celebrity

How Jamie Durie went from Backyard Blitz to dinner parties with Oprah and the Obamas.

We’ve all played the celebrity dinner party game. One evening, one room, filled with an imagined assembly of inspirational or even just entertaining people.

Well, Jamie Durie has lived it.

In 2007, the Australian television horticulturalist/designer was among the guests at a pre-election campaign for Barack Obama. The future President and First Lady were to his left, and across from him were Cindy Crawford, Steven Spielberg, legendary actor Sir Sidney Poitier and Stevie Wonder.

“Stevie holds your hand while he talks to you; it helps him communicate, I guess. So he held my hand for a good hour or so while we were talking,” Durie told Mamamia.

“I was like, ‘What? What’s this little Aussie gardener doing here?'”

That table of entertainers, changemakers and luminaries was a long way from Durie’s life in Australia hosting Backyard Blitz. Further still from his childhood in Tom Price, a remote mining town in Western Australia’s Pilbara region.

But it was also a product of it all. Watching his mother planting roses in the dusty soil as a boy; his horticulture and landscaping studies at age 24; the magazine story about his garden design business that caught the eye of Don Burke’s team; the resulting television career; his stint on The Oprah Winfrey Show. All of it.

“It was a pinch-yourself moment, for sure.”

Image: Supplied.

Jamie could easily have rooted himself into that world. He had the CV, the charisma, the talent. But though he's appeared on 54 shows internationally, the 48-year-old never wanted to walk away from what he'd built in Australia, both on and off screen.

ADVERTISEMENT

This year will be his 21st consecutive year on Aussie TV, having anchored some of the country's most-watched lifestyle programs, from Backyard Blitz to The Block and now Channel Seven's juggernaut home renovation show, House Rules.

His endurance, he said, has a lot to do with the genre.

"Viewers are just hungry for more information and they'll never get sick of fresh ideas when it comes to feathering their own nests," he said.

"There's just this hunger and thirst for constant design makeover shows now, because furniture is the new fashion; people are expressing themselves through their homes."

"No one knows how long TV is going to last."

It's certainly Jamie Durie, the television host, with whom Australians are most familiar. The one crouched in a garden bed, his hands blackened by soil, or briefing contestants on a renovation challenge. But Jamie's true passion is off screen. Design.

"I can remember being eight years old and my grandfather made a woodworking lathe for me out of my mother's washing machine motor. I used to turn wooden wine goblets for my mum, and even before that - when I was six and seven - I was often whittling and carving things," he said. "So I've always shaped things with my hands, and I guess proportion and design has always been a part of my DNA."

His furniture designs have won a slew of awards, and he this year returned to the Milan Furniture Fair to exhibit his collaboration with Milan-based manufacturer RIVA1920. He's also designed pieces for his celebrity clients including actor Charlize Theron and comedian/late-night talkshow host, Chelsea Handler.

"It's always been, I guess, what I would call my home base," he said, "because no one knows how long TV is going to last."

ADVERTISEMENT

After all, design is what started it all for Durie. Patio, the garden design store he opened in Sydney's lower north shore in 1998, was what caught the attention of Don Burke's team, who were then in talks with Channel 9 about an upcoming show called Backyard Blitz: "I didn't think that it would land me in television. In fact that couldn't have been further from my mind."

By the time Oprah came calling in 2006, Durie was a household name in Australia. But it was she who introduced him to the world. Two different people from Oprah's production company, Harpo, reached out to Durie's agent around the same time; they'd both seen potential.

"I flew over and did an appearance with [interior designer] Nate Berkus, and the rest is history. We signed a five-year contract and went on and did a lot more shows together. I really was just over the moon and thrilled to work with Oprah. She's one of most inspirational people I've ever worked with in my life," he said.

"She's incredibly intuitive. She's hyper intelligent and she generous - I don't need to tell you how generous. Everyone knows that. I remember even after that dinner, she invited me and my agent back for breakfast the next morning, and her and Gayle [King] were squeezing orange juice at 7:30am in the kitchen with Stevie. It was amazing. That's the sort of person she is."

Jamie is back on TV for House Rules. Image: Supplied.
ADVERTISEMENT

Generosity is something Durie aims to exhibit himself. He says he tries to dedicate 20 per cent of his working time each week to his various causes, such as his long-standing ambassadorship with Planet Ark and National Tree Day. Environmentalism has been central to his philanthropic work.

Being a father (he has an adult daughter, Taylor, with his former partner) has given that work more meaning.

"My daughter's got a boyfriend and at some stage will get married and have children, and what kind of a planet will she raise those kids in? It's always been on my mind," he said.

"It's kind of annoying because I spent the last 26 years being called a 'tree hugger' and now suddenly the environment is on everyone's agenda, and it's urgent... But we've been banging on about this for 25 years.

"Our kids are going to look back and they're going to they're going to resent our generation for our inaction. We do need to create meaningful change now."

He recognises that the scope of the problem can make people feel powerless. But he argues, it needn't.

"Change can happen on on any level. What's important is just to support the organisations helping make change, you know?" he said.

"That's why I get behind Greenpeace. That's why I get behind Planet Ark. The Australian Conservation Foundation. Organisations like that, they rally together strength. They know how to lobby governments. They know how to make meaningful change. And anyone can jump on board and donate."

It's when this passion for the environment combines with his love for design and TV that Durie feels he's at his most effective; it's when he can bring together everything that landed him among that that star-studded table. For now, he's looking toward more television projects and the next phase of his furniture line.

"If I can talk about what I'm passionate about, great," he said. "But regardless, I'll continue to do what I feel passionate about and that is just keep creating."

00:00 / ???