Virginia Trioli. In the world of Australian journalism, she’s it. Virginia is a Walkley Award Winner, author, broadcaster, the host of ABC News Breakfast and recently, she also became a mum.
She writes beautifully – and has written for Mamamia many times in the past – and we recently caught up with her to talk about motherhood, feminism and her secret to achieving work/life balance.
MM: You had your first child earlier this year, how is being a mother? Is it what you expected? Has it changed you?
VT: I’ve never been happier. I’m sorry, I hunted around for ages trying to find a phrase that wasn’t a cliche, and I can’t find one — because all the cliches are true. My heart is full, my baby is wonderful, our family is lucky and blessed. I was so fortunate I could take a year off, because there is no pressure on me to do anything else but care for this little boy. I think I am a much more flexible person now, because the phrase “just go with it” was clearly made for life with a baby. I can see more clearly now how being a step-mum has prepared me for this task — the patience and empathy required — and I am more grateful than ever for the relationships I have with Russell’s wonderful children.
MM: What do you think of the whole ‘mummy wars’ terminology? Is it something you engage in professionally or personally? Do you think the media fosters the ‘mummy wars’?
VT: I genuinely don’t know what that term means, nor where it came from. If women exchange different points of view over parenting and work/home challenges, and — heaven forfend — they even disagree with each other, why is that a war? I think the term attempts to reduce a discussion between women to a purple jelly-wrestling match, and I simply refuse to engage with that, which I think is the best way to kill off the term.
MM: How would you define your kind of feminism?
VT: I have long felt a connection to the very early discussion that Australian feminists had in the 60s about ‘liberation’ versus ‘equality’ feminism: the idea that women should try to construct an entirely new way of living their lives rather than, as Germaine Greer put it, trying to ‘live the lives of unfree men’, and I still see that as an important goal. Many blokes are just as oppressed by gender expectations, and if we button ourselves up into their suits, their choices, their lives and stop trying to imagine a more nuanced life for ourselves, then I think we miss the opportunity for true liberation.
MM: As a woman on television, you’re subjected to constant scrutiny about your appearance. How do you deal with that sort of pressure? Do your male colleagues receive the same kind of scrutiny?
VT: You know the answer to this question already! Isn’t it astonishing how persistent this scrutiny and discrimination is? For every story I could tell you — about the hair/lipstick/dress/breasts comments — there are a dozen other women on TV who could tell you something worse. I have no idea how to make it stop. On my good days I laugh; on not so good days, I ignore it. On my bad days, I tell the critic to shove off.
MM: Australia has a female PM, a female Governor General, three female High Court justices – do we need feminism any more?
VT: That doesn’t mean the job is over yet! And liberation and equality don’t end at our coastline: it’s a universal challenge. Let’s ask women living under Taliban rule that question.
MM: What’s the biggest challenge facing Australian women?
VT: Income security as we age. One of the fastest growing groups of homeless in Australia are women — divorced, widowed, or with children — who cannot provide homes for themselves. Older women will represent a significant underclass in this country if we don’t confront wage and superannuation disparity, as well as the ongoing issue of STDs: sexually transmitted debts.
MM: They say that “You cannot be what you cannot see.” Who do you admire? Who did you look to when growing up?
VT: I feel I have always had the inspiration of strong, funny, resilient women and men around me all my life. From my favorite teachers to colleagues at my very first jobs and in journalism. I always gravitated to the people who had life experiences beyond me, with history and stories to tell that open up the world to me in unexpected ways. One key influence was a remarkable woman, writer, journalist and later winemaker, Sue Mackinnon. Many years older than me, she was a warm, wise and wickedly funny woman whose intellect and curiosity were inspirational. She was diagnosed with Muscular Dystrophy at a very young age and bore that dreadful disease all her life with humbling optimism. She died several years ago, but I still talk to her all the time.
MM: What was the most disappointing moment or biggest setback in your career? How did you recover?
VT: As a young journalist for The Age I made a crucial error in a news report that ran on page one. By the time I got to work that morning there was already a “Please see me” note on my desk from the editor. I remember thinking I might very well die of terror during the long walk across to his office. He tore strips from me and then my Chief of Staff did the same thing. If ever there was a swift, brutal lesson in the importance of accuracy that was it. Double and triple checking everything — everything — is second nature now.
MM: How do you think the introduction of ABC24 – so that Australia now has two 24 -hour news channels – has impacted the Australian media landscape?
VT: We all know the paradox of 24-hour news coverage: access and information provision is widened even more, which is an important part of a healthy democracy; but it also means policy and politics can become captive to short-term action and response. It’s very important that the ABC be involved in continuous news coverage and not leave it to just one operator, but the challenge is to stay accurate and meaningful while working at a pretty frantic pace.
MM: What’s your greatest talent/achievement that you will never be able to put on your resume?
VT: I can put my baby in bed fully awake and he will drift off to sleep, and I taught him to do that myself. Addison was a reflux baby and early on sleep was very challenging so I can’t tell you the sense of accomplishment that gives me each time I do it. You can take back the Walkleys — this is the prize. I have been known to run around the house afterwards punching the air to the tune of ‘Rocky’.
MM: What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received? What’s the worst?
VT: Be brave. Whether it be in love, in work, in any of your relationships — trust your instincts and back yourself. If you fail, you won’t die, but you’ll have honored your true feelings and that’s what matters most.
And my mother always told me to keep out of the sun: she was right.
The worst? Virtually any time a sales assistant says to you “That looks fantastic on you” when you know damn well it doesn’t. Like I said: trust your instincts.
MM: If you could be the best in the world in any field, what would you choose? Why?
VT: Pastry chef. I’m not bad, and my cakes and tarts got my stepchildren through the horror years 11 and HSC with emergency afternoon tea and Sunday night treats. But there’s a level of skill and finesse just beyond my reach that I’d love to achieve.
MM: Fess up. What’s your favourite chain store and what was the last thing you bought?
VT: I’m a huge fan of Big W: just bought a packet of ten bibs for five bucks. And J. Crew: I have an Olympic qualification in shopping online at that store.
MM: Can work life balance exist? Have you found it?
VT: Don’t tell anyone, but the best-kept secret of breakfast television is that the hours are fantastic, particularly with young ones (which is why almost all the hosts have little kids). You keep the same hours as the children, have all day at home with them, nap with them and go to bed with them. Perfect.
Virginia Trioli is a presenter on ABC News Breakfast. You can follow her on twitter here.