Anchor woman

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After 16 years reporting with the ABC, Leigh Sales landed her most prestigious role yet as the co-host of the new-look 7.30. She talks to Helen Pitt about how she found her voice.

Leigh Sales, photographed for <i> Sunday Life</i>.

Leigh Sales, photographed for Sunday Life. Photo: Nick Leary

Most of us know Leigh Sales as the former presenter of Lateline. We know she's an impressive interviewer who beat out Tony Jones, Virginia Trioli, Ali Moore and Annabel Crabb to take the helm of the ABC's current-affairs flagship. We've heard her award-winning radio journalism, and seen her on television as the ABC's North American correspondent and in conversation with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. We may even know she's the author of a book about Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks and another titled On Doubt, and that she writes about books in her Well-readhead blog. But how many of us know about Leigh Sales, wedding singer?

"Somewhere in Brisbane lurks video footage of me singing at several people's weddings," says 37-year-old Sales, who supported herself through university in the early '90s singing at weddings. It began when a friend's sister asked her to sing at her nuptials and blossomed into a solid part-time job. Several decades and countless renditions of Wind Beneath My Wings later, she remains an accomplished musician. A dedicated pianist since the age of 10, her repertoire varies from Chopin to show tunes. Her singing voice is renowned among her friends, several of whom have asked her to sing on special occasions.

"We used to call her the Friday-night funnyman when we worked together in the [Washington] DC office of the ABC, because she would keep us entertained singing and carrying on until the early hours," says friend and colleague Lisa Millar. For Millar's 40th birthday, Sales rewrote the words to Bohemian Rhapsody and sang them with Freddie Mercury-like flamboyance on keyboard. It brought the house down. (People have begged Millar for a copy of the DVD of this performance, but she refuses.)

As with her on-screen presenting, Sales is a polished performer, who makes what she does seem effortless. But no one sees the years of scales she's put in on the piano, or hears the number of times she's practised to perfect her pitch. As Sales's army dad, Dale, used to tell her in his military parlance: "Planning and practice prevent piss-poor performance." It's a maxim Brisbane-born Leigh Peta Sales has lived by all her life, and one she's putting to use in her new role on 7.30.

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We meet for morning tea in inner-Sydney Glebe, at the tidy terrace she shares with her husband, Phil Willis, an animator working on Happy Feet 2. There's an upright piano in the dining room, a reward Sales gave herself for finishing the Hicks book. Some sheet music - Chopin - sits on the open piano, although she confesses she's not played much since the 7.30 announcement. It's not only that she's preoccupied with preparations for the show, but the social invitations have also been piling up, like the unread copies of The New Yorker on her dining-room table.

She serves tea and coffee in colourful Italian Deruta ceramic cups, revealing her love of ritual: making tea in a pot and baking, which she finds meditative and rhythmic, like playing music. She has a terrible sweet tooth, she claims. She was going to make scones for morning tea (Bill Granger's recipe, not Flo Bjelke-Petersen's), but she's keen to shed what she calls her "Christmas kilos" before getting in front of the camera.

With her hair pinned back in a ponytail, it's easy to see why the woman at her local yoga studio didn't recognise her when she told Sales she "looks like the woman on Lateline". She doesn't like to wear much make-up if she doesn't have to; on work days, she spends 75 minutes having her hair and make-up done before going on screen. Choosing her outfit, she says, is the most stressful part of her job (she's relieved a stylist will now do this for her at 7.30).

Sales's well-ordered mind is the product of a well-ordered home on the outskirts of Brisbane. Her dad, who rose to the rank of regimental sergeant major and worked in East Timor with General Peter Cosgrove, was away a lot. Sales lived in the family home with her mother, Ann, who worked as a clerk for Telecom, her younger brother, Glen (now a federal policeman), and her maternal grandmother. She attended Aspley State High School and played the lead in several musicals.

Sales says the key to her escape from suburban Brisbane lies in the neatly stacked bookshelf that fills her living-room wall: books changed her life. Her love of reading dates to first grade, when she was bedridden with scarlet fever, measles and mumps. Her mother bought her a copy of Enid Blyton's The Enchanted Wood, which she still has today on that bookshelf, along with a host of titles ranging from fiction by Vikram Seth through to Keith Richards' biography.

"If Mum was reading Master of the Game by Sidney Sheldon and I was 10 and it caught my eye, I'd read it, too," she says. "I was a very nerdy, bookish sort of child; I played the piano and wasn't very good at sport." Anne of Green Gables was an early fictional mentor.

"Leigh shares some of Anne's traits - she had a temper when she was young; she is a redhead, after all," says her childhood friend Melissa Deacon, who in 2006 took a road trip with Sales to Canada's Prince Edward Island to see their childhood heroine's home. Deacon recalls the time a teenage Sales hit her brother on the head with a saucepan in jest because he wasn't doing the washing up properly. "She's mellowed over the years, but she did have a very disciplined childhood," says Deacon.

"The drive her father gave both Leigh and her brother was something you wouldn't have found in an ordinary Brisbane household."

Sales's high-school friends expected her to become a performer: either a musician or a comedian. Instead, she studied journalism at Queensland Institute of Technology, becoming the first in her family to get a degree. On the train to classes, she met her future husband, Willis, who was the son of the minister at the Assemblies of God evangelical church she attended at that time. They married when she was 23, he 22. "I was a child bride and a cougar," she jokes (and no, she didn't sing at her own wedding). On graduation, she was turned down for a journalism cadetship at the Courier-Mail newspaper, and instead went to Channel Nine as a researcher. From the moment she joined the ABC in Brisbane in 1995, her goal was to become North American correspondent; her lifelong interest in the US was forged early from the pages of Huckleberry Finn.

"It seemed to me everything interesting that happened in the world always had a sequel in America," she says. Sales arrived in Washington, DC, just after September 11, 2001, and during her tenure as correspondent won a Walkley for her reporting of Guantanamo Bay.

Sales also has a master's degree in international relations from Deakin University and studied Italian in her spare time, taking a brief detour to Italy on her way home from the US to become national security correspondent for ABC News. She began presenting Lateline in 2008, where her wit and versatility in live interviews became apparent. Chosen to conduct the only Australian television interview with Hillary Clinton last year, she told the audience during the warm-up, "Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what's said up here today, I'd ask you to keep your shoes on ... Unless they're designer ladies size 10, in which case, throw them straight to me."

This serious but silly approach is classic Sales, say those close to her, who also describe her as a loyal friend who shows up in good times and bad - whether it's former newsreader Indira Naidoo's 2002 Las Vegas wedding or the funeral of a colleague's mother on the day before last year's federal election. (Sales got up before dawn, flew from Canberra to Melbourne, hired a car and drove an hour to Geelong for the service, before heading back to Canberra to present Lateline from Parliament House that night.) Lisa Millar says Sales nursed her through a difficult divorce with her heart and ears always open, even at 2am. Sales is a doting godmother and aunt to two nephews, but has no children herself.

"We've been married for 15 years and it hasn't happened yet."

For now, Sales is focused on working with her 7.30 co-host, Chris Uhlmann. The two pitched the idea of anchoring together before they were chosen for the job. Uhlmann describes her attention to detail as "forensic". He doubts there will be accusations of any political bias in her work. Fairness and balance are among her finest attributes, he says.

Sales also wants her sunny Queensland personality to shine through to viewers, to be more Anna Bligh than Julia Gillard. She questions, though, whether this will affect her credibility:

"One of my attributes is warmth, so I don't want to not be warm, but I do want to be taken seriously."

Sales sees her time on Lateline as an off-Broadway performance; now, at 7.30, she's about to hit Broadway. She describes herself as an anxious person who worries about both the little questions ("Should I smile when I open the show?") and the big ("Should I believe in God?"). For the record, she doesn't; a subject she covered deftly in her 2009 book On Doubt.

"I couldn't get my head around the fact with religion that if you don't believe this, you are going to hell. I found I just couldn't get there."

Her friends say her capacity for self-doubt is one of her strengths. But on how she feels about taking over from that other redhead, Kerry O'Brien, she is firm. "I have a lot of regard and respect for Kerry and what Kerry's done. But Kerry's gone now and it's time for me and Chris to do the show."

Pioneering women of the Australian media

Anne Deveson (born 1930) A trailblazer who in the mid-1960s was one of the first women to run her own daily current-affairs radio program. In the 1970s she became one of the few women to work as a war correspondent and documentary maker.

Caroline Jones (born 1938)
Joined the ABC in Canberra in 1963 and later became the first female reporter for This Day Tonight, then the first female presenter of Four Corners, from 1973 to 1981.

Margaret Throsby (born 1941)
Nicknamed the "velvet throat", she joined the ABC announcing staff in 1967. On October 15, 1975, she became the first woman to read national radio news since World War II. In 1978, she became the first woman to present national television news.

Ita Buttrose (born 1942)
In 1972, aged 30, she took the helm of the ground-breaking Cleo magazine. In 1975 she became the youngest editor of The Australian Women's Weekly, and in 1981 became the first female editor of a major Australian newspaper.

Maxine McKew (born 1953)
Before entering federal politics in 2007, McKew spent more than 30 years working at the ABC, as relief presenter on The 7.30 Report and as Lateline frontwoman from 1996 until 1999 (then Friday presenter from 2001 to 2006).

Jana Wendt (born 1956)
In 1979 she became the first female, as well as the youngest, reporter on 60 Minutes, before hosting A Current Affair in 1988. Wendt returned to 60 Minutes in 1994 and was also a correspondent on the US edition of the show.

From: Sunday Life