SLEEP CAN WAIT
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.
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´´