By MIA FREEDMAN

When I first started Mamamia, five years ago, I imagined a really cool dinner party full of interesting women discussing everything from politics to parenting, peplums and pelvic floors.

And here we are. Half a million Australian women visit Mamamia each month and to maintain the diverse, intelligent, respectful vibe, we always ask readers and commenters to imagine we’re all at a dinner party.

When I think about the women sitting at our dinner table, I’m always filled with pride at how interesting, irreverent and inspiring they are. However, recently I realised that you might not know your fellow guests. Around 1-5% of our readers choose to comment but most prefer to simply sit, read and take it all in. So you wouldn’t necessarily know who else is at the table.

Well that’s about to change. Over the next few weeks we’re going to be running a series of posts that introduce you to some of the better known women who read Mamamia – your fellow guests at the dinner table.

To kick off, a special treat. A journalist, a presenter, an author, a formidable interviewer and currently the host of the iconic current affairs program ABC’s 7:30. You can follow her on Twitter here (and we recommend you do).

Leigh with bananas Leigh Sales: Meet the women at our dinner party.

MM: Twenty years ago it was unheard of to have a woman reporter or journalist or host on television who was over the age of 40. What do you think has changed?

LS: I think the fact that more and more women kept coming through the ranks and executives realised the clout of the female viewing audience. But there are still many double standards in terms of pay and expectations around appearance.

MM: They say “you cannot be what you cannot see.” Who do you admire? Who did you look to when growing up?

LS: Growing up, I looked up to people in my immediate circle – my parents, my grandmother, my teachers, my friends. I was particularly close to my music teacher, Leanne, who gave me such a wonderful gift – the ability to play an instrument and to consider it a great joy, not a chore. Today, I look up to the same people.

MM: How do you prepare for a major interview of a public figure like the Leader of the Opposition or the Prime Minister?

LS: I firstly decide what issues I think are topical. Then, in conjunction with my excellent producer Justin Stevens, I start gathering research material and studying it. Once I’ve done that, I craft a list of questions. Justin & I then workshop how we think the guest might respond to certain questions and then we map where I will go depending on their responses. But once I walk into the studio, I have to be ready to set all that aside and go where the interviewee takes me. You have to listen to their answers and think on your feet, not go from a list of prepared questions.

MM: What’s the key to a killer interview?

LS: Listening. Good preparation. Realising it’s never about you, it’s always about the guest.

MM: Which interview had your adrenaline pumping fastest at the end?

LS: The adrenalin’s always pumping doing live television but probably the most nervous I’ve been was anchoring a one hour special with the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  I felt that it was a big responsibility.  Many people had worked very hard on the program and I didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

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Leigh hosting 7:30

MM: Which were you barely able to get through without laughing?

LS: The hardest time ever was an interview this year with a scientist about the Higgs-Boson particle. The whole time I was preparing for it, I was complaining to my producer Justin that I don’t know anything about maths and science. Right before I started the interview, I was counting backwards from ten for an audio check and Justin spoke to me through my earpiece and asked me for the square root of those numbers added together.  I got the uncontrollable giggles.  I pulled it together but the whole way through the interview, I could feel laughter about to bubble out

MM: Which interview was your worst?

LS: When I was  a 21 year old journalist at Channel Nine, in my first job, a new Australian film was about to be released.  Nobody had heard of anyone involved and so I was sent to do the interview. The film was “Muriel’s Wedding” and the interviewees were Toni Collette and P.J. Hogan.  Toni Collette had put on a lot of weight for the role and then lost it again.  To my endless shame, I asked her if she felt “grossed out” when she saw herself on screen. Toni replied that, no, she felt that the character looked exactly as she’d wanted.  Moral of the story: 21 year olds straight out of Uni ask dumb questions.  And “Muriel’s Wedding” is still one of my favourite films.

MM: Which interview was your favourite?

LS: It’s such a great pleasure when guests are themselves, when they answer questions directly and when they’re engaging.  I’ve interviewed lots of people like that but because it’s so recent, I’m going to nominate John Laws this week.  When I watched that interview back, I was so entertained.  I thought there was a lot of comedy in his laidback demeanour versus my earnestness.

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John Laws during his interview with Leigh Sales

MM: The interview you did with Tony Abbott a few months ago was incredible. What does it feel like to be mid-interview and know you’re on fire?

LS: I’m never sure when I’m doing an interview if it’s working or not. I’m too busy listening and wondering where to go next and calculating how much longer I have left and what questions to drop and what to keep. There’s no time for self-analysis. It’s only when I watch things back that I can make an assessment about how I went. I’m a tough critic though and I see room for improvement in every interview, including the one you mentioned.

MM: The reaction to that interview was mixed, despite the fact you’d done a great job. There was criticism that was very gendered. How did you feel about that?

LS: I’m very used to criticism of all kinds. In fact, I thought the reaction to Grahame Morris’s “cow” remark was overblown. I retorted and that should have been it. The criticism I receive is often politically motivated – the same people who love seeing me give a Liberal a tough interview berate me when I dish up the same treatment to a Labor person.

MM: What’ do you see as the biggest difference between men and women, besides the, ah, obvious?

LS: The biggest difference I notice is in the way men and women form friendships. I think women have much more intimate friendships. I know that for me my friendships with other women are very important in my life.

MM: How would you define your kind of feminism?

LS: I’d define feminism pretty basically – believing that as a woman you’re entitled to the same respect, opportunities and treatment as a man, including equal pay for equal work.

MM: The Women’s Weekly recently named their most admired women and many said they weren’t feminists. Does that surprise you? Disappoint you?

LS: I think the word “feminism” has come to have a negative connotation even though it means a good thing. I suspect if you asked, most women would agree that they want the same privileges men enjoy, such as the right to vote and the right to equal pay. Therefore, they are feminists, whether they label themselves as such or not. You can be a stay at home mother and be a feminist. You can be a CEO and be a feminist. You can get botox and fake tan and be a feminist. You can have hairy legs and be a feminist. Part of believing in feminism is believing that all women should be free to choose their own path without being judged.

MM: What was the most disappointing moment or biggest setback in your career? How did you recover?

LS: When I was a young reporter, I was told I didn’t have the looks or voice for an on-air career in TV. I figured I wasn’t going to get ahead there so I changed companies. And I tried to work on my voice and pay more attention to my appearance!

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Leigh Sales

MM: What’s your greatest talent/achievement that you will never be able to put on your resume?

LS: That I got married at 23, have stayed married for 16 years and still consider my husband the person with whom I most prefer to spend time.

MM: What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received? What’s the worst?

LS: Best is from my dad: “preparation and planning prevent piss-poor performance”. Worst is from a friend who told me not to accept the job hosting Lateline on a Friday night because I’d never be able to go away for a weekend.

MM: You’re one of the most famous red heads in the country. What do you think is next for the others, what lies ahead for Julia Gillard?

LS: I’m not sure what lies ahead for her but hopefully I’ll have the scoop on 7.30!

MM:  If Australia became a Republic tomorrow, who would you choose as our head of state?

LS: I think Quentin Bryce does a great job as Governor-General so I’d be more than happy to see her stick around. Malcolm Turnbull might expect a turn though, given the energy he’s devoted to the cause!



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