Neale Whitaker is a judge on television’s The Block – which airs its season finale on November 13 – and editor of Vogue Living. Whitaker, 54, talks to me about the most frustrating part of being a Block judge, what makes him cringe, and his top tip to quickly rejuvenate any home.
Who do you think will win tonight’s finale?
Ah, that’s a tough one. The judges don’t have the best form in picking the winner! Auction day is unpredictable and there are so many variables – the auction order, the reserve prices and basically the depth of the potential buyers’ pockets. All of the apartments offer the luxury of space and an opportunity to live in a heritage building that’s been restored with integrity.
What has been your favourite room from this season and why?
Kim and Chris [Elliot] delivered the ultimate master bedroom with the proportions of a luxury hotel suite. I loved Julia [Treuel] and Sasha [Wright-Neville’s] kitchen, and Will and Karlie’s master bedroom with the wooden panelling was pretty special.
What have you learnt from being a judge?
From the contestants I’ve learned the importance of budget, careful planning and understanding your potential market. From my fellow judges, I’ve learned to see things through an interior designer’s eye – it’s far more detailed than a magazine editor’s eye.
What is the most frustrating element of being a judge on The Block?
When the contestants don’t take our advice and believe they’re being victimised. They’re not! We always try to be constructive and our advice is based on experience and knowledge. We want them to win, not lose.
Why do you think renovating shows have become so popular?
We’re a nation obsessed with real estate, so the renovation frenzy feels like a logical progression. Renovating is achievable – it’s something we can do to improve our lives and increase the value of our property. There’s definitely a competitive edge there, too, regardless of whether you’re on The Block!
After so many seasons, do room reveals still excite you?
Yes they do! I guess the day they don’t will be the day to hang up my judge’s hat. There is always that sense of the unexpected and of anticipation based on what was delivered the previous week and the advice we offered.
When there is backlash on social media against you, how do you deal with this?
You have to take it on the chin. That’s all you can do. Or maybe not look. What did Taylor Swift say? “Haters gonna hate.”
How would you describe your own interior style preferences?
It’s a terribly overused word, but eclectic. [My partner] David [Novak-Piper] and I like such a mix of styles and periods but we get a lot of pleasure out of making them all work together to create a home.
What trends make you cringe?
Trends generally make me cringe. That might sound like a strange thing for a magazine editor to say but I believe a home is a really personal thing. I would never buy – or encourage someone to buy – anything simply because it’s on trend.
What is your best advice for first-time renovators?
Plan, budget, plan, budget and then plan again. Just be really sure about what you want to achieve from the renovations. Is it for you or for resale? Be prepared for the renovations to take longer than anticipated and budget for 25 to 30 per cent more than you think you will need.
What are the most popular interior trends at the moment?
Don’t talk to me about trends [laughs]! But, realistically, we’re seeing a lot more colour at the moment and a real emphasis on anything hand-made and hand-crafted. I think we’re also seeing more confidence to mix things up. We’re starting to realise that it’s OK to be individual.
What is a quick fix to rejuvenate your home?
A new rug is always the best fix for me. When you walk into a room, what’s on the floor is the first thing you register. And think about changing your art and adding a wall mirror. It can double the size of a room. New bed linen is [also] an amazing pick-me-up.
What is a day in the life of you?
Juggling! My main priority is editing Vogue Living, so most days will find me in the office with the editorial team, but I somehow manage to squeeze in quite a few other activities like emceeing and public speaking. Most evenings will find me at industry events, and when we’re filming The Block, I’m in Melbourne every Sunday. Life’s busy.
What led you down this career path?
Life! I started in the fashion industry, moved into publishing, moved from the UK to Australia [in 1999] and then moved from food magazines to interior design magazines. That’s when I knew I’d found the place where I wanted to be. And then I stumbled into TV! I’ve been very lucky and I’m very grateful for the opportunities that have come my way.
You were an editor of Belle Magazine and now editor at Vogue Living. How has your role evolved?
A magazine editor’s role is always evolving. Learning to harness the power of digital and social media is challenging and exciting. That’s not something I really had to worry about in my previous role.
What has been your greatest career achievement so far?
I’m proud of many of the things I’ve achieved in my career. Perhaps I’m proudest of my longevity and managing to stay relevant. I hope I can keep doing that.
D’Marge named you as one of the most stylish men in Australia. What is your style secret?
I’m sorry to say I don’t really have one! I think my personal style is very understated, quite classic, and intuitive. At 54, I feel I know what suits me and I tend to stick with it.
What is your favourite room in your Surry Hills home?
The kitchen – it’s totally where we live our life! And it will be again in the new apartment we’re just about to move to in Alexandria.
Where is your favourite travel destination when you want to escape from Sydney?
That’s easy. The south coast of NSW. It’s where I recharge and where I feel the most relaxed. I call it my “happy place”.
What are your plans for the holiday season?
Our favourite thing is a road trip. We love to put our dogs in the car [weimaraners Otis and Ollie] and head off. This year we’re heading to country Victoria for Christmas, then back home via Melbourne and the NSW South Coast.
What is next for you?
Whatever comes next! I’m enjoying the opportunities that are coming my way but I would love to do more TV. It’s such a powerful way of communicating. Watch this space – that’s all I’m saying!
The Block season finale airs on Sunday, November 13, at 7pm on Channel 9.