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The AFL Footy Show’s Re­becca Mad­dern is used to cop­ping flak from her crit­ics but, as she tells Stel­lar, she’s no vic­tim.

It was Good Fri­day 2016, and Re­becca Mad­dern, at the time a Seven Net­work news an­chor, was en­ter­tain­ing at her Mel­bourne home. Her ca­reer would soon soar into a higher or­bit, her guests ex­plained – if she only em­braced their of­fer.

James Brayshaw, a long-time co-host of the AFL Footy Show, munched on a hot cross bun. He couldn’t pre­pare Mad­dern for the hype and com­men­tary, he said, should she ac­cept the seat be­side him on the long-run­ning pro­gram.

But I have been on TV a long time, Mad­dern coun­tered. I’m used to be­ing recog­nised. Not like the Footy Show, Brayshaw replied. The pas­sion. The in­flu­ence. There’s noth­ing like it.

More than 12 months later, Mad­dern, now in her sec­ond year in the high­pro­file yet of­ten highly con­tro­ver­sial role, con­cedes she was naïve. “I must ad­mit that I didn’t be­lieve him,” she says. “But now I be­lieve him. It was very sound ad­vice. Thank you, James.”

What she could not imag­ine back then was the ab­surd scru­tiny she would at­tract, from both the tra­di­tional males who could not coun­te­nance a fe­male voice in their cave-like pre­serve, to the sis­ter­hood of writ­ers poised to pounce when­ever she could be cast as a “vic­tim”.

“I thank ev­ery­body for their con­cern, and there are so many peo­ple who are con­cerned about me, but I’m re­ally fine,” Mad­dern tells Stel­lar. “I’m more than fine. In fact, I’ve never been so happy in the work­place… Peo­ple read­ing this will prob­a­bly fall off their chairs.”

To the women who thank her in the street, she is grate­ful: “I’ve got a posse of chicks that are be­hind me and want me to suc­ceed be­cause it im­pacts and re­flects on their lives.”

Mad­dern had watched the Footy Show since 1994, when she was 16. She grew up on footy sta­ples, and fol­lowed the ri­tu­als of her home­town Gee­long, where lo­cal girls play com­pe­ti­tion net­ball on the courts out­side Kar­dinia Park be­fore head­ing in to the sta­dium for the Aussie Rules match.

She still re­fuses to put her­self in the same cat­e­gory as Ed­die Mcguire, who hosted the Footy Show for more than a decade. It helps ex­plain her ini­tial re­ac­tion when she was asked to join the show. Mad­dern didn’t think she could do it. “I want more women to be like men,” she says. “Men just say yes and then work out how they will ac­tu­ally do it later on. Women try to work out how they will do it be­fore they will say yes.”

Yet per­haps there was no choice at all. Mad­dern, af­ter all, was the girl who grew up rid­ing horses. She was also the youngest in a blended fam­ily – two broth­ers, three step­broth­ers. From day one, it ap­pears, she learnt how to seize op­por­tu­ni­ties – and ne­go­ti­ate with males.

Once, when she was tram­pled by her horse, she spent six weeks in hos­pi­tal – then re­turned straight back to rid­ing af­ter­wards. She com­peted in an era be­fore the kinder ethos of par­tic­i­pa­tion

awards. You ei­ther went home with a blue rib­bon – or you did not.

“One of the rea­sons I said yes was that I couldn’t bear turn­ing on the TV and watch­ing some­one else do it,” she says of the Footy Show of­fer. “It was ei­ther go­ing to be a spec­tac­u­lar fail or be spec­tac­u­larly good. I don’t think there was go­ing to be a mid­dle. I was pre­pared to take the punt. And I was at an age where I thought, ‘What have I got to lose?’”

She hasn’t failed. Erin Molan, who first ap­peared on the NRL Footy Show in 2012 and be­came a co-host in 2014, is bet­ter placed to judge than most and be­lieves her AFL coun­ter­part looked com­fort­able im­me­di­ately in the role. “I look at the blokes be­side her and I think they re­ally like her – and you can’t fake that,” Molan says.

MAD­DERN AP­PLIED SIM­I­LAR riska­verse think­ing when the Nine Net­work ap­proached her about Aus­tralian Ninja War­rior, a com­pe­ti­tion game show of ob­sta­cles and – of course – con­tes­tant back­sto­ries. The hugely suc­cess­ful overseas game for­mat is new to Aus­tralia – an ad­van­tage, Mad­dern says, given that nei­ther she nor co-host Ben Ford­ham has called races be­fore. “You can pre­pare, but you can’t pre­pare for what in­evitably will be the un­ex­pected,” she says.

“Never say never”, she thought when Nine asked her to au­di­tion, even though she “didn’t re­ally know what I was do­ing”. But the adren­a­line of live call­ing, and the knowl­edge that there is only ever one take, is com­pelling.

Mad­dern says Aus­tralian Ninja War­rior was a nat­u­ral step in a ca­reer arc that leapt in new di­rec­tions af­ter Nine came call­ing; the net­work needed a re­place­ment host in the wash of the fall­ing out be­tween the Footy Show stars Garry Lyon and Billy Brown­less.

Ru­mours sug­gest that Nine was mind­ful of soft­en­ing the show’s im­age in the wake of fall­ing rat­ings. Mad­dern, trained in jour­nal­is­tic stan­dards of ob­jec­tiv­ity, would need to of­fer more than just straight facts. En­ter Sam New­man, the ex­em­plar of con­trari­ness and po­lit­i­cal in­cor­rect­ness. “Peo­ple think we opted for a fe­male,” he tells Stel­lar. “We opted for the best per­son, and she is it.”

For 23 years, New­man has led the show’s ap­peal – and con­tro­versy – for his forthright­ness. He is as­cribed many pointed qual­i­ties, from clever to chau­vin­is­tic. Mad­dern may be the first to la­bel him a teacher.

She says she set­tled in to the Footy Show role af­ter a few episodes, and even though she still never knows what New­man will say on air, Mad­dern sees his un­pre­dictabil­ity as a pos­i­tive. It keeps her sharp. It’s a “thrilling chal­lenge”.

His men­tor­ing role mostly plays off cam­era. New­man has taught her to ex­press her views with­out con­cern for how the pub­lic will re­act. “And that tests you as a pre­sen­ter and it tests you in terms of your TV per­sona,” she says, “be­cause you know that not ev­ery­one is go­ing to agree with what you say.”

In do­ing so, New­man has lib­er­ated Mad­dern. “He has taught me not to worry about what peo­ple think,” she says. “He’s changed my whole con­cept of how I think about so­cial me­dia and peo­ple’s opin­ions and peo­ple’s crit­i­cisms as well as peo­ple’s praise. You kind of take it all with a grain of salt.”

New­man says Mad­dern is as “sharp as a nee­dle”. “She’s played the vic­tim not at all,” he says. “She’s been stag­gered by the blow­back she’s re­ceived from [her

opin­ions], but I think it’s strength­ened her and given her more con­fi­dence. She’ll say, ‘I’ll be damned if I am, I’m damned if I don’t, I might as well say what I think.’”

Off cam­era, Mad­dern says New­man de­fies the per­cep­tions of his crit­ics and is in­clu­sive and pro­tec­tive. “He’s a car­ing per­son,” she says. “If I was ever in trou­ble, or ever needed some­one, he’d prob­a­bly be in­ap­pro­pri­ately the first per­son there.”

Mad­dern’s in­flu­ence was marked last month by what seemed like a triv­ial aside – a short riff on AFL foot­ball ban­ners (a fix­ture be­fore all games) that “cost $2.50”. The larger storm fol­lowed when her Footy Show col­leagues pro­duced a ban­ner declar­ing: “With­out make-up you look like Shrek.”

Sev­eral fe­male colum­nists pro­fessed to be “dis­gusted” by the sham­ing that amounted to, as one put it, “psy­cho­log­i­cal abuse”. What was over­looked was that Mad­dern her­self ap­proved the ban­ner be­fore­hand. “I thank the peo­ple who write ar­ti­cles, but what I don’t like is that peo­ple want to por­tray me as the vic­tim, and not for one sec­ond do I feel like a vic­tim,” she says. “I’m a pro­fes­sional host of a tele­vi­sion show. And if there’s some­thing I don’t like, if there’s some­thing I’m not com­fort­able with, trust me, you will know it.”

Mad­dern un­der­scores this point when the topic of moth­er­hood comes up. She turns 40 in Au­gust, a nice time, she says, when a mind­set of work and leisure ma­tures into sen­si­ble bal­ance. Mad­dern ap­plauds a so­ci­ety that fi­nally ac­knowl­edges the fact women of­ten achieve more in their 40s and be­yond. At last, Aus­tralia has caught up with the US and reveres its older on-air tal­ents, she says, bow­ing to Lisa Wilkin­son and So­nia Kruger.

But the par­ent ques­tion still vexes her. Mad­dern’s co-host Craig Hutchi­son, 42, does not get asked if he wants to have kids, whereas she does. Un­der­stand­ably, she re­fuses to en­ter­tain such in­quiries into her per­sonal life.

“It’s a no-win an­swer be­cause if I say, ‘No, I don’t want chil­dren,’ then the stereo­type is that I’m a hard-faced b.i.t.c.h,” she tells Stel­lar. “If I say I want chil­dren, then per­haps this ar­ti­cle will be­come, ‘Well, Re­becca’s 40 but, you know, bar­ren,’ to use that word that was ap­plied to Ju­lia Gil­lard un­fairly.”

Mad­dern prefers to chal­lenge stereo­types, a ben­e­fit of her smallscree­n promi­nence she hadn’t an­tic­i­pated.

Like Mad­dern, Molan de­scribes the gal­vanis­ing ef­fect of her TV role as both sur­pris­ing and con­fronting. “I didn’t ever see it as break­ing new ground or do­ing some­thing for wom­an­hood or launch­ing a fem­i­nist move­ment,” Molan tells Stel­lar. “That was never in my mind or my cal­cu­la­tions, but the im­pact it has on women is re­ally lovely.”

Mad­dern speaks of be­ing stopped in the street. Of the women who say they were too timid to voice their AFL opin­ions in front of their hus­band’s friends un­til Mad­dern started host­ing a foot­ball show. Of the fam­ily who dis­cussed gen­der pol­i­tics when the teenage daugh­ter protested against her brother’s dis­plea­sure at a fe­male pres­ence on the Footy Show. These are the sorts of “con­ver­sa­tions” she’s proud to be start­ing.

“It’s trans­formed Aus­tralian house­holds and that sort of sounds bizarre,” she says. “But I’m only say­ing it be­cause that’s what peo­ple have told me. It’s not just one story. It’s time and time again.”

``I know that not ev­ery­one is go­ing to agree with me´´

GAME PLAN (above) Re­becca Mad­dern and her Aus­tralianNin­ja War­rior co-hosts Fred­die Flintoff (left) and Ben Ford­ham; (right) with her hus­band Trent Miller.

ON THE BALL (above) Mad­dern on the Footy Show set; (left) with her co-hosts (from left) Shane Craw­ford, Sam New­man, Craig Hutchi­son, Billy Brown­less and Dave Hughes.

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