Sonia Kruger: "I made a mistake and I ignored the warning signs. But maybe you have to learn those lessons the hard way." Photo: Peter Brew-Bevan
Sonia Kruger opens her front door dressed head to toe in black. Her outfit – a draping asymmetrical top over leather leggings and stiletto ankle boots – gives her the air of someone who means business.
It's a blustery winter's day and tealights flicker on the kitchen benchtop. Her home, like its owner, is immaculate. The place is palatial – a two-storey, manor-style house with spacious rooms that give way to sunny terraces and manicured gardens. Inside, it's all cream tones and sleek modern furnishings that wouldn't be out of place in an interior-design magazine spread.
Kruger's house, on the outskirts of Sydney's leafy upper north shore, has been something of a milestone for her. She bought it on the cusp of the GFC, just before her six-year marriage to banker James Davies went south, too. At the same time, her ailing breakfast radio show on MIX 106.5, alongside old pal Todd McKenney, went belly up. She moved to this house while still at the station – from the northern beaches to "out here in the sticks", as she describes it – to be closer for the early starts.
"So I've sat here waiting for property prices to recover," she laughs grimly. "Which they have. But now I really like it. I'd love to live closer to the water, but it's just so expensive and I can't be bothered packing and moving. I'm the sort of person who is happy to make big changes in my career, but when it comes to living somewhere, I'd rather just stay. Take me out in a box."
Not everything goes swimmingly in life. Even for celebrities. In a career that has spanned three decades in Australian film and television, Kruger, who turns 49 on Thursday, has been a survivor. Almost every opportunity has been self-generated, hard-won. And there have been plenty of stumbles – most recently, in January, the failure of her second attempt at a fashion label, SK by Sonia Kruger, which was pulled due to poor sales. In the process, she's become a woman who "tends to give lots of advice". On work and career and love.
"There are a lot of things I would do differently," says Kruger, who was 23 when she first got married. "I shouldn't have got married so young the first time around and I should have taken my time the second time around, too. I made a mistake and I ignored the warning signs. But maybe you have to learn those lessons the hard way."
Her six-year relationship with former Today Tonight boss and now Nine news heavyweight Craig McPherson has had bitter-sweet moments too. The romance started shortly after she separated from Davies. That, plus the fact that McPherson has six (adult) children and had been her boss at Today Tonight, made the pair prime for speculation.
"There was a notion that because we worked together for such a long time, there would have been all that history," says Kruger, who was Today Tonight's entertainment reporter. "But there really wasn't. He was one of the toughest bosses I've ever had. I was usually in trouble, being hauled over the coals for not writing something properly or not checking a fact."
Fate brought them together. Kruger's father was ill and McPherson sent a text message asking after him. Not long after, they met at a social function. McPherson shared that his own father had had a stroke. They bonded, says Kruger, over family and a little alcohol.
"The fact that he cared was the loveliest thing," she says. "What it revealed to me about him was that he has a really big heart. He has a tough exterior, a public-affairs persona, and he'll hate me saying this, but he's actually a very kind-hearted person. I realised I had missed something fundamental about him. He's also a very attractive man, but I hadn't seen him in that way before."
She describes McPherson as her best friend, but doesn't fancy taking a chance on wedding No. 3. "The notion of marriage makes me feel a little bit claustrophobic," she says. "There's this thought that you have to stay together, rather than you want to be together."
Four years ago, when Kruger was 45, the pair tried IVF. But, ultimately, it was not to be. "I felt like I was finally with someone I would like to have a child with," she says. "It's fine, there are far worse things that can happen to a person in life than to not have children. I would never sit there thinking, 'Woe is me.' There are other people out there undergoing much more hardship than me and I won't feel sorry for myself, I just won't."
She counts herself lucky that her siblings have six children and she's a frequent visitor to the Gold Coast, where her brother and parents live.
"Many women don't find themselves in the right relationship at the right time to have a child," says Kruger, who grew up in tough-as-nails Logan City, south of Brisbane. "Those women can be judged, and I think the assumption is that they put their career before family. In actual fact, deep down, they knew they weren't in the right relationship. For me, that's what it was."
There have been times when such honesty, combined with Kruger's sense of humour, has got her into trouble. In 2011, she told Dancing with the Stars contestant Brynne Edelsten: "I think it's nice you get on so well with your dad." At the time Edelsten was married to disgraced former doctor Geoffrey Edelsten – 40 years her senior.
A few years earlier, Kruger had joked about a "sweatshop of illegal immigrants" slaving away on her outfit for the Melbourne Cup. The Seven switchboard took complaints and the internet went wild. At the time, Kruger took it to heart. With hindsight, she believes she was trolled.
"With Brynne, there were so many vile comments on Twitter the next morning," she says. "I was gutted, devastated that I had let down the public so badly by saying something crass and tasteless, when in my head it wasn't that crass and tasteless. It made me believe it was justified and I'd made a huge error. Now I take it with a grain of salt."
These days, Kruger could probably have her pick of television projects, but she always returns to live-to-air. "There's an element of danger, stuff can go wrong and we all sit there and wait for it," she says. "It's funny when it happens, it's not life or death and it forces you to think on your feet."
It was ballroom dancing that gave Kruger confidence in front of a camera. A teenage champion, she went to London as a 17-year-old, then moved to Sydney. She quit her corporate job when she landed a role in a Belvoir St Theatre production, and was working part-time jobs when she heard someone was making a film about ballroom dancing. That someone was Baz Luhrmann. She sought out the production's casting agent and a year later was cast as the memorable Tina Sparkle in Strictly Ballroom.
"If it hadn't been for Baz I would be nowhere," she says. "It was extremely significant. I think my life probably would have taken another path altogether."
Strictly Ballroom might have opened doors, but Kruger had the talent to keep them ajar. She beat 7000 applicants to land a job on Channel Nine's children's program Wonder World. Along the way, she completed an arts degree and taught dance at NIDA. From Nine, she went to Seven. Not long after, her show 11am was axed. So she went downstairs and asked for a job as entertainment reporter at Today Tonight.
Casual shifts led to a full-time job. She interviewed Elton John, Robert Redford, Madonna and Hugh Grant, to name a few. "I remember thinking, 'I can't believe I'm interviewing Robert Redford, I can't believe I'm interviewing Brad Pitt,' " she says. "With Madonna, I went in absolutely shaking in my boots, but she was so warm and friendly. I would never have expected Madonna to be a girl's girl but she gave me that feeling."
Kruger spent almost a decade at Today Tonight. But it's as an ever-smiling presenter that she has made her name. Her smile kept millions of viewers coming back to Dancing with the Stars for eight years and her light touch has given new life to Nine's revamped Big Brother. Almost three years ago, when Kerri-Anne Kennerley exited Nine's daytime line-up, Kruger effortlessly took the reins of Mornings, alongside singer David Campbell. Both she and Campbell have stagecraft in spades and what they lack in gravitas, they polish over with performance.
"Dancing was great training from the point of view of having confidence when you're not feeling that confident," she says. "If you make a mistake, you get back up and keep going. You're only ever as good as your finish. Keep smiling until you get to the dismount and then you can breathe out."
The coming season of Big Brother, starting on September 8, will be Kruger's third, and she relishes the prospect. "It looks like I'm only on stage for an hour but they're 12- or 13-hour days. But I thrive when it's busy; I turn into a sloth, otherwise."
One year shy of her 50th birthday, Kruger claims she has no exercise regimen, no special diet – just the muscle memory of all those years dancing, plus walking her dog Fergie and a few Zumba classes each week.
"Age used to be a problem for women in television," she says. "Now, not so much. There'll always be young ones coming through the ranks, but all the marquee positions are going to older women: Lisa Wilkinson, Tracy Grimshaw, Sandra Sully. Australia's population is getting older and what we're seeing is ourselves reflected on television. It's a very good thing for women in the industry."
Lead-in photograph: Peter Brew-Bevan. Hair and make-up: Mia Hawkswell.