“Morality is not defined by the clothes you wear”
She is half of one of the most prominent couples in Australia – and Dr Susan Carland is happy to talk about it, along with her clever new TV show, religion and falling for the man she swore she would never marry
cademic. Author. Media personality. Dr Susan Carland wears a number of hats professionally, but she argues her best title yet is “quizmaster”,which has been bestowed upon her thanks to another new role – as the host of SBS’S new quiz show Child Genius. Not least, we imagine, because she can now throw random questions at people.
“I agree. That’s now what I do,” Carland jokes with Stellar. “I just ask my kids, my husband, ‘ What is the capital of Chile?’ That’s my job now.”
One would think that her husband Waleed Aly – academic, columnist and co-host of Network Ten’s The Project – would have it in the bag on Child Genius, a show that features highly intelligent children vying for the coveted position of Australia’s smartest kid. But one would be wrong. “The questions [on the show] are so hard,” Carland says. “I was practising one day and I said to my husband, ‘How do you think you would spell this word?’ and he had a go. He got the first letter
wrong.” The sheer brilliance of the child prodigies made her feel “like a complete fool from day one”, she admits.
It’s hard to imagine many occasions the accomplished Carland does feel like a fool. Bright and curious as a child, she lived with her parents and brother Michael in Melbourne’s Forest Hill until her parents divorced when she was seven. Despite being raised a strict Christian, at 17 she decided to look beyond Christianity to see what might suit her better.
“I just started to wonder why I believed what I did,” she says of that time. “I wondered, ‘Is it because I think it’s true, or is this just the religion I’d been raised to believe in?’ So I decided to investigate different faiths and different ways of being and to my surprise, Islam made a lot of sense to me.” Despite initial assumptions that Islam was a violent and sexist religion, Carland changed her mind. These days she’s nonchalant, but she recalls how nervous she was to tell her parents of her decision.
“I can really understand now, as a mother. I’ve got a 15-year-old [daughter Aisha] and an 11-year-old [son Zayd] and I can understand if one of them came home to me and said, ‘Oh, I’ve decided to join this religion that you don’t really know much about and everything you do know about it looks pretty bad.’ I’d be pretty concerned too,” she tells Stellar. “But I have an amazing relationship with my mum and my dad – they’re both incredibly supportive and encouraging.”
It’s commonly assumed that Aly, who is also of Muslim faith, was the reason Carland renounced Christianity, yet she insists it isn’t the case. At the Logies this year while onstage addressing the audience, media personality Bert Newton said to Aly, “You and I have a lot in common. I think the beautiful story is that your lovely wife made the decision to convert to your faith. It’s news now that Patti [Newton’s wife] has done the same for me. She now drinks and she has her own TAB account.”
Carland shrugs off both the assumption and Newton’s joke. “It’s something that I get a lot. That’s sort of the way that it is,” she says. “In [Newton’s] defence, I actually think he was trying to be as polite and respectful as he could while just trying to get to the joke he was trying to make. As much as possible, I’m always going to try and give people the benefit of the doubt and let things slide.”
In a story worthy of a rom- com, Carland and Aly met when they were both 16 and a few years later he called her and asked her out, telling her they would make a good match. Her response was brutal: “I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last person on Earth.”