real life

MIA FREEDMAN: 'I've known Lisa Wilkinson for 30 years. Here's what the public doesn't know about her.'

October 2017

I can’t remember how I found out that Lisa Wilkinson was leaving the Today show. But I remember it came as a shock. Not just to me, as it turns out.

To Australia. And also to Lisa.

But I didn’t know that yet.

It was an ordinary Monday night in October 2017 and I was already in my pyjamas. I was doing some work when a news alert came up. Lisa had abruptly left the Today show after 10 years.

Wait, did I miss a meeting? 

It’s weird hearing news about a friend via... the news. But there are many weird things about having a friend who happens to be beloved by most of the country. People are invested in every aspect of her life.

I hadn’t spoken to her for a while and I knew that contract negotiations had been dragging, but this was huge.

Watch: Lisa Wilkinson on finding out Karl was paid more to do the same job. 


Video via Mamamia

I looked around for my phone and realised it was in another room. A missed call and a text message from Lisa’s husband, Pete.

Yes, it was true. She was leaving Nine but going to Channel Ten. Great new job. An announcement was about to be made. She was OK. Shaken but OK.

Without even thinking, I slipped on my Ugg boots, grabbed a bottle of champagne out of the fridge, got in my car and drove across the Harbour Bridge to her house. It was 9:30pm.

I arrived to a surprisingly calm scene. Lisa still had her TV makeup on from the show that morning and unlike me, she wasn’t wearing her pyjamas. Neither was Pete.

His face was knitted into a mix of concern and pride as he fielded calls. They were coming in fast from concerned friends and family who had heard the news and wanted to know what on earth was going on. Lisa? Leaving Today? But why?

Great question. Nobody seemed to be able to answer it.

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I searched Lisa’s face for a read on how she was. In shock, mostly. And definitely rattled. But calm.

This is a woman whose hair is never on fire no matter how hot things get.

Lisa’s daughter, Billi was there (pyjamas), so was Lisa’s manager, Nick (not pyjamas), and her friend Ben Fordham (also not pyjamas). 

The next few hours were totally surreal. 

It felt like the eye of the storm; a very ordinary scene in the kitchen of a family home except it was extraordinary.

Listen to part one of my interview with Lisa Wilkinson on No Filter, where you'll hear the story of Lisa like you’ve never heard her before. Look out for part two of the interview, which drops on Wednesday.


As Lisa’s phone blew up, we watched the news break everywhere.

Leaving one job. Landing another. As Pete observed wryly, Lisa was unemployed for 15 minutes between announcements.

I could tell she was excited about going to Channel 10 and joining The Project. It meant new challenges, bigger things, fresh opportunities. Working with people like Carrie and Waleed and Pete who she adored and admired. 

But I could also tell she was gutted. Friendships are forged in the fire of shitty times as well as great ones. 

And that night in Lisa’s kitchen, it was both.

Mia Freedman and Lisa Wilkinson with their children. Image: Supplied. 

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November 1991

I don’t have a photo of the first time I met Lisa in person. Camera phones weren’t yet a thing and as much of a fangirl as I was, it never occurred to me to take an actual camera to a job interview. I had to act cool.

I was 19 years old and there I was, sitting on the other side of Lisa Wilkinson’s desk in her big, ugly office inside the famous Park St building in Sydney’s CBD while she looked over my utterly pathetic CV which included multiple waitressing jobs and a year of a communications degree.

She must have been so impressed.

The size of Lisa’s office wasn’t surprising. She was the editor of Cleo, one of the biggest magazines in Australia, after all. 

The ugly part threw me for a second, though.

I guess I’d expected the inside of a glossy magazine like Cleo to match the magazine itself at least a little.

As I’d sat waiting in the reception area - which was four plastic chairs directly facing the women’s bathroom - my eyes were wide as I took in every detail. The dirty brown carpet, so threadbare in places that masking tape had been used to cover holes, the peeling paint on the walls. The black stains around the air conditioning vents, it was dilapidated at best.

Pretty soon, I’d come to understand that Kerry Packer, the owner of Cleo and the many other magazines produced in that building, didn’t become one of the richest men in Australia by spending money on fancy fit-outs.

And I cared about none of it. Because stuck to those walls and to the door of Lisa’s office, were Cleo covers, the poster-sized ones that sat outside newsagents. 

And that’s why I was there.

Because I was in love with that magazine and I was in love with Lisa.

Lisa Wilkinson and Mia Freedman have been friends for nearly 30 years. Image: Supplied. 

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Magazines changed lives back then, especially Dolly and Cleo

Before the internet, there was no other media that covered issues pertaining to women or girls.

From relationships to contraception, feminism to fashion… magazines saw all aspects of the world through a female lens. And those brands were our north stars: their editors were rock stars. Especially Lisa. But in the most approachable, big sister way. 

Of course, she had no clue who I was, beyond some first year university student who had written her a very unoriginal letter begging for a chance to work at Cleo. But I knew all about her.

Today, it’s called a para-social relationship and it describes the connection we have with the people we follow on social media. We think we know them even though we’ve never met and in a way we do. Because they show themselves to us, or a version of themselves.

That’s what hundreds of thousands of women and girls had with Lisa Wilkinson because we’d grown up reading her editor’s letters in Dolly and then Cleo.

I thought the models in magazines were amazing but I never wanted to be them. I wanted to be Lisa. I wanted to do what she did.

This is the Lisa I fell in love with as a girl who wanted some day to work at a magazine, even before I really understood what that involved…

Lisa Wilkinson was editor of Dolly and Cleo. Image: Supplied. 

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The five years I spent working underneath Lisa, learning at her knee, were some of the best and most formative years of my life. They were also a rollicking good time.

After I finished my original two weeks of work experience that Lisa gave me, I just kept turning up several days a week and hoping nobody would send me home. 

Eventually, I talked my way into a paid gig as a beauty writer and that was the start of my media career.

The next few years, were like magazine university.

When I became more senior and was promoted to lifestyle editor, I would spend hours in Lisa’s office in coverlines meetings with some of the smartest women I’ve ever worked with; Wendy Squires and Deborah Thomas and Paula Joye, crafting coverlines for the stories in each issue  - lines so good they’d make someone want to buy the magazine.

Mia Freedman with some of the smartest women she's ever worked with. Image: Supplied. 

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It was golden training for writing headlines as a digital journalist. Even though digital back then meant something you did with your fingers.

I learned at Lisa’s knee what made the perfect Cleo cover.

Approachable yet sexy. Fresh yet familiar. Quintessentially Australian even if it was a photo of an international supermodel. 

There was something about a Cleo cover that was impossible to define but Lisa knew it when she saw it and it’s how she picked one image out of 80 that were shown to her from the ‘cover try’ done by the fashion director, Nicole Bonython and edited down by the art director, Fiona McEwan.

Lisa taught me the most valuable lesson of my career and one that has become a core value at Mamamia: always walk in her shoes. 

She explained to me very early on that we weren’t making Cleo for ourselves or to impress other people in the industry. 

More than anyone I have ever met, Lisa has always had an uncanny ability to put herself in the shoes of the audience. The reader, the viewer, the listener.

She gets people. She knows how they receive information. 

And it’s her superpower.

Lisa Wilkinson and Mia Freedman at the old Mamamia office. Image: Supplied. 

June 2010

I’m sitting on the side of the Today show desk watching Lisa host live rolling coverage of a political coup.

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Co-hosting breakfast TV wasn’t on her bingo card because she’d been such a creature of magazines. And also because by the time she was offered this gig, she was 47. 

Commercial television rarely values women as they become older and more experienced.

But here she was and she was in her element, alongside Karl Stefanovic. Except on this particular day in 2010, Karl wasn’t in the studio, he was in Canberra. The new leader of the country was a woman so it was a huge and historical day.

The question is what on earth I was doing there.

Mia Freedman as a commentator on the Today show. Image: Supplied. 

While I was building Mamamia, I was earning a small bit of cash as a semi-regular Today show contributor. 

The Executive Producer, Tom Malone, had called me the night before to see if I could come in and be a ‘social media commentator’ which at the time meant reporting on what people were saying on Twitter.  

Thankfully, there were people far more qualified than me to commentate on a political coup and I was rarely on camera. 

Most of the time I got to watch Lisa work, seamlessly throwing to Karl in Canberra and to various guests around the country and in the studio. 

It was an extraordinary sight on an extraordinary day and not for the first time, I was struck by how outstanding Lisa was at her job.

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Under the desk, I crossed my legs and cursed that I hadn’t been more diligent with my kegel exercises. 

After three babies, my pelvic floor was frankly a garbage fire. I was busting to go to the toilet, but that wasn’t an option. Not when you’re on live TV and as rolling coverage unfolds.

My contribution to said coverage was so insignificant as to be redundant but still, there I was on the desk and there had been no commercial breaks for three hours. 

I was hooked up to mics and I couldn’t leave my seat in case they needed to throw to me for an emergency… tweet.

My eyes were practically watering. Was that wee coming out of my eyes?

Possibly.

As Australia’s first female Prime Minister was sworn into office by our first female Governor-General, Lisa reached under the table and we squeezed each other’s hand.

Mia Freedman and Lisa Wilkinson's friendship has spanned almost 30 years. Image: Supplied. 

*****

One way to measure a friendship is in years. By that measure, my friendship with Lisa spans almost three decades and her influence on my life even longer.

We have been there to celebrate every one of each other’s milestone birthdays, ever since Lisa turned 30 and I was the work experience girl, standing in the corner watching her blow out her candles and thinking she was impossibly brilliant. 

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We have had babies at the same time, given one another parenting advice, relationship advice and career advice.

We have become friendly with one another’s friends, watched each other’s babies grow up and grow facial hair (the boys, now men) and been there for funerals, weddings and career milestones. My last day at Cleo. Her first day at Channel 9. 

We’ve also had one really big fight where I shouted at her over the phone and I think that’s often a testament to a close friendship. Sometimes, things get real and you can hurt one another without meaning to.

Needless to say, we made up.

"For those who have asked me 'what is Lisa Wilkinson really like?', I’ve always said the same thing," writes Mia Freedman. Image: Supplied. 

Back in her kitchen that night, as I hugged her goodbye before trotting off into the night, I thought about what a comforting presence Lisa has been over generations and across mediums. 

For all the women who grew up reading Dolly and Cleo and everyone who has watched her on TV, there’s always been something about Lisa’s calming tone and presence that makes you feel like things are going to be OK. 

For those who have asked me “what is Lisa Wilkinson really like?”, I’ve always said the same thing.

She’s exactly how she seems on TV. She’s down to earth. She is genuinely curious and interested in everyone she meets. She’s warm and she’s kind. She’s never volatile. Always calm. 

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She asks a lot of questions and cares a lot about details. Lisa loves details. There is no such thing as a short phone call with Lise. Or a short conversation of any kind. 

She’s all in. 

She’s one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met, she gives great hugs and she loves dogs. Almost as fiercely as she loves her kids and her husband.

At heart, she’s a girl from a working-class family who is incredibly grateful for everything she’s achieved and is still in pinch-me mode even after all these years and all those accolades.

But I don’t think she should be grateful. 

I think she should be proud of everything she has achieved and continues to achieve. 

I’m certainly proud to be her friend and walk in the path she has laid for so many women, brick by brick, across some pretty bloody rocky terrain.

‘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: Mamamia/Supplied.

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