“I SAY WHAT I THINK”
SHE’S THE FIRST WOMAN TO CO-HOST THE AFL FOOTY SHOW AND HAS JUST SCORED HERSELF A NEW PRIME-TIME ROLE. NO WONDER REBECCA MADDERN IS HAVING THE TIME OF HER LIFE
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.