HE’S BEEN A FIXTURE ON AUSTRALIAN TV FOR THREE DECADES, WITH A WELL-DOCUMENTED PERSONAL LIFE TO MATCH. BUT FEW PEOPLE UNDERSTAND WHAT REALLY MAKES RICHARD WILKINS TICK
His private life is as eventful as those of the celebrities he interviews, yet behind the showbiz facade, Richard Wilkins is a family man at heart.
Before his hair made its own headlines, before he became a red-carpet regular, even before he was pop star Richard Wilde, Richard Wilkins was a teen dad from the north island of New Zealand.
On the night of his 18th birthday, Wilkins conceived a child with his 16-year-old girlfriend. Less than a year later, he was married, working in an abattoir, and had become the father of a beautiful baby boy with Down syndrome.
A generation of Australians has only ever known Richard Wilkins as a fixture on the Today show desk, at which he has sat for almost 23 years. But he has a fascinating backstory, and the defining moment of that story is the birth of his first son, Adam.
“I have always described Adam as my rock,” he says. “I had the potential to be the black sheep of the family, certainly the potential to have a wild side. I fell in love with the new music. I was sort of ready to run with all of that, and then Adam came along. He forced me to grow up.”
Wilkins is a case study in showbiz longevity, a man whose ability to reinvent himself has kept him on our screens for the better part of 30 years. Perhaps a bigger achievement, though, and one almost everyone whose path he has crossed would agree upon, is that he has survived decades in the public eye, three marriages, five children to four mothers and countless gossip column inches without becoming jaded.
Despite all the twists and turns in his showbiz life, Dickie, unlike many in his industry, never became a dickhead.
WILKINS USHERS ME into the lounge room of his pad on the lower north shore of Sydney. It’s breathtaking; from the deck there is a sweeping view over Willoughby Bay, which he punts around on the weekends with his Today show mates Ross Greenwood and Ben Fordham. There’s a clifftop pool, a bar, and a gym which is decorated with a poster of Richard Wilde.
There are also two dozen-odd pairs of orphaned sunglasses on the kitchen counter, left behind after parties. At 62, Wilkins is still the first port of call when there’s a celebration required. He often hosts Today’s end-of-year bash. Even when Stellar arrives one Friday afternoon, there’s pâté, cornichons and dip waiting hospitably.
The best party he’s even been to, he says – and he’s certainly been to plenty – was his daughter Rebecca’s wedding in Queenstown, New Zealand, last year. He whips out an album of photographs of the day, which includes the most special picture of all; a shot of Wilkins surrounded by his five children, the first photograph ever taken of all six of them together (as pictured below).
One thing is clear: Wilkins is a devoted dad. So proud, he’s almost bursting. There’s Adam, 43, “the rock that stopped me running off the rails”. Rebecca, 33, “the glue that binds us together”. Nick, 31, “the heart and soul, he’s such a solid guy”, Christian, 21, “the theatrical one in the family”. And Estella, 12, his daughter with Collette Dinnigan, who is “mad about horses”.
“My children have always been paramount to me,” he says. “Of all the nice things that have happened, they are my infinitely greatest achievement. I’ve always been ambitious and always had stuff I wanted to do, but I would hope that I have never neglected family life. There are times when I probably haven’t prioritised it, and there are times that I am not incredibly proud of, nothing specific, but I think it’s all turned out OK. There’s no such thing as a normal life or normal family.”
That’s a lesson Wilkins learnt early – in March 1973, to be exact, not long after Adam was born. “I remember going in and looking at Adam, and I hate even repeating these words, but I sensed there was something unusual, different. I went home, and Mum said, ‘How is everything going?’
“I said, ‘He looks a bit funny – I hope he’s not Mongoloid’ [an early, derogatory term for Down syndrome]. I remember saying those words.”
Adam did have Down syndrome, a condition in which a baby is born with an extra chromosome. “It was a shock. I think we wondered what it meant, what do we need to do, how does it work, will we be able to cope?” The Wilkins family urged the couple to put Adam into a home; his wife’s family urged them to keep him at home with them.
Initially, they did the latter. Wilkins, whose classical violin training had morphed into a passion for rock music, played in a band by night, worked in the abattoir in the early
“I’ve never neglected family life. Though there are times I haven’t prioritised it”
RICHARD WEARS T.M. Lewin shirt, pants, and bow tie, tmlewin. com.au; braces, David Jones; his own watch and bracelets
GOOD TIMES (clockwise from top) Richard Wilkins with his children (from left) Nicholas, Adam, Rebecca, Christian and Estella; on the cover of Smash Hits with Jason Donovan in 1988; as photographed for Stellar.