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‘I realised, this was purely a relationship for the cameras.’ Lisa Wilkinson and Karl Stefanovic's off-air relationship.

Lisa Wilkinson saw the job on Channel Nine's Today show as a poison chalice from the beginning.

It was 2007, and the show had a revolving door of co-hosts, with ratings only half of morning television's darling, Channel 7's Sunrise. But Wilkinson had had an "intoxicating" taste of the time slot and Nine was offering her a permanent role.

"The Today show co-hosting role at that point was the most talked-about job on Australian television. And it was a bit of a poison chalice because Karl [Stefanovic] had had so many women, he'd sat next to. Sunrise had double the numbers," Wilkinson told Mamamia's No Filter podcast ahead of the release of her autobiography It Wasn't Meant to Be Like This.

Listen to part two of Mia Freedman's interview with Lisa Wilkinson, where she talks about what actually happened when she left the Today Show and her off-air relationship with Karl Stefanvoic.  


Wilkinson had the bug. She took the job, and for 10 years she and Stefanovic sat next to each other at that Channel Nine desk.

"On-air was pretty magical," Wilkinson recalled. "It was an on-air relationship that was so good we never talked about it. Because it's one of those things where you think if you start to question it or examine it, maybe some of the magic would go."

They were an on-screen dream team, a duo so successful that they topped the morning TV ratings within their first 12 months on-air.

"We had our first win within 12 months of us being together, which, you know, Karl and I went out and celebrated with his wife and my husband because we couldn't believe that in the space of just 12 months, we'd managed to do that," Wilkinson said.

"And we both looked at each other that night and said, 'Whatever happens from here, we can I always say that once upon a time we beat Sunrise.' So it was a great night of celebration."

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Journalistically, Wilkinson told Mamamia the pair respected each other enormously. They had each other's backs in interviews and could make each other laugh.

They had to. The level of familiarity and trust between co-hosts who work so closely together from the early hours of the morning must be immense. For example, on the day Julia Gillard became prime minister, Wilkinson said she and Stefanovic were on air together from 5am until 4pm.

All of this meant there was plenty of interest in their off-air relationship too. Were they great friends? Was it all fake? 

Truthfully, she said, there wasn't much of a relationship at all.

"We almost never saw each other off-air. And there were times when I wondered why that was, because I did tend to reach out a lot more than Karl ever reached out," Wilkinson said.

"But, you know, the magic continued on air."

In an extract from her memoir, Wilkinson said by 2015 Stefanovic suggested they negotiate their pay together. A 'Friends cast'-style negotiation, where they presented a united front: 'pay us the same, or we walk'.

But by December that year, that teamwork had gone out the window. She learned that her co-host had signed a new $2 million deal with Nine, following rumours he had been approached by Seven.

Wilkinson was still renegotiating her contract in 2017.

Karl Stefanovic and Lisa Wilkinson. Image: Instagram.

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She was asking to be paid more - not equitable to Karl's salary, but closer than it was up until that point.

"We had taken that show together in the space of 10 years to number one, coming from a place where that job that I took on was a bit of a poison chalice," she told Mia Freedman on No Filter. "And I felt it was about time that the spoils got shared around a little more equitably."

The gender pay gap was a major topic of conversation around this time, especially in the breakfast entertainment world, which heightened the interest in their salaries within the media.

In May 2017, Jackie O Henderson made headlines when she claimed on air that she and long-time radio co-host Kyle Sandilands did not know if they were paid equally because they had negotiated new contracts separately.

They had been paid the same since 1999, when Sandilands learned he was paid more than three times Henderson's salary and demanded equity.

As a general topic, the gender pay gap doesn't, unfortunately, offer much of a shock. But over at Nine many people found the public money fallout surprising.

In 2014, Stefanovic famously wore the same suit every day for a year in an experiment designed to point out the different standards his female co-hosts were held to.

"No one has noticed; no one gives a shit," Stefanovic told Fairfax Media at the time. "But women, they wear the wrong colour and they get pulled up. They say the wrong thing and there's thousands of tweets written about them.

"Women are judged much more harshly and keenly for what they do, what they say and what they wear."

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Yet, when it came to money, Wilkinson said Stefanovic went it alone.

It all came to a head on the Monday morning after Wilkinson returned from annual leave.

Wilkinson and her husband, Peter FitzSimons, had just renewed their vows in a second wedding ceremony, and Stefanovic had not turned up to the event.

With all of this in mind, as well as a secret offer from Channel 10's The Project which had come to her a few weeks earlier, Wilkinson opted to go to work the following Monday knowing that things were in a strange place. She planned to assess how she felt about it all before making a decision about her future.

"Karl never said anything about the fact that he didn't turn up at the wedding, until the cameras went on," Wilkinson recalled of that morning.

"And I had a moment of thinking, 'right, so this is actually just a relationship for the cameras.' He never texted me. He never said congratulations. He texted Pete and said, 'we're not coming', but he never texted me. And I was trying to compute all of that, because I never understood why he wouldn't talk to me.

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"And that morning, the only congratulations I got was when we started the show at 5.30. And I was furious. Because I also felt a bit foolish, because I just thought, 'I don't even know what this relationship is. This is purely just a relationship for the cameras.' And I couldn't talk to him for two hours apart from what was scripted. I just couldn't talk to him. Because for the first time, in over a decade, I didn't trust myself that I was going to play nice."

Image: Getty.

By 7.30am, Wilkinson had noticed that something "really weird" was also happening with the show's run sheet.

"Almost every interview was being done by Karl on his own," she said.

She emailed FitzSimons and her manager to query the format: "There's something really weird going on. I've just come off this show that's gone from being the Today show to being the Karl show. And I don't even know where I fit in here anymore. I mean, what is this the 1960s?"

After the show she said she attended the staff conference call as per usual, and then went to the supermarket.

It was here, while she was holding a can of tuna, that her manager called.

"He said he'd just come from the head of Channel Nine's office. And I said, 'Oh, how did it go?' because I knew that he was having conversations with them that afternoon. And he said 'you're off the show.' And I said to him, 'off what show?'" she said.

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"And he said 'the Today show. You're never to appear again.' And I was literally deciding between the lemon vinaigrette can of tuna and the oven-dried tomato can of tuna. And I had a moment where I thought, 'I know, I just heard that. But did that just come over the loudspeaker? Like is everybody who's wandering around the supermarket right now, did they hear that as well?'"

Image: Getty.

Wilkinson said at first she was shocked, and then humiliated.

"And then it was thinking, 'wow, all those moments when I didn't go to the kids' school concerts because I had work, missing going on all those birthdays because we were on the road for our 'we love Australia' tours, all those wedding anniversaries that I missed, because I was, you know, somewhere in Outback New South Wales, all those times when I was grumpy because I wasn't getting enough sleep.'"

She explained that in her mind, no one had the loyalty to Today in the way that she did, but that loyalty was not reciprocated.

"I remember driving home and thinking because I tried to call Pete and his phone went straight to voicemail. And then I thought, 'Oh I'll call Karl'. And then I thought 'Is that why he didn't come to the wedding? Is that why he never texted me?' Because remember, you know, Karl's the guy that wore the same suit for a year, because he didn't like, he said, the way that women in television were treated. And yet, why didn't he question the rundown that morning that was so Karl heavy. 

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"It was just the Karl show that morning. Why didn't he stand up and say something?"

Wilkinson's pay negotiations were common knowledge in the media. 

Just days after her dismissal, the Nine Network's chief executive officer, Hugh Marks, hit out at Wilkinson in The Daily Telegraph, claiming that Wilkinson was offered a $1.8 million salary package, but wanted $2.3 million, which would've pushed her well above Stefanovic's $2m salary.

One of the main storylines was that to accommodate her 'demands', Nine would've needed to sack 10 producers.

The same narrative had never extended itself to Stefanovic's salary.

Wilkinson never returned to the Nine set she'd worked on for a decade. The next morning, the show went on without her.

Image: Nine.

"I just had to make peace with it and be realistic about [the fact that] it's television... I earn a good wage," she explained on No Filter

"I can't complain too much about what happened because, you know, a lot of television is a crapshoot. You know, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."

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Famously, Wilkinson and Stefanovic met for lunch two weeks later, but they never 'had it out'.

"I've had to really examine why I [never confronted him]... We can tend as women to want to be the peacemaker, to be the one that sort of stills the troubled waters. And I was also very aware that I could have agitated a lot more than I did. And I could have questioned a lot more. But I always felt that if I did, it would muck up our chemistry. And yet he didn't feel that way," she said.

Wilkinson said her greatest sense of closure came from moving onto The Project, where she has found "enormous joy".

"I finally was going to get to go out and do long-form interviews and get my teeth into really meaty stories because you know, breakfast TV absolutely has its place but if it doesn't fit into three minutes, then probably won't get to address it.

"Whereas on The Project, I can do something like Brittany Higgins that goes for half an hour, and I never got those opportunities at Nine. For whatever reason, Nine obviously decided that I didn't fit their mould or their brand or… I wasn't Karl. So you know, I got treated differently."

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It's now been four years since Wilkinson left Nine. She has moved on, but her legacy at the channel remains complicated.

"The simplest way I can sum it up that maybe there is a Lisa legacy of you know, 'don't cover anything that's got to do with Lisa because there's still a bit of an open wound there.'"

In February, Wilkinson's interview with Brittany Higgins, the former Liberal Party staffer who accused a colleague of raping her inside Parliament House, was the biggest story in Australia.

The following morning, it was on the front page of every newspaper and leading every breakfast TV program - except, she recalled, on Nine.

"The Today show didn't cover it until the Prime Minister spoke at about quarter to nine. And I just thought, 'Wow, there really is still a, you know, there's something about me that just has left a bad taste in their mouth.

"And it makes me really sad. Because there's so much of my time at Nine that I treasure as an incredibly precious time in my life."

It Wasn't Meant to Be Like This by Lisa Wilkinson is published by HarperCollins and is available for pre-order now from Booktopia.

Lisa Wilkinson's memoir 'It Wasn't Meant To Be Like This'  

Feature image: Nine/Getty.

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