We all get tied up with work and forget to listen to what our bodies are trying to tell us. Media commentator, Jo Casamento shares why Sarah Wilson is the inspiration we all need this summer to see what our bodies could be telling us.
Blogger, journalist, best-selling author, wellness coach and television host, Sarah Wilson is the former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. A one-woman warrior whose I Quit Sugar campaign has evolved into a movement with more than 300 thousand followers who have quit sugar on her 8-Week Program, Wilson also hosted the first season of MasterChef Australia.
The passionate advocate for a healthy life grew up on a subsistence-living farm with five younger siblings and started her journalism career as a restaurant reviewer for The Sunday Magazine. Her journey of self-discovery began after being diagnosed with the crippling autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, in 2008. These days she can be spotted riding her bike around town in wedges following a television appearance while orchestrating a campaign to save childhood obesity.
Sarah Wilson is one of the Australian media landscape’s greatest contradictions. She says she is often mislabelled and misinterpreted. Wilson has edited fashion magazines, but has never bought a handbag (truly!). She can’t stand fuss and tizz, yet is a sought-after television host spending many hours in a make-up chair. Her business turns over $1.8 million a year, yet she could live without material possessions, and often has — her couch being practically the only thing she owns. She says she is not ambitious, but rather a perfectionist riddled with anxiety, whose accidental career has taken her places most can only dream.
It’s an unusual dichotomy, and one that polarises. Wilson’s drive doesn’t come from a desire for grandeur (she hates the limelight), but rather from a healthy dose of self-inquisition, steeped in the philosophy and questions of life which have always fascinated her. Combine this with an ability to touch others and a yearning to share her wellness message, plus her ability to live simply. Well, it all adds to the Wilson intrigue.
“I’m not trying to make a statement,” she says of her lifestyle. “I just don’t like going to shops and I don’t like things. I’ve never, ever bought a handbag! Although I was given one once …”
To understand Wilson is to understand where she comes from.
The Arts in Philosophy graduate from The Australian National University (who also gained a Graduate Certificate from RMIT) grew up with parents who were, she admits, “not just anti-consumers but they were also completely broke and they had absolutely no money”.
Her ability to be un-materialistic stems from her childhood. “In some ways I’m not reliant on money. That’s something that is in the back of my mind at all times. I want to make sure I am not someone who is going to suffer if money is going to be a problem.”
She says her parents’ beliefs were minimalist by necessity, not choice.
“They weren’t hippies. They were practical people and I guess some of that simplicity and those values certainly informed a lot of what I’ve always done. I’ve never been caught up in fashion or materialism.”
Ironically Wilson would go on to edit Cosmopolitan magazine in her twenties, the title the epitome of high glamour, gloss and fashion.
A passionate advocate for women’s rights at university in Melbourne where she was heavily involved in politics, Wilson was clearly driven and had a desire to write but says she had no idea what she wanted to do. “I’ve never had a white board with a plan. And that’s what I’ve started to put into practice, since I got sick. To trust that if I do what feels right, everything will flow from there.”
From the age of six she’d tell her mum that when she grew up she was going to make a difference. “Mum would roll her eyes, because she had six kids and they were humble people!” But she readily admits her way of making a difference now is to help others find wellness and feel less alone. “I’ve struggled with loneliness from a very young age. It’s my own quest now that I want to share. It’s no secret I suffer from terrible anxiety, I’m a terrible insomniac.” What keeps her awake at night? “It’s really to do with my own perfectionism, am I doing enough? That sort of classic female-fraud syndrome stuff.”
A mini-entrepreneur at age 12 (she would make library bags and sell them at children’s boutiques around Canberra netting a profit of $7 per bag — they retailed for $14 under her own label, Creation Engine) she was also interested in exploring spirituality and would spend weekends visiting various churches and temples and asking questions of the priests and people, from Baptists to Hare Krishnas — despite being a catholic.
“I’ve been fired up about things my whole life. When things are unfair I am notoriously the person who will step up and mouth off first … I even started a mountain bike group for women at uni; I think I used it as a way to conquer fear,” she notes.
It was these passions that led her to writing. While studying philosophy and women’s studies and getting involved in student politics and the feminist movement at uni she would send opinion pieces in to Melbourne’s Herald Sun in her spare time with a feminist slant. They were published. “I always say, busy yourself doing what you love and doing it really well and you’ll get noticed by the right people. And I guess that’s what I did. It sounds like I was very ambitious — I guess it was more that I was very passionate.”
And noticed she was. She landed her first job on News Ltd.’s Sunday Magazine at 23 during a work-experience stint where she re-designed the entire restaurant pages over a weekend (giving herself a quick course in [desktop design software] Quark to do it) and so impressed her boss — who hadn’t noticed her up till then — she was asked to stay. From there she began writing features and a weekly column. She moved to Sydney where her women’s opinions had been noticed by Pat Ingram and Mia Freedman and was given the top job at Cosmo. She says it was her passion for young women, not the fashion and the frocks that intrigued her.
But then Wilson got sick.
“I got unwell during my last 12 months of Cosmo,” she recalls of the Hashimoto diagnosis. “I was in denial about it and I put off going to the doctor and when I did go to the doctor I was told I had perimenopause and there was something terribly wrong with my hormones. I left it for six months because I didn’t want to face up to it.”
Eventually she had no choice but to face it. “My last six months at Cosmo were really tough not just because of the environment I was in but because of the stress. And then to have my body winding down literally organ by organ. When I finally staggered in to the doctor his words were: ‘It’s a miracle you’re vertical. You’re about two weeks from heart failure’. That’s quite alarmist; I had to kind of take note.”
Wilson quit the job and for nine months retreated into the wilderness of her Bondi lounge room. “Bit by bit everything fell apart. I ran out of money. My family is not in Sydney. My friends were all busy with family and work and you just drop off the radar.”
She was forced to confront herself. To “rebuild my health but also to rebuild my career and my ego — which really took a bashing because all of a sudden everything I had defined myself by was gone, including my physical strength.”
Wilson is a poster girl for overcoming adversity. Ironically her illness would became her saviour. She admits her entire life fell apart, but she is philosophical about it: “From a spiritual point of view I didn’t feel like my life was in alignment and I’d been feeling that way for a long time. And I basically think my body said you can’t keep forcing yourself down this path and keep hammering yourself into this hole or we’re going to collapse in a heap for you and make it impossible for you to keep going. It made the choice for me. And I use the phrase — and it’s all very woo woo — but it’s been my gift in many ways. It’s the thing that stopped me and made me reconsider my whole entire life.”
Oddly enough, it was during this period she got the MasterChef gig through a series of fateful meetings and appearances, which she says she managed to get through purely on adrenalin. “I was at the acupuncturist basically because my period stopped and I’d gone into early menopause and the Chinese doctor was trying to help me with that and I was on the table with pins all over me and Kerri-Anne Kennerley called as I’d appeared as a guest on her show”. She was asked to fill in for KAK who was going away and from there she was headhunted for MasterChef. She says it was her extensive food knowledge which got her over the line.
After the gruelling stint on MasterChef, Wilson moved to an army shed in the forest in Byron Bay for a year and half, unaware it would be her re-birth.
“And that’s where I quit sugar! I was trying all these different things to gradually turn my health around. I’d lost everything. I had nothing to lose so I started blogging and things just grew and grew and because I was in alignment — I guess things got better and better.”
By better and better, Wilson is being modest. Her “gentle experiment” to quit sugar for two weeks turned into a blog, then a book and now a movement. It’s now a business with 15 staff, passionate about promoting wellness.
“Sugar is the centre of the health messaging I believed in — but really at the bottom of things is a desire to make a difference and a desire to help other people with their wellness … the program incorporates a lot of my philosophical and general health philosophies. Everything in my program is researched and backed by scientists — I’ve become friends with endocrinologists and heart surgeons around the world who are leading experts in this area.”
She doesn’t recall the exact moment when she realised she had found her calling in life, but she remembers the realisation happening after chatting to a friend. Finding herself disillusioned, she questioned, “Was I put on the planet to tell people not to eat sugar?” And he said: “Yes! Everything has pointed you here. Your whole life has been directed to this point.” She uses the Sanskrit word which means dharma to describe it. “When you’re in your dharma you are doing what you are meant to be doing whether you like it or not.” It was in this moment she stopped resisting and gave over to it. “Up until then I thought this will all pass and that I will go back to my journalism job.”
Her next campaign is to make school canteens healthier. “The real focus is trying to teach people to cook and making it cheap and easy.”
She has also recently expanded. “I have a business approach called suck it and see. So we try small scale and test it out and then expand. I have a great business partner who came on as general manager. I thought I can stay doing this on my own and stay small scale or I can take it to the next level.”
Wilson says she doesn’t want her life to be defined by her illness and so she has made the conscious decision to live.
“I know that sounds really Pollyanna-ish. But I made a conscious decision I want to live. I want to live well and meaningfully. I’ve always had a very acute sense of my mortality. I always had this idea I’ve got 85 to 90 years on this planet and to me it’s extremely special and I don’t want to waste it. There are days where I suffer from chronic pain with my disease and there are days where I’m in so much pain and there’s nowhere to turn — there is no relief; there is no respite. But I choose not to stay in bed and feel bad.”
She focuses on a favourite phrase: “Where the mind goes the energy flows” which she says has helped her during times of being bullied online when her posts have created mini-media storms. Her most recent post on anxiety and how it affects her illness created controversy on mamamia.com and then nationally.
“I’ve been bullied in the online realm by my own peers even, I’ve suffered physical hardship through it all. I don’t often get personally hurt because I can rationalise it, I suppose, and I’ve become resilient as a result of the last five years. But I do get disappointed in humanity when it happens, when it really bubbles over and you know some really bad behaviour comes out and that’s what drags me down. I just go ‘Oh God, humanity, is this what it’s come to?’ It’s not easy and I don’t like it.”
She’s happiest when she’s bushwalking in just a pair of shorts and a sports bra — which she tries to do most weekends, and she tries to factor in a day a week where her body can shut down. She’ll often lie in a dark room for hours.
Mostly, she is grateful for her staff who she loves to nurture.
“I can’t have children, it’s kind of nice I can have a contribution.”
With the brutal reality of that statement, you can clearly hear the still-raw pain in Wilson’s voice even a decade after being told she was infertile.
“I’ve had a bit of time to come to terms with it. It was hard,” she says on learning she would never have a baby during her days at Cosmo.
“It was during that whole period … it was tough to come to terms with.”
Wilson, 42, says she has thought about adoption but perhaps the window is now closed.
“I’m too old to adopt in this country now … I’ve always wanted to have children — you know miracles have happened. I started getting my period again six months ago — which was not meant to happen. And my endocrinologist is pretty freaked out by it. Obviously I’m happy about it. But I’m cautious about it. Nobody knows fully what that means — so we’re going to see what happens. It would be great. I would love to have children.”
Fostering is likely a part of her future.
“One of the things I will do when I come up for a bit more air is fostering, so I’m very keen to do that.
That’s sort of on the horizon — I’d love to have children in my life, absolutely love to …”
Success has come at a price, she admits. A relationship has possibly fallen victim along the way. “Not intentionally. I haven’t had enough time or haven’t found somebody who understands; I think the two work together. I’ve been single for seven years. They just haven’t even come to the fore. I don’t know why!”
She is positive, noting that many more successful women than her maintain relationships. “I just keep thinking, maybe I’ll be 50 when I meet the one!”
SARAH WILSON’S FAST FIVE:
Favourite App: Instagram
Dancer or Singer: Neither. I’m terrible at both. I’m ludicrously awkward with both. I don’t like being on the stage at all!
Book Worm or Film Buff: Definitely a book worm
Favourite Indulgence: Really good red wine and pork crackling
Early Bird or Night Owl: Early Bird