Mentor to many, inspiration to most. Exceptional Australian, media legend, businesswoman, best selling author, community and welfare contributor; you need a book, not a paragraph, to introduce Ita Buttrose, AO OBE. Not that she needs any introduction.
Twice-voted Australia’s most admired woman, Ita was the youngest ever and an unprecedentedly successful Editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly, the founding editor of Cleo, the first woman to ever edit a major metropolitan newspaper in Australia as Editor-in-Chief of the Sydney Daily & Sunday Telegraphs, and the first woman director of News Limited. In 2011, Ita’s early career was the subject of highly acclaimed ABC miniseries Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo, in which actor Asher Keddie portrayed her. Ita is the current National President of Alzheimer’s Australia, Patron of the Macular Disease Foundation, and Emeritus Director of Arthritis Australia. She received an AO for her services to the community especially in the field of public health education when she spearheaded Australia’s HIV/AIDS Education Program, an OBE for her services to journalism, and a Centenary Medal for business leadership. A founding member and former president of Chief Executive Women and host of the TEN Network’s Studio Ten, Ita has written 11 successful books including her best-selling autobiography, A Passionate Life.
She is a mother to two children, Kate and Ben, and grandmother to five.
Image via pinterest
It’s certainly easy to be overwhelmed by the grand dame of media, Ita Buttrose. She is, after all, our very own answer to Oprah. Australian of the Year. TV goddess at 73. Author of 11 books. Inspiration behind an entire mini-series. Mum. Grand mum. Pioneer in the workplace. Instigator of the first male nude centerfold. And, impossibly cool as the subject behind her very own rock song, Cold Chisel’s hit, Ita.
She can put you in your place by simply cupping her perfectly manicured hand to her chin – centred by that perfectly painted pout in signature Revlon Blasé Apricot (which matches the varnish, of course) – and raising a perfectly arched brow, all the while fixing you with a steely blue-eyed gaze which still manages to twinkle with a hint of a smile.
Her regal like stance and razor sharp mind are unparalleled. The effect is part Hillary Clinton – part June Dally Watkins. Strength, poise and gentleness. All in one graceful package.
This gutsy woman is the ultimate mentor’s mentor, I’m not ashamed to gush. Lets face it she’s been inspiring women for generations. And continues to do. So when she laments the current status of women, you can’t help but feel a little guilty that enough troops haven’t rallied to her call to arms, which she trumpeted five decades ago. If we had all followed in her high-achieving footsteps, perhaps the statistics wouldn’t be so grave.
“Okay, I’ve paved the way. Where is everybody else?” she says with a wry smile of that infamous glass ceiling which still shows appalling numbers for women at the top. She’s 100 percent spot on. Women make up 50 per cent of the population but are represented by a tenth of that in powerful positions in the workplace.
“There are not enough women with their own shows. There are not enough women on boards. There are not enough women in cabinet. There are not enough women running businesses. There are not enough women as CEO’s. It goes on and on. There are not enough women in high positions in media companies either.
“I was first as a director at News Ltd, I was first as a director at Consolidated Press. Okay I’ve paved the way, where is everybody else? I’ve paved the way! You’ve got to want it. It’s hard work. Every body knows that. If you want a high-powered career – you’ve got to work for it.”
To work out what makes this incredible woman tick, you have to go back to the beginning. And you’ll find it was more than simply hard work.
She’ll tell you newspapers pumped through her veins as the daughter of a newspaperman. It was part of her genetic fibre. Her father, Charles, was a war correspondent in Java in New Guinea and at the end of WW2 he was seconded to work for the Australian Government in news and information in California. A young Ita and her mother and brother followed a few months later where they eventually moved to New York and her dad worked as New York correspondent for one of the first Australian media barons, one time owner of the Daily Mirror pre Rupert Murdoch, Ezra Norton. Charles had trained at the Adelaide Advertiser and then at The Sydney Morning Herald.
“I knew when I was 11 that I wanted to be a journalist,’’ she says emphatically. But there was a slight problem. There were no female journalists back then. Certainly, no role models to aspire too.
“Remember, careers for girls weren’t really envisaged –no one – least of all me envisaged [where I would end up] – when I started work, and this is the kind of career I’ve had, it just wasn’t something girls did.”
Buttrose says she never set out to conquer the world; she simply followed her heart. Leaving school at 15. She become a copy girl at ACP because education wasn’t considered ‘’all that important” as “we weren’t perceived as being the bread winners, that was something men did. We were going to be married and have children and go home, and that was the assumption of what girls did.”
But Ita would go on to smash that mould.
“I got married and had the children. I just didn’t go home!” she laughs, not realizing the impact of her never-been-done-before actions.
Again there was no crisis decision to be made about returning to work. For Ita, wavering from her path was not an option.
“I didn’t know [this would be my path]. I was just doing what came naturally, quite frankly. It wasn’t really till I was a fair way into my career in my 20s that I realized ‘hey you know maybe I can go further’. I loved my work – I enjoyed my work – even though I got married and the assumption was I would stop and have a family.
“I simply didn’t stop. And then the whole world changed for women and I was part of it!”
The sexual revolution had begun and Ita was more than at the centre of it. She was leading the charge and paving the way with a banner in one hand and megaphone in the other. One of the other few women in the workforce at that time at another company, she admits, used her as an example of why she shouldn’t be fired for getting pregnant. She had become the precedent.
“They [she was working at Packer’s Consolidated Press when pregnant with her second child, son Ben] were horrified when I got pregnant – because pregnancy was perceived to be some sort of illness – they didn’t really think a women would be able to work. They thought that our brains would be addled.
“That you could work and be well? I used to have to say ‘I’m just having a baby – I’m not ill’. In that regard as far as working and being pregnant I was definitely a pioneer.”
Passionate about making the workplace family friendly, Ita is astounded that all these years on things haven’t necessarily improved.
“There’s a lot of lip service paid to it, but in my view it’s not as family friendly as it should be. I used to change the working hours for the mothers that worked for me. I never even thought about it – they would ask me and tell me there was a problem juggling everything and getting home in time for when the kids finished school and I fixed the hours up,” she says with no-fuss logic.
“Again its something you just do – I was able to do it – I didn’t have to ask somebody permission as I was in charge. I was walking through the park the other day and saw someone and she said; ‘I was just telling a friend how you changed my life – allowing me to go home to get the kids and work later into the night’ – and I thought ‘wow doesn’t it show how I was ahead of my time!’’’
For Ita the solution is a no-brainer.
“You’ve got to understand. It’s really simple. When women see companies that do those sorts of things – that make the workplace really family friendly – they see that is where they’ll get a fair deal. I did it for many staff. If they asked me and I could see a way of doing it – I did.”
She admits the Packer owned companies she worked for back then, were also ahead of their time.
“You’ve got to remember when I started working The Packers owned The Telegraph and The Packers owned the Weekly and that was a company in which women were encouraged, so it was a very different culture – it too was a company ahead of its time.
“Because women had always run the Weekly and the Women’s Weekly was the cash cow of the company – The Weekly made them rich people – there was no doubt in the Packer’s mind, especially Kerry – who had grown up with women running this mighty magazine. He knew women were talented…I can remember on one occasion saying to Kerry, ‘I really must go home, my son needs to be fed!’ The Packers were family conscious. Frank told me once having children was the most important thing for women to do.”
Buttrose was appointed to the board of Consolidated Press in 1974, along with two other women. “Because Kerry worked it all out. Women ran the publications, we then owned the Nine Network – women were important to programming on the network – Kerry decided the best way to understand the female marketplace was to have women on the board. Wasn’t that unlikely? We even have men who don’t think like that today and we’re now in the 21st century! That was a great place to work if you were a woman. And there were some male bastions back then.”
With no other women to aspire too, Ita admits her mentors were male, ranging from “my dad, my husband, Sir Frank. Sir Frank’s son Clyde and Kerry. Clyde ran The Bulletin and helped me with my writing. They were all men. There were no women right at the top of the tree in the media as I was at the time.”
The first time she questioned her career was when she headed to News Limited, venturing outside of the women’s world – even when she worked at the Packer owned Telegraph – and then even more so at News Limited where she had to keep proving herself. But equipped with a will of steel, not once did she waver from her path. “’I thought, ‘my God what have I done!’ and then I thought ‘well come on you know why, you wanted the challenge – you wanted to be the first woman, you know. You’ve got to prove yourself all over again, that’s what you do’,’’ she admits of the inner pep talk she gave herself at the time.
While her ambition is apparent, and her need to prove herself clear, Ita has always been driven by doing what she loves over anything else. It’s what kept her on the path she chose as a little girl and keeps her motivated to this day.
“I liked my job. I loved what I did. I loved what I did. I loved what I did,’’ she repeats for the third time. “You’ve got to like it and you’ve got to keep learning and you can’t stand still you can’t think you know it all.”
Her parent’s divorce when she was a teenager also taught her self-reliance.
“I think probably because I came from a broken marriage – you know my parents divorced when I was about 16 or 17 – it had been an unhappy marriage for several years – I thought nobody else is going to do it for you. I think I was determined then as a teenager. I realized the only person who was every going to look after me was me, and I think I’ve held that view all of my life. You don’t know how it’s all going to pan out – I think women do have to be able to support themselves. You have to get your own skills.”
It’s the ability to re-invent and persevere, adapt and change despite any obstacles put in her way, which has given the twice-divorced Ita the longevity she celebrates today.
“We all encounter obstacles, all of us. It doesn’t matter what we do. We encounter them in our personal lives and you have to look the obstacle and say ‘right, there must be a way around it’. And there usually is. So you have to work out how to get around it. And once you’ve done that you get on with it,” she ventures.
“You have to believe in yourself. You have to get your self-esteem up there and think ‘I can do that’. You have to remind yourself no one else is going to do it for you. Actually no body makes us do anything. As a rule nobody holds us back. We hold ourselves back. As a rule we put reservations on ourselves, women in particular say ‘oh I don’t think I can do that’. You’ve got to say ‘I can do that’. And believe in your ability. If you’ve got a dream you’ve got to work hard to get it. Say: ‘I want to do that. I will do that’.’’
She pauses and admits, with honesty, how hard it was to shut Capricorn Publishing down, the publishing company she founded, which launched her self-titled magazine ITA. She also published Bark! Magazine, under a new company, The Good Life Publishing Company, which also folded once her partner bought her out and “ruined it”. Clearly, the nerve is still raw.
“It was difficult to shut Capricorn Publishing down and Ita magazine…That was hard core,” she admits citing a number of different factors. “I thought we’d done a great job, I was distraught. Ita lasted 6 years, I was proud of that. There’s a point you have to decide whether you’re going to make it or whether you’re going to go on.
“There was the recession we had to have and everybody was doing deals…. the recession was very tough I think people have forgotten. Country women would write and say ‘I need my subscription back’ and wanted a refund as they needed the money for the kids – it was only 50 dollars a year – it was very severe. The interest rate was 17 1/2 per cent – so there was that and a lack of advertising support.”
The inability for the marketplace to see the value in older Australians is something that frustrates Ita to this day. The belief that women over 40 aren’t considered commercial and simply vanish from society, she describes as a load of “hogwash!”
“The advertising industry didn’t think the 50 plus market or 40 plus market was really the market they were [looking for and were] more youth obsessed.
I think there is still an assumption that you pitch to 20-45 age group or they go up a bit further even up to 54 – but the fact of the matter is; older Australians actually have quite a bit of wealth, so these assumptions we won’t change our ways – we won’t switch products – well that is a load of hogwash!
We do change our brands, we do switch products and many, many, many of us,” she says with extra emphasis, “help our children out with school fees and mortgages.
“We’re a very important market and they don’t address us at all…This is a very expensive country in which to live. Wherever you live is expensive, it’s expensive for young people to buy a home. Young people are saddling themselves with a mortgage, which is frightening when you look at what they have to borrow and pay, and then childcare is expensive and young families are forking out all their dough in childcare – I think if parents didn’t help out there children they would be in very dire financial straits.
“Grandparents provide enormous childcare. Grandparents are one of the biggest providers of childcare in this country…. You need to be on mega millions to survive!”
She’s in touch with everyday Australians as it’s a job she knows well. “We understand it, we’ve been there!” she says revealing she often looks after her own five grandchildren before they started school. The youngest grandchild is still at home. “During the school holidays I get a few emergency calls to help out and sometimes I nick out and pick the kids up. When the girls were babies I looked after them once a week, I’d still work, I had my systems operating. When the girls went down for a nap I’d get a lot of phone calls done!”
She admits to being more relaxed as a grandmother than she was a mother.
“I’m more relaxed. You know a lot about raising children by now! I probably occasionally [spoil them]. I’m strict. No is no. When they say ‘why?’ I say ‘because I say so and there will be no discussion!’’
It’s an argument no grandchild could ever win and I’m sure wouldn’t dare try! Again that wry smile over a steel yet sparkly gaze shows that determination.
It’s the same determination that saw her take on the craziness and hectic schedule of a massive job on a daily morning news program, Studio 10, at a time when many her age are booking tickets on Pearl of the Pacific-style voyages and slowing down. Cruising is not something you can imagine on Ita’s bucket list.
It might have something to do with that she’s never been one to sit back, put her feet up on the table and think; ‘geez I’ve made it’. Not even after landing the Australian of the Year title – a chance, if any, to say ‘I have arrived’.
“It’s not something you expect to happen to you, to become Australian of the Year, it’s a huge honour,” she says humbly. “I find that life has continually taken me by surprise. I think I’m travelling in one direction and then somebody says ‘oh by the way’ and you think ‘oh that’s fantastic’ and you veer off down another path, and I think that will continue to happen.
“They’ve all mainly been in a field where communication has been key,’ she says admitting that politics was never something she considered seriously despite being approached.
“I think politics is a place where you have to compromise and there are things I feel very passionately about – it could be something to do with refugees or a park in my local area, you see politicians have to curtail their views on many issues and I don’t think it would be for me.”
Admitting it would be pretty hard to beat being named Australian of the Year, she is still motivated by the same things she was as a 15-year-old. It’s pretty simple: Happiness.
“I wouldn’t think success would be anything at all if you weren’t happy. If you’re not happy what’s the point of anything? So you’ve got to be happy. You’ve got to enjoy your life. You’ve got to be comfortable with who you are.”
She admits taking it easy has never been a temptation; her drive and motivation never caving in like the rest of us slothenly mortals.
“I don’t really think about it because you won’t get up – you have to get up. I’ve got my alarm set as a barking dog. So my dog doesn’t budge and neither does the cat, but I do. The barking alarm gets me up and then I just keep going. I take the dog for a fifteen-minute walk before I go to Channel 10 and then I’ll take her out again in the afternoon. I wasn’t [doing that], and I found I was bit sluggish, and so now I fit that in at about 5 minutes to 6.”
When I suggest that sounds exhausting and perhaps a little lie-in here and there in a tracksuit would be tempting and well deserved? Ita laughs.
“No, I don’t think like that. If I’ll say I’m going to do something I’ll do it. If I’m not enjoying myself I’ll change jobs.”
Simple: “Life!” she says, when asked what makes up the real essence of Ita.
“You’re only here once, you have to enjoy every moment and try everything you can – within reason – look forward to new adventures, have a few goals…”
With another few books in the pipeline on top of her work on morning television, speaking engagements, health campaigns and work with Alzheimer’s Australia, Ita admits heaven for now is when she doesn’t have a timetable. Or have to wear a watch.
“On the weekend you get up and think ‘this is fantastic’. I don’t have any appointments, how wonderful; no matter what I do it doesn’t matter! I can do anything at all. I’m in such a carefree state of mind I sometimes forget to put my watch on. That’s heaven.”
Is she ever wracked with self-doubt? “No. Not now. At my age you have to pray your health stays well,” she laughs heartily. “You think ‘I don’t want to get ill. I don’t want to not be healthy’ – I want to be able to do the things I like; the opera, going to the ballet, travelling overseas every year if I can afford it, catching up with friends, cooking.”
And she’s adamant there has not been a cost to her success.
“No. Not if you enjoy it. It all goes back to if you enjoy it [what you do], you don’t see it as a cost. You organize your life. You organise things. You say ‘okay I’ve got two kids. I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to do that. I’ve got to go to the school play. I’ve got to get Ben to the footy on the weekend’. And you fit it into your life. And you work out how to do it. If you need help, you ask for help.”
Her advice for life is simply to follow what you love and never look back.
“I don’t think you should regret things. You can look back and think ‘well I went that way’, but the fact of the matter is we didn’t go that way – we didn’t do whatever it is and it’s where you are right now that you have to be comfortable. Because you cannot change anything you’ve done. There is no point in going ‘oh what if, oh maybe’ because it won’t happen. It didn’t happen and it won’t happen!
There it is: Australia’s one-woman warrior, whose pioneering spirit still lives. Now for us all to step up and follow the path she has paved so elegantly.
“No. I have [no regrets]. There’s no point. It’s a waste of time even thinking about it!” she grins with trademark decisiveness.
And with that she’s off to walk Cleo, her beloved pet Groodle.
I suddenly feel the urge to genuflect.
Dancer or Singer? Singer
Favourite App? Ita Buttrose Etiquette App (you can view it here)
Book Work or Film Buff? Books
Favourite Indulgence? Shopping
Night Owl or Early Bird? A night owl forced to be an early bird.
Written by Jo Casamento
Feature image via Photographer Ross Coffey