“I’M VERY IMMATURE”
AT 51, SONIA KRUGER – WITH HER DANCER’S PHYSIQUE AND REJECTION OF AGE-APPROPRIATE FASHION – HAS PROVEN TO BE ONE OF THE ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY’S GREAT SURVIVORS
Sonia Kruger opens up to Stellar about surviving 25 years in show business, motherhood and why, at 51, she refuses to conform to society’s ideals about age.
Sonia Kruger’s sliding doors moment came soon after her pineapple-clad turn as Tina Sparkle in Strictly Ballroom, the 1992 Australian dance film with which America fell in love. A friend who also happened to be an acting agent in Los Angeles called, begging her to fly over to capitalise on the film’s success. “‘ You are on the cover of Variety magazine,” Kruger recalls him saying, “and that’s a big deal in this town.’”
She thought about it. She was tempted. But she didn’t take up the offer. “I couldn’t do it – I just didn’t have the confidence,” Kruger tells Stellar. “For a while there, I kind of admonished myself for not going to Los Angeles. I would like to know what would have happened if I did.”
Kruger was in her mid-20s at the time, with only a couple of acting credits under her belt. When she turned down potential opportunities in LA, she found an acting agent in Australia and quickly realised that, in her words, she “wasn’t an actor’s bootlace. I went to a few auditions where I was required to cry on cue, or even remember lines, and I was pretty bad.”
What Kruger describes as a lack of confidence might actually have been self-awareness. Because she was right: her chief talent does not lie in acting. She is a born entertainer; a sassy, modern twist on the old-school variety host. People like Kerri-anne Kennerley or Bert Newton, with their rare, charismatic mix of razzle-dazzle, witty one-liners and warmth.
Born a couple of decades earlier, Kruger might have been Daryl Somers’s sidekick on Hey Hey It’s Saturday. But in this era of television, when 50 is the new 30 and there’s no job a woman can’t do, she’s hosting The Voice. By herself.
In fact, she’s actually a few years older than Somers was when Hey Hey was axed. But you’d never know to look at her. With her dancer’s physique and rejection of age-appropriate fashion, it’s easy to forget Kruger is 51 and has been in the television industry for 25 years. “Sonia’s great ability is adaptability,” says Anne Fulwood, her friend and former colleague on Seven Network’s mid-’90s show 11AM.
“She’s reflective of that segment of the Australian community that wants a bit of fun and a bit of entertainment from someone who’s got a bit of depth and has been around the block a few times,” Fulwood tells Stellar. “Someone who has fallen over and picked themselves up again, and has a few bruises and scars to show for it. We love that.” SONIA KRUGER WAS Todd Mckenney’s first girlfriend. He remembers canoodling on bleachers during national ballroom championships when they were both about 12 years old. “She was a bombshell,” Mckenney says. “Vivacious, and very funny. When she walks into a room, she turns heads. Buildings collapse, cars crash. She stops traffic, and she always has.”
They danced together in Strictly Ballroom, and worked alongside each other on Dancing With The Stars. It’s been a long, platonic love affair, and Mckenney has seen the 12-year-old he knew blossom into a “glamazon with a bit of a sting in her tail”. He isn’t surprised at Kruger’s success; she was always too ambitious to stay within the confines of the dance world. “She grabbed all those attributes that she polished during ballroom dancing – and sought a career,” he says.
Before Strictly Ballroom, Kruger had been working in the accounts division at American Express. She’d been there for six years, and her skills in customer service meant she was being promoted fast, despite her young age. But she quit when a friend offered her a part in a play at Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre, much to
“I went to a few auditions where I was required to cry on cue, and I was pretty bad”
the chagrin of her mother, who reminded her that long-service leave was just four years away. When she heard about Strictly Ballroom, Kruger tracked down the casting director and knocked on her door.
The movie’s success did not create a job frenzy for all of its stars. As she queued for acting auditions in its wake, Kruger took a telemarketing job at Cellarmasters, the primary employer of out-of-work actors. “We used to have a joke that if you couldn’t get into NIDA, you went to Cellarmasters,” she says.
Kruger’s second big break came when she saw an advertisement for a reporter on Wonder World!, the children’s current affairs show. Her application was a mock ransom note written in letters cut from a newspaper. “We have Tina Sparkle,” it read. “If you want to see her alive again, call this number.”
It was the first role in which she played herself, and she’d found her niche. Wonder World! set her on a path towards her future, better-known jobs: various morning shows, Today Tonight, Dancing With The Stars, Big Brother and, finally, The Voice.
Kruger still can’t quite define what she does. “I struggle with this,” she says. “On the passport thing you fill out, I don’t know what to write! I like to think that I am part of, you know, that greater storytelling that is television.”
Her childhood girl-crush is the best clue. When she was growing up in Toowoomba, recalls Kruger, “The first person I remember seeing on TV was Jacki Macdonald doing Hey Hey It’s Saturday with Daryl Somers. Years later, when I worked with Somers on Dancing With The Stars, it was almost the universe saying, ‘You were going to end up here.’”
To Kruger, Macdonald wasn’t Somers’s ditzy sidekick. She was an equal partner in a clever duo, parrying off Somers with the same quick wit Newton used to spar with Don Lane. “She always looked like she was having a great time,” says Kruger.
The two women share the same style of comedic talent, Somers says. “Because of her dancing background, [Kruger] has a natural sense of timing,” he tells Stellar. “That’s a real gift. It means she picks things up really quickly and is in demand for different types of shows.”
On Today Extra, Kruger and David Campbell also have the symbiotic relationship that’s technically known as the actor and reactor, like Somers and Macdonald. The actor drives the show, while the reactor brings the laughs.
“Our roles do switch up, depending on our mood on the day,” she says. “There are some days where he probably thinks, ‘You need to get some more sleep, you are loose today.’ There are some days I am so loose, I am amazed we are still on air. But the viewers seem to be enjoying it.”
Being able to laugh at herself is Kruger’s greatest appeal, says Fulwood, now media director at Ogilvy Public Relations. “She’s quick with a one-liner, but includes her audience – she doesn’t stand above them.”
If inclusiveness is the key to Kruger’s success, it explains why one deeply polarising comment made by her on the Today show last year still has the power to make network executives feel anxious.
Soon after the terrorist attack in France last July, in which 86 people died after a truck was deliberately driven through a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day, Kruger said she would like to see Muslim immigration stopped in Australia, “because I would like to feel safe as all of our citizens do when they go out to celebrate Australia Day, and I would like to see freedom of speech.”
Amid the resulting uproar, she defended her comments, saying the image of a dead baby left her shocked. She explained that while her comments might have been extreme, it was important to be able to discuss the issue without automatically being labelled a racist.
She has not spoken about it since. When asked about it now, she visibly stiffens.
“I feel like I said everything I needed to say about that the following day, and contextualised where I was coming from,” she replies. One year on, it’s clear she has no intention of saying anything further.
Scandals of this sort can cause serious problems for stars who are simply playing themselves on TV; their likeability is due, in part, to a careful avoidance of politics.
“It does cause people to take a step backwards and start wondering what they really think of those people,” Steve Allen, from Essence Media, tells Stellar.
“At the time [Kruger’s comments] were quite damaging, but the damage doesn’t seem to have endured thanks to the way she has handled herself since, and the way the network handled it. Shut it down quickly, try to avoid talking about it ever again, and it will kind of go away over time.”
Another industry source agrees: “I don’t think it’s brought her undone. She is made of more than that.”
AND KRUGER IS nothing if not versatile. She can dance the rumba, interview a celebrity and rock a sequinned jumpsuit – all at once – if she really feels like it. But for many years, there was one type of television segment from which she was often excluded, and that was the type that centred on parenting. “That did happen,” Kruger confirms. “It was hurtful, and in a way I felt it was discriminatory, because I had nieces and nephews and children in my life. People who don’t have kids are still entitled to have their opinion.”
Kruger is no longer excluded from those discussions. She’s now the doting mother of two-year-old Maggie, her daughter with partner Craig Mcpherson, the Seven Network’s news and current affairs boss. Kruger gave birth at 49, and was transparent about the fact Maggie was conceived with an egg donated by
“I always thought I was going to be a strict parent. I am seriously such a pushover”
a friend after she and Mcpherson spent several unsuccessful years trying IVF.
Reflecting on motherhood, Kruger notes, “You don’t realise how much you can adore those little creatures. I always thought I would be a strict parent: ‘My child is going to eat vegetables and no treats!’ And I am seriously such a pushover. I can’t resist her.” Mcpherson saw this coming. “Sonia was always going to be a great mum, having watched how she doted on the dog day and night,” he says.
There are advantages to being an older mum, like not worrying about missing out on a social life. “You’ve got things out of your system,” says Kruger. Yet there are disadvantages, too. “Sometimes when Maggie wants me to crawl around on all fours, I’m like, ‘My knee is a bit dodgy…’”
Maggie is Kruger’s first child and Mcpherson’s seventh. So when asked if he’s a bit of a know-it-all on the parenting front, she says – with an exaggerated eye roll – “You would have to ask him.” (I do, over email, but he doesn't respond to that particular query.) To Kruger, I rephrase the question: is his experience helpful? “It’s hard to tell, as I don’t know any different.” She pauses. “I feel like I do most of it,” she says, before adding with a laugh, “[that’s] inflammatory!”
Kruger says she does not plan to have any more children, despite frequent speculation she has a baby bump. “You think, ‘Do I look pregnant?’ But where am I supposed to put my internal organs? What am I supposed to do with my spleen?” She also admits going back to work on Today Extra three months after Maggie was born was her most heart-wrenching moment as a parent thus far. But it doesn’t seem to worry her daughter. “She knows Mummy will drop her off and pick her up,” Kruger says. “She thinks every blonde lady on TV or in a magazine is me. She saw Christie Brinkley once and said, ‘Mumma!’ and I said, ‘Oh… that’s nice. I’ll take that.’”
Like Brinkley, Kruger radiates eternal youthfulness; Mckenney puts this down to good genes and a healthy lifestyle. “They are a good-looking family, the Krugers,” he says. “I think Sonia is also aware she is a 51-year-old woman in the television industry, which is different from being a 51-year-old man. She watches what she eats and takes care of herself.”
Kruger rejects suggestions that her longevity in television is anything out of the ordinary. She points to other women at the Nine Network – Lisa Wilkinson, 57, Liz Hayes, 61, Tracy Grimshaw, 57 – and beyond. There’s no longer discrimination against women of a certain age, she says, and hasn’t been for a long time. “I don’t think it’s an issue now,” she says, calling it “one of those beliefs we keep perpetuating”. Her advice to women starting out in the media is this: “Don’t focus on the fact you are a woman. You are a person in the television industry.”
In just a few weeks, Strictly Ballroom will celebrate its 25th anniversary. And it is not totally unfathomable that, for Kruger, that long-ago LA dream could still come true. She says she would love to be invited on the US version of Dancing With The Stars as a judge, and Kelly Rowland, who recently wrapped her first season as a judge on The Voice, believes she would do well. “I think the States would adore her,” Rowland tells Stellar. “She has great timing, is gorgeous and relatable.”
That Kruger still wears gold jumpsuits and hosts a show that skews towards a young age group proves not just her timelessness, but also her defiance. She doesn’t look 51, so why should she act it?
“Essentially I am very immature,” she says. “Some people would say perhaps [the gold jumpsuit] was age-inappropriate. I don’t subscribe to that. I don’t like that term. What does it even mean?”
STRICTLY SONIA (clockwise from top left) Sonia Kruger and Daryl Somers on Dancing With The Stars; with Today Extra co-host David Campbell; with partner Craig Mcpherson and daughter Maggie; wearing that gold jumpsuit for The Voice; as Tina Sparkle in Strictly Ballroom.
SONIA WEARS T.m.lewin shirt, tmlewin.com.au; (above) Max Mara dress, maxmara. com; Ryan Storer earrings, ryan storer.com