How Sarah Harris went from housing commission to TV presenter


Erin O'Dwyer

Rising star: Sarah Harris hasn't looked back, professionally, since doing work experience at Channel Seven in year 11.

Rising star: Sarah Harris hasn't looked back, professionally, since doing work experience at Channel Seven in year 11. Photo: Max Doyle

When television presenter Sarah Harris spoke out in defence of women too scared to leave their violent partners, her comments made national headlines. Her own life was also on the radar. "As someone who has been very, very close to domestic violence, as a child and also as an adult ... unless you've been in it, it's really hard to understand," Harris said on Channel 10's morning chat show Studio 10.

The incident, in April, may be little more than a footnote in television history. But it reveals a young woman who, despite the odds, has risen to the top of her game. At the time, Harris was speaking to domestic violence survivor Rosie Batty, whose son Luke was killed by his father on a cricket field in front of horrified onlookers in February.

When panellist Joe Hildebrand suggested that women had to "absolutely get out" in order to protect their children, Batty was outraged. Harris weighed in, chiding Hildebrand and siding with Batty. "I was trying to stick up for Joe," says Harris now. "Unless you've seen domestic violence up close, you don't know how hard and complicated it is."

Harris's own childhood was less than pretty. She grew up in Sydney's western suburbs, in a housing commission home in Mt Druitt, the eldest daughter of a single mother who gave birth just one week after her 18th birthday.


"Back then, Mt Druitt was no place for a single mother," says Harris. "There were people carrying sawn-off shotguns while Mum drove us to school. The school I went to had barbed wire and you couldn't play in the sandpit because there were junkies shooting up and leaving syringes around."

In her 20s, Harris supported a friend trapped in a violent relationship. The couple was at the other end of the social spectrum – the woman was well-educated and popular. "She got the best table at the best restaurants and she was in the social pages every other Saturday," says Harris, who is 33 in July. "It was horrific and it was brutal and she never knew where the next punch was coming from. It can happen to anyone.

"I saw it up close, and it's not my story to tell, but the conversation shouldn't be about why don't women leave. The conversation should be why are men still doing this. It's not glamorous, and it's not pretty to talk about, so no one does."

When we meet at the Channel 10 studios in Sydney, Harris strides up to me and extends her hand. She's warm and forthright, and not afraid to speak her mind. At an Italian restaurant, we order an antipasto platter; Harris, who is getting married in July, gets excited about the Italian sausage. She's tall and sassy, and, I imagine, good fun to be with. She's less immaculately groomed newsreader, more gung-ho journo. She's elegant but casual in a floral frock, ballet flats and a heavy coat.

Her short blonde hair is scraped back into a haphazard braid and she wears no make-up. She admits she's nervous about our interview, still unfamiliar with the celebrity status that has come with her job on Studio 10.

"When you have to battle your way through childhood, you have an appreciation of the things that come to you later in life," she says. "I never thought I'd be sitting here talking to you, doing this sort of thing. I had something to prove, a bit of a chip on my shoulder, when I first started out. Now I can say to myself, 'Not everything is a battle.'"

Her gig as a panellist – along with media identities Ita Buttrose, Jessica Rowe and Joe Hildebrand – comes after stints as a reporter for Channel Nine's Today show and fill-in hosting duties on Nine News, Weekend Today and Mornings. She cut her teeth in television newsrooms and covered the Black Saturday bushfires, the Queensland floods, and the Christchurch earthquake.

"I miss being on the road," she admits. "That buzz where you haven't slept for three days or had a shower and you're there with the world's media and you crack a beer with everyone and then you're back at it the next day."

Her hard news background allows her to drive the Studio 10 news agenda, but the chat show format has also allowed her to reveal more of herself. She can hold her own and has a gift for comic timing.

"I feel the most 'myself' in this role," says Harris, who has battled with self-belief. "Women, especially, have an imposter syndrome and I struggled with it for a long time. I don't know whether I finally shrugged it off, or if it's because I'm engaged to be married, or because I get to work with people like Ita and Jess and Joe. It's like, the less you care and worry, the more yourself you can be, and the better things become."

Buttrose says her younger colleague is "just one lovely human being". She describes Harris as hardworking, professional and cool under pressure. "She's been an understudy for a long time and she was waiting for this moment to be properly discovered," says Buttrose, who considers herself friend, mentor and mother-figure. "I'd encourage her to keep pushing her boundaries. Sometimes women don't realise how good they are. She is really good, and she needs to be told that."

The announcement in May that 150 jobs would be axed from Network Ten left the Studio 10 team reeling. The show was left unscathed, but Harris says she felt "winded, I had survivor's guilt". "Television is facing a brave new world," she says. "We're going to see really big changes."

Contentment in her private life has brought a fresh confidence to Harris. She and her fiancé, Tom Ward, an IT specialist, met five years ago in a Sydney bar. "Single girls, it can happen," she jokes.

"We didn't fall in love and move in together straight away, it's been quite a journey," says Harris. "I was away for months at a time for work so we were together but apart quite a lot. Then last year we said, 'What are we doing? Why don't we spend more time together?' We decided to put more time into us and that's when it happened."

In stark contrast to her own family background, Ward is from a big noisy family of Irish Catholics. Guests at their lunch-time wedding will sit at long tables in tribute to the Ward family lunches. "I feel very lucky to have fallen into that sphere," says Harris. "I've always wanted children, but I wasn't sure I was the marrying type. I was never one of those girls picking out wedding dresses and bridesmaids. I had world domination on my mind."

The proposal, and the ring, which Ward chose, came as a surprise. "We hadn't spoken about it but there is something profound about seeing a special man kneel before you. He's solid and genuine and he has a moral compass. He's brilliant and very grounding for me."

Harris laughingly baulks at the suggestion that a "six-foot-four flaming ranga" – as she lovingly describes him – has completed her. But finding a partner has brought happiness. "He's my best mate," she says.

It was the death of INXS frontman Michael Hutchence that gave Harris her first taste of a big news story. She was doing work experience at Channel Seven the week of his funeral. Her task? To stuff the office Christmas cards. "I stuffed those envelopes like there was no tomorrow and by one o'clock I was like, 'What else can I do?' So they sent me to the newsroom."

The next week Harris was offered a casual job. She was only in year 11 but already she was hooked. "Just the buzz of the newsroom, the chief of staff yelling, the droll sense of humour journalists have," she laughs. "I didn't have a licence so my mum and stepdad would drive me in for my four-hour shift, wait in the car and drive me home. I would even go in on my days off."

Home, in those days, was Bribie Island – a quaint holiday island an hour north of Brisbane. Harris's maternal grandparents had retired there from Sydney, and when Harris was seven, her mother moved there, too. "I still remember Mum came home and said, 'We're moving to Queensland' and I said, 'Like Scott and Charlene from Neighbours?'"

It was a complete sea change from Mt Druitt, where they had been living next door to members of the Murphy family – at the time, three Murphy brothers had been convicted of the infamous 1986 murder of Anita Cobby. "Mum said, 'I can't raise my kids like this,'" Harris says. "She wanted us to have the best chance. That's what has always spurred me on to succeed. I never wanted to go back there and I worked really hard to get where I am."

Living on Bribie Island turned Harris into a Queenslander – a tag she is still happy to wear. She describes her move to Sydney when she was 28 as the toughest year of her life. "I took a big leap into the unknown, coming down on my own. I didn't know a soul, I was pretty broke because I was paying too much in rent. I didn't even own a heater and would lie in bed on really cold nights with my hairdryer on."

Harris called a friend and bawled over the phone. "She said the reason we have seasons is because you can't appreciate summer if you haven't been through winter. It was a pretty good metaphor for my life at the time."

Five years on, Harris is happily ensconced in Sydney. In recent years, she has reconnected with her family in western Sydney, nursing her father as he died from prostate cancer at just 50 and sharing stories with her 85-year-old Croatian grandmother.

"They came to Australia by boat in the 1950s and built their two-storey brick home by hand," says Harris. "My nanna was mixing concrete when she was pregnant." She affects a heavy accent. "Mixing, mixing ... 'Nanna, what did you think of Sydney?' Hot, hot, hot, hate, hate, hate."

"But she loves Australia now," adds Harris.

I'm transported to the heart of western Sydney, imagining Harris and her grandmother chatting over a cup of tea. It's a little glimpse of the real Sarah Harris. Expect plenty more to come.


Photography by Max Doyle. Styling by Penny McCarthy. Hair and make-up by Luana Coscia for Fudge. Shot on location at Mr Cook Florist, Lead-in image: Sarah wears Ginger & Smart dress, Christian Louboutin shoes. Above image: Sarah wears Yeojin Bae dress.