This year marks my 45th year in media and I often get asked how did I get my start? I guess you could say I came into television via the back door.
Back then, there weren’t any University or TAFE courses you could enrol in to become a TV presenter.
In my case it all began at my Year 12 formal when a wonderful lady, Doreen Cheery, who recently turned 92 and has remained a lifelong friend, approached me and said she thought I was Miss Australia material and wanted to sponsor me in the Miss Australia Quest.
I was unaware at the time that this very successful local businesswoman, who ran Avalon Fashions, had successfully sponsored Rosemary Gatcliffe, who had become Miss NSW the year before and Doreen thought I had the potential to take the title once again.
At first I thought she was joking and I looked around to see if I could spot which one of my school mates had put her up to it.
I’d been what my family doctor described as ‘pleasantly plump’ all my life and being a first generation Australian of refugee parents, with jet black hair and olive skin, who’d been bullied from any early age, I certainly didn’t think I fitted the mould of the quintessential beach blonde Aussie beauty queen and initially dismissed the idea out hand.
However, Doreen persisted and went to see my parents and discussed what she had in mind at length with them. After a family meeting I made the trip up to Allambie Heights to see the incredible set up at the Spastic Centre (now called Cerebral Palsy Alliance), who were the recipients of all the funds raised by the Miss Australia entrants. After seeing the remarkable things they did to assist children and adults with cerebral palsy (CP), I came home and deferred my studies at Teachers’ College for a year, did a modelling and deportment course and became a house model, while I devoted the rest of my time to conducting a total of 52 different fundraising events and raising many thousands of dollars.
No one could have been more surprised than me at the end of that year to firstly win the title of Miss Northern Beaches, then Miss NSW and to go on to represent the state in the national finals of the Miss Australia Quest in Brisbane…which was 1847 from memory!!
I became the youngest Miss NSW in the Quest’s history and spent the following year touring the state promoting the Quest and the fantastic charity which still supports children and adults with CP.
It was an amazing year that equipped me with so many life skills and experiences that would have taken me a lifetime to acquire.
There were many ‘pinch me moments’ where I met so many extraordinary people. Some of the experiences were very rewarding and life changing and others would now fall into the #metoo category that included obscene phone calls and unnerving face to face encounters, which I detail in my latest book 15 Minutes of Fame – The Dark Underbelly of Celebrity.
I didn’t ever return to Teachers’ College because I was then offered a job doing public relations with the Rural Bank and during that year I was invited to audition to be the co-host of a morning women’s TV show called Home Fare on WIN-TV in Wollongong. The current female host was retiring and I was very familiar with the show as I’d been a guest on it many times during my numerous visits to Wollongong, so I jumped at the opportunity to do the audition.
I was so nervous during the audition and really thought I didn’t have a chance but much to my delight I managed to get the gig and packed up my belongings and headed to Wollongong.
At the same time, the manager of David Jones in Wollongong who sponsored the program received a promotion to run DJ’s in Sydney and when he left he took their media budget with him and started a similar show in Sydney starring Maureen Duvall, so I arrived at the TV station to find the show had been cancelled.
Allan Hoy – the fantastic manager of WIN TV at the time assured me that I need not worry as he’d have plenty for me to do and he wasn’t joking.
Over the next 13 years I was able to hone my skills both on and off camera. I began doing TV commercials and voiceovers and hosting segments between programs before going on to host my own morning show and then ultimately anchoring their high-rating nightly news.
At the same time I worked extensively behind the scenes, producing shows as well as becoming the station’s first female to be on their executive management team, holding the titles of PR, Promotions and Marketing Manager and Community Service Director.
I coordinated and hosted all of the station’s on-air promotions and their public events including telethons and Carols by Candlelight for ten years.
My first foray into national television was in 1987 when Channel 7 poached me to co-host 11AM with Don Willesee, the youngest brother of the late Mike Willesee. When I arrived to start work at the network there had been several changes to their news line-up and I found myself once again with a contract but no specific show to work on.
It felt like déjà vu when Phil Davis the News Director assured me he’d have plenty for me to do instead and I was able to demonstrate all the skills I’d acquired during my 13 year apprenticeship at WINTV when I had the opportunity to read news, present the weather, produce, research and host a weekly entertainment show, interview big name celebrities and be the fill-in host for all their news and magazines style programs.
Unfortunately Christopher Skase the owner of the Seven Network at the time went belly-up financially and around 87 of us, whose contracts were up for renewal, were retrenched from the newsroom.
That was in 1990 and it became the start of my freelance media career that has seen me work at many TV stations alongside some of the best in the business including Bert Newtown and Derryn Hinch.
It also saw me branch out into other forms of media including being part of the talkback team on 2GB, 4BC and stations on the Macquarie Network, along with hosting a radio show on ABC Radio 2WN and fill-in roles on WS FM and Radio 2. I’ve also written columns and articles for newspapers and magazines and had three books published.
My brushes with Royalty
During my media career I’ve had several opportunities to meet members of the Royal family.
I met Prince Charles in the 1980s on one of his trips to Wollongong. It was at the Town Hall and I was standing next to a well-known and respected journalist Ethel Hoskins Hayton who had received an MBE and she was proudly wearing her medal.
We were briefed on all the protocol prior to the Prince’s arrival and were told that we couldn’t call out or try and attract him over to us and that he would decide where he stopped and to whom he spoke. As the prince moved comfortably through the room with his hands behind his back and his fingers loosely interlocking he easily engaged with one person after another.
At one point Prince Charles looked over our way and he must have seen Ethel’s medal shining brightly on the chest she had proudly pinned it on because the next thing I knew he made a bee-line for us. He was so charming and engaging and spent what seemed like ages chatting with us both before he moved onto a group of cadets in uniform nearby making them feel equally at ease.
I must confess and I mean no disrespect to our future king but being that close to him, my first thought was how handsome he would have been if his Mum had just pinned back his ears.
One of the most down to earth royals I had the pleasure of spending time with was Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. Sarah flew to Sydney to be the guest speaker at the Weight Watchers Super Rally which I emceed and had the chance to interview her on stage.
When Sarah landed in Singapore she received the news that her Dad had passed away and instead of immediately flying back home she continued her journey to Australia and fulfilled all of her engagements on her very busy schedule and if you didn’t know the grief she was going through you’d have never known it from her demeanour and professionalism.
She was lucky to have her sister Jane with her while she was in Australia. I’d already met Jane, who lives in Sydney, through mutual friends a couple of years earlier and had spent time with her socially on a few occasions, so I already knew what a lovely person she was and her sister Sarah was equally lovely and very down to earth.
We discussed during our interview how she had managed to weather the storm of adverse publicity that she’d attracted over the years and she confessed much to my surprise that the negative press that impacted on her most wasn’t the toe sucking incident with Texan millionaire John Bryan that had been splashed across the front page of just about every newspaper, magazine and TV news bulletin around the world but it was in fact when the Fleet Street papers dubbed this Duchess of York – The Duchess of Pork because of the extra weight she was carrying.
One Royal I just missed out on meeting was Her Majesty the Queen and as a result I missed out on also making it into the history books.
It was in 1973 during my reign as Miss NSW (I was just joking about it being in 1847 although it feels like it was that long ago) that I was invited to open the Opera House with The Queen. I was beside myself and could barely contain my excitement but I had been sworn to secrecy and couldn’t tell a soul. With no emails or fax machines existing back then, all the correspondence was done by mail. There were lots of letters going back and forth from Kensington Palace and finally all the security checks were completed and the wheels were in motion. Unfortunately due to design disagreements, multiple union strikes and other problems during the construction of the Sydney Opera House, the opening was delayed until 20th October 1973.
They say timing is everything and in my case it wasn’t for the better as my reign as Miss NSW had come to an end only a couple of weeks earlier. By then it was too late to conduct all the security clearances required to enable the new Miss NSW Lynn Gilmour from doing the honours, so The Queen was accompanied by Prince Phillip when she opened the Opera House without me.
Famous people I’ve interviewed.
I’ve had many more ‘pinch me’ moments while being in the media and have come face to face with some of the biggest names in Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Some of the one-on-one interviews include George Clooney, Whoopi Goldberg, Audrey Hepburn, Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Joan Collins, Tom Selleck and Kylie Minogue just to name a few. I also had the pleasure of spending an entire day looking after Liberace when he came to Wollongong to record a TV special at WIN-TV.
George Clooney was exceptionally memorable not just because he’s even more drop dead gorgeous than he is on screen but he was so down to earth and warm and generous during our time together and he even asked me to sit on his lap.
It was when he was in Australia to promote Batman Forever and I was one of many journalists and reporters, who were flown to the Gold Coast to see the movie the night before and then interview some of the star cast along with the movie’s director Joel Schumacher.
You have very limited time to chat with each of these stars and it’s like a production line where the next person waits just outside the door while the previous interview is being conducted and you must remain completely silent. When I went into the interview room I mentioned to George that it felt like waiting outside of the principal’s office, when you’d done something wrong and that’s when he offered to put me over his knee.
We had a great laugh when I told him I’d probably break his knee if I did.
In hindsight, in this politically correct era we now live in, George probably couldn’t get away with saying that to a female reporter today but I certainly took no offence and found it very funny.
Audrey Hepburn was very gracious and humble when I interviewed her about her career and it impressed me to see how easily she switched from speaking Dutch with her husband and back to English with me. She was in Australia for UNICEF and looked even thinner than I had seen her on the screen and I suspected she wasn’t well during her visit. It turned out to be her last trip to Australia as she passed away from cancer only a couple of years later.
If I had to pick an all-time favourite person that I’ve interviewed, hands down it would be Whoopi Goldberg.
She arrived at the Channel 7 studios when they were located out at Epping in Sydney’s northern suburbs. Whoopi only had two minders with her and they were happy to stay in the air conditioned green room. The day she arrived it was close to 40 degrees outside and just before we could record the interview in the News studio, it was plunged into darkness from a blackout.
We scrambled to quickly get a news camera and took Whoopi outside into the shade to do the interview instead. She was very easy going and didn’t mind the sudden change in plans. She was impressed that I didn’t ask her the usual stock standard questions. Remembering back then we didn’t have the internet or Dr Google to provide us with an instant background on everyone and everything, so doing research on big name stars was much harder. She was surprised that I’d managed to find out one of the jobs she’d done, before she became famous, was as a mortician’s beautician. Her response to doing that job was funny but very respectful.
My cameraman noticed through the lens of his camera that under her great mane of dreadlocks which looked like she had a giant tarantula on her head, Whoopi was wearing two different earrings and when I drew that to her attention she was delighted to have the opportunity to explain that one was a condom and she was part of an organisation in LA trying to promote safe sex. It was 1989 and AIDS was rapidly on the rise. What she didn’t anticipate, when she arrived home from her Aussie sojourn, was that her only daughter Alex, who was just 16 at the time, was pregnant with her first child Amarah Skye.
Just as we finished the interview outside we were informed that the power was back on in the studio and Whoopi asked if she could put a message down on camera. I jumped at the opportunity thinking that she was going to do a promo that we could use to promote her coming up on Newsworld that night but instead she sent a message to the show’s host Clive Robertson, singing my praises. I was blown away by her kind gesture and that message from Whoopi is at the start of my old showreel, which you can still view on YouTube under Susie showreel to 07…here’s a link; https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=8cqs1ZAPPwI
Working in such a male dominated industry hasn’t been without its challenges and nor has dealing with the divas, bad boys and those I’ve put on what I call the China Egg list because they were just too precious to handle.
I’ve dished out the dirt on many of them in my latest book 15 Minutes of Fame – The Dark Underbelly of Celebrity and if you’d like to read more, it’s available in most bookstores or here’s a link that gives you a 20% discount if you wish to purchase it online. http://newhollandpublishers.com/susie
The question I get asked a lot these days is; how have I managed to survive for 45 years in the media, which still predominantly favours men and younger faces?
I believe it’s because I’ve always endeavoured to over-deliver and work hard along with persistence, determination, resilience and always being prepared to adapt.
One of my great mentors Doug Malouf always taught me to ‘fake it until you make it’ and to paraphrase US writer Arthur Brisbane;
‘The only time success comes before work is in the dictionary.’
Author, TV & Radio Broadcaster AMC Ambassador