Happy 75th birthday Ita Buttrose: “I’m not done yet!”
Media icon Ita Buttrose, who turned 75 in January, talks to Larry Writer about her career, her tumultuous relationship with billionaire Kerry Packer, being a grandmother and how she plans to stay fit, healthy and a powerhouse for years to come.
What’s good about turning 75?” ponders Ita Buttrose, having just swept into the room like a summer breeze to meet The Australian Women’s Weekly. “Well,” she offers after a hard think, “best of all,” she exults, “I’m still here!”
And three cheers for that. After celebrating her milestone birthday on January 17, “life is just as wonderfully frantic as ever”.
So what better time to reflect on what has been, and still is, a remarkable life? In her 60 years in the media, Ita has interviewed and written about the world’s most fascinating people – yet few could be as compelling as the lady herself. Although usually too busy to reminisce, today, for The Australian Women’s Weekly, the magazine that remains in her heart 41 years after she became its youngest editor, she’s happy to make an exception.
Aged 15 in 1957, Ita joined Sir Frank Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press, publisher of The Australian Women’s Weekly and the Daily and Sunday Telegraph newspapers, paying her journalistic dues as, variously, copygirl, secretary, cadet and reporter on The Weekly. At 23, she was named Women’s Editor of both Telegraphs. When, in 1967, she won – oh, the delicious irony – a trip overseas in a Sydney Morning Herald fashion contest, she landed in London with husband of four years Alasdair Macdonald and worked on Woman’s Own magazine. Their first child, Kate, was born in 1968, and Ita returned to the Packer fold in 1970 to again edit the women’s pages of the Telegraphs.
In 1972, Sir Frank’s son, Kerry, appointed Ita as founding Editor of Cleo, a glossy offering young women frank sex advice and the guilty pleasure of a nude male centrefold. “Our debut issue sold out in two days,” she says. By the end of 1973, Cleo was selling a rip-roaring 200,000 copies a month.
“Cleo was a golden time,” says Ita, one immortalised in the 2011 miniseries Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo. For her portrayal of Ita, Asher Keddie won a Logie award for nailing Ita’s distinctive walk and mannerisms, her never-out-of-place honey coiffure, perfect make-up and beguiling mix of coquettishness and steel, but may have over-egged Ita’s lisp, which is scarcely discernible in real life.
In 1975, when Ita was 33, Kerry Packer made her Editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly, the most prestigious job in magazines.
“The Australian Women’s Weekly is the professional love affair of my life,” Ita says.
In 1981, she joined Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited, which now owned the Telegraphs, and became the first woman to edit a major metropolitan newspaper. She went on to become a radio talkback host, Editor-in-Chief of Fairfax’s Sun-Herald and publish her own monthly, ITA magazine, from 1989-94. Respected – and feared by some – as a tough, savvy editor who demanded the best from her staff, she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1979, an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1988 and Australian of the Year in 2013.
Being a grandmother
For all her plaudits, Ita says, “My children are my greatest achievement.” Long-term readers of The Australian Women’s Weekly will remember Ita’s folksy tales of young Kate and Ben. Today, Kate is 48 and runs the architectural practice of her late father, and Dr Ben Macdonald, 43, is an environmental scientist.
“They turned out really nice adults,” says Ita. “We’re great friends. A parent can’t be a friend when their child
Over-50s often don’t receive due respect.
is little, you’re too busy setting boundaries and instilling values, but when they’re older your relationship changes. Kate and Ben’s dad died three years ago and that was difficult for them because they were close. I try to fill that gap in their lives as best I can.”
Ita dotes on her five grandchildren – Kate has Samantha, eight, and Clare, seven, and Ben is dad to Byron, eight, Elyse, six, and Jack, four. “They’re lovely, they hug my legs and give me kisses,” she says. “I get a buzz seeing in them little bits of myself and of my own children. I look at Jack, Ben’s youngest, and it’s like looking at
Ben when he was little. I do all the grandmotherly things. I take them to movies like Ballerina and Sing, and I read them stories and turn up at Grandparents Day at school. I play monsters with them and chase them all over the house. I encourage them to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, and tell Samantha, Clare and Elyse, ‘Remember, diamonds are a girl’s best friend!’”
Gazing into her grandchildren’s eyes makes Ita melt. “They are so trusting, so ingenuous… They still believe in Santa and the tooth fairy! They still have their illusions. They’ve yet to meet anyone unkind. Nothing terrible has happened to them. Eyes are so revealing. I’ve seen photos of children involved in domestic violence cases and their eyes don’t have that trusting look.”
Ita’s compassion shines through in word and deed. She’s long championed society’s sick and vulnerable, working with the likes of the National Advisory Committee on AIDS, Alzheimer’s Australia, Macular Disease Foundation and Arthritis Australia, among others. “If you’re in a position to make a difference, you must try,” she says.
Her causes tend to be deeply personal. When Kate was young, she was stricken with a rare form of juvenile arthritis, so Ita offered her services to Arthritis Australia, and her work with the National Advisory Committee on AIDS was spurred by the deaths of gay friends.
Ita’s father, Charles’, health travails were the catalyst for her dementia and macular disease crusades. In 1999, the year he died, aged 89, Charles was hospitalised with Alzheimer’s, macular degeneration and deafness. When a nurse complained to Ita that her father was aggressive and ignored her, “I very gently pointed out that Dad couldn’t see, couldn’t hear and, like many with dementia, he became agitated when in an unfamiliar situation,” she recalls. “The nurse should have known that. There’s such ignorance about dementia, which is the single greatest cause of disability in older Australians and the second leading cause of death, and there’s a huge shortage of properly trained carers.”
Ita wants the federal government to establish a national fully funded dementia strategy. “The plight of those living with dementia must be recognised and redressed,” she says. “We want a dementia-friendly society. We should ask ourselves how we’d like to be treated if we had dementia and the answer would be with respect and compassion. If we see someone who seems confused on public transport or at the check-out, let’s not turn our back, but offer a helping hand.”
To boost her own chances of a healthy old age, she eats well – “plain food, lots of fish and veges” – and keeps fit. She swears by seven hours’ sleep a night, though her 5am starts on Studio 10, the Network Ten panel show she co-hosts, can make that a challenge. She walks her groodle (a golden retriever crossed with a poodle), Cleo, daily and works out twice weekly with neighbours at her eastern Sydney apartment block. To exercise her brain, Ita reads widely and deeply, and she writes – the author of 11 books is currently penning her second novel. She is an in-demand public speaker. She travels when work allows and enjoys the opera, ballet, theatre and musicals – “I love musicals!”
Ita has not been in a serious relationship since her second marriage, to businessman Peter Sawyer, ended after two years in 1981. “I don’t feel sorry for myself,” she once told The Weekly. “You can’t just go out on the street and lasso a bloke. If it’s not meant to be, I accept it’s not meant to be.” While she admits to occasional loneliness, she revels in singledom. “I can say no if I don’t want to go out to dinner, I can switch on the box and wallow in a romantic movie for the sixth time or a musical without anyone saying, ‘Ita!’”
Being well and truly one herself now, Ita appreciates the challenges besetting older Australians. “Over-50s often don’t receive due respect,” she says. “We’re not decrepit, we’re perfectly capable. Yet 10 per cent of companies won’t hire anyone over 50. They’re losing out on our experience... When you reach 50, life holds few surprises and we can provide the contingency plans that perhaps those who haven’t been there and done that cannot.”
Another bugbear of seniors is dealing with constant change. On a personal level, Ita’s baby, Cleo, closed after 44 years last February. While conceding that the Cleo of 2016 bore scant resemblance to the magazine she founded, Ita joined former staffers to mourn its demise at a wake in a Woollahra hotel, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. “Losing Cleo was like a death in the family,” she says.
Ita waxes lyrically about the sumptuous feel and “better than Chanel No.5” smell of quality magazines, and shakes her head when, nowadays, she sees younger people whose nose would once have been buried in a magazine such as
Cleo plugged into digital devices instead. “Print media is under siege, but it’s not dead yet,” she says. “If publishers deliver a quality publication with subject matter vital to readers that they can’t get elsewhere, brilliant writing, design and photography, people will buy it.”
Circulations have fallen not just because of competition from the internet, she says, “but because too many magazines are a load of rubbish”.
She refuses to be like many of her
older friends who turn their back on technology, preferring life as it was. “Technology is creating an amazing world,” she says. “Kate was born on Christmas Eve 1968, in London, and we couldn’t phone home because all the telephone lines were booked out. Now, we can contact family and friends whenever we like. And the internet offers an astonishing amount of information. It’s a fallacy that technology is too complex for older people to understand.”
Another cross those getting on in years must bear is the death of loved ones and contemporaries. Ita has lost her parents, her brother Will, her Aunty Billy, her first husband, Alasdair, cherished confidantes Marj McGowen and Nan Musgrove, Kerry Packer and more.
She grows wistful. “I’ve been thinking of those I’ve loved who are no longer here and there are a lot,” she says. “Yet no one ever really dies until every person who remembers them has died. They’re still part of my tapestry. The things we did, the memories I have. I wouldn’t be me without them.”
Kerry was a towering presence in Ita’s life and memories of their relationship evoke both joy and sadness. Joy because “we were great friends, we energised each other. Kerry was a force of nature, a giant presence. He was unique.” Sadness “because he died so young”.
Ita says Kerry was portrayed unfairly in Paper Giants. “Sure, he had a short fuse and a foul temper,” she says, “but he didn’t spend his whole life shouting at people. Mostly, he was friendly and happy, and very funny and because of his sheltered upbringing lovably naive.”
Kerry would pull up a chair in Ita’s office, light a cigarette and contribute when she and her staff compared the attributes of centrefold aspirants and dreamed up articles on sex aids and 20 ways to turn your man on.
“Kerry took a chance on me when we started Cleo,” says Ita. “He supported my decisions when people said we’d fail. Well, we didn’t. He understood that we were good at what we did and gave us the freedom to take risks and make publishing history. Cleo was Kerry’s first triumph and after its success, his old man [Sir Frank Packer] stopped calling him an idiot.”
Cleo gave Ita the courage to buck tradition and modernise The Weekly when she became Editor in 1975. In came features on women’s rights, sex, work-life balance, politics, the Pill and other once-taboo topics to bolster its tried-and-true menu of royalty, beauty, cooking, fashion and the like. In her Weekly heyday, Ita’s column and bubbly TV adverts established her as a national icon. Women loved her because they felt she understood them and cared, while Jimmy Barnes spoke for many men when, in Cold Chisel’s 1980 hit Ita, he sang that while in her TV ads “the desktop hides her hips, my imagination’s strong”, she was the sweetest thing he’d ever seen and he’d like to take her out to dinner even if he risked blowing his dream date by holding his fork “all wrong”.
Male friends pay Ita (whose brothers, she laughs, “taught me to speak Bloke and be competitive”) the ultimate compliment. “She’s a good sport,” says John Fordham, founder of celebrity management organisation
The Fordham Company.
“Ita is earthy, smart, tells a great yarn, has been known to drink beer out of a bottle and is loyal.”
Yet not everyone’s a fan.
Ita has been stalked, sent threatening letters and abused by strangers for supporting AIDS victims. “It comes with the territory,” she sighs. When her late brother Will’s son, Richard Buttrose, now 44, was jailed in 2010 for dealing cocaine and Will’s daughter Lizzie, 47, got into strife last year, reporters salaciously and unfairly name-checked Ita in their reports. “The link is somewhat tenuous I feel!” she says. “I’m their aunt and we share a name, but my nephew and niece are adults who’ve made their own decisions and must face the consequences. Which is not to say that I don’t love Richard and Lizzie. I do. I promised Will I’d look out for them. Family is family.”
Like many beautiful, successful women, Ita has been a gossip-magnet. Inevitably, given their close working relationship and Kerry Packer’s furious reaction when Ita left for News Limited, rumour had it that they were romantically involved. Rumour that Ita refuses to dignify with a response, except to say that “my private life is exactly that, private”. She and Kerry made a pact that neither would talk about their deep friendship. Ita never has and vows she never will.
She has led a bold life, one of striving to be the best, taking chances, giving 100 per cent, hanging tough. “I’ve had highs and lows,” Ita says. “Not everything in work and relationships and life pans out, but disappointment and sadness pass… and then, usually, something wonderful happens. And suddenly here I am, a happy 75 years of age – and I’m not finished yet!”
I’ve had highs and lows. Not everything in life pans out.