“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

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy LIAM KIDSTON In­ter­view BELINDA SEENEY

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

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