For a generation of women who grew up on the life lessons of Dolly and Cleo, Lisa Wilkinson AM is a cult hero.
The renowned journalist and media personality was at the helm of both magazines early in her career, responsible for guiding legions of girls through the troubled waters of their teen years, and into the intricacies of adulthood.
Then there are the famous faces she discovered or mentored: Nicole Kidman, Mia Freedman, Megan Gale, and Miranda Kerr, as well as the countless young journalists who benefited from her guidance and mentorship.
Ms Wilkinson is the ultimate girl boss, a champion for women in journalism and in media as a whole.
Today, she received an honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Wollongong, recognised for her services to journalism on a national and international level and her advocacy for issues affecting young women.
Born in Wollongong, Ms Wilkinson spent her formative years in Campbelltown in South Western Sydney. One day, she saw an advertisement in the Women and Girls Employment section of the Sydney Morning Herald. It was asking for an editorial assistant for Dolly willing to do anything. It was Ms Wilkinson’s dream role and a few days later, she walked into the offices Sungravure Magazines, the magazine arm of the Fairfax Press in those days, as the newest member of Dolly’s editorial team.
When Ms Wilkinson delivered the prestigious Andrew Olle Lecture in 2013, she told the crowd that landing the role at Dolly was literally her dream job. She was thrilled to just be in the door, among the working journalists and buzzing typewriters of the youth-orientated magazine.
“I had the job! My dream job. At Dolly. The very magazine I had spent all of my teenage years reading. I was going to be sitting in the same office as journalists. REAL journalists. With notepads, deadlines, and typewriters . . . heck, some of them were even electric. (The typewriters, not the journalists.) Watching. Learning. Questioning,” she said at the time.
Two years later, Ms Wilkinson was handed the reins to the magazine, named Dolly’s youngest ever editor, and the youngest ever editor of a national magazine, at the age of 21.
She had no university degree; her only certificate was in advanced secretarial studies. But she was passionate, intelligent, enthusiastic, and she knew her readership.
“What I didn’t know I would work out for myself,” she said.
“I was just a kid from the suburbs. There were so many times where I didn’t feel ready, but someone figured I was ready for it and I’m so glad for that.”
Ms Wilkinson spent four years at the editor’s desk before shifting to a more adult audience, as editor of the iconic Cleo magazine after she was headhunted by then publisher Kerry Packer.
A fresh face with a fresh point of view for what women wanted in a magazine, Ms Wilkinson moved away from the male centrefolds that defined Cleo during the 1970s.
“Everything that has come my way, I have made it my own,” she said.
For 10 years, she guided the groundbreaking magazine to new circulation highs. It became the top selling women’s lifestyle magazine per capita in the world, due to Ms Wilkinson’s mix of sharp journalism, irreverent tone, and focus on the issues that mattered to women.
When the magazine folded in 2016, Ms Wilkinson wrote a tribute for the Huffington Post: “At your best, you were fun, informative, lusty and liberating, and several generations of Australian women are in your debt.”
After leaving Cleo, Ms Wilkinson set up her own magazine consultancy while juggling the demands of three small children.
“I have been so fortunate to combine being a mum and working,” she said.
“My greatest achievement is my kids, and I think being a mother actually makes me a better journalist. It gave me empathy and made me really care about the future.”
Her career in publishing laid the groundwork for her next chapter, this time in radio. She relished her new role as radio host, working alongside stalwarts Mike Carlton and Doug Mulray. It was soon after her move from print to radio that she took on the television world, first as a panellist for Foxtel’s Beauty and the Beast, before hosting the Morning Shift and Weekend Sunrise on Channel Seven.
Her role at the helm of Channel Nine’s Today Show catapulted the program to the number one breakfast television show in the country.
“Strangely one of the biggest challenges of my career was leaving the Today Show,” she said.
“There’s this new style of media that exists, with the tabloid press and the paparazzi.
“It’s quite a weird thing and it’s really not possible to prepare for it.”
Aside from her dazzling media career, Ms Wilkinson is a global ambassador of The Fred Hollows Foundation and supports numerous other charities including Barnardo’s, Breast Cancer Institute of Australia, National Breast Cancer Foundation, the Melanoma Institute, the Ingham Medical Research Institute, the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, the Sydney Children’s Hospital Randwick, Adopt Change, Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, The Big Issue and the Butterfly Foundation.
In 2016 she was named a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for her significant service to the print and broadcast media, as a journalist and presenter, and to a range of youth and women’s health groups.
She is also a member of The Walkley Advisory Board, which is responsible for judging the overall winners of the annual Walkley Awards for Excellence in Journalism.
For Ms Wilkinson, a love of people and their stories has kept her career going, with her most recent appointment at the CBS-owned Ten Network casting her back into evening news as a co-host on The Project and as Executive Editor for the online Ten Daily.
“I got into journalism because I loved stories. I’ve never lost my curiosity for other people’s stories,” she said.
Her advice to today’s graduates is simple.
“Be humble, be curious and listen,” she said.
“Work incredibly hard and don’t look at the clock. If you’re looking at the clock, you’re in the wrong job.”
For any enquiries to work with Lisa Wilkinson, please reach out to Stacey Paton, [email protected] or call (02) 9332 9111.