Allison Langdon: hard work and heart break

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Erin O'Dwyer

It comes with a lifestyle of action and sometimes terrifying situations, but for 60 Minutes reporter Allison Langdon it’s the job she always dreamed of. She talks with Erin O’Dwyer about her life in the fast lane.

Between assignments: Allison Langdon loves to relax at home but admits she doesn't often get to do so.

Between assignments: Allison Langdon loves to relax at home but admits she doesn't often get to do so. Photo: Hugh Stewart

Allison Langdon is just back from LA. She spent last week in Perth and tomorrow she's heading back to the United States. She's baked a carrot cake from scratch, complete with cream-cheese icing, and her Sydney home is immaculate in a lived-in sort of way.

"We've just finished renovating," the 35-year-old 60 Minutes reporter says, gliding into her kitchen. "We just realised that apart from one photograph of us on our wedding day, there's nothing to say that this is our home'."

On the contrary, the place sums up Langdon and her husband Mike Willesee jnr perfectly. The two-storey, cream-rendered pavilion home is a couple of blocks from the beach at Bronte, in Sydney's eastern suburbs. He surfs and she walks their black labrador puppy, Sport, on the headland.

There's the smell of salt and success in the air. The kitchen is their hearth – both are passionate home chefs – and the benchtops are crowded with cookbooks, wine bottles and newspapers. The backyard is yet to receive a renovator's stern eye and it's charming – grassy, with a vegie patch and fruit trees peering over the fence. Lovely quarters to raise a family.

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"We've been married long enough that people have stopped asking about when we're having babies," says Langdon, shaking walnuts over her carrot cake. Then she adds wryly, "You have to see each other to make babies."

Such swell digs, yet the couple is rarely at home together. Langdon travels six months of the year. Willesee, son of veteran TV journalist Michael Willesee and long-time Sky News anchor, recently jumped ship to join the office of federal Treasurer Joe Hockey, and criss-crosses the country on early-morning flights.

"There's been this great understanding of each other's lives that we may not have had before," admits Langdon, serving up her cake and curling up on a patio chair. "I don't like coming home to an empty house, I hate it. And he understands that living in hotels is not as glamorous as it sounds."

Despite the physical distance, theirs is a rare simpatico. They met at a bar, by chance, eight years ago. The attraction was instant, and they talked until the wee hours. They married in 2008 in Noosa. He gives her story ideas and she calls him when she's stuck while writing a script. "Sometimes his ideas are great," she smiles. "Sometimes they're crap."

It's not surprising Langdon caught Willesee's eye; she's beautiful and smart. She'd wanted to be a journalist from the age of 12 and worked her way up in the Channel Nine newsroom. For a decade she worked Christmases and often had to stand by as her breaking stories were poached by more senior reporters.

Money was tight growing up. Home was a farm in Wauchope, near Port Macquarie on the NSW mid-north coast, where her mum worked for the NRMA. Her father now works as a handyman - every summer, she spends time with him on his lawn-mowing round. "People look at me as if to say, 'Hang on, aren't you on my TV?' " she says, laughing. "It's really grounding, a couple of days of hard yakka."

The first holiday she can remember was to Burleigh Heads, on the Gold Coast. Langdon recalls being awestruck. She's long surpassed it. In four years with 60 Minutes, she's swum with manta rays in the Maldives, trekked across the Patagonian glaciers and climbed Mt Kilimanjaro for charity. She's covered drug cartels in Mexico, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.

Her goal was always 60, as she calls it. The youngest woman on the team since Jana Wendt, she says she takes nothing for granted. "I still work really hard and keep pushing myself. You've got to always try to be better at the job."

Passion for people drives her. In 2007, she wrote a book about Keli Lane, the elite water polo player who hid five pregnancies and was convicted of murdering her newborn daughter, Tegan. Langdon, who covered the inquest, could not get the story out of her head. She changed her shifts to work weekends at Nine and spent two days a week poring over boxes of evidence. "I couldn't understand how she was having sexual relationships and playing water polo when she was nine months pregnant," says Langdon. "Yet she told not a soul. What stops someone from sharing that?"

At the time, Langdon had just started seeing Willesee. "I remember him saying, 'I haven't written a book but everyone in my family has, and it's really hard,' " says Langdon. "But the research was all done and I just had to write it. A deadline is a deadline."

Says Willesee: "She's the hardest worker I've ever seen, and I've worked in journalism for 25 years. That's something that is overlooked when people view her success."

Veteran 60 Minutes reporter Liz Hayes agrees. Hayes is something of a mentor and the pair keep in touch via email and text. Because of Langdon's natural fitness and agility, she has become the program's go-to adventurer, says Hayes. But it hasn't always been easy.

"It's only been many months after an assignment that I've learnt of her fears and tears, some of the latter shed in a tent late at night when no one could see or hear," says Hayes. "I hope she doesn't mind me telling you that. But it's a measure of how extraordinary she's been in some terrifying and difficult situations. She's never given up and never let on."

Two years ago, Langdon was assigned to Syria. Sunday Times correspondent Marie Colvin had just been killed and Langdon's crew were due to fly to Iraq, then cross the border illegally. Security arrangements were weak and Langdon feared landmines and kidnapping. She and the producer pulled the pin with 24 hours to spare.

"I had a great belief the guys in my crew would be able to save my life if I stepped on a landmine," she says, "but I wasn't convinced I'd be able to save theirs. You have to weigh up those risks. As a young female reporter, what happens if you are captured? In the past, journalists were left alone. Now journalists are targeted."

Langdon likes her risks calculated. Her first taste of international journalism was in 2004, when she covered the Australian Embassy bombing in Jakarta. The scene was akin to a war zone, body parts everywhere. Based in Darwin at the time, she arrived for a 3am press conference with then foreign minister Alexander Downer. "I remember looking around, seeing all these big names from all these big international networks and thinking, 'Oh shit, don't stuff it up.' "

But stories like that take their toll. Langdon avoids violence in films and doesn't sleep much at night. "I think it's connected to the work I do," she says. "You have to be really careful that the job doesn't get to you. If it does, you have to do something about it."

In recent years, tragedy has visited Langdon's own family, too. Four years ago, her younger sister, Kristen, went into labour at 26 weeks. The baby girl survived, but Kristen, a diabetic since the age of 11, went into shutdown and suffered renal failure. Two months ago, she had a multi-organ transplant, receiving a new kidney and pancreas.

"She rang me when she found out she had a donor and she could barely speak," recalls Langdon, who flew home from Tel Aviv to be by her sister's side. "[Waiting for the transplants] was no way to live. She lost her hair and her back teeth, and she had tubes coming out of her for three years."

Kristen is recovering, but Langdon still spends nights and weekends with her. "It puts your own problems into context when you see what she's been through," she says quietly.

Sometimes, too much tragedy simply becomes too much. But you know Allison Langdon will just carry on. She has humanity in one pocket and courage in the other. "We see some horrible things but we see some amazing things, too," she says. "I come back from some trips questioning humanity. But then I come home and walk on the beach and it restores my faith."

 

Later this month, Allison Langdon will join 60 Minutes reporters, past and present, for the program's inaugural black-tie fund-raising dinner, this year in support of the Daniel Morcombe Foundation.

Styling by Penny McCarthy. Make-up by Naomi McFadden. Hair by Carl Reeve. Lead-in image: Allison wears Saba silver metallic tee. Top image: Allison wears Alice McCall jumpsuit and Seed Heritage "Marnie" wedges.