Lisa Wilkinson: Queen of Hearts
Wife, mother, mentor, journalist and one of the most respected hosts on Australian television, Lisa Wilkinson has blazed a trail through the Australian media landscape. Ingrid Nelson chats with the media mogul and discovers a little more about what makes her tick.
When a 19-year-old Lisa Wilkinson answered a tiny three-line advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald for a receptionist/editorial assistant/girl friday at Dolly magazine she had no idea it was to be the beginning of a stellar media career.
In fact, just two years later, the ambitious young journalist found herself at the helm of what was, and still is regarded as the “bible” for teenage girls when she became editor of the popular national magazine, tripling its circulation during her reign.
“It was back in the days when the Sydney Morning Herald divided the job ads into women and girls and boys and men,” says Lisa, laughing out loud at the memory. “Whenever I talk to groups of young women these days I literally hear peals of laughter because it’s such a foreign thing for them to think that was even legal. So we have definitely made some headway in terms of how far we have come!”
Lisa vividly recalls her first day at Dolly like it was yesterday – knees shaking, heart pounding, full of hopes and dreams and no idea what to expect, she walked nervously through the front door just hoping she would be good enough to answer the phone.
“I could never have predicted what would happen from there,” says Lisa.
It’s about taking a punt sometimes and jumping off a cliff.”
“The attitude I have now is the same as I had then. It was one of enormous gratitude of being lucky enough to find that job in the paper, to be in the right place at the right time, to put my hand up and go for it and back myself.”
Lisa recalls being given her first task at the teen magazine selecting the poems from the readers submissions for the popular column ‘Poet’s Corner’.
“The previous editorial assistant was being promoted to fashion editor. She apologised and said, ‘I’m sorry we have left you with all the submissions for Poet’s Corner, everyone hates that job’,” she says.
“My heart skipped a beat because I had read Dolly for seven years before joining and I used to pour over Poet’s Corner and compare myself to these girls who wrote in, it made me feel confident that I wasn’t alone and we were all trying to find our way in the world.
“I remember hearing those words and there was a clunk in my heart because I thought it was such a privilege. She saw a big mess, a pain in the neck, what I saw were the hearts and minds and tears and fears and emotions and frustrations and love and rejections of what it is to be a teenager.
“It was a job I kept up until the day I left Dolly seven years later because it kept me in touch with who our audience was. If you forget who your audience is, and this goes for any business, but particularly in the media, if you forget what drives them, what their concerns are and what really matters to them then you have lost touch with your readers, listeners and viewers. It’s a lesson I have never forgotten.”
It wasn’t long before the bosses noticed Lisa’s drive and natural talent and she was headhunted by the late Kerry Packer who offered her the editorship of the iconic Cleo magazine. Over the next decade, Lisa guided the magazine to new circulation highs, making it the number one selling women’s lifestyle magazine per capita in the world.
Lisa is refreshingly candid and honest about her climb to the top of her game, freely admitting there were times when she simply had to take a risk and “back herself”.
“It’s about taking a punt sometimes and jumping off a cliff,” she says passionately. “With every move I’ve ever made I’ve always thought, they haven’t found me out yet! They don’t actually know that I’m not ready for that! I’m only 50 per cent ready, but if they think I’m ready then I’m just going to keep quiet about what I don’t know. I’m going to learn on the job and stay strong and not listen to the white noise and naysayers and people who think I’m not up to it because I know I’m not up to it but if I keep going I will be.”
You have to remember to not try to be perfect at everything you do and understand that occasionally you are going to drop some of those balls you are juggling.”
Married to journalist, best-selling author and former Wallaby and rugby international, Peter FitzSimons, the couple has three children, sons Jake, 21 and Louis, 18 and daughter Billi, 17.
Chatting with Lisa, it is immediately apparent her family is the centre of her universe and her number one priority. So I am not surprised to discover that after a hugely successful decade as editor of Cleo and at the peak of her career, Lisa decided to take a massive leap of faith and follow her heart to leave the coveted position to raise her growing family.
“It coincided with falling pregnant with my second child. We had one healthy child and were about to have a second and my husband Peter and I knew we wanted to have more children so I decided to take time out to be a mum and invest in my personal life, which I had not done before. I always fit my personal life around my work.
“Personally and professionally, jumping off that cliff was the best thing I did. Because I left knowing it was the right thing, even though many in the industry said are you crazy, you have been at Cleo for 10 years. It is the highest selling women’s lifestyle mag per capita in the world – you can write your own ticket, well my own ticket was my family.”
It wasn’t long though before opportunities in both radio and television came knocking and Lisa says although broadcast journalism was not something she had designs on at any point of her career, she tried her hand at both.
“I loved magazines and I could go back there tomorrow. I always loved the creative process of putting a magazine together and leading a team. There was nothing about working in magazine that I didn’t absolutely love. Leaving it behind was difficult,” she says.
“I started doing Beauty and the Beast with Network Ten. It was a great training ground for me and a great time to try my hand at unscripted TV work. I got to work with a great mix of women on the show including Ita Buttrose, Jo Griggs and Gretel Killeen.”
It was during this stint that Lisa was noticed by Network 7 and the rest, as they say, is history.
“I was working on Weekend Sunrise and filling in for Mel from time to time with Kochie. Then I got the call from Channel 9 offering me the Today show.
“Leaving Sunrise, which was riding high at the time and well ahead in the ratings, people thought I needed my head read to move to the underdog. But I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney so I am a great believer in the underdog. I was certainly a great believer in the Today show and once I met Karl Stefanovic, and having seen him on TV, I knew he was a really good broadcaster. He is such fun, it’s like working with my naughty little brother,” she laughs.
“I also knew there was a new executive producer on the show, Tom Molone, who was a mate. I had worked with him in radio and I knew between Tom and Karl this show was going to start working very soon and if they wanted me to be part of that process I knew I was on to a winner.”
But as is often the case with successful people, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Lisa. In fact, just recently, Lisa opened up about the incessant bullying she was subjected to during her high school years.
“While it really rocks your confidence and your sense of self I had to try and block it out as much as I could. But it’s hard when you are isolated and sitting by yourself in the corner of the playground and you feel sick and you can’t eat lunch because you live in fear today might be the day when they approach you again en masse.
“It wasn’t until the last Year 12 exam that I made a promise to myself that I would never again allow someone to dictate who I was and what I was capable of. It was a firm promise and one I keep to this very day. It was a very liberating moment and I remember it like it was yesterday.”
It wasn’t until many years later, when Lisa opened up about her bullying on the Today show that she received an emailed apology from one of the gang members and discovered why she was the target of their attacks.
“She told me it was because the leader of the gang’s boyfriend thought I was really pretty, so she thought if she re-arranged my face, I wouldn’t be so pretty anymore.”
However, despite her harrowing experience, Lisa says schoolyard bullying is often the result of the perpetrator’s experience with domestic violence and is a staunch supporter of reducing the shocking statistics we are currently facing in Australia.
“What I discovered was domestic violence made these girls powerless in the home so bullying at school gave them back the power. Domestic violence in this country is at crisis point. In 2015 up to two women a week will die at the hands of a partner. This is a national crisis. The flow on effect is horrendous, those kids will be going to school and bullying other kids. It’s the only way they can take control and that’s the way they think the world works,” she says, the passion in her voice on the other end of the phone line is palpable.
In fact, Lisa is championed as a mentor and role model for young women and is only one of three women to speak at the prestigious Andrew Ollie Lecture for which she received huge acclaim. She has also been responsible for helping other young women achieve their dreams and is a big believer in paying it forward.
“I think when you find yourself in the fortunate position of people believing in you and giving you a shot you have to pay it forward to other young people in your industry. This is how I have made sense of the very good fortune that I have had. When you know that joy you must make sure others experience it at your hands.”
As editor of a magazine myself and also a mother of three, I can’t let the opportunity pass without asking Lisa for her tips on maintaining the elusive work/life balance and I am delighted to hear, despite her high profile, she is just as honest when it comes to the challenges of keeping all the balls in the air.
The women I admire are those who are comfortable in their own skin and maintain a sense of humour about the crap that’s out there.”
“You have to remember to not try to be perfect at everything you do and understand that occasionally you are going to drop some of those balls you are juggling. Keeping a sense of humour is also so important.
“Us women are still incredibly hard on ourselves if we don’t get everything perfect. Social media has created even more pressure on women than there has ever been, it’s a world of make believe. We have to start being kinder to ourselves and kinder to other women.
“The level of judgement with social media is toxic. The women I admire are those who are comfortable in their own skin and maintain a sense of humour about the crap that’s out there.”
At 55-years-of-age, Lisa says she is at one of the happiest stages of her life, enjoying watching her children grow into happy young adults and loving her current role on the Today show, which has recently celebrated eight years on air.
“We are so fortunate to interview such a diverse range of people on the show every day, no two days are the same, from everyday people doing amazing things, to leading politicians, to movie stars.
“First and foremost Karl and I are journalists and that is what makes our hearts beat every day. We are information gatherers and we want to give the most up to date information so people can go out there into the day feeling informed. But we also want people to have a smile on their faces as they head out the door so hopefully we do that as well.”
During our interview Lisa apologises for a few interruptions – there’s a message from the set of the Today show, a phone call from her husband, and a reminder from her PA about the ladies charity luncheon she is speaking at later that day. Yet despite her incredibly busy schedule, Lisa is so generous with her time and answers each of my questions at length and with great enthusiasm.
I think they’ve finally found you out Lisa, and you didn’t disappoint!