Lisa Wilkinson today marks her 10th anniversary as co-host of Channel 9’s Today show. She began her career at Dolly and at 21 she became the magazine’s youngest editor. Kerry Packer appointed her editor of Cleo and she went on to be its international editor-in-chief. Her television career began in the late-’90s as a regular panellist on Ten’s Beauty and the Beast, during the 2000 Sydney Olympics she co-hosted Seven’s The Morning Shift and in 2005 began hosting its Weekend Sunrise. Wilkinson, 57, chatted to me about her biggest highlight, why she almost gave up television and how she defines success.
Congratulations on 10 years with the Today show. What does it feel like to have been in a prominent role on TV for a decade?
Extraordinary … because at the beginning there I thought, “If I can last six months in this job I’ll be doing well”… So much has happened in 10 years … I mean we’ve just been there with such big stories and against that we have all the fun times and the amazing people that you get to interview. So when I look back over what we’ve covered in 10 years, I’m surprised I’m not exhausted.
What do you love most about your job?
The audience – the feedback that we get, the fact that we’re privileged enough that people actually want to make our show part of their morning; that’s the way that they want to wake up. And that they trust us, they want to have a laugh with us and hopefully we put a skip in their step as they head out to work or send the kids off to school or stay home, or whatever form their day takes. If we can make their start to the day just a little bit better, for me the payback is huge.
What’s the most challenging aspect of your role?
The hours, the lack of sleep. I’ve got a sleep debt, but I’ll be a long time paying back to my body!
If you had to pinpoint your biggest highlight in the last 10 years, what would it be?
Interviewing the entire cast of children from The Sound of Music on their 50th anniversary. It was such a treat because I grew up watching The Sound of Music.
Who do you still hope to interview?
Michelle Obama, closely followed by Barack.
What is it about live TV that really excites you?
Just the adrenaline rush of having a rough idea what’s coming up next, but invariably things go off the rails, particularly when you’re sitting next to Karl Stefanovic … Some mornings are very challenging, like the one particular morning after the Logies! [Laughs.] Watching it back, I do get offended sometimes when people say that they knew that Karl had had too much drink when he said 76 times that I was beautiful. It was just like, “Thanks a lot, he had to be really drunk to say that.” With Karl and me, we push each other and we know after all this time each other’s strengths and weaknesses and we celebrate them, but we also like to push each other as well. It’s like a marriage.
When something goes wrong live on air, what’s your secret to getting things back on track?
I think, first and foremost, you can’t take yourself too seriously. In the end our viewers will forgive a lot, as long as we’re honest with them, and if things are going wrong, we tell them. We screw up all the time …
Who do you look up to and admire?
I admire so many different women, I mean everyone from Gail Kelly, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett … Ellen DeGeneres, like wow, because she has got such a beautiful heart and the generosity that she imparts daily. I mean the fact that she finishes every show with, “Be kind to each other”, I think says everything about her and it’s such a positive program.
You started your journalistic career in magazines. Did you always know that you would go into TV?
Not in a million years, I couldn’t have ever imagined that this is where I would end up. In fact, I got that job at Dolly at the age of 19, after answering a three-line ad in the women and girls’ employment section of The Sydney Morning Herald. I still have the ad and remember the exact phone number … It’s the only job I’ve ever applied for.
How did you end up at Cleo?
I was planning to take a trip to Europe for four weeks … It was right then that I got a call from Kerry Packer because he was looking for an editor at Cleo … I just thought, “I’ll go to lunch because he is the legendary Kerry Packer and I just want to be able to one day tell my grandkids, ‘I met the great Kerry Packer and I said ‘no’ to his job offer …’ ”
Did you know he was going to ask you to be the editor of Cleo?
No, he just said, “I really want to meet you” … So I went to the pre-arranged address that his secretary gave me … It was just like this nothing address with no restaurant except for the Channel 9 helicopter, that was sitting there with the blades roaring, and there was Trevor Kennedy, who was Kerry Packer’s right-hand man, ushering me into the helicopter so that we could go up to the Palm Beach and have lunch with Kerry Packer … Needless to say, I was very impressed … He [Packer] just made me so excited about what I was going to be able to do with Cleo. So I was there for 10 years as well.
Having worked at Dolly and Cleo at such young age, what did you learn about yourself?
To listen to your gut instinct … I learnt it’s so important to communicate with the people that you work with and to keep the lines of communication open. For everybody to work together, for everybody to be supportive of each other – and that’s when you get the best out of people – and also being given that extraordinary opportunity at such a young age, I could never understand why I got that, why me.
How do you define success?
To feel challenged by what I do. To work hard enough that I can feel satisfied that I’ve done a good job, but also to be able to combine that with family and to make sure that the space is there for my kids and for my marriage.
How do you juggle it all?
I’ve always made sure that the kids have been very involved, particularly during the last 10 years, that they’re comfortable with the hours that I’m doing and the ways in which it can impact their lives at times, when they really want me to be at a play performance or parent-teacher night or whatever things come along … I have to be honest, I’ve missed a few. Not a lot, but I’ve missed a few … Every time my contract has come up, it has been a big family meeting about checking in and making sure that no one feels like they’re missing out. There was one time there where I thought, “I think this is impacting too much on the family,” and Pete was doing breakfast radio at that time, but he volunteered to stop doing the same hours … There was a time a couple of years ago where I thought, “I’m not sure that I can keep doing these hours and everyone is going to be OK”, so … I said to the kids, “How would you feel if I gave up the Today show?” There was just like this resounding, “No, you can’t. No, Mum.”
Being married to Peter FitzSimons – a fellow journalist – you must be a great support to one another?
Pete and I never get enough time together and we just have such common interests … It’s lovely being married to somebody whose work you’re really incredibly proud of because his main gig now is writing books and so it’s lovely that every six months or so he is onto a new project. I’m always fascinated by the work he is doing and he is probably the most enthusiastic viewer the Today show has … The phone in my dressing room goes at 10 past 9 every day, it’s always Pete, who gives me a critique of what he has seen, and he asks me how the ratings are.
Will your children follow in both your and Peter’s footsteps?
Well, we’ve got two that are heading for journalism … Our oldest son, Jake, has very strong opinions on things and he challenges us because Pete and I aren’t peas in a pod when it comes to our views on things, and so to now have a third one …
What do you do in your time off when you’re not working?
We’re just about to start some renovations at the house. I think, if I come back, next time around I think I will be an architect … I’m really passionate about photography as well. So they’re kind of the two things that really spark me up.
We went to Bathers Pavilion, Balmoral Beach
We ate Scones with cream and jam; biscotti
We drank Earl Grey tea and cappuccino
Lisa wore Vitteroy trench
Kate wore Christopher Esber
Photography James Brickwood.