“Looks were never my thing”
As she caps off another year of headline-making interviews, Gold Logie nominee Tracy Grimshaw takes stock of a career – and a life – that have never been defined by the mundane
COVER STORY She may have chalked up nearly four decades in the notoriously fickle TV industry, but veteran journalist Tracy Grimshaw tells Stellar she’s never felt pressure to be glamorous. Instead, the Gold Logie nominee says her “luck” is simply the by-product of hard work.
Tracy Grimshaw was cleaning out the stables at her home on the outskirts of Sydney when she received a text from a friend. “I’m voting for you for Gold,” read the message. Grimshaw texted her back, asking what on earth she was talking about. Her friend promptly phoned. “You really must watch television,” she told the seasoned newsreader. “The Today show is campaigning for you for the Gold Logie.”
Grimshaw had no idea her Nine Network colleague Karl Stefanovic was crusading to have her nominated for the gong. “I am immensely flattered and honoured, but I wasn’t expecting it,” she tells Stellar. “I don’t see myself in this space. I’m not a front-and-centre girl; I’m a working journo.”
While some are claiming this year’s Gold Logie nominees, who include Amanda Keller, Grant Denyer and Foxtel’s Andrew Winter, are a triumph of “substance over style” and “experience over ego”, others regard the line-up as a bunch of “has-beens and nobodies”. Grimshaw, who takes both slams and superlatives with a grain of salt, couldn’t care less about the commentary – but notes one thing: “Amanda and myself are not kids. It’s the #Metoo year, so it’s nice that two mature women are not only up for the Gold Logie, but it [also] gives lie to the notion that TV is for young women and that older women are being shuffled out the door. We’re certainly not.”
Grimshaw turned 58 earlier this month and while TV news is increasingly presented, if not powered, by ambitious and glamorous young females, she has no fears of being replaced as host of A Current Affair after almost 13 years in the post.
“I don’t feel that pressure at all and I never really have,” she says. “It depends on what you prioritise over the years. If you make your look, for example, your stock-in-trade then that’s going to diminish as you get older. I never walked into a room and thought glamour and looks were my thing. If you make your approach to your job, or your measure of authority, or credibility, your stock-in-trade then it’s not going to matter what happens to how you look or what you’re wearing or whether you have wrinkles. Certainly, no-one has tried to pension me off.”
Grimshaw’s gravitas firmly establishes her in the league of the ABC’S Sarah Ferguson and Leigh Sales, and her 60 Minutes counterparts Liz Hayes and Tara Brown. But she has arguably made the sit-down interview her own, not just on the grounds of the exclusives she has secured, but through the deftness of her questioning. To watch her interview football star Matthew Johns in a darkened studio about the NRL sex scandal in 2009, or interrogate television presenter Don Burke on sexual-harassment and bullying allegations late last year, is to be given a front-row seat to her subject’s character.
It can be uncomfortable, adversarial and at times excruciatingly intense. But Grimshaw tries not to let her method overshadow the message. It’s the same when she’s doing more heartfelt interviews – most recently with the parents of Amy “Dolly” Everett, the Northern Territory teen who took her own life after relentless bullying.
In an era of “gotcha” approaches that find interviewers being deliberately antagonistic, or pandering chats where they cry and put their arms around the subject’s shoulders, Grimshaw rarely grandstands.
“Interviews are a fascinating interplay between two people, but I should be a conduit and disappear into the background,” she explains. “It should be about them – if you inject too much emotion, you can colour the way [the subject] behaves.”
That said, there’s almost a shrink’s insight in the way that Grimshaw elicits answers, not so surprising when you
consider she began a combined psychology and zoology degree at La Trobe University when she was 18. “I do have a natural interest in psychology,” Grimshaw confirms. “A girlfriend did her degree recently and she was sending me links. I’m still fascinated by it. But then I’m fascinated by the human condition. And really, journalism is a daily exploration of the human condition.”
Yet for all the effort she throws into helping others examine themselves, Grimshaw is deeply uncomfortable when the microphone gets turned around. Plenty of television hosts clamour for publicity, but she clearly dislikes that part of the job. After posing in a selection of outfits for Stellar, she is visibly more comfortable back in her own clobber when she sits down for a chat. Still, Grimshaw would much rather discuss anything other than herself. For the first 20 minutes she shifts uncomfortably, occasionally tries to obfuscate, but eventually appears to remember a key premise of interviews: that they are generally over more quickly if the subject actually answers the questions.
“It’s very hard to talk about me,” she admits. As such, it is pretty unlikely that she will release an autobiography any time soon. When it’s pointed out that she wrote a beautifully observed article for The Australian when four of her Nine colleagues from 60 Minutes were imprisoned in Beirut in 2016, and that she must have some terrific stories to tell, her face shrivels with distaste, the thought clearly appalling her: “There’s nothing I’d like less than to write a book on me. I’d rather recede into the background.”
Grimshaw won’t budge when prompted to discuss her private life, saying only that, “I’ve had lots of long-term relationships, but I’ve never talked about any of them.” She also tends to be absent from red carpets and A-list industry events; she works weekday evenings and, in any case, would rather buy a ticket on her own and go out with her mates. These choices have led to misconceptions and even downright nastiness from observers. She has been accused online of being “mad and menopausal” by a viewer,“cripplingly shy” by a magazine and, in 2009, a “lesbian” in need of Botox by the celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay. She came out fighting against that last one, declaring that she wasn’t gay, but that Ramsay was an “arrogant narcissist”. Grimshaw’s friends, including television producer and former Nine sports commentator Anne-maree Sparkman, still laugh uproariously at any preconceptions she is reserved.
“Tracy Grimshaw is not a shy woman, not on any day that she’s ever walked this Earth,” chortles Sparkman, who has known the TV host since they joined Nine 37 years ago. “She’s determined and fierce and ferociously intelligent, but she’s also great fun. She enjoys laughing and socialising and her generosity knows no bounds. She wouldn’t want me to give examples, but she helps people in all sorts of ways.”
Probe a little and it becomes clear Grimshaw is, indeed, far from an introvert. She spent her recent birthday with friends around a bonfire, and Sparkman reveals that the journalist is a “marvellous” cook who rustles up extravagant feasts at her acreage property. “She has gone from the girl who’d do a roast chicken for her boyfriend once a week to this extraordinary cook. She’s a pescatarian now and she’s taught herself to cook in the same way she does everything – throwing herself in 100 per cent, interrogating and analysing so she can do it well.”
It would seem that Grimshaw also likes a drink, but moving from Today to A Current Affair has put paid to the days of long lunches. “I don’t do lunches,” she says, adding with a laugh, “There’s no point drinking water at lunch… and the attraction at lunch is not the food.”
Indeed, it was a drinking session with her former boss James Packer that led to Grimshaw finding herself locked out of her hotel room naked after the 1998 Logie Awards. She and Packer had been knocking back tequila – “we used to love the tequila shots” – when she realised that she needed to get ready for Today. Back in her room at The Crown in Melbourne, Grimshaw stripped off her clothes and decided to have a shower before the hair and make-up artists arrived to make her camera-ready.
“I locked myself out of my hotel room starkers,” she affirms, explaining that she mistook the hotel room door for the bathroom door. It was 3.45am and there was no-one in the hallway. “I took stock of the situation and realised that the guest opposite had The Australian delivered. Thank god it was a broadsheet and not the Herald Sun. I covered myself with that and knocked on the next door down the hallway, then ran back to my door. Someone stuck their head out and saw me, and about five minutes later the girl from Crown walked down the hallway and let me in.” The mishap would have remained a secret had she not told her co-host Steve Liebmann when she arrived late on set. “He was wearing a microphone so it went straight to the control room in Sydney,” she recalls. “Of course, everyone heard it.”
If anyone is qualified to chart the rise of women in commercial television, it is Grimshaw. After abandoning her university degree – she found the vivisection in zoology too gruesome – she began a cadetship in suburban newspapers before being hired by Nine in 1981. “When I walked into the newsroom, it was pretty much a sausage fest,” she recalls. “There were hardly any women so I modelled myself on Peter Jennings, the ABC America anchor, because he was an amazing interviewer and great live-television journalist.”
She never left – and is on her way to chalking up four decades with the network. “I’m a bit of a stayer,” she laughs. “I do tend to put down roots. If I was a racehorse I’d be a Melbourne Cup horse. I’m not a sprinter.”
In the wake of #Metoo, Grimshaw has a few thoughts. She believes workplaces must prioritise protecting the most vulnerable, and points towards her own resilience as social mores evolved. “I’ve certainly had inappropriate things done to me over the years, but everyone draws their line in different places. Just because it doesn’t bother me, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t bother other women.”
Throughout our interview, Grimshaw constantly points out that she’s “lucky”, but acknowledges her luck is also the result of hard work. She is also an optimist, one who opts to focus on practising gratitude before she starts tapping away on social-media channels. “Social media can be a megaphone for pessimism. Most people use it to express ‘woe is me’ or ‘life is terrible’ or ‘I’ve had a shocking day’,” she says. Notably on her own understated Instagram account – she has fewer than 3000 followers – there is a post that reads: “People who wonder whether the glass is half-empty or half-full miss the point. The glass is refillable.”
Certainly, she’s a woman who tries to remain tethered to what is truly important. Having lost her mum Barbara to cancer in 2011, she still misses her – and occasionally talks to her. “I’m very aware she’s not there but I still say, ‘Ma, you would’ve liked today.’”
As she prepares for the Logies next Sunday, Grimshaw continues to pay no attention to her detractors, and is happy to remind that she never really has. “It’s up to you how important you make those people,” she says. “You can give them power or give them none.”
Besides, she would rather give her attention to viewers like Fred, who lives in a retirement village on the NSW Central Coast. He recently made her a necklace in the shape of a horseshoe and posted it to her with a card. She could barely read his handwriting but made a call to the facility named on the envelope. “Tell Fred I’m going to wear his necklace on the show tonight,” she told a member of staff. And she did.
GOOD AS GOLD (from top) Tracy Grimshaw co-hosting the Today show with Steve Liebmann in 2004; grilling Don Burke over sexual-harassment allegations in November last year; with fellow 2018 Gold Logie nominees Grant Denyer, Amanda Keller, Rodger Corser and Jessica Marais in May.