“I have learnt so much”
After her husband’s harrowing death, Robin Bailey forged ahead for the sake of her family – and found love again. But now she must steel for a wrenching new battle
After her husband’s shocking death three years ago, Brisbane breakfast radio personality Robin Bailey rallied to support her family – and unexpectedly found love again. She’s now bracing for a new battle.
Oh god! Could you imagine me trying to do Tinder?” Robin Bailey lets loose with a throaty chuckle, shaking her head as she ponders the logistics of entering the online dating fray. “What would I say? ‘I’m a single mother of three teenage boys and I get up at 3am?’ “Rock on, chick!” The vibrant redhead – a staple on Brisbane breakfast radio for the better part of the past 20 years and a familiar face on the Nine Network’s Weekend Today – was not looking for love when it ran right into her, in the form of now-beau Sean Pickwell, at a 2015 concert headlined by retro Australian acts including Eurogliders and Wendy Matthews. “I walked in backstage and literally bumped into her with a mouth full of food,” Pickwell recalls. Recognition came instantly – the romantic connection did not, at least not on Bailey’s end. Pickwell readily confesses, “There was something… certainly from my side, there was something. Little bells went off, a little spark of electricity.” For Bailey, however, an evening spent talking about “life, the universe and everything” to a thumping soundtrack of ’80s hits was nothing more than a lovely, spontaneous catch-up with a former colleague. The two had worked together at Melbourne’s Fox FM more than 25 years prior; he as the station’s
program director, she as “a lowly assistant producer” on the Grubby and Dee Dee breakfast show.
Almost two years to the day since they reconnected, the couple are going public with their slow-burn romance. Bailey’s smile is infectious as she speaks of a friendship that would go on to become so much more. She speaks frankly to Stellar about a treasured relationship forged during one of the toughest periods of her life: the years following the suicide of her husband Tony Smart.
Sitting on the verandah of her home in Brisbane, Bailey adjusts the sunglasses that shield her eyes from the bright sun and mask the tears that well up as she recounts “the worst day” of her family’s lives.
IT WAS A Monday, she recalls only all too well – September 1, 2014, to be exact – and her family worked to the same routine that dictated most weekdays. Bailey had left home well before dawn so she could be on air until 9am; at the time, she was one-third of the top-rating 97.3FM breakfast team of Robin,terry and Bob.
Smart, a former stay-at-home dad who had started working from home, made breakfast for the couple’s three sons – Fin, then 14, Lewin, 12 and Piper, nine – before driving them to school. He returned home after the school run and took his own life, ending a long and largely private struggle with depression. Bailey reveals the couple were readying for a separation after almost 16 years of marriage, and seeing a counsellor for guidance. Amid the chaos of that morning, one thought rang clear in Bailey’s mind: she needed to tell her boys what happened – before word got out.
“The day Tony died, I rang our counsellor,” Bailey says, “and I asked, ‘How do I do it? Tell me what to say. How do I do the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life?’ It was so tough because it was going to change their lives, that one moment, and if I didn’t do it right…” She trails off, taking a steadying breath to stem the tears. “They were never going to be OK with it. I knew what was to come; I knew how different their lives would be.”
The newly widowed mother knew because she had already experienced the numbness and shock of her own father’s sudden, fatal heart attack in her family’s Sydney home when she was just 11 years old and her sister, Pippa, was 13. “I remember my mother waking us, and I remember her telling me. Everything changes.”
Bailey is a firm believer in the notion that the universe never dishes out more than one can handle. After ringing the counsellor, she sought further guidance from a psychologist, who gave a simple directive: “Be honest. Be age-appropriate, but be honest. Because they deserve that.” As Bailey says now, “That’s how I’ve parented ever since.”
The working mum refuses to sugarcoat the ensuing three years, which saw her home life come under intense public scrutiny as she and her boys moved house and welcomed a coterie of au pairs and housekeepers into the fold to keep things ticking along. She alludes to “a lot of trouble” as her sons grappled with their sorrow and shock, admitting there were “downright awful” times.
“Now I look at them and I think they’re amazing. If this whole experience has given them anything, it’s resilience,” Bailey says. She speaks with pride about their prowess on the soccer fields, expresses disbelief that her eldest, Fin, will graduate high school this year, and laughs at her endeavours to teach him how to drive, pointing out the L-plates on a hatchback parked outside.
Reflecting on those dark days, Bailey nominates a hastily organised holiday to Africa as the turning point for her heartbroken family. “I wanted to take them somewhere where they realise they are part of a bigger world,” she says. “We went on a safari and saw a lion take down a wildebeest, and [the trip] did exactly what I needed it to: it showed them there are so many bigger things than them – that death is a part of life.”
It was also in Africa that the three boys found courage to ask their mum tough questions about the day their father took his life. She sat with them inside a Johannesburg cafe for “three or four hours”, answering their questions, talking them through the timeline and explaining the coroner’s report.
At the urging of her sons and buoyed by “gobsmacking” support from listeners and colleagues, Bailey returned to 97.3FM five weeks after Smart’s death. “Looking back on it now, it makes everything that has subsequently happened with my career even harder to deal with,” she says.
“Everything” includes her unceremonious dumping from the flagship program last November, only weeks after celebrating a decade on air with Terry Hansen and Bob Gallagher. It was another Monday, she recalls, the day after she turned 48. She was in the middle of contract negotiations. After the show finished, Bailey was summoned to the boardroom and told she no longer had a job at the station. Her first call was to Pickwell, seeking advice and insight from the former radio executive who “understands this weird gig that I do”.
“I knew what was to come; I knew how different their lives would be”
Hurt and blindsided, she considered walking away from radio but, after tossing around options with Pickwell and her sons, she realised it was where her heart lay. A few weeks later she was back in the public spotlight, all smiles as Triple M Brisbane announced it had signed her to join its breakfast team.
The backlash from Triple M listeners was immediate and social media was peppered with hateful attacks on Bailey. “I’d gone from this complete love bubble [at 97.3FM] to this vileness,” she says with a hearty chuckle. She also came in cold, having not met her co-hosts – comedian Ed Kavalee and former rugby union player Greg Martin – until she joined the station. Despite the public lashing, success was swift: the show shot to second place on the first radio ratings survey of 2017.
“Ed, bless him, used to say in the beginning: ‘Most shows get rejects from The Bachelor. We get someone with 25 years’ experience,’” she says.
Now working at a radio station that unapologetically targets male listeners with its rock roots and blokey banter, Bailey, known for her empathy among 97.3FM’S female listeners, concedes learning to talk to men on air has been “a totally different beast”, but one that reaps unexpected rewards.
“I’ve learnt more about parenting my boys in the last six months with Ed and Marto – and being in that male space – than I have in the past twoand-a-half years,” she reveals. “[Marto’s] greatest words of wisdom to me… are ‘Boys are stupid, Robin – and we don’t stop being stupid until we’re 25.’”
Bailey and Pickwell have had to contend with the tyranny of distance, given Pickwell lives in Sydney. When Stellar first spoke with him, Pickwell insisted that “I want to – and will – be spending more time in Brisbane as things go on, because that’s where Rob’s life is.” (Bailey is locked in to her Brisbane-based Triple M contract until at least the end of the year, while Pickwell’s creative and entertainment consultancy business, along with his two children Jamie, 20, and Ally, 24, are all in Sydney.)
Then, in mid-august, a far more troubling issue surfaced. Pickwell learnt that a lesion on his liver, diagnosed as benign in 2009, had turned malignant. On August 29, he underwent a 10-hour surgery so doctors could remove a large chunk of the organ; at her sons’ urging, Bailey was by his side. The timing was precarious – three days later marked three years since Smart’s death. Two days after that was Father’s Day.
Less than 24 hours after Pickwell’s surgery, Bailey updated Stellar as she was on her way to check on him before catching a late flight to Brisbane, where Fin had a football grand final to play and was also preparing to take his driving test. “It’s tough, man,” she admits. “This is big, and it’s hard for everyone to get their heads around. But it’s certainly brought out the best in people.” She calls her sons “amazing… I wouldn’t have known or seen this compassion if this situation hadn’t arisen.”
The post-op prognosis is positive, and signs indicate that Pickwell will not need further treatment. All of this fits well with Bailey, who says she is “a glass half-full person – I always try to find the positives in everything.” As open and engaged as she is, though, Bailey still grows perplexed when asked how the recent turn of events will impact their fledgling romance. She pauses. “As far as we’re concerned? I don’t know yet. Maybe this will fast-track long-term plans. Major bumps in the road make you re-evaluate.”
In the midst of the chaos, says Bailey, there was a silver lining. “I got to spend time with [Sean’s] kids. They’ve been so inclusive, and it’s been humbling.” Post-surgery, as Pickwell lay in an induced coma, his son’s girlfriend Ruby – who is a third-year nursing student – urged everyone in the room to talk to him. What Bailey learnt is she sends her new partner’s heart racing in more ways than one. “Every time I spoke to him, his heart rate went up. It was the sweetest thing… just adorable.” Lifeline: 13 11 14