“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

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - Words by JOR­DAN BAKER

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?”

8

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

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