As she pre­pares to cel­e­brate 10 years on the To­day show, Lisa Wilkin­son opens up to Stel­lar about the highs and lows of break­fast TV, cop­ing with crit­i­cism and her close bond with Karl Ste­fanovic.

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Photography TANE COF­FIN Styling MA­RINA AFONINA Cre­ative Di­rec­tion ALEK­SAN­DRA BEARE Words JOR­DAN BAKER

It was Lo­gies night in 2007. Kate Ritchie and Bert New­ton were vy­ing for the Gold, Aus­tralian Idol Damien Leith was singing, and Lisa Wilkin­son was stand­ing at the bar with two of tele­vi­sion’s most charis­matic men, try­ing to choose be­tween them.

At­tend­ing the awards cer­e­mony due to her on-air work as a Weekend Sun­rise pre­sen­ter, Wilkin­son had to de­cide by the fol­low­ing day whether she would ac­cept a po­si­tion on the Seven Net­work’s soon-to-launch The Morn­ing Show, or take on what was then the most toxic gig in Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion, co-host of the Nine Net­work’s To­day show. Nine’s ap­proach was sup­posed to be se­cret, but it had leaked be­fore the Lo­gies. “Ev­ery­one said to me, ‘God, you wouldn’t go there, would you?’” Wilkin­son re­calls.

She spot­ted Larry Em­dur, a friend and the man who would have been her Morn­ing Show co-an­chor, at the bar. “Aren’t you the most talked-about girl in the room?” he teased. Wilkin­son squirmed. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I haven’t even met Karl Ste­fanovic yet.” Em­dur tapped the shoul­der of

the man stand­ing be­hind him. “Lisa,” he said, “I want you to meet Karl.”

The con­ver­sa­tion be­tween them that en­sued wasn’t the only thing that con­vinced Wilkin­son to jump ship. She was at­tracted to To­day’s news and cur­rent af­fairs con­tent, and un­der­stood the power of break­fast TV. But the bar­side chat with Ste­fanovic con­firmed her in­stincts. “We made each other laugh,” she re­calls. “I went to bed that night de­cid­ing I was go­ing to do this thing.”

Later this month, on May 28, will mark a decade since she joined To­day.

Don’t let her fem­i­nin­ity fool you: Wilkin­son is a chancer and a fighter. Many peo­ple would have seen that job as a ca­reer-threat­en­ing risk; she saw po­ten­tial. “I thought, ‘It may last a week, it may last six months, it may last longer than that,’” she says. “But I never could have imag­ined it would last 10 years.”

THE YEARS BE­FORE Wilkin­son started on To­day had been ones of un­in­ter­rupted dom­i­nance for Seven’s Sun­rise. Melissa Doyle and David Koch were unas­sail­able, and the harder To­day scram­bled to keep up, the fur­ther it fell be­hind. Pro­duc­ers were strug­gling to get the on-set chem­istry right. The year 2006 was one of the most dif­fi­cult in the show’s history; co-host Jes­sica Rowe’s per­se­cu­tion from the me­dia was matched only by her treat­ment from her then bosses that cul­mi­nated in the no­to­ri­ous “bon­ing” chat­ter.

“Jes­sica Rowe had an ap­palling time,” says Ste­fanovic, who co-hosted the show with her. “She faced such gru­elling press. I am thrilled with her suc­cess [on Stu­dio 10] now. I re­mem­ber there were ar­ti­cles that the show was go­ing to be canned, that’s how bleak it got.”

Mean­while, Wilkin­son was across at the Seven Net­work, pre­sent­ing Weekend Sun­rise. The show’s then pro­ducer, Adam Boland, had lured her to Seven be­cause he’d loved watch­ing her as a guest on Stan Zemanek’s talk show Beauty And The Beast back when he was at univer­sity. “The thing that al­ways struck me about Lisa was that peo­ple talk a lot on TV, but very few ac­tu­ally have some­thing to say,” re­calls Boland, now a head of video for Newslife­me­dia, pub­lisher of Stel­lar. “Lisa does. She al­ways did.”

Many thought ac­cept­ing the To­day gig was madness. But Wilkin­son was a veteran risk-taker. She ac­cepted the ed­i­tor­ship of Dolly mag­a­zine as a 21-year-old with barely any pub­lish­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. She worked un­der the fear­some Kerry Packer on his beloved Cleo. She quit that to be­come a full-time mum when her sec­ond child was born, which many in the mag­a­zine in­dus­try saw as her big­gest ca­reer risk of all.

She even took some­thing of a punt on her hus­band, jour­nal­ist, author and ex-wal­laby Peter Fitzsi­mons, by agree­ing to marry him within three months of their first date.

But Boland un­der­stood ex­actly why she left Seven for Nine. “To­day was on its knees at the time,” he says. “If you think like Lisa you would con­sider that an op­por­tu­nity, be­cause she is a fighter.”

Nev­er­the­less, launch­ing her­self into three-and-a-half hours of live tele­vi­sion on one of the most-scru­ti­nised shows in Aus­tralia was daunt­ing. Wilkin­son says Ste­fanovic’s sup­port was cru­cial in the first few months.

On day three, she saw some nasty emails about her com­ing through on their shared com­puter. “He shut the whole thing down, grabbed my hand and said, ‘Darl, if this is go­ing to work, it’s got to be about our chem­istry, en­joy­ing our­selves and putting on a great show,’” she says. “It must have been the way he said it; I thought, ‘This guy re­ally has my back and thinks I can do this.’”

Ste­fanovic says Wilkin­son brought calm to the show. “It was easy right from the start,” he tells Stel­lar. “When we started out, we were both very jovial peo­ple, we wanted to please. After a lit­tle while, you re­ally re­lax into each other, you get to know each other’s foibles and win­ning for­mu­las. Over time we started to get to know each other on a much deeper level, and the pre­sent­ing was en­riched by that. We were ex­plor­ing each other’s views. I do think we are a cou­ple of pre­sen­ters who ac­tu­ally tried to push each other.”

They were lucky their chem­istry worked. “It is an in­ex­act sci­ence,” Wilkin­son says. “An ex­ec­u­tive team can love this per­son, and they can love that per­son, but if those peo­ple don’t love each other, and if they don’t re­spect each other or un­der­stand each other’s senses of hu­mour or en­joy each other’s rhythms, right down to sens­ing when the other per­son is go­ing to breathe, it doesn’t work.”

Part of their chem­istry, Wilkin­son says, is op­po­sites at­tract­ing. Ste­fanovic could host the show in his sleep be­cause it comes so nat­u­rally to him. “Still, some­where in my psy­che, I am a mag­a­zine ed­i­tor who has been lucky enough to host the To­day show,” she says. “I sup­pose I have that im­pos­tor syn­drome that a lot of women have. I have been par­tic­u­larly for­tu­nate in the things that have come my way through­out my ca­reer, so if I am go­ing to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, I feel I have to keep prov­ing my­self.”

Over the course of their 10-year part­ner­ship, Ste­fanovic has at­tracted an in­creas­ing level of at­ten­tion, partly be­cause of tabloid in­ter­est in his love life, and partly be­cause of his on-air goof­ing. (Lit­tle known fact: he has a big fol­low­ing among un­der­grad­u­ate men, with a ra­dio sta­tion in the US even boast­ing a reg­u­lar seg­ment called Good On You Karl.)

But Boland ar­gues Ste­fanovic wouldn’t have the pro­file he en­joys to­day with­out Wilkin­son. “She is what Karl needed,” he says. “She was able to put him on a path that en­abled him to shine. He was never a laugh­ing stock, but he wasn’t taken se­ri­ously. I think sit­ting along­side Lisa changed

the way the au­di­ence per­ceived him and the show gen­er­ally.”

WILKIN­SON DID COME close to be­ing an­other To­day ca­su­alty, but not through any act of man­age­ment. When she took on the job, her hus­band was also do­ing break­fast ra­dio. They would both leave the house in the wee hours of the morn­ing, and a nanny would tag team to get the kids to school. They thought work­ing the same hours would make things eas­ier for the fam­ily. It didn’t.

“The prob­lem was that when you had two par­ents do­ing ex­actly the same hours, and the kids were in pri­mary school and high school – they re­ally are in­tense years,” she says. “They re­quire a lot of in­volved par­ent­ing. You have to be there. What we dis­cov­ered was ba­si­cally it was two peo­ple rac­ing to bed, and who­ever was the last to bed ended up help­ing with the home­work, putting the dish­washer on. Pete was al­ways much bet­ter at get­ting to bed first.”

Ev­ery­one was un­happy. It was one of the most test­ing pe­ri­ods of their mar­riage. Wilkin­son and Fitzsi­mons sat down to nut out a so­lu­tion, and, like so many women be­fore her, she vol­un­teered to make the sac­ri­fice. “I think I’ll give up the To­day show,” she re­mem­bers say­ing, “be­cause what’s hap­pen­ing here in these four walls is more im­por­tant than any job.”

But Fitzsi­mons in­sisted that he would re­sign in­stead. “He said, ‘I re­ally want you to keep do­ing that job,’” Wilkin­son says. “He has al­ways be­lieved in me, some­times when I thought, ‘I can’t do this…’ he’s al­ways said, ‘You can do it.’”

Wilkin­son and Fitzsi­mons, who were in­tro­duced by for­mer 60 Min­utes pre­sen­ter Liz Hayes, cel­e­brate 25 years of mar­riage later this year. They have two sons, Jake, 23, and Louis, 21, and 19-year-old daugh­ter Billi – now all at univer­sity. Wilkin­son’s early starts al­lowed her to spend af­ter­noons with her chil­dren when they were teenagers, which was the time she felt they needed her most. In work-life bal­ance terms, she has had it all. Well, al­most.

“I have never, in 10 years, had enough sleep,” she says.

Com­pared with Ste­fanovic, who is go­ing through a well-pub­li­cised di­vorce, Wilkin­son has lit­tle to of­fer the pa­parazzi. “I am a mother of three in a sta­ble mar­riage. There’s a bunch of rea­sons why I am not at all in­ter­est­ing,” she says. But such is the fascination with break­fast tele­vi­sion, Wilkin­son can make news by pulling her hair

``it would be such a con­fi­dence de­stroyer if you let crit­i­cism get to you´´

into a pony­tail, or wear­ing the same blouse twice within four months (she re­sponded to that par­tic­u­lar story by wear­ing it again the next day).

Wilkin­son watches the pur­suit of her co-host with sis­ter-like pro­tec­tive­ness. “They [the pa­parazzi] stop at noth­ing.”

Ste­fanovic is philo­soph­i­cal about the scrutiny. “You are not go­ing to hear me com­plain­ing about that kind of be­hav­iour,” he tells Stel­lar. “Some of it is in­tru­sive, I think there has to be a line drawn there at some point, [but] for the most part it’s no good peo­ple like us com­plain­ing about some­thing that goes with the ter­ri­tory.”

But he does get up­set about the su­per­fi­cial crit­i­cism di­rected at Wilkin­son. “I think it’s ob­scene that any­one would point out her dress or pony­tail ahead of her in­ter­view­ing skills,” says Ste­fanovic. “I don’t think the pub­lic buys that.”

Wilkin­son pointed out the dou­ble stan­dards faced by women in me­dia in her 2013 An­drew Olle Lec­ture, but they have flour­ished re­gard­less. She has de­vel­oped a thick skin. “If I was to take it per­son­ally I wouldn’t be able to do it,” she says. “It takes a cer­tain level of con­fi­dence in what you are do­ing, it would be such a con­fi­dence de­stroyer if you let it get to you.”

Along­side her peers, such as Tracy Grimshaw and Liz Hayes, at 57, Wilkin­son has also be­come a stan­dard-bearer for the kind of long, dis­tin­guished ca­reer that is now pos­si­ble for women in com­mer­cial TV – a ca­reer that used to be lim­ited, on air at least, by dress size and birth date.

“I’ve never seen my age as a bar­rier to any­thing,” she says. “I didn’t when I took on running Dolly at the age of 21, or when I was of­fered the To­day show well into my for­ties. And I cer­tainly don’t now. I think view­ers have never val­ued breadth of ex­pe­ri­ence, or kilo­me­tres on the clock, more. Of course I’ve got a few more wrin­kles than when I started. But I’ve also got more laugh lines as well. I’ve earned them, and I am proud of them.

“The truth is, I’ve never felt more curious, en­gaged, com­fort­able in my skin or open to what life has in store.”

There’s long been gos­sip spec­u­lat­ing that Ste­fanovic wants to move on from To­day to 60 Min­utes and per­haps be­yond, but Boland thinks it’s Wilkin­son who may out­grow the role. “I would love to see Lisa evolve,” he says. “I would love to see Lisa be given a plat­form where she’s al­lowed to be her. In my hum­ble opin­ion, she risks be­ing wasted.”

Wilkin­son’s An­drew Olle Lec­ture was the first given by a woman in 16 years. But there’s an­other ac­co­lade, a less hal­lowed one, many of her peers would like to see be­stowed on her. “I want Lisa Wilkin­son to win a Gold Lo­gie,” pre­vi­ous win­ner Lisa Mccune said in the lead-up to last month’s cer­e­mony. So too did Car­rie Bick­more, win­ner of the 2015 Gold Lo­gie. “I have no idea why you’re not up there Lise,” she said. “I watch you ev­ery morn­ing and you should be on that list.”

Tele­vi­sion net­works strate­gise Lo­gie nom­i­na­tions. They choose per­son­al­i­ties they be­lieve could win and put re­sources into pro­mot­ing them, both through social me­dia and more tra­di­tional means such as on-air ad­ver­tise­ments prompt­ing view­ers to vote.

When it comes to hear­ing her name called out at next year’s cer­e­mony, at least one Nine ex­ec­u­tive has thrown his sup­port be­hind Wilkin­son for a fu­ture Gold Lo­gie cam­paign. “She is a bloody legend and I think she should get that recog­ni­tion from her peers and the pub­lic,” says the To­day show’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer and Nine’s di­rec­tor of morn­ing tele­vi­sion, Mark Calvert.

Wilkin­son may well cel­e­brate her 60th birth­day on To­day, mak­ing her one of very few women to cel­e­brate such a bench­mark on a high-rat­ing com­mer­cial TV show. Then again, she might not.

“As to what hap­pens next, I have no idea,” Wilkin­son says. “I still love do­ing the To­day show and right now I can’t imagine do­ing any­thing else that I’d en­joy more. But I’ve never been one to plan ahead, and I’m the first to ad­mit that so much of my life and ca­reer so far has been a se­ries of happy accidents, and some­how ev­ery time I’ve got com­fort­able, prov­i­dence has snuck in and led me to ex­actly where I need to be next.

“And I’ve al­ways found jump­ing off into the un­known, well out­side my com­fort zone, is when I’m at my best.”

``I´ve never been one to plan. my life is a se­ries of happy accidents´´

DE­SIGN OF A DECADE (clock­wise from top) Lisa Wilkin­son and Karl Ste­fanovic in 2008; with hus­band Peter Fitzsi­mons; a happy fam­ily snap; with daugh­ter Billi.

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