In their first ever photo shoot as a family, David and Lisa Campbell talk to Stellar about life with three kids – and why David is finally taking on the Tin Lids.
When David Campbell decided to make a Christmas album, it wasn’t comparisons with Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole or even Michael Bublé that he feared.
Rather, it was how would he measure up to the Tin Lids – the ’90s group formed by a few of his father Jimmy Barnes’s other children – and Hey Rudolph!, their enduring Christmas compilation. As Campbell points out, even his own three kids sing along to the Barnes brood’s version of ‘Jingle Bells’.
“It’s a big deal doing a Christmas album in my family because I have to compete with Hey Rudolph! – which is the greatest Christmas album of all time,” Campbell says with a laugh. “Sorry, Michael Bublé, but it’s true. If I could come in at least third…”
Campbell needn’t worry. His new set of yuletide classics also features a catchy new title track (‘Baby It’s Christmas’) written for him by Rick Price, and the result is joyous and assured – two requirements of any album aiming to become a playlist favourite during the festive season.
An artist’s work often reflects where they are in life and while this new album outs Campbell as a selfconfessed “Christmas tragic”, it also marks a newfound contentment and resolve. “I’ve wanted to do a Christmas album for a while and everything came together,” he says. “I spent some Christmases in New York watching ice skaters and buying warm chestnuts, so this has all the elements of a traditional Christmas but with hot overtones – like a Beach Boys song.”
After years of unrest, the 45-year-old is at the top of his game, hosting the Nine Network’s Today Extra alongside Sonia Kruger, performing in award-winning roles in theatre and cabaret, hosting Carols By Candlelight, penning a popular Stellar column and, of course, being a husband and father. More than that, he has a sense of acceptance with his complicated upbringing, only recently made possible by his father’s own reckoning with the past. In confronting his demons, the Cold Chisel rocker seems in part to have released his son from the enduring ache of confused identity and growing up with an absent father. Indeed, as Campbell plays with his children, Leo, eight, and twins Billy and Betty, three, at Stellar’s photo shoot – their first as a family – it’s hard to fathom that he had no role model for how to be a father. As the trio take turns jumping over a skipping rope, finally falling in a pile on top of their dad, Campbell’s easy warmth with and clear love for them prove he has, as Barnes has written, “broken the cycle that his family had been trapped in for generations”. Pivotal to that transformation is the woman watching her family frolic: his wife Lisa, 38, who Campbell describes as “incredible”. There’s no question the Campbells are an animated clan. A passion for performing courses through the gene pool, and combined with David’s self-confessed “bogan” heritage and Lisa’s faultless British manners, it has produced characterful kids as courteous as they are curious. Betty is mesmerised by Stellar’s make-up artist and confidently asks if she, too, might have a little lipstick while even weeks later, Billy is still inquiring how he might procure the lederhosen he wore for our shoot. (His dad had already coughed up for the knitted crowns and gold velvet wings.) Leo, meanwhile, throws open the front door of the family’s home before enthusiastically settling down to watch Steve Irwin videos while his siblings sleep and his mother and father chat to Stellar.
“I knew I would lose all of this if I was still that fractured person”
As Campbell drinks green tea at his kitchen bench – vegan and teetotaller, he is an embodiment of clean living his wife jokingly calls “the most punchable man on the planet” – it’s clear he and Lisa have built the family he never had. Leo, he says, is “sensitive and intelligent with a big heart”, Billy is “physical and a risk-taker – he’s already been to hospital twice” – while Betty is the “Cate Blanchett of the family”. When it comes to parenting, the pair exude love, calmness and openness. “Communication is key,” says Campbell. “I always want them to know what I’m thinking and feeling. I’m very open with them, I’ll apologise if I’m incorrect and I’ve told them I’ll always listen to them.”
Transparency is very important, which is no surprise. As has been well chronicled, Campbell was brought up believing his grandmother Joan was his mother while being told his real mother Kim was his sister. Jimmy Barnes, who had a teenage liaison with Kim and would visit occasionally, was referred to as a family friend. Campbell was only told the truth at the age of 10.
As Lisa notes, it was “active deception” and for years Campbell struggled. Therapy and making profound choices about the father he wanted to be – including giving up alcohol – have helped. “I needed to grow because I knew I would lose all of this if I was still that fractured person. There’s still identity issues, but the main legacy is anxiety.” He takes a deep breath. “This was a really hard week for my anxiety. It’s been steady seas for a long time, but it came out of nowhere. Even Sonia asked what my problem was. I guess it’s still monsters from the past needing to be let out.” He turns to Lisa: “I’m sorry, by the way. But I woke up this morning and I can feel it passing now.” Lisa raises her eyebrows theatrically: “Thank God!”
Campbell is proof that it is possible to be a survivor rather than a victim of circumstances. Granted, he got some help when friend Magda Szubanski introduced him to Lisa 12 years ago but as his wife points out, Campbell is an avid self-improver. “You’re so conscious of being better,” she says to him directly. “Not just better than you were yesterday, but better than you experienced.” She acknowledges he has wholeheartedly embraced Leo’s love for AFL. “I have so much respect for you providing the trust, stability and father-son relationship that you didn’t have.”
Barnes has publicly admitted his regret in not being there for his son – a moving moment captured in the documentary based on his bestselling memoir Working Class Boy. But in an extraordinarily candid exchange with Stellar, he goes further, describing what his son means to him. “Now I have grown up, and he has grown up to be the man he is, my life feels so much more complete because he is in it,” Barnes says. “He cares about people and the world and I think he’s one of the most balanced people I know.”
Indeed, as Barnes describes it, they are now equals. “David is someone I look up to. He listens more than he speaks and he’s funny, open and loving. I’m sure he has his faults, like any of us, but he grows and works on himself constantly.” While the pair would like to record together as Dad and Dave, Barnes
says they don’t hang out constantly. “I learn from him and I’m sure he has learnt from me. I think the past has helped us both stand on our own feet. If he has a problem, I am there for him and I know he is there for me. I love my son.”
If Campbell lacked an anchor as a child, he has found one in adulthood and his marriage. He and Lisa laugh constantly, riffing off each other on everything from TV shows to parenting. As well as running a production company, Lisa is the chair of Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Company and the creative force behind the family’s elaborate annual Halloween costumes. When asked recently to contribute to an homage to Magda Szubanski, it was Lisa’s idea to dress their daughter Betty as Szubanski’s Kath & Kim character Sharon Strzelecki. Resplendent in a netball uniform and bowl-cut wig, Betty, who is also Szubanski’s goddaughter, is hilarious in her video message mimicking the use of “it’s noice” and “unusual”.
Asked what makes her marriage seem so solid and shiny, Lisa doesn’t miss a beat: “Both of us think we got the better deal.” Campbell concurs: “I definitely married up. She’s my best friend and I go to her first when I need to make decisions.” The support runs both ways. Lisa, an only child, lost her mum to cancer when she was just 17 and was devastated by the recent death of her father. “He was such a big part of our lives and we miss him terribly,” says Campbell, who credits Lisa with urging him to build a relationship with his own father.
Yet being the son of an Australian legend brings its own pressures. “My dad is iconic – they’ll never make another one like him. Him and [John] Farnham, that’s it,” muses Campbell. “I often wonder where’s my value in that, and I feel I have to prove myself more to keep what I have so I don’t lose everything.”
Such a fate is unlikely. Campbell and Kruger are heading into their eighth year as co-hosts, he won best actor this year at both the Helpmann and Sydney Theatre Awards for two different roles, and there’s every chance Baby It’s Christmas will match the sales of his previous platinum-selling albums. Campbell is also one of the frontrunners being touted to replace Karl Stefanovic if and when he eventually leaves Today. Asked if he would take the gig were it offered, he replies diplomatically, “Karl’s not going anywhere. It’s Karl.” But if the role did come up… “I haven’t thought about it – I’m too busy thinking about everything else on my plate.”
That Campbell has balanced such professional success with hands-on parenting and a dedicated approach to his health and fitness – he’s 25kg lighter than in his 30s – is all part of being a better man. As Kruger quips: “In the time we’ve worked together, he’s given up drinking, taken up running and become a vegan. But I still like him.”
Campbell points out that unlike most hosting partnerships, she’s the “alpha” of the duo. Kruger says it’s only because she’s worked in television for a long time. Besides, when it comes to parenting, she says, he’s the alpha and she’s the beta. Plus there are the jokes. “He’s one of the most talented people I’ve ever known, but beyond that it’s his ability to make me laugh on and off air that I enjoy most,” she tells Stellar. “If I had a dollar for every time he’s left me in stitches after saying something totally inappropriate during a break, I’d own a television network.”
Ideologically, however, they couldn’t be more different – as evidenced when Kruger called on Australia to ban Muslim immigrants during a debate on Today in 2016. While Campbell disagreed, more than two years on he has no interest in reigniting the firestorm that ensued. “Friends are allowed to disagree on things and friends also have to support each other when situations are difficult. You don’t just blow things up because somebody has said something you don’t agree with.” As both point out, most of their private conversations these days are about whose child is sleeping through the night.
Having recently moved from an innercity apartment to a family home, the Campbell kids are looking forward to Christmas, decorating the tree and dancing to their father’s festive tunes. If they’re lucky they’ll be allowed to stay up and watch him sing one of them at Carols By Candlelight on Christmas Eve. But, as Campbell points out, they’re a bit picky. “They love ‘Jingle Bells’, but they don’t like the ballads.”
LISA WEARS (right) KITX top and skirt, kitx.com.au DAVID WEARS Jac+ Jack jacket, jacandjack.com and shirt, davidjones.com; Levi’s jeans, levis.com.au (below, from top) David Campbell won a Helpmann Award this year for his role as Bobby Darin in Dream Lover; with his father Jimmy Barnes in 2012; on Today Extra with Sonia Kruger last year.
DAVID WEARS Jac+ Jack shirt, jacandjack.com; Levi’s jeans, levis.com.au
(from left) BILLY WEARS LISA WEARS BETTY WEARS Rylee + Cru dress, DAVID WEARS LEO WEARS Zara