Judy Bai­ley meets Julie Christie

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

Hard work, grit and sur­viv­ing the knocks has paid off for Julie Christie. Judy Bai­ley meets the re­al­ity TV queen and dis­cov­ers the back story to her suc­cess.

WHEN I FIRST ap­proached Julie Christie about do­ing this in­ter­view she said, “Well, as long as it isn’t ‘Poor girl from Grey­mouth makes good’. But Julie is very much a prod­uct of her child­hood. Feisty, ca­pa­ble, re­silient – a bat­tler. De­spite her mis­giv­ings, we do end up ex­plor­ing her early life.

We meet in the bar of Oys­ter and Chop, her restaurant in Auck­land’s Viaduct. She strides in wear­ing an el­e­gant grey wool pon­cho, her blonde curls es­cap­ing from a ca­sual bun.

Julie Christie is a multi-mil­lion­aire and award-win­ning en­tre­pre­neur, dubbed Queen of the Small Screen for her im­pres­sive cat­a­logue of re­al­ity TV shows. She is also the fifth of seven chil­dren born to Mau­reen and Kevin Mol­loy. Kevin, a me­chanic, died of a brain haem­or­rhage when Julie was five years old. Her mother, at 32, was left alone with seven chil­dren rang­ing in age from 12 years to just eight months. She never re­mar­ried.

Mau­reen trea­sured her chil­dren and was de­ter­mined to bring them up on her own. A proud Ir­ish Catholic, she had a hor­ror of be­ing seen as need­ing char­ity. She made do. There was lit­tle money, so she took clean­ing jobs to sup­ple­ment her widow’s ben­e­fit.

“It was al­ways por­ridge for break­fast,” Julie re­mem­bers. “To this day I hate por­ridge… and sil­ver­beet,” she adds with a gri­mace.

Julie ob­vi­ously adored her mother. “She al­ways made me be­lieve any­thing was pos­si­ble. I think back to how lonely it must have been for her, once we’d all gone to bed, sit­ting there on her own ev­ery night.”

Mau­reen died two years ago. She had been close to her daugh­ter, proud and fiercely pro­tec­tive of her. Julie found a stack of clip­pings re­lated to her TV ca­reer when clear­ing out her mother’s be­long­ings, along with a num­ber of let­ters writ­ten to Julie’s crit­ics but never posted. “She was the glue that held our family to­gether,” Julie says sadly.

Ed­u­ca­tion was ev­ery­thing to Mau­reen. “Mum didn’t be­lieve in the flu, so we never had it… we were al­ways sent to school. We had per­fect at­ten­dance records,” Julie grins.

What were her hap­pi­est child­hood mem­o­ries? She pauses. “I don’t re­ally have many that stand out, other than be­ing part of a bois­ter­ous family, and the love and courage of my mother,” she says in a slightly be­mused way.

Julie was acutely aware of grow­ing up with a mother who strug­gled to make ends meet. “We never had new bikes at Christ­mas; they were al­ways old ones Mum had re­painted. Our clothes were hand-sewn by her. On Sun­days, she’d pile the seven of us into her yel­low Bed­ford van and we’d go off to visit our grand­par­ents on their farm.”

She re­mem­bers fondly the Birthright pic­nics to Lake Kaniere, just south of Hok­i­tika. (Birthright sup­ports fam­i­lies of sin­gle par­ents.) Julie now has a bach at that same lake – a re­treat from the hec­tic life she leads in Auck­land.

Al­though she was bright, Julie didn’t en­joy school. Why? Again, she pauses. “Now I’m won­der­ing if it’s be­cause I felt I didn’t fit in. Ev­ery­thing was geared for the ‘av­er­age’ child. We weren’t chal­lenged and I needed chal­lenges,” she says thought­fully, as if ex­am­in­ing her early years for the first time. “I read a lot. I had a great imag­i­na­tion and I was very good at English, but I wasn’t one of the cool girls.”

Tele­vi­sion loomed large in the

Mol­loy house­hold. It was the only en­ter­tain­ment the family could af­ford and Julie watched with in­tent. “I came to un­der­stand what most peo­ple like most of the time.”

Julie went on to train as a jour­nal­ist. It was a fairly ran­dom choice of ca­reer. She was des­per­ate to leave school and just en­rolled in the short­est course she could find. To this day she feels she missed a great op­por­tu­nity by not get­ting a univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion.

After a decade as a sports sube­d­i­tor in news­pa­pers both here and in Eng­land, she found her­self work­ing as a re­searcher for flam­boy­ant tele­vi­sion heavy­weight, Neil Roberts, at the

“I HAD A GREAT IMAG­I­NA­TION and I was very good at English, BUT I WASN’T ONE OF THE COOL GIRLS.”

pro­duc­tion house Com­mu­ni­cado. “For the best part of three years I was his PA. I drove him around when he didn’t have his li­cence, which was most of the time,” she tells me wryly. Neil’s sto­ry­telling prow­ess rubbed off on Julie, as did his love of Cham­pagne. But Neil also had the com­mon touch, some­thing Julie sees as vi­tal if you’re go­ing to draw an au­di­ence.

It wasn’t long be­fore Neil had her pro­duc­ing. The rugby se­ries Mud and Glory was her first hit. Rachel Hunter – Cover Girl fol­lowed and also rated its socks off. Julie was hooked.

Com­mu­ni­cado proved to be a great train­ing ground. She learned to write, pro­duce and di­rect and was soon the com­pany’s most pro­lific pro­ducer. So much so that one day she looked at the glitzy lifestyle her bosses had and thought, ‘I’m earn­ing so much money for them, I may as well start my own com­pany.’ And she did.

“I wanted more money. They wouldn’t pay me more so I left. I knew I could earn more on my own and I didn’t want to be poor again.”

Money is im­por­tant to the kid from Grey­mouth. “Money buys choices and free­dom… but not hap­pi­ness,” she adds quickly.

JULIE FORMED Touch­down, her pro­duc­tion com­pany, in 1991. Ini­tially she wrote pro­pos­als and scripts, di­rected and pro­duced. “That’s how I made money. I would charge out those roles sep­a­rately and do them all my­self.” She toiled away 24/7 and ex­pected those around her to do the same. “I’m not good at del­e­gat­ing. It’s one of my big­gest fail­ings,” she tells me rue­fully. She has, how­ever, now learned to pace her­self.

“I changed a lot dur­ing this time. I think both my hus­bands were vic­tims of my chang­ing as a per­son.”

Julie had met and mar­ried her first hus­band while on her OE in Lon­don. She was 24 and “way too young to be mar­ried,” she says. They were to­gether for nine years. She had two chil­dren with her sec­ond hus­band – son Tim, now 22 and com­plet­ing a BSc Honours de­gree in phys­i­ol­ogy at Auck­land Univer­sity, and daugh­ter Lexi, 20, who is a make-up artist.

“I went back to work two days after Tim was born. I had a live This is Your Life episode to pro­duce that couldn’t wait. I thought I could do any­thing. Look­ing back, it was mad, and very painful!”

Tim and Lexi are not keen to fol­low their mother into tele­vi­sion. “They look at me and reckon I work way too hard,” she says with a laugh.

What’s im­por­tant for her kids? “Family,” she says with­out hes­i­ta­tion. “Closely fol­lowed by kind­ness and re­spect. I’ve tried to in­stil into them that you’re given tal­ents and you must use them.” She wants them to fig­ure out what they’re good at and go for it.

Julie is now three years into a new re­la­tion­ship – one she’s keep­ing quiet, she says, with a twin­kle in her eye.

She is blunt about tele­vi­sion. “It’s a busi­ness, not an art.” She de­cided early on there was no money to be made pro­duc­ing doc­u­men­taries and drama in New Zealand. She de­cided to go with the re­al­ity genre purely for busi­ness rea­sons. She knew with re­al­ity she could com­pete on the world stage.

Julie has en­dured harsh crit­i­cism for her com­mit­ment to re­al­ity shows. ‘Crap TV, thy name is Julie Christie’ brayed one news­pa­per head­line. “It’s made me thick-skinned,” she says. But of course the crit­i­cism has hurt. At one stage she went to see Auck­land PR guru Jenni Raynish to see if she could ‘fix’ her im­age. She was told to “go off and make it in the over­seas mar­ket, then come home and you’ll get re­spect”. Which is what she did.

She came up with game show The Chair, and sold it to Amer­ica and 28 other coun­tries. She then spent five years com­mut­ing be­tween Auck­land and LA, where she made the show.

“There’s a real snob­bish­ness in our me­dia about re­al­ity shows,” she says. “Most New Zealan­ders come home from work and they want a bit of es­capism. I’m com­fort­able with my­self and what I’ve achieved.”

Her body of work in­cludes shows that have be­come part of the fab­ric of New Zealand tele­vi­sion. Among them, The Block, Game of Two Halves and This is Your Life. She has since sold Touch­down to a Dutch com­pany in a multi-mil­lion dol­lar deal.

Along the way Julie has gar­nered in­ter­na­tional re­spect, founded two TV chan­nels, Liv­ing and Food, owned a re­sort in Fiji and two restau­rants. She is now branch­ing out into work­place drug test­ing, a busi­ness she sees as hav­ing plenty of po­ten­tial for growth.

“THERE’S A REAL snob­bish­ness in our me­dia about re­al­ity shows… I’M COM­FORT­ABLE WITH WHAT I’VE ACHIEVED.”

Julie is also a board mem­ber of

TV3’s par­ent com­pany, Me­di­aWorks, mak­ing what she says are the tough de­ci­sions about how to achieve a re­turn for share­hold­ers. There have been a num­ber of high-pro­file de­par­tures, among them John Camp­bell and Hi­lary Barry. She says sim­ply, “That’s the TV busi­ness, peo­ple move on.”

Julie’s con­sid­er­able busi­ness nous is in de­mand out­side TV. She has worked on a board of New Zealand Trade and En­ter­prise, was a mem­ber of the flag panel and serves on the Rugby Union’s com­mer­cial com­mit­tee. But it’s tele­vi­sion that still rings her bells. She is think­ing about another con­tent busi­ness. In a chang­ing me­dia land­scape where the fo­cus is on tech­nol­ogy, there’s still room for peo­ple who make con­tent. As she is fond of say­ing, “Con­tent is king.”

She was once re­ported as say­ing by 60 she’d be re­tired and liv­ing in a bach on the West Coast. “Ha!” she grins. “(Prop­erty mogul) Bob Jones told me, ‘Don’t re­tire. For the first three months you do lots of lunches, then no-one wants to lunch with you be­cause you’ve be­come too bor­ing.’”

No chance of that hap­pen­ing any time soon.

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