Leigh Sales on the Media Snake Pit, Overcoming Criticism and Parenting Her Way – RESCU Women of Influence Exclusive

In the tremendously tough world of television, Leigh Sales has risen to the top and garnered hard-earned applause as a well-respected journalist, author and television presenter. She began her career with the Nine Network in Brisbane before joining the ABC where she became NSW political reporter, covering the 2000 Olympics, and then the network’s Washington correspondent for four years. She presented Lateline and was the ABC’s national security correspondent before being appointed presenter of the ABC’s plum news and current affairs program, 7.30. But despite all of the accolades, and there are many, Sales says it’s her 18-year marriage to Phil Willis, with whom she has two boys, which is her greatest achievement.

By Jo Casamento, for RESCU’s Women of Influence Series


The nation’s eyes watch her every move, listen to her every question and there are even headlines splashed over the minutiae of the tiniest pronunciations she makes during interviews with politicians and prime ministers on the ABC’s flagship news and current affairs program, 7.30. Presenter Leigh Sales could be forgiven for feeling pressure.

But after a year that saw her second baby boy , James, get viral meningitis at five weeks of age, Sales has a renewed perspective on life and an ability to roll with the punches in ways she never imagined. The self-confessed high-achieving perfectionist would even admit she’s turned the pressure cooker down, even if it’s just a notch.

“Sometimes, actually, real life stuff distracting you is a help because you think ‘Oh, my little boy’s not very well’ or whatever — so you feel a bit like ‘It’s just an interview, no one’s going to die out of this’ if I ask the wrong question or I don’t get every last thing I want to get out of an interview. Sometimes the real life stuff is a good reality check.”

It was during maternity leave earlier this year that Sales’s five-week-old son, James, brother to two-year-old Daniel, contracted viral meningitis. She and husband, Phil Willis, spent a fair bit of time in hospitals in those first three to four months of his life.

“It was really interesting to me to think this is the sort of stuff that preoccupies most normal people,” Sales explains. “The stuff I’m normally preoccupied with reading three different newspaper a day — and wondering who’s up and who’s down in Canberra isn’t really what most people worry about. Most people are worried about things like ‘Oh, my goodness, look at the gap on this bill and Medicare’s only paying 40 bucks of it and I have to find the other 200 and that’s my sixth bill this week’. Those sorts of things give you a bit of a reality check about what most people care about,” she says of the time that saw her spend four nights in hospital with her son. “It was just really scary. He seems fine now — we’re taking him to development checkups and stuff to make sure he’s okay, but he seems pretty good. He’s a big fat redhead!” she laughs, the love oozing from every pore.

It’s this down-to-earthness that makes the Queensland redhead (her book blog was self-effacingly called Well-readhead) so lovable on screen and has overseen her steady rise in popularity. Sales’s fierce interviewing technique has earned her accolades across the nation, two Walkley Awards and even won fans over from hardened critics to ABC’s most hardcore loyalists. Whether eyeballing the PM, chewing the fat with Hillary Clinton or taking on the haters — one such being former John Howard advisor Graham Morris (he called her a “cow” to which she retorted smoothly on Twitter: “Id rather be a cow than a dinosaur”) — Sales says she never forgets to be thankful.

“I guess in my job that’s writ large for me every day — awful things can happen, and little children can get sick or things can happen to them. I’m reminded every day how lucky I am with my life and what a fortunate upbringing I had. Just simply by the fact that nothing went wrong. Forget about having money — it’s about the fact everyone was pretty healthy and happy most of the time. That is so rare and you’re so lucky to have that in your life.”

Discipline was a quality instilled at a young age — her sergeant major father drilled into her that “Preparation and planning prevent piss poor performance”. It’s a mantra she adopted early and one she often repeats to this day.

“If you go into stuff prepared it helps you feel confident because you are on top of it and you don’t feel like you are going to get caught out. It helps you mitigate the feeling you’re a fraud and you don’t deserve to be there — you’ve got to do your homework, it’s a really important thing in life to be prepared, and, frankly, in terms of confidence it is to fake it! I can’t tell you how many nights I go on air on the television and I don’t feel confident and I just think, fake that you feel confident, just smile and fake that you are confident. Even in a room full of strangers, I just think, just fake that you don’t feel shy and intimidated. And you’ve just got to look confident.”

And confident she looks. While holding that steely and polished gaze, Sales admits there is often a flutter in her tummy.

“For the big ones I’m so nervous,” she admits with astounding candour. “I get really, really nervous. I’ll probably have an interview with the PM later this week and I’ll be really nervous about that, partly because you don’t want to mess up — but also because you know there’s so much scrutiny — and they’re important because those people don’t do lots of in-depth, long-form interviews so it’s important you ask good questions and get it right. I still always get nervous.” She continues: “People like Hillary Clinton — I’ll be on the point of physically being ill because I’ll be so anxious.”

Amazingly, for one so composed in front of the most formidable of combatants, Sales says she often suffers from the imposter syndrome.

“God, yeah. All the time … I hate thinking of myself as a successful person … I always feel like I’m just muddling along as best I can and I’m a bit of a work in progress — it’s hard to get your head around. Our publicist sent me something the other day written about the top 25 women of the year and I asked if he could go back and ask them, ‘Are you sure about that?’!”

Sales says turning 40 doesn’t mean she still doesn’t feel like a fraud, although she’s definitely a more vocal one. “I think I’m definitely more confident — I care less about what other people think of me as I get older and I’m much stronger in terms of saying what I want rather than what other people want me to. All of a sudden you think ‘Well, hang on, I’ve actually got 20 years’ experience doing this’. I was thinking the other week, if someone would ever get mad at me I used to run off to the toilets and cry, I used to be so easily upset by conflict. Now I’m so much tougher in that regard — I think it’s just a sign of getting older, basically. I’m much more willing to hold my ground in an argument and not be anxious I’m going to dissolve into tears.”

From lace to leather, Sales has toughened up since those early days. She’s had to, facing more criticism than most. It goes with the turf of being a female on television, but even by industry standards Sales admits it has been “pretty harsh”. Early on in her career, Sales faced heartbreak. She landed her first job as “a general dogsbody” in Nine’s Brisbane studios where she was told by one of her first bosses she did not have the voice or looks for television. “It was pretty harsh,” she says of the day she won’t forget.

“I went home from work bawling my eyes out for three days … that’s what caused me to leave Nine. [I thought] clearly they don’t think I’m going to be the right fit for them so I need to go somewhere where they think I am.”

After shedding three days’ worth of tears, Sales applied for and got a job at the ABC from an ad in the newspaper. It was 1995. “I thought I’ve just got to do good work and show they’ve made a mistake!”

She laughs now of the time: “Having said that they probably didn’t make a mistake. I was probably young and rough and didn’t have the right skill set to be on air at Nine and my boss was probably 100 per cent right. But it doesn’t mean you like to hear that!”

The life lesson was to just push through it. “Even though it’s hurtful just thinking, well, it’s like that thing when stuff like that happens to you in life, you can spin it how you want. You can take it as a victim and think ‘Oh, they just didn’t think I was any good’ and stay sitting there and not seek opportunities and feel sorry for myself or think ‘I’m going to use that to go do something different’. Lots of things in life look like setbacks. It’s all in the way you spin it — I watch politicians do that day in, day out!”

Her resolve also enabled her to take on the doubters when, years later in 2011, she took over the chair vacated by the well-respected ABC guru Kerry O’Brien, who had been at the helm of the 7.30 Report for 15 years. “I knew it would be really hard to take over from Kerry because he had done it for so long and he’d done such a great job and audiences get used to what they get used to and hate change and its just really, really difficult,” she says of the induction period.

“Knowing that intellectually and living it every day is a different thing. Every single time someone would complain to the show they’d say ‘Bring back Kerry’. All you can do is think ‘You know what, I would be sitting at home on the couch and watching someone else do it’ and, frankly, that’s what gets me around my anxiety. Even with Hillary Clinton. I’d be in such agony and anxiety then I’ll think to myself: ‘Would you rather trade places sitting on the couch and as an observer watch someone else get to interview Hillary Clinton?’ And the answer to that is ‘no’.

“Would I rather have said no to hosting 7:30 — such a great gig — because I was too scared to follow Kerry O’Brien? No. I’d rather crash and burn actually, and at least I can say I gave it a go.” 

She says her style is completely different to her predecessors and the only way she could play it was by being true to herself.

“I don’t do it like Kerry. Kerry has a really different style to me — and I couldn’t do it like Kerry. We’re totally different people — Kerry couldn’t do it like me. All you can do is the way you want to do it. And if people like that, that’s great; if they don’t like it that’ll be great too because I’ll do something else and at least I will have given it a go. Be yourself.”

This strength comes from an innate sense of confidence in her abilities. “You’ve completely got to be yourself and also back yourself to a degree. I took it on thinking this is going to be hard, but I actually think I can do it and I think people will get used to me and I think they’ll ultimately like me doing it. So you have to sort of back yourself. Okay, it might be a bit of a rocky road to get to that point but you have to believe you can actually get there.”

The reptilian skin she has developed comes in handy — especially where social media is concerned.

“You get it non-stop all of the time. [Fellow ABC presenter] Annabel [Crabb] and I will email each other about particularly hilarious ones … she got this hilarious one saying how can she be a serious journalist when she looks like Punky Brewster! We share them because they are so ridiculous. Another one of my favourites the other day was when this guy kept calling me a moron in caps. I just laughed at it. They’re actually funny. My blocking bar is so low!”

She does admit sometimes on a bad day a personal attack can really cut deep though. “Annabel had one the other week saying I hope your baby gets sick — ones like that can get through your armour but other times you think ‘You are a pathetic individual’ and block them. I try to not engage but every now and then I find it hard to resist, but I try to just not or I try to do something that distracts me from it — ring somebody for a laugh. Or watch Scandal — that’s completely trash. Stuff like that.”

Ironically, Sales never set out for the scrutiny of a television career admitting it “was more accident than design in that regard”. She was knocked back from a cadetship at Brisbane’s Courier Mail before taking up the position at Nine. It was, and always has been, the love of the written word which has driven her.

“Reading is definitely a huge part of it. I got sick when I was in grade one and had to have a fair bit of time off school,” she recalls of a period where she was sick with measles, scarlet fever and a succession of illnesses.  The school suggested to her mum that reading would prevent boredom and keep her engaged.

“So Mum came home one day with Enid Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood and The Secret Seven. And I honestly think that was a key moment in my life. Because so much of what I know I’ve taught myself through reading and I find reading really pleasurable, I find reading such an enjoyable activity to do. Escaping into worlds that are beyond your own. Realising there is a big world out there and realising there are things you can do. That’s been a really important thing in my life.”

Deciding in high school she wanted to earn a living from being a journalist, she studied journalism at the Queensland University of Technology and later Deakin University, where she completed a Master in International Relations. Inspired by the world she had read about, Sales was determined Washington was where she was headed. “I just find America a really fascinating place and the politicians to be such interesting characters — everyone has a really bizarre and unusual backstory.”

After a four-year stint in the US, where she covered Guantanamo Bay, Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War for the ABC, Sales was asked to write a book about David Hicks (Detainee 002:The Case of David Hicks) and also wrote an essay On Doubt. The book went on to win several awards. She describes the book as a key moment in her career, although it is only in hindsight she can take stock of the achievement. “I think it did help me get the gig on Lateline. Books are so permanent. When I look back I think that was important in cementing a reputation as a serious journalist.”

She’d like to write another book when time permits. It’s on her bucket list — already chock-a-block full of dreams and ideas, which are largely dedicated to more writing. “I can’t currently. But all the time I feel anxious, thinking I want to be doing some writing … I still remember the day the hard copy arrived at my house. It was so exciting. I think those a-ha moments are easier to spot in hindsight … I’d love to be doing some writing — but I’m not going to be able to do it [time wise]. But that makes me a bit sad that my writing at the moment is confined to 30-second intros for 7.30.”

The podcast she does with friend and colleague Annabel Crabb once a week keeps the ideas machine in overdrive. “We have loads of light-bulb moments and we look at each other and then laugh — when? We just don’t have the time … I jot them down in my little notebook for the future.”

There are so many things she’d like to do, she laughs she’ll run out of time before she gets to do them all.

And while there have been many highlights along the way, Sales says her 18-year marriage is most definitely her greatest achievement.

“As anyone who’s been married for that amount of time would know, it’s pretty hard. I was 23 when I got married. I think that’s actually a pretty good achievement and I’m pretty proud of myself.”

Not one to think of ambition as a dirty word, Sales celebrates her youthful drive and naivety.

“I was pretty young and ambitious and had lots of things I wanted to do and was in a hurry … I know that’s viewed as negative for women — although it’s spoken of for blokes as a positive. I had lots of things I wanted to achieve and do and I was ambitious.”

Success, Sales defined as being a good journalist and achieving a certain level of notoriety in the field, rising through the ranks and being acknowledged for it. She has certainly more than achieved what she set out to do. “I remember saying to Phil I want to do this and you’ll probably have to make some sacrifices along the way. I want to go to America and you’ll have to do that. I look back now and probably, if I was bit older, I might not have been as bolshie with that! But at the time I just thought ‘You have to fit in with this because this is what I’m doing’.”

Before the couple knew it, time had flown. After Washington there was the book. They started trying for kids and then she got offered to host Lateline. “We were just at the cusp of thinking we might need to do something as it was taking a while and then it happened as I started 7.30. And it was really an inconvenient time! But it just worked out that way. I thought, there’s clearly never going to be a good time — I’ve just got to run with it.”

With having children has come that ability to roll with the punches, and not only embrace sleep deprivations (“I feel like I’m aging by the day!” she bemoans) but also let go of some of that perfectionism which has driven her her whole life.

“I don’t think you can have kids and be a perfectionist,” she says flatly. “You just can’t … having kids does make your life out of your own control a little bit. Ideally I’d like to get a really good night’s sleep this week before I interview Tony Abbott but I can’t be guaranteed of that — so I just have to deal with that! And that’s how it rolls …”

She admits that while her boys are young, things work, but concedes she might have to re-think when they are school age.

“I get home and the children are asleep but I have time from when they wake up till half past ten in the morning. I get scared thinking when they go to school they’ll be out the door early and I’ll be home and they’ll be asleep. I don’t know how I’m going to do that.”

She says her mum worked, and that was something that made her feel sad as a child.

“My mum wasn’t a stay-at-home mum — something that makes me sad is I didn’t always like it. I always said to myself, ‘I’ll be the mum who does tuckshop and does all that stuff’ and I am just so not going to be that mum. I just couldn’t be that mum, I’m not that person,” she says with brutal honesty. “I know as a child I wanted that and I’m not capable of delivering it as a parent. I might be capable of a day here or there but I couldn’t do that, I just couldn’t do that, I’m no good at it. I’d go crazy.”

Sales, more than most, is aware of her limits.

“I just can’t. I know it sound horrendous,” she laughs. “I’ve got to have time away from my children. I couldn’t do it all the time, all day every day. I hope mine will [understand] — because I sometimes think I’m not a very natural mother and I find playing sometimes boring; it makes me feel bad because some people are so good at it. I wish that I were better at that side of mothering — I’m hoping my boys will appreciate whatever I bring to it. It is what it is, I am who I am and I am their mother and hopefully they’ll just deal with that!”

And there it is. Unapologetic and honest, with lashings of good humour: the reasons we love her so much.

Favourite App?  This American Life — great storytelling that makes me laugh and cry.
Dancer or Singer? Singer because dancers really suffer a lot of pain.
Early bird or Night owl?  Early bird.
Book worm or Film buff? Book worm.
Favourite Indulgence? Expensive chocolate.

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