“Work gave me pur­pose”

She is one of tele­vi­sion’s great sur­vivors – but 20 years ago this month, San­dra Sully was at­tacked by a masked as­sailant in a ter­ri­fy­ing or­deal that, as she tells Stel­lar’s Jor­dan Baker, changed her life

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Photograph­y STEVEN CHEE Styling KELLY HUME

Long­stand­ing news­reader San­dra Sully tells Stel­lar about the hor­rific night she was as­saulted by a gun-wield­ing man and why she re­fused to let the attack stop her from build­ing one of the most ac­com­plished ca­reers in Australian TV.

It was some­thing San­dra Sully won­dered since she was a child. If she ever needed to scream for help, would the sound come? Or would ter­ror paral­yse her voice? She got her an­swer 20 years ago this month, when a masked as­sailant wres­tled her to the floor of her car park, held a gun to her head and pulled the trig­ger. Sully be­lieves her scream­ing saved her. “He was aware he couldn’t shut me up,” she tells Stel­lar. “I kept fight­ing and, at some point, he just de­cided he had to run.” As he fled, he pulled off his bal­a­clava and she caught the eye of the man be­neath. Blond. Mus­cu­lar. Men­ac­ing. He has not been caught, so Sully will prob­a­bly never know why he at­tacked, why he chose her, or why the pis­tol didn’t fire. “For a long time, I looked for him,” she says. Oc­ca­sion­ally she’ll still see a man in a crowd and won­der if it’s him.

The attack af­fected her deeply. “It was at least 10 years be­fore I was ready to talk about it to any­one other than my fam­ily,” the Net­work Ten news­reader ex­plains dur­ing a sit-down with Stel­lar. “And prob­a­bly 15 years be­fore I felt like I could put it be­hind me. I still don’t like to be sur­prised. If some­one makes a loud noise, I jump. I am al­ways aware in a car park. You re­alise life can be snuffed out in an in­stant.”

Per­haps it was the re­silience she de­vel­oped in the wake of the attack, or the way that brush with death forced her to re-or­der her pri­or­i­ties, that has helped Sully sur­vive rat­ings wars, man­age­ment coups and “bon­ings” to be­come one of the coun­try’s long­est-serv­ing news pre­sen­ters.

Her ca­reer be­gan some 30 years ago, when the aer­o­bics in­struc­tor and as­pir­ing den­tal hy­gien­ist from Bris­bane ac­ci­den­tally found her­self in a news­room. “I have worked with over a dozen fe­male part­ners on Chan­nel Ten and vir­tu­ally all of them have fallen by the way­side,” says Ron Wil­son, Sully’s long-time Eye­wit­ness News co-host, who is now re­tired from tele­vi­sion. “Th­ese were pretty tough women. But San­dra has sur­vived all this time, and still has a smile on her face. If you can do that for this long, some­thing is right.”

NOT LONG AFTER mid­night one Novem­ber evening in 1997, Sully pulled into the car park of the apart­ment she shared with her then hus­band, Mark Ryan, in the in­ner-syd­ney sub­urb of Surry Hills. As she opened the pas­sen­ger door to get her bag, she be­came aware some­one else was there. She looked up and saw a man in a bal­a­clava walk­ing to­wards her. Sully tried to get back into her car but he grabbed her by the shoul­ders, then her hair. “I started fight­ing,” she re­calls. “He put a gun to my head.” She fought and screamed but he wres­tled her to the ground. He held the weapon to her tem­ple and pulled the trig­ger. “I thought, ‘Bloody hell, I am go­ing to die. I am go­ing to die on the floor of a car park. This is it.’” But the gun didn’t fire. He pulled the trig­ger again. Still noth­ing.

Sully was scream­ing. He tried to shut her up by slap­ping her around the head with the pis­tol, but it didn’t work. She just kept scream­ing. Sud­denly he stopped. “He never said a word, he just ran,” she tells Stel­lar. “He ran through the car park and up the stairs.” Through a grill in the car park wall, she saw him again. “He ran by, and he looked at me.”

Sully thought he was com­ing back. Bleed­ing and ter­ri­fied, she scram­bled to the lift, pray­ing he wouldn’t be in­side it when the doors opened, or wait­ing out­side her apart­ment. “When I got to my floor I was hys­ter­i­cal,” she says. “I re­mem­ber scream­ing and belt­ing the [apart­ment] door down, wait­ing for him to come up­stairs, think­ing he was com­ing to get me.” Ryan woke to her screams and let her in­side. “I screamed, ‘He’s here! He’s here!’ I was com­pletely hys­ter­i­cal.”

After the attack, a shell-shocked Sully went through the mo­tions. She went to the hos­pi­tal for X-rays, then to the po­lice sta­tion to give a state­ment. The cou­ple found a ho­tel room in the city; she couldn’t face their apart­ment again. “I went back for a week or so, I think, but I couldn’t func­tion,” Sully says. “We had to move – we couldn’t af­ford to, but we had to go some­where else and stop that get­ting in the press. I couldn’t bear any­one know­ing where I lived.”

For a while she took refuge with her fam­ily in Queens­land. “It was shock­ing,” her mother, Car­o­line Sully, re­mem­bers. “To think that can hap­pen to your own daugh­ter.”

Po­lice treated the case as an at­tempted ab­duc­tion – a set of hand­cuffs were later found at the scene. Yet they could find no mo­tive. “I am not con­vinced he was a stalker,” Sully says now. “I think he had cased the joint and thought I was get­table.” She doesn’t know why the gun didn’t fire. “The cops at the time said it might have been a replica.”

Most of Sully’s ques­tions are un­likely to ever be an­swered. The emo­tional re­cov­ery took years, made worse be­cause her at­tacker was still at large. Per­haps he was watch­ing her, wait­ing to try again. “You live in fear,” she says.

In 2000, her mar­riage to Ryan broke down – partly, Sully says, be­cause of the stress the attack put on the re­la­tion­ship. Living alone was fright­en­ing. For 10 years she had a se­cu­rity de­tail. “I had ex-fed­eral po­lice of­fi­cers spend time with me,” she says. “They would come run­ning in Cen­ten­nial Park with me be­cause I couldn’t run on my own. Fit­ness has al­ways been a big part of my san­ity, but I couldn’t leave the house. My par­ents came to stay for a while. Then I worked out you have to cope.”

Through it all, work gave her comfort. “I love my job, and com­ing to work ev­ery day gave me pur­pose.”

Wil­son credits Sully for putting on a brave face. “To the rest of us in the news­room, you would hardly have known.” She didn’t pub­licly ad­dress the attack un­til six years ago – and has never spo­ken about the as­sault in de­tail un­til now.

“I am OK to talk about it now be­cause it’s been 20 years,” she says. Sully doesn’t want the attack to de­fine her, but it has left its mark. She is fear­ful, some­times, but also re­silient. And she is care­ful about pro­tect­ing her pri­vacy. “The as­sault helped me de­fine where my bar­ri­ers were,” Sully says. “I don’t chase pub­lic­ity for pub­lic­ity’s sake. Some­times I think that’s prob­a­bly hurt me, but it doesn’t ful­fil me. I’ve seen the ugly side of that. No re­grets. It’s made me a lot stronger.”


ears fill Sully’s eyes only once dur­ing her long talk with Stel­lar. And it’s not when she talks about her attack. It is when she speaks about self-doubt. Sully says she never as­pired to be on tele­vi­sion. As the youngest of four grow­ing up in a work­ing-class fam­ily in the Bris­bane sub­urb of Tar­ragindi – her twin sis­ter beat her into the world by half an hour – she dreamed of be­com­ing a den­tal hy­gien­ist.

Soon after leav­ing high school, she be­came an aer­o­bics in­struc­tor – com­plete with 1980s leg warm­ers and leo­tards – and ran a gym chain while study­ing com­mu­nity fit­ness at night. Yet she was still rest­less. “I knew there was more to life, but I wasn’t sure what it was.”

A gym client told her about a job as a pro­duc­tion as­sis­tant with the Seven Net­work’s State Af­fair, and soon she was typ­ing scripts, ap­ply­ing the pre­sen­ter’s make-up, book­ing travel and rolling the au­tocue. “I fell in love with tele­vi­sion,” she says. A year later, the show was axed and she ended up managing the news­room.

At first she was still typ­ing scripts. But Sully was ea­ger and cu­ri­ous, and was soon of­fered a cadet­ship. “I had all the self-doubt,” she says. “Was I wor­thy? Was I good enough?” Her eyes well as she re­calls the mo­ment. “I didn’t want to em­bar­rass my­self and my fam­ily. I was so self-con­scious.

I had never stepped out­side my comfort zone.” She took the job, al­though she al­most turned it down. “I think ev­ery­one lives with im­pos­tor syn­drome. You re­ally strug­gle. I just knew I had fallen in love with jour­nal­ism.” The self-doubt has ebbed, but it is still there. “Al­ways, to a de­gree.”

Naysay­ers warned she’d never make it. “I was al­ways told my voice was crap,” she says. “The tone was wrong, the tim­bre was wrong, the in­flec­tion was wrong. [A voice coach] re­ally forced me to con­front those fears. Re­ally, it was more about a sense of fail­ure. But I dug deep, and thought, ‘Do I want to live a life of re­gret, or do I want to have a go?’”

Sully was a re­porter in Syd­ney when she was called into the boss’s of­fice one Fri­day and asked to co-host the re-launch of Good Morn­ing Aus­tralia the fol­low­ing Mon­day. “I re­mem­ber shak­ing so hard my foot came out of my shoe and I didn’t even know it,” she ad­mits.

That was the start of her pre­sent­ing ca­reer, but it hasn’t all been smooth sail­ing. At times she has been axed for other peo­ple; some­times they have been axed for her. There have been cor­po­rate changes, can­celled shows, and failed ex­per­i­ments. “My whole ex­pe­ri­ence has been up­heaval after up­heaval,” she says, “and nav­i­gat­ing a way through the mad­ness.”

Wil­son credits Sully’s easy­go­ing per­son­al­ity for her sur­vival in the TV in­dus­try. “Ev­ery sin­gle per­son who works in tele­vi­sion – it’s a bit like pol­i­tics – they re­ally want her job,” he tells Stel­lar. “It’s a fine line be­tween de­fence and be­ing pro­fes­sional. A lot of high-pro­file TV peo­ple can be a lit­tle pre­cious, a lit­tle princess-y, but San­dra is not one of those.”

While she may be no princess, Sully has come to slyly em­brace her un­of­fi­cial ti­tle with younger view­ers: “Queen San­dra”. When The Bach­e­lor Aus­tralia pre­miered in 2013, she proved a good sport, play­ing along with a sup­posed feud with fel­low night-time pre­sen­ter, Bach­e­lor host Osher Güns­berg.

“San­dra is al­ways up to play around with ‘news­reader gone rogue,’” Güns­berg tells Stel­lar. “She has a bril­liant sense of where the line is that would af­fect her abil­ity to de­liver the news – and of­ten sails very close to that line.” And yet, he adds, “She is the most pro­fes­sional per­son you’ll meet. It would be hard to find any­one more re­spected around the halls of Ten.”

Even so, there is a sense that all of this is be­cause Sully re­fuses to let her­self care too much. She has other things in her life – char­ity work, a seat on the board of Hockey Aus­tralia, and there is also her role co-host­ing the an­nual Aus­tralia Day Con­cert at the Syd­ney Opera House to look for­ward to in the new year.

Most im­por­tant of all, how­ever, is fam­ily. She mar­ried banker Sy­mon Brewis-we­ston in 2011, and is step­mother to his 12-year-old daugh­ter, Mia. “She and Sy­mon have both been gifts,” Sully says. “Work doesn’t de­fine me. What is re­ally im­por­tant to me is fam­ily and friend­ships, and mak­ing sure my life is ful­filled in other ways.”

“I think we all live with im­poster syn­drome. You strug­gle”

SAN­DRA Anna an­naquan.com; Quan WEARS shirt, Sport­max pants, world.sport­max.com; (opposite) Carl Kapp dress, car­lkapp.com; Tif­fany & Co. neck­lace, tif­fany.com

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