even know you… Everybody’s presenting a ‘version’ of themselves, at a time when they haven’t even worked out who they are.”
Perhaps. Then again, isn’t that precisely what she herself has done, making a living out of being watched by the anonymous millions? Surely there have been times she felt that the scrutiny, the inevitable criticism weren’t worth it. Haven’t there?
“You know, I’m so grateful to have grown up at a time when [social media] didn’t exist, because I got to go through the experiences I had at school, come out the other side, and have enough quiet time for working out who I actually wanted to be.”
As a result, she says, “and I mean this sincerely – I don’t listen to the white noise. I can’t. Because I still have that little 14-year-old girl who got beaten up inside me… and if I listen to the white noise, she would start to emerge again.”
The models of insecurity
It is a nice thing to hear from this woman who, despite the somewhat intimidating list of achievements she has under her arm, is simply another human being, going about the business of being imperfect.
“No one is living that ‘unattainable’ life,” she scoffs. “I interview supermodels as part of my job and all of them – if I get them on their own, and the tape recorder’s off – they’re so much more insecure than the average 14-year-old girl I meet these days. They’re living in fear, and I’m never going to live my life in fear again.”
It is why she loves living in Australia so much, she adds. “It’s a land of incredible opportunity and a land of authenticity.
“I love the Australian attitude, I love being an Australian woman… in fact, I love Australian men!” she laughs. “Could I have married a more Australian bloke than a guy who grew up on an orange farm on the Central Coast of New South Wales, who went on to be a Wallaby, and who’s as knock-about as they come?
“But seriously,” she continues, “I loved my childhood in the ’60s and the ’70s. It was going to the beach and it was free of social media; it couldn’t have been more real.”
That’s also why the Northern Territory has a special place in her heart, she adds. “It’s been largely untouched by some of the awful development that went on in other parts of Australia in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s… you can really get back to true Australia here.”
She is particularly passionate about having more of us visit the area. “I cannot believe that so few people take the time to venture into this backyard,” she observes. “It’s something like less than one per cent of Australians holiday here.”
Having recently been made an ambassador of the Territory, it’s something you might expect her to say – but one gets the impression she doesn’t commit to anything she doesn’t want to.
Certainly, a passing enquiry earlier in this trip, about her other commercial partnership (with camera brand Canon), lent itself to that impression: her response was an unexpected five minutes long, in which she detailed the emotional experience of shooting breast cancer survivor Marina McDonald and her daughter Sydney, with a level of recall that hinted at heavy project involvement.
But that’s the thing about Lisa. Though I am loathe to come to the usual sycophantic conclusion these profiles often call for, she really does seem to be a nice person, sincerely doing the best she can. Especially when, three days later – almost as if she read these words, and decided to underline them – an email pops up in my inbox. I had asked what advice she would now share, if she could again speak to her Dolly readers; she had responded by requesting some time for thought.
“Laugh often,” she now writes. “Travel lots, read more, be humble, give back, and ENJOY!”
The usual wisdom, perhaps, but that is not all. “Just a PS,” she has added. “I got my facts wrong on the NT Tourism details. The fact is, less than two per cent (not one per cent) of us holiday in the Northern Territory.”
Crossing her ‘i’s, dotting her ‘t’s – here is someone who does it once, and does it well.
It says much about this nation, that such a thoughtful, wholehearted individual is one of its most well-loved icons: and all of it is good. You heard it here first.