NEWSREADER KAY MCGRATH IS AN INSTITUTION IN QUEENSLAND. AND AFTER NEARLY FOUR DECADES OF DELIVERING HEADLINES, THE 61-YEAR-OLD IS PROOF THAT WOMEN DO INDEED FEEL MORE COMFORTABLE WITH AGE
Newsreader Kay Mcgrath is fired up about the need for more diversity on TV.
It’s Kay Mcgrath’s day off and the veteran newsreader for Seven News Brisbane is spending it accordingly: she sits in the corner of a leafy cafe, leisurely sipping a long black as she enjoys the warmth of the winter sunshine. And even though she is dressed down and free of her usual TV armour in a denim jacket and pink blouse, you can see the flickers of recognition on the faces of cafe customers and young mothers in an adjacent playground.
Mcgrath is a household name and one of the most familiar faces in these parts, a trusted presenter who has delivered the news across Queensland for 37 years. A local legend, she has broken barriers, slapped off stereotypes, reached the top of the ratings heap and won a Logie Award. So you could forgive her for buying into her own hype – except that she never will.
Asked to explain her longevity in a notoriously fickle industry, she quickly answers: “Work hard, don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t believe your own publicity. That’s been one of the keys to survival in the cutthroat world of television.
“I have seen people get caught up in their own publicity. And that’s a dangerous thing to do.”
ONE COULD PROBABLY also credit Mcgrath’s sense of adventure, which spurred her to leave her native New Zealand and hop on a flight to London in the late ’70s, leaving behind her older sister, property-investor father and accountant mother. “I had a red backpack, a really bad perm and a pair of clogs,” she laughs. “And away I went.”
A crippling bout of homesickness brought her back to the Southern Hemisphere – first to visit an old flame in Sydney, then a former flatmate on the Gold Coast. Mcgrath landed a job at the Gold Coast Bulletin the day after arriving there, and she also started moonlighting at TV0 (now Network Ten), working hard to lose her New Zealand accent.
“Not long after, the [ Gold Coast Bulletin] editor called me into his office and said, ‘Kay, I can’t help but notice you’re on the 6pm news each night while you’re working for us,’” she recalls wryly.
Television won her heart, and Mcgrath ended up being promoted to
newsreader at TV0 Brisbane before businessman Christopher Skase bought the Seven Network. He coaxed her to come aboard in Sydney where he installed her as co-host of the flagship morning current affairs program TV AM in 1988. Mcgrath openly concedes her year in Sydney didn’t pan out the way she had hoped.
“The role wasn’t what I signed up for,” Mcgrath reveals. “It was a very blokey environment and the penny dropped. I’d think, ‘Is this what I wanted?’”
She and Skase negotiated an amicable return to Brisbane. “Honestly, Christopher was a fantastic boss. He and [his wife] Pixie were an absolute buzz to work with,” she says. “It ended very badly, but they were the halcyon days: extravagant gifts and champagne brought up on ice when we won the ratings through an exclusive I had that blew the whistle on corruption.”
Mcgrath herself has enjoyed a scandal-free career, musing it is the result of her political neutrality and being “cautious by nature. I have often been heard to advise caution and restraint. It’s very easy to get excited – to tweet, to Facebook, to post that photo, but think about it for a minute.
“What’s the saying? ‘Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and confirm it.’ I’m afraid we have stepped over that line. Twentysomethings are being overly encouraged to share their opinions.”
She is blunt in her assessment of what results. “As a mature consumer of news, I probably won’t put much store by the opinion of a 24-year-old with limited life experience.”
Mcgrath recently turned 61 – she has essentially aged on television, and says she has no qualms about getting older. She hits the gym and does resistance work with a personal trainer, joking that her businessman fiancé Richard Moore is a self-appointed second trainer who “whips me up hill and down dale” on afternoon walks with their dog, a joodle (a cross between a Jack Russell terrier and a poodle) named Loui. Mcgrath also makes a conscious effort to meditate every day, and has completed her first level of mindfulness training.
She says there is pressure on women in her field to “look youthful and keep their figures”, but adds that “I don’t feel my age. And I can attest that as you get older, you do grow into yourself and feel more comfortable and confident. That’s a very powerful thing, particularly for women.
“There are more mature women on our screens now – hallelujah – than there were 20 years ago. When you turn the telly on, you want to see yourself there. But chances are you’ll see somebody well under the age of 50, [and] they’re going to be white and attractive.”
Her concerns spread well beyond age. “When you look at our diversity – and I’m talking ethnicity, age, religion – we’re performing poorly on free-to-air [TV].”
MCGRATH HAD PLANS to complete the second level of mindfulness training by the end of this year. Then Dame Quentin Bryce came calling with a request: she wanted the newsreader to succeed her as chair of Queensland’s Domestic and Family Violence Implementation Council. “Quentin Bryce warned me it would be a big job – and it is,” Mcgrath says. But it is one that suits her, since the role builds on almost 33 years spent as a child protection advocate, beginning in 1984 when she called to order the first committee meeting of PACT (Protect All Children Today) in her lounge room. At the time, Mcgrath was a police reporter with TV0. Two Juvenile Aid Bureau officers approached her about establishing a support network for young victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system.
In addition to her work with PACT, Mcgrath has been an ambassador for children and families charity Act for Kids since 1999, is a patron of the Daniel Morcombe Foundation, and earlier this year was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia. Hers is not passive patronage; she may be spending this day off relaxing in a cafe, but on any other you might find her inside Queensland’s first dedicated domestic-violence court on the Gold Coast, immersing herself in proceedings to better understand the issues.
In the rare free time she does have, Mcgrath tries to stay on top of plans for her wedding to Moore. She sounds almost apologetic when she admits that the couple, who became engaged last September, have yet to even lock in a date. “Everybody keeps asking us and we feel like we’re disappointing people!” she says. “We’re tossing around a few ideas and we will get to it… but nothing is planned yet.”
When it’s suggested the two simply do away with the stress (and the spotlight) and elope, she laughs.
“We would like to,” reveals Mcgrath, citing an obstacle that has vexed women – of all ages – since time immemorial. “But if we did, we might be in a lot of trouble with a few people. Particularly his mother.”
“Honestly, Christopher Skase was a fantastic boss. He was an absolute buzz to work with”
BEHIND THE NEWS (clockwise from top left) Kay Mcgrath and Dame Quentin Bryce; in the Seven News studio; Richard Moore.