Interview with Leigh Sales
When the request for this interview reached Leigh Sales, her first reaction was hesitance. Sunday Life asked if she would be photographed with her baby, Daniel, and talk about the pressures of "having it all": arguably the best job in television journalism heading the ABC news institution 7.30; a much-wanted child conceived relatively late in life, and a self-confessed "very happy marriage".
As a feminist, Sales immediately asked herself whether her 7.30 predecessor Kerry O'Brien would have been asked to pose with his child or to talk about juggling family with career. Or was it a question only women had to answer?
"When I started at 7.30, I didn't want people to think of me as the first woman doing that role," Sales, 39, explains. "I just wanted them to think of me as the journalist doing that role. So I have resisted doing anything in the media about the family. Then I thought about it some more and decided it would be a real disservice to women not to say yes.
Sales with her young son, Daniel. Photo: Hugh Stewart
"The reality of my life is that I am a woman and a mother and a journalist, and as such my life is a constant juggling act and sometimes it is really hard and I get really tired. I could keep on the path of pretending I'm just one of the blokes or I could be honest and admit I'm on the treadmill going really, really fast to keep up with everything. I don't know how single mothers cope. The admiration I have for them is immeasurable."
Seeing Sales in the flesh, away from the make-up, lights and desk of 7.30, is like running into an old friend you can't quite place. She looks inconspicuous, her skin make-up free and her hair in a ponytail.
While the voice immediately recalls Sales's more polished television persona, there's something different about the woman talking at an accelerated pace as she multitasks lunch (a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich) with this interview. She seems a little less coolly contained and a little more like what she actually is: a working mother with her mind on a dozen different things, trying to fit in a sandwich and a chat before attempting a list of chores she knows she will struggle to get through.
"I beat myself up constantly that I am not able to be on top of all the areas of my life all the time; not just work and the baby, but my writing, which I love, friends, family – everything. I was a complete control freak before Daniel came along. I think having him showed me I can't ever be that again.
"You try to arrange things still, like, 'I'll get up in the morning and he'll have his breakfast and while he's eating I'll read the papers and do this and do that', but the reality is he needs a nappy change and he's grabbing the iPad and ... 'Arrrgghh!' I remember being about to start an 8.30am conference call and he threw up all over me.
"I find that hard – letting go of being on top of everything. But really, the nature of a big news job like mine is you have no control. Something enormous could happen right now and this interview would have to end and I'd be off to talk to someone about a nuclear power plant leakage or whatever. Maybe the baby is teaching me to roll with the punches and go with the flow. It is not about controlling everything, but just doing the best I can."
Sales is not only doing the best she can, she is gaining a well-deserved reputation as one of Australia's most respected journalists, with an interview technique that is as tenacious as it is tough. She took over from Kerry O'Brien on 7.30 in March last year, moving from Lateline. Her blistering interview with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in August, which helped win her a Walkley Award for interviewing late last month, dispelled the notion that anyone attempting to replace O'Brien after 15 years at the helm of the ABC's flagship current-affairs program was doomed to wither in his wake.
Not bad for a woman told by her former employer, Channel Nine, that she didn't "have the looks or voice for television" – and considering that the role at 7.30 was widely regarded as a poisoned chalice.
"It was always going to be tough," says 7.30 producer Justin Stevens. "I don't think there would be many people willing or competent enough to fill Kerry's shoes after that period of time, but Leigh was brilliant. There was always going to be a period of her finding her feet and the audience getting to know her better and realising just how good she is," he continues. "I think that tipping point has happened. She didn't betray her own style or try to be someone else on air and off, and that's paid off."
Karl Stefanovic, who worked for Channel Nine's US bureau while Sales was based in Washington for ABC Radio, can't praise his friend and colleague highly enough, both professionally and personally.
"When she got the US job, she came with a reputation of being formidable and first-rate," Stefanovic says. "And she deserved it. I remember us both covering Guantanamo Bay, and while I was busy organising barbecues and drinks for family and expats down there, Leigh was busy organising herself a Walkley [Sales won a Walkley in 2005 for best radio current-affairs reporting]. But she never missed out on any of the parties, either!
"Look, no one was going to have an easy time taking over from Kerry," Stefanovic adds. "But I knew people would come around to getting to know and appreciating her talent, and just how phenomenal she is. She's done that now and it's great to see. I'm her biggest cheerleader."
Sales, however, is the first to admit her first year on 7.30 was no smooth ride. "I knew that as soon as anything happened that the viewers didn't like, it would be, 'Bring back Kerry' - and that's what happened," she explains. "Then I got pregnant, a little unexpectedly, so it was that thing of trying to do the job to the best of my ability, as well as being really tired and preoccupied by stuff in my personal life."
She describes her return to work when Daniel was five months old as difficult. "The first few weeks I was back I felt awful," she says. "I left a fairly young baby. I felt guilty and wondered if he was going to prefer his nanny or father to me."
Sales stresses, however, that she didn't feel pressure to return. "I have to say the ABC has been fantastic. Never did anyone make me feel like, 'Oh, you've just started the big job and now you're going to disappear.' There was never a feeling that my job may not be there when I got back.
"I feel very privileged in that way, especially as I am aware a lot of women who get pregnant with big jobs in their 30s think, 'Am I going to be judged for this or are the promotions going to dry up?' It's a risk. But I was lucky. And it was worth it. I have an incredible baby and a job I love and have so much fun doing. Life may have got harder, but I've never been happier."
Sales's popularity and profile have risen enormously this year, partly thanks to that Abbott interview, and the subsequent brutish remark by former John Howard adviser Grahame Morris, that she could be "a real cow sometimes". Her riposte on Twitter, that she would "rather be a cow than a dinosaur" only won her more admirers. Morris later apologised.
"The thing that irritated me wasn't so much that I thought it was sexist, it was more like, 'Hang on, my job is to put people on the spot and to pressure people to justify their position. That's what I'm paid to do.' If someone doesn't stand up to that, well, that's their problem, not mine."
She continues: "I felt that when blokes do a tough interview, they are just tough and good at their jobs, but when I do a tough interview, I'm a cow. When I thought about it later I thought, 'Well, you wouldn't call Kerry a cow or a bitch or a dog.' It's language specifically used against women."
Sales also dislikes the double standard in terms of appearance and age for women on television in Australia. "I have always had a lot of comment on my appearance - and more so with the bigger audience of 7.30. It's relentless. Look at my Twitter stream any night and you will see hurtful comments. I don't know if the blokes suffer the same [appearance appraisal]. I guess not, as there's not that much variance in their appearance, other than a tie."
Sales may have been hesitant about posing with baby Daniel for this interview, but on the day of our photo shoot, the almost one-year-old cherub with the old-soul intelligent eyes and persistent gummy smile sure isn't. Mugging it for the cameras in mum's arms, Daniel gurgles, giggles and grins on cue.
Those close to Sales say baby Daniel is the physical embodiment of his parents' happy 16-year marriage. A mix of his mother's calm, the charm of his father, computer animator Phil Willis, and their mutual fierce intelligence and wit, the little boy may have been a long time coming for the couple but is a much-loved addition to the family.
"It wasn't a deliberate thing to leave it so late," Sales explains of having her first child at 38. "We got married young [she was 23, he was 22] and had nothing, so we wanted to get a bit better established. Then, when I was 28, I got the Washington posting [for ABC radio] and went off to do that; when I got back I was 33. Then I got offered to do a book [Detainee 002: The Case of David Hicks], so I did that. Then hosting Lateline came along and suddenly I'm 38 and it was a case of, 'If I'm going to do it, it has to be now, despite the 7.30 job.' Still, I wasn't expecting it to happen as quickly as it did."
Sales knew Willis, who is also 39, as the minister's son at her family's local Brisbane church but the two didn't strike up a conversation proper until they bumped in to each other on a train, heading back to study at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) – she, journalism, and he, engineering – 20 years ago.
"I wanted to keep the conversation going and didn't know what to say that would be interesting, so I mentioned an article I'd read in the uni newspaper on an astrophysicist called Paul Davies," Sales recalls. "Phil said, 'Yes, he's really interesting', so I mentioned that he was giving a lecture and I might go, and so he said he might go, too.
"We both got off the train thinking, 'Oh no, now I have to go to a boring lecture to catch up again.' But we went, hit it off, and have been together ever since. And we still celebrate Paul Davies Day. In fact, when we got engaged, Phil wrote to him to let him know the role he played in getting us together. It has to be the nerdiest story ever."
Sales's oldest friend of 31 years, QUT executive officer Mandy McDonald, says Sales and Willis have the kind of marriage most envy; true soul mates who love, respect and laugh at each other.
"Phil is adorable, a hands-on dad and so incredibly supportive of Leigh and her career - definitely her rock," she says. "They are each other's best friend. I know Leigh couldn't live without him. He's very intelligent, like Leigh, and has a similar wicked sense of humour. I've spilt my wine laughing at the play between them. It's like a tennis match of wits. My sides hurt with laughter just watching them."
Stefanovic also stresses that Sales is as funny as she is smart. "She's hilarious," he says. "She also plays a mean piano and sings show tunes better than Hugh Jackman!" (Sales was a wedding singer in her uni days.)
Producer Justin Stevens says that without doubt the greatest part of his job is the laughs he and Sales share on a daily basis. "No matter how stressful things are, Leigh is always ready for a laugh," he says.
"It's sad that viewers don't get to see the other, lighter side of Leigh, but I guess that's the nature of the job," Mandy McDonald laments. "When we talk on the phone, it's rarely something serious we chat about; more likely something silly about kids, funny memories as kids or the latest episodes of Glee."
Sales agrees there is another side of her that is lighter than her 7.30 persona – one she needs to balance the seriousness of her job. "I love nothing more than reading a trashy magazine," she says, smiling broadly and unapologetically. "I mean, there's only so much of The Economist a girl can take!"
Lead-in and top images: photography by Hugh Stewart; styling by Melissa Boyle; hair and make-up by Erin Shaw.