Lisa Wilkinson. Photo: Steven Chee
Lisa Wilkinson has a habit of getting away with things that other people can't. For the past hour, the Today show co-host has politely taken control of the Sunday Life photo shoot. In between doling out compliments, she has declared how her stiff tuxedo shirt might sit best and which shots should be tossed (ones that show skin folds on her neck), all while continually teasing the photographer.
"You're bossy!" she says, after he tells her how to position her hand in her pants pocket.
I [made] a decision that never again in my life would I allow someone else to determine who I was and what I was capable of.
And yet, by the end of the shoot, the crew keep flicking their eyes up to her face in the hushed manner of rugby players listening to their coach after a big game as she tells a story about the time she leaked breast milk on "three hot guys basically humping my leg" while riding on a Mardi Gras float.
Steely work ethic: Lisa Wilkinson. Photo: Steven Chee
For most people, charming those whom you have bossed around is no mean feat. But then, Wilkinson, a 36-year veteran of the media industry, has the knack of being warm yet outspoken.
She excoriated the Australian media for being sexist and ageist, while giving the prestigious Andrew Olle Media Lecture two years ago, but was lauded for it. ("Best #olle ever," tweeted media satirist and commentator Julian Morrow.)
And she has become more daring with her political views, launching what one observer described as a "withering attack" on Prime Minister Tony Abbott in February, accusing him of hypocrisy on ABC's Q&A. She noted that when he was opposition leader, he tore down the Gillard government for "breaking promises", yet had done the same with his funding cuts to pensions, public broadcasting and education.
Last month, she grilled Social Services Minister Scott Morrison on his leadership ambitions, concluding the interview with, "Like all politicians, you're very good at not answering the question."
And, as it becomes clear over lunch, Wilkinson is also happy to break one of the unspoken rules governing most of those who interview celebrities: don't insult the talent. "I just had my worst celebrity interview, ever," she says, her voice growing deeper. "Sophia Loren. She arrived and didn't want to be there. But if you say yes [to an interview], professionally be 'yes'." (Footage reveals Wilkinson brimming with dimpled enthusiasm and Loren as animated as a wax figure.)
Karl Stefanovic, 40, who cycled through four female co-hosts in 18 months before Wilkinson joined Today in 2007, loves her increasing chutzpah. "She was very protective of her personality initially," he says. "It's quite complex. She'd show certain elements that she thought would resonate, that's all you'd get.
"For the first few years, she stuck to a certain mould and formula ... Now that she's loosened up even more, she's almost taken on a little more danger with her own personality and being judged, and I really admire that ... It makes it tremendously interesting to present with, that danger element."
And, unlike Stefanovic, who has had to make numerous on-air apologies – notably after he asked Indian cricket supporters, "Who's going to be manning 7-Elevens today?" ahead of the World Cup cricket semi-final between Australia and India in March – Wilkinson seems to glide from one out-there statement to the next with relative immunity.
Like the sexual jokes Wilkinson sometimes makes on air, for example. In her review of the movie 50 Shades of Grey, she mentioned that, after the movie, her husband, author Peter FitzSimons, "didn't get lucky, because after two hours of complete drivel, I need more than a choc top to pop my corn". Or when Wilkinson recently asked Channel Nine newsreader Sylvia Jeffreys, who tasted worms for a report, "Did you swallow?"
"Um, I should have a lot more crosses against my name," Wilkinson says, puffing up the top of her hair with the tips of her fingers. "But I do get called on it – mostly from Karl! He'll often say in the ad break, 'If I'd said that, I'd be in so much trouble!' And it's true."
She also continues to sail above ongoing media speculation she is about to be replaced by someone younger and blonder, like Sunrise co-host Samantha Armytage, or Jeffreys. At 55, Wilkinson is one of a handful of 50-plus women in commercial television.
Some speculate that her social media following might help. Her 139,000 Twitter followers and 73,000 on Instagram regularly make the hashtags she attaches to various causes go viral. (In April, she encouraged wedding-goers to #wearatouchofyellow in memory of murdered schoolteacher Stephanie Scott, to raise awareness about violence against women.)
Wilkinson has also become the news while campaigning for causes she believes in. In January, while visiting Paris with FitzSimons, she made headlines after she rallied with the thousands of people who had gathered to champion free speech in the wake of the massacre at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo.
Nearly two years ago, she famously walked off the Today show set for about 45 minutes. The walk-out was reportedly out of frustration that, among other grievances, Stefanovic was landing more high-profile political interviews than she was.
Would Wilkinson recommend that other women kick up a fuss in public, as she did, in order to fight inequality in their lives? "Look, if I had my time over, I probably wouldn't do it again," she says, her voice calm. "Because I don't like, um, any perception that I'm not professional. [But] there was an inequity going on ... and it was certainly addressed after that."
Wilkinson has a long history of standing up to powerful men. At 25, and newly appointed by Kerry Packer to edit Cleo magazine, she announced on television that she would be ditching the magazine's male nude centrefold. (She was unaware that this was one of Packer's favourite ideas.) "You better be f...ing right," was Packer's response. She was. Over the next 10 years, Wilkinson nearly doubled Cleo's circulation.
But then, Wilkinson comes from a family that faced far greater obstacles than an intimidating media magnate. Her mother, Beryl, a home-maker, was shunted between orphanages as a child, partly because her own mother was a chronic alcoholic.
"So Mum sort of grew up not kind of knowing where she was going to lay her head, and, um, she met an angel in the shape of my dad," Wilkinson says about her late father, Ray, a one-time sales manager at a fencing company.
Wilkinson has spoken openly about her own personal heartache. Of being bullied while at Campbelltown High School – the memory still makes her eyes well with tears at this lunch – and having multiple miscarriages while unsuccessfully trying for a fourth child. She has also told of the stress that comes from the competing demands of work and raising her children: sons Jake, 21, and Louis, 19, and daughter Billi, 17.
It is Wilkinson's background, and her life experience, says Today show executive producer Mark Calvert, which partly accounts for her success. (The show's ratings have soared since she joined; in 2006, Today reportedly lagged behind Sunrise by as many as 203,000 viewers on some days; last month, Sunrise's lead had dwindled to 26,000 viewers.)
"Historically, TV hasn't always been kind to mature women," says Calvert. But "Lisa from Campbelltown" is "somebody [viewers] can identify with. Families [coping] with life and the budget and everything that gets thrown at them, that's who Lisa is. And I think that only increases with maturity and experience."
Wilkinson's life has also been defined by a steely work ethic. FitzSimons recalls trying to drag Wilkinson to the beach on Sundays, when she was editing Cleo and would spend the weekend scrutinising magazine proofs. "She equates napping with weakness," he says.
So what's next? She's got a list. "We've got a crisis in this country when it comes to domestic violence; our figures, shamefully, are that one woman dies every week at the hands of a partner," she says. "We need a minister for women who is not also our prime minister. And we have a gender pay gap that's the largest it's been in 20 years. We need to focus on these issues."
Creating broad social changes from her host's seat is a big ask. But then, Wilkinson's long been determined to make her own way, and it's far from Campbelltown High and her unhappy teen years.
"I can remember it as if it was yesterday," she says, "walking out of the gates, and making a decision that never again in my life would I allow someone else to determine who I was and what I was capable of." •
THREE FACTS LISA WILKINSON
- Her mother banned her from reading Cleo as a teenager because of its nude male centrefold.
- She became engaged to former Wallabies player Peter FitzSimons after knowing him only 10 weeks.
- If she wasn't a journalist, she'd be an architect or interior designer.
Styling by Penny McCarthy. Hair and make-up by Max May for La Mer. Lisa wears Ginger & Smart jacket and pants, Saint Laurent blouse from David Jones, her own jewellery and shoes. Shot on location at Golden Age Cinema & Bar, ourgoldenage.com.au