“I STILL GET A FRIGHT”
SHE’S ONE OF THE MOST SCRUTINISED (AND PHOTOGRAPHED) WOMEN IN AUSTRALIA. AS SHE TELLS STELLAR, BEING SAMANTHA ARMYTAGE REQUIRES A VERY THICK SKIN
Sunrise’s Samantha Armytage is used to being in front of the camera. Yet the inadvertent star of Undie-gate says she’ll never feel comfortable with the paparazzi’s obsession with her.
Aday in the life of Samantha Armytage means checking her rear-vision mirror in case she is being followed by paparazzi. It means investigating which beaches she can visit without being snapped in her swimsuit. And it means she’s resigned to the fact that her rubbish bin collection has become a newsworthy event.
Not even global superstars Hugh Jackman or Cate Blanchett are “papped” with the enthusiasm devoted to Armytage, a humble breakfast-tv host. Rumours about her love life and on-set feuds can be found on gossip websites almost daily, and when no more mileage can be wrung out of those, paparazzi scratch around for something else – pictures of her preferred resort, close-ups of a mysterious new ring, and, most famously, a visible panty line.
“Sunrise host Sam Armytage dares to bare with granny panties showing a visible line as she steps out in Sydney,” gasped a now notorious online piece published last month, causing such a furore the editors were forced to apologise.
It’s a surreal life for a woman who grew up on a sheep station in the Snowy Mountains, riding horses and reciting Banjo Paterson poetry. “I guess I am click bait, and that is not a great place to be,” Armytage, 40, tells Stellar. “It has meant I have to readjust dramatically. It’s taken me a while to learn to deal with that and accept it. I still don’t enjoy it, but I accept it now.”
BANJO – THE 12-WEEK-OLD canine version – bounces around Armytage’s feet during Stellar’s photo shoot, his patience mirroring his mistress’s as they swelter in the January heat. The labrador is a Christmas present from Armytage to herself and the latest in a long line of Armytage family labradors. He is not her only pet – she owns a few animals on her parents’ farm, one of which is a sheep named Lady Baa Baa.
In person, Armytage comes across as a woman with a dry sense of humour, a direct manner and strong sense of self. Perhaps that’s a product of her country upbringing and close-knit family. Or maybe it’s the result of spending most of her adult life on television and having had years to work out strategies to cope with the spotlight that tends to attract and the rivalries it tends to ferment (foremost: don’t read chatter on social media).
She seems annoyed by the intrusions of paparazzi rather than mortified, as a more sensitive soul might be. But her annoyance is intense. “If I had my time again, I would think seriously about [taking the Sunrise job], because my life has changed. Dramatically,” she admits.
In many ways, Armytage is a victim of timing. When she settled full-time into the co-host chair on Sunrise in 2013, breakfast had already overtaken the 6pm news as the most talked-about TV timeslot, but her debut coincided with the arrival of new players into the country’s online gossip market, which changed the character of local celebrity news and created a booming market for paparazzi shots of well-known Aussies going about their daily lives.
A young, single woman, Armytage was more obvious fodder than her slightly older and married peers (until, that is, Nine Network’s Karl Stefanovic’s marriage split last year, which has also made him prey for local paparazzi). “Who knew I would get so much attention?” says Armytage. “It’s ridiculous.”
The fact is that Armytage, as she would be the first to admit, is not that interesting. At 40-and-a-bit, she’s more likely to be found tending to her magnolias than partying. She gets up at 3.15am, and goes to bed early. The year ahead will be spent focusing on recalibrating her work-life balance, gardening and learning to surf. (She’s enlisted Seven Network colleague Larry Emdur as a surf instructor, although they’ll have to find a beach without paparazzi. “I know the places to hide, believe me,” she says wryly.)
Nevertheless, headlines have followed Armytage since she began at Sunrise. They started when she did, amid rumours Seven bosses had dumped her predecessor, Melissa Doyle, for a less “mumsy” anchor, and gossip undermining Armytage swirled for months afterward.
Then there was the constant discussion of her weight, which seemed to upset many commentators used to seeing more waif-like women on TV. That line of enquiry, however, seems rare these days. “I don’t think they made much headway; it was so unnecessary,” she says. “So many women look like me that they really couldn’t continue with it because they were going to lose female readers, and females are important to them as a demographic. They had to pull their heads in.”
Now it’s less about Armytage’s weight, and more about the minutiae of her life. Such as her bins. Her jewellery. Or her choice of underpants, the latter on which she’s refused to comment until now.
“All I will say [about the infamous ‘granny panties’ story], and I haven’t said anything to date, is I actually feel really sorry for the guy that wrote that,” she tells Stellar of so-called Undie-gate. “I cannot imagine having such a soul-destroying job that would require you to breathlessly describe a strange woman’s underwear as your occupation. I think, ‘Poor bastard’. Imagine doing that job.”
Her skin might be thick, but the intrusions into her privacy still upset and sometimes scare her. “I still get quite a fright when I see a photographer, which is ridiculous after four years, but it still gives me a bit of a shock,” says Armytage, admitting sometimes she’s not sure whether the lurking stranger is a photographer or someone more sinister.
“There are new [photographers] every day. While there is a market for pictures of me putting out my bins, or Karl picking his kids up from school, they are going to be out there.
“What gets me the most is they are not looking for nice pictures, where you have make-up on and are dressed up. They are looking for mean pictures. Where you are bending over and there’s a fat roll, or you are getting in the car. It’s unnecessary and it’s mean, and that makes me angry at times. [But] you have to live your life; I don’t want to waste emotions on people like that.
“Some part of me chooses to be flattered that they are all so interested. I think they should give me a cut of the proceeds; they are making so much cash out of me with these stupid photos.”
Her Sunrise co-host David Koch, who, as a 60-year-old grandfather who just celebrated his 38th wedding anniversary, does not hold the same lure for gossip
“I GUESS I AM CLICK BAIT, AND THAT IS NOT A GREAT PLACE TO BE. IT’S TAKEN ME A WHILE TO LEARN TO DEAL WITH THAT”
sites, has observed the circus around Armytage. “She wouldn’t be human if she didn’t get upset about it – I get upset about it,” he tells Stellar.
“The balance to it is, we are in a pretty privileged job, and to a certain extent it goes with the territory. It’s just when it crosses the line with ridiculous invasions of privacy – she has had to become more guarded, more cautious.”
While Sunrise got a run for its money in 2016, with rival the Today show winning the OZTAM breakfast show ratings for the first time in over a decade, both Armytage and Koch insist it’s their job to focus on the task at hand and let their bosses worry about the ratings.
Having worked alongside Armytage throughout the highs and lows of live TV for four years, Koch considers her to be a fantastic broadcaster. “Viewers love her,” he says. “She has really brought a terrific element, that sense of humour.”
Armytage admits that her experience as pap fodder has quelled her own taste for gossip. And it has highlighted the value of her strong group of old friends, with whom she can let her guard down, and who have her back. “If there’s a photographer sitting outside a restaurant, they are pulling faces and jumping in front of me – they are very protective.”
Armytage’s close friendships outside work, and the way her friends protect and support her, have left her cynical of what she calls the “selective sisterhood” in the media. “I find the idea that every woman in the media is supposed to get on with everyone else to be complete rubbish,” she says. “In my experience, the women who talk the loudest about supporting women in public often do the least behind the scenes. Men are getting sick of women trying to talk each other up in public then rubbishing each other privately.
“I have many great friends, but there are plenty of women who I’m like, well, we aren’t mates, but that’s OK; she does her thing, I do mine. It’s so silly that we have to force this sisterhood when it’s such bullsh*t behind the scenes. The men [in the media] are really bitchy, much bitchier than the women. They just don’t get written about.
“I have got no time for disloyalty,” she concludes. “That’s why I got a dog.”
Now that she’s proven herself in the Sunrise chair, Armytage plans to take her foot off the accelerator a little, and “start to enjoy the scenery. Life is too short to race to the end-of-year ratings.”
She loves her job, especially those three-and-a-half hours on air. “In its purest form, it’s like you are flying.” But Armytage doesn’t want to get up at 3.15am forever. She has other things to do. “[ Sunrise] will have me for as long as they want me and as long as I want, but I am not out to break any records here,” she says. “I do think there’s more for me in life. My creative side gets left a bit in this job. I am interested in houses and homewares and interiors, maybe one day I will start a business.”
A book or even a script could be on the cards. As a kid, Armytage wanted to be a writer on The Simpsons. She believes she has at least one sitcom in her. “My life is a sitcom,” she says. “People wouldn’t believe the characters around me – you couldn’t make this stuff up.”
Now she has a house and garden and dog, everyone is waiting for Armytage to take that next, boring middle-aged step of meeting that special someone who wouldn’t mind being woken at 3.15am and being followed by paparazzi.
Her reported suitors have included everyone from Russell Crowe to her gay-pal Stephen Symond. She only needs to look at a man when there are cameras around, and she’s reportedly “in love”. “I have told people, ‘Please be aware that if you stand next to me, they will say we are dating.’” But in reality, she says, there’s no one special right now, and she’s OK with that.
“It is very flattering that people are so interested, and that people would love me to find someone and get married – as would my mother,” she says. “And it’s flattering that older women come up to me in the fruit shop and try to set me up with their sons, but you know, I’ll be fine. I have the faith. I believe in myself. I know that my life will be good.”
“THE WOMEN WHO TALK LOUDEST ABOUT SUPPORTING WOMEN IN PUBLIC OFTEN DO THE LEAST BEHIND THE SCENES”
SAMANTHA WEARS Misha Collection dress, mishacollection.com.au; Carla Zampatti top (worn underneath), carlazampatti.com.au; Paspaley ring, paspaley. com; Witchery shoes, witchery.com.au. Banjo wears stylist’s own bow
SAMANTHA WEARS Rachel Gilbert dress, rachelgilbert.com; Paspaley jewellery, paspaley.com