Lisa Wilkinson speaks her mind in her autobiography, It Wasn't Meant to be Like This

Wilkinson has spent much of her life in the public eye. Picture: Getty Images
Wilkinson has spent much of her life in the public eye. Picture: Getty Images

On Lisa Wilkinson's very first day at Dolly magazine in 1978, one of her tasks was to sort the reader submissions to the Poet's Corner page. It was a job no one liked to do, young girls pouring out their hearts, poems full of teenage angst and unrequited love. Most readers added perfume to their letters, torn out of school exercise books, written in rounded cursive, reeking of Charlie, or 4711, or Yardley Lavender.

The stack was high, about six months' worth, "so just choose the top six from the pile and chuck the rest out", she was instructed. But no, Wilkinson, who admits she'd been sending in poems for years, knew what it meant for each of these young women to be heard.

So each Friday night, as she caught the train back to Campbelltown from the city, she would go through all the submissions, reading them over the weekend, writing back to those poets who were due to be published.

"While some people saw the job as a pain in the neck, what I saw were the hearts and the minds, and the tears and the fears, the secrets that young Australian women kept locked up until it came to Dolly," she says.

Her first night on The Project on January 28, 2018, with Peter Hellier, Hamish McDonald and Rachel Corbett. Picture: Supplied

Her first night on The Project on January 28, 2018, with Peter Hellier, Hamish McDonald and Rachel Corbett. Picture: Supplied

"They felt they could share those secrets with Dolly because they trusted us so much. It was the most extraordinary privilege to read these words."

Wilkinson's here to talk about her autobiography It Wasn't Meant to Be Like This. I've been instructed not to bring up her time at Nine and The Today Show or talk about her fractured relationship with Karl Stefanovic. And that suits me fine. When I look back over the transcript, his name never even pops up.

Wilkinson's copped plenty of flack since the book was released, early chapters which covered the feud over pay disparity and the fallout with Stefanovic - the pair don't speak anymore - have made headlines for weeks.

Pundits have said while her cachet lies in her likeability and relatability, it was hard to feel sympathy for her when a $2 million-a-year contract from rival network Ten was on the table. Others have called her accounts of negotiations outright lies.

I ask her why she thinks there has been some backlash against the book, suggesting that sometimes people don't like to think women have their own story to tell, their own truth.

"I think that's probably a very accurate assessment, I couldn't have said it better myself," she says.

"But women have been dealing with this through the ages, we're getting stronger and more powerful and we want to tell the truth of our stories and sometimes that's an inconvenient truth."

She says she takes the feedback with a grain of salt - "there are people with agendas" - and it frustrates her that people have focused on specific sections of the book which "misrepresent the book, the story and my life".

Much of her life has been spent in the public eye. She was editor of Dolly by 21, of Cleo by 25. In the late 1990s she became a regular on Ten's Beauty and the Beast and in 2007 she took over the co-hosting role on Today from Jessica Rowe. She hosted Carols by Candlelight from 2008 to 2016. In 2018, she joined The Project.

"I've taken on lots of pretty high-profile roles throughout my life and sometimes I think to myself, why do I keep doing this, why do I keep having to prove myself?

Wilkinson became the editor of Cleo in 1984 and stayed for 10 years. Picture: Supplied

Wilkinson became the editor of Cleo in 1984 and stayed for 10 years. Picture: Supplied

"But it's always been because the job itself has been such a challenge, it's kind of fun to challenge yourself and see what you're capable of.

"I always took on every role knowing that I could fail, and fail very publicly, but I was prepared to take that chance."

Does she think a man would ever feel that way? Second guess himself, have to justify decisions?

"No," she says quickly, wondering where it all starts.

"I talk about this in the book, how, among other things, it starts with the fairy tales we grow up with. In Cinderella, Prince Charming gets to choose all the way through that story, the girls sit on the sidelines waiting for that one glass slipper which the pretty girl gets.

"In Sleeping Beauty, it's all about a guy going up and finding a woman asleep in bed and kissing her and she should be grateful, while she waits unconscious for him to come along. Those fairy tales are all about how men are the only ones who have the power.

Wilkinson with husband Peter FitzSimons and their children in 2016. Picture: Supplied

Wilkinson with husband Peter FitzSimons and their children in 2016. Picture: Supplied

"What stories do they tell, what lessons are they teaching? Boys get that from an early age.

"When I was a little girl, all the politicians were men, all the journalists were men, all the voices you heard on the radio, all the figures of authority, were men.

"Of course men grow up thinking they run the world."

She is hopeful that young women such as Brittany Higgins and Grace Tame are changing the story, that they're showing that women can speak up and have their stories heard, and she sees her own role now as being able to facilitate that any way she can.

Wilkinson was a good way into writing the book when she met with Higgins before her interview aired in March 2021. Did the experience change the tone of the book at all?

"It made me more courageous in what I was prepared to reveal," she says. "Whether people like it, agree with it, do I care? I just wanted to tell my story."

With some of the Dolly team 1982. Picture: Supplied

With some of the Dolly team 1982. Picture: Supplied

Dolly magazine shut down in 2016, after 46 years of publication. I ask Wilkinson what she thinks the magazine, if it was still around, might contain in 2021. Would Dolly Doctor still be relevant, what celebrities would be on the cover, what fashion advice, how would it address relationships?

"Well, it would start with discussions about consent, that's for sure," she says.

"But it's actually hard to speculate what you would do these days, the world is such a different place.

"But I would hope it would still be a place where women, where girls, could be heard."

Just like those budding poets whose letters smelled of lavender.

  • It Wasn't Meant to be Like This, by Lisa Wilkinson. Harper Collins, $45.

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This story Lisa Wilkinson's inconvenient truth first appeared on The Canberra Times.