Rowe with her daughters Giselle, 6 (left), and Allegra, 8. Photo: James Mullins
It was a grenade lobbed in the spotlight of morning television. Jessica Rowe, whose "boning" was reportedly discussed by her former boss Eddie McGuire nearly a decade ago, finally got her own back. Earlier this month, the Studio 10 panel was discussing yet another McGuire controversy, this time a claim of racism after the Collingwood president and former Nine Network chief executive described the Muslim Victorian sports minister John Eren as a "soccer-loving Turkish-born Mussie".
A fuming – but utterly composed – Rowe launched a long-simmering attack. "If he is not smart enough – and I don't think he is – to moderate his language depending on the sort of forum he is in, he has to take the flak for it.
"I'm sorry, but I don't have a lot of good to say about that man, because he made my life hell."
Rowe, at right, with younger sisters Claudia, left, and Harriet, centre.
This time, the public cheered her on. It goes to show how much has changed since Rowe was at the mercy of McGuire, and the target of relentless criticism as the co-host of the Nine Network's Today, as she details in her new – and very forthright – memoir, Is This My Beautiful Life?. She has triumphed after a long, unsettling struggle that began in childhood and has included a tumultuous career, fertility issues and crippling postnatal depression.
But Rowe's triumph has been a long time coming. On just her second day at Today, commentators were picking over her appearance and interviewing style: one columnist described her as "an over-friendly raptor". Then a former Nine executive reported that McGuire had asked during a meeting: "When should we bone her?"
Remember the photos of Rowe reversing out of the driveway of her Sydney home at 3.30am on her way to the Nine studios? What the media and her bosses didn't know was that after nine months and three secretive failed IVF cycles, Rowe was pregnant with her first child.
Rowe with her husband, Peter Overton, at the birth of their first child, Allegra.
"I promise you that sustained us through the whole thing," says her husband of 11 years, Channel Nine newsreader Peter Overton, who hasn't yet read his wife's book. "We had photographers outside the house and they'd be snapping away in the dark. There she was, driving into the bullseye, with incredible dignity."
Maintaining that poise took its toll, the full extent of which is laid bare in the memoir and includes a detailed account of the depression that derailed Rowe after the birth of her daughter Allegra, now eight, and her departure from Today, three months into her scheduled four-month period of maternity leave.
It seems fitting, then, that we meet in the television studio where she has found happiness – and a full-time job – after the tumultuous events eight years ago. The Studio 10 set is surprisingly small and the resident barista, "Damo", is kept busy throughout the two-hour show, which wedges chummy and rapid-fire banter between sales pitches for pet insurance and cleaning products.
Rowe at age 18 with her mother, Penelope.
Rowe affectionately describes the cast as "a dysfunctional family": Ita Buttrose is the manicured sage who communicates disdain with an arched eyebrow, while the self-consciously dishevelled Joe Hildebrand punches out one-liners and Sarah Harris is chief wrangler. Rowe is like the confident big sister and so at ease I count four separate incidents of snorting laughter.
After Rowe poses for photographs with audience members and changes from her sleek navy jacket and skirt into an emerald Trelise Cooper coat, we walk to a nearby cafe. Amid the din of chatter and the hiss of the coffee machine, I ask about her childhood in an effort to understand her resilience and grace under fire.
In one of the most poignant moments recounted by Rowe in her memoir, her mother Penelope is in the grip of bipolar disorder, hunched over on the corner of her bed in a psychiatric ward staring vacantly at her hopeful and earnest 11-year-old daughter. Rowe, the eldest of three tight-knit sisters who aren't yet able to understand the complexity of their mother's mental illness, clutches a small bunch of yellow jonquils.
Rowe no longer feels compelled to hide behind a mask. Photo: James Mullins
Rowe gives herself the task of making her mother smile – and fails. "How could my naive songs, stories and jokes compete with such choking despair?" she writes in Is This My Beautiful Life?. "But still I kept trying ... that was my job, my role as Miss Cheerful."
"There were a lot of bloody awful things about Mum's bipolar," she tells me between mouthfuls of chicken pesto salad. "But a positive is that I think it was part of the making of me as a person. This was a situation I was totally powerless over and as a little girl it was terrifying to see the person who I thought was meant to look after me, not able to do that.
"I was 10 when Mum had her first breakdown [and] I had no concept of what mental illness meant. It was just, 'Oh my god, why does this person keep crying and how can I make it better?' So I set myself the task to be the smiley one. I saw it as my job to be strong, capable and cheerful. That role, although it has had its downsides, is at the core of who I am and how I've dealt with adversity through my life – to put on the brave face and get on with it."
Giselle and Allegra.
Putting on a brave face has included placing scratchy sanitary pads inside her top while co-hosting Today to absorb the copious amount of under-arm sweat she was producing because of the IVF treatments. The hormones she was taking also triggered acne and volatile emotions. Yet she fronted up each day and weathered criticism about her laugh – too loud, too much – and her interviewing skills.
Viewers also slammed her appearance, homing in on her severe blonde hair. "I don't like being told what to do," says Rowe, emphatically. "If someone tells me to grow my hair, I'll just cut it even shorter."
While at a function with Overton, who was then a roving 60 Minutes reporter, Rowe received some meaningful advice from Jana Wendt. "She said, 'You'll keep thinking it can't get any worse, but it will, and then it will bottom out and turn in your favour. You're just not going to know when.' "
McGuire's reported "boning" comment galvanised public support for Rowe and her on-air announcement that she was expecting a baby further diminished the vitriol. As someone who is determinedly focused on finding the positive in the most dreadful circumstances, this was a reassuring turn of events, though it didn't prevent her departure from Nine months later. Crushed by a secret battle with postnatal depression, she found herself in court over a contract dispute.
"Again, it's a tough lesson to have to learn, but you are forced to realise what matters," she says. "What's the silver lining? I can see that now. I'm so lucky I got to have that time with Allegra and I didn't have to go back to work after four months. Although at the time it was so gobsmacking and brutal, I could be with my baby girl and leave all of those people behind. But I wasn't going to go away quietly.
"People always like to pigeonhole you: 'Oh, you're the blonde silly one with the loud laugh and not much depth.' Noooooo," emphasises Rowe.
"I have a lot of depth. Don't just brush me off as a fluffy person. We all come with our stories and our baggage but that is the making of us."
But motherhood jolted her once-solid foundation. Without a job and battle-weary, Rowe, who had become so adept at wearing a mask, was unable to reveal the depths of her despair. She was lost.
"I was able to put the mask on in the early period of postnatal depression, but it got worse," she remembers. "I was so frightened about what I might do and what was happening to me. I felt like I was losing my mind and that is a very scary place to be, especially when everyone around you is so happy [about the new baby].
"I was so fearful of mental illness. Seeing how hard it is for my mum, I thought, 'I don't want that life,' and I was terrified that's what was happening. To me, asking for help is one of the bravest and best things you can ever do. It saved me."
Overton travelled for eight months of the year with 60 Minutes but he can clearly remember the night at home in the couple's lounge room when the mask was shattered. "We were sitting on opposite couches and she said to me, 'I'm not going well.' I said, as a typical male, 'What do you need? More [hired] help?' That wasn't it. She said she wasn't coping and I got up and gave her a hug and she burst into tears.
"It was just so heartbreaking to see my wife so desperately unwell." Overton pauses. He is teary. "She was crook for quite some time and ... I'm sorry. It all just floods back. It was so hard. I love her so much."
She recovered with the support of her family and the care of a psychiatrist, who prescribed antidepressant medication. When she unexpectedly fell pregnant naturally with her second child Giselle, now six, Rowe prepared herself for the possible return of postnatal depression. It didn't happen, but what she did struggle with was her role as a mother-of-two whose much-loved career was in tatters.
"My career had been such an enormous part of my identity and when I lost my job in such a public way, that was very hard for me to process. Who was I without a job title? Had I retired?
I was also forced to think about what my talents were: 'What can I do?' "
Her sometimes awkward journey of self-discovery included a short-lived stint on Dancing with the Stars and two unsuccessful auditions for Play School. But it also included mental-health advocacy, a commitment that will be officially acknowledged on September 11, when she is honoured as a Member of the Order of Australia at a ceremony at Government House.
Rowe has worked with BeyondBlue, Lifeline, SANE and the Mental Health Council of Australia. She is also a patron of Kookaburra Kids, which supports children who are primary carers for a parent.
Rowe is a dedicated optimist. She is also impulsive. Even "Petee" – Rowe's pet name for her far more conservative and cautious husband – warned her about signing up to Dancing with the Stars and exposing herself to criticism once again. She took the plunge anyway.
Rowe's mother, Penelope, says that her daughter succeeds through sheer force of will. Her sunny, quirky personality – she uses the Instagram hashtag #crazycatlady with abandon – conceals a deep well of tenacity.
And she no longer feels compelled to hide behind a mask.
"That's something I've worked really hard on and it's been a struggle for me, 'putting on the face' and being chirpy and happy – I've done it as a reaction to my upbringing," Rowe says. "I've realised gradually that's not very smart, because my daughters need to learn about regulating emotion, and that it is natural to be sad about something. I'm a flawed human being and it's okay for my husband and daughters – and everyone else – to see that."
Rowe readily admits that she is an over-sharer who lacks enthusiasm for domesticity. She has written in Sunday Life about her endlessly overflowing basket of washing and her aversion to hosting play dates. The revelation in her memoir that her go-to dinners are "baked beans, pasta with Dolmio sauce and 10 different ways with mince" is refreshing – and reassuring for every working mum juggling myriad demands.
"You know what?" Rowe says, beaming. "I have changed. I am gentler on myself now. I don't have to be perfect. I'm more accepting of my flaws and who I am. I'm 45 and I'm the happiest I've ever been." •
Is This My Beautiful Life? is published by Allen & Unwin on Wednesday.
BeyondBlue: 1300 224 636.
Styling by Penny McCarthy. Hair by Julianne McGuigan. Make-up by Max May. Jessica wears an Alex Perry dress and Christian Louboutin shoes. Giselle (left) wears a Ralph Lauren dress. Allegra wears a Lacoste dress and Country Road shoes. Jessica wears Roksanda dress, belt from Belinda and Christian Louboutin shoes.
This story originally appeared on Sunday Life