When it’s right to be wrong, and other lessons from B-grade celebrity heroes

I’ve been on a bit of a B Grade celebrity novel binge. Now, if that sounds derogatory, it’s not meant to. I like my Australian celebrities B grade. Journalists, authors, media commentators, particularly women, have always enthralled me. Much more so than the A-listers, with their tightly controlled and enigmatic personas. No, I like my celebrities like I like my pantry staples: home brand.

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You see, we don’t turn to Miranda Kerr for her thoughts on workplace politics or how to juggle a demanding leadership role with two young kids and a weekly newspaper column. She’s got people for that. You and I probably won’t. So I want to hear how the other lady does it.

Enter the string of fabulous B grade celebrities in Australian public life. Ordinary women, with extraordinary things to say. They straddle public life and very, very mundane private life – not unlike yours and mine.

These women, in their mix of Witchery and Willow and self-styled hair, are on ABC News Breakfast in the morning and at Aldi in the afternoon. They’re trying to write a column for Sunday Style on the sidelines of their kid’s soccer match. They read and they think and they write. And they have opinions. They’re Nikki Gemmell, Leigh Sales, Susan Carland, Samantha Armytage, Angela Mollard, and many, many more.

Their currency is intelligence, humour and carefully calibrated opinion. These are all learned qualities, which I have decided I can attain if I expose myself to them, often enough. (Unlike such A-list traits as Jennifer Hawkins’ legs, which no amount of J Bronze seems capable of giving me.)

My interest in B grade celebrities started early. At age 18, with a religious commitment to reading the Weekend Australian Magazine, I reached out to my favourite columnist, Susan Maushart. This attempt to connect with Susan, involving the exchange of no words ever, saw me become one of her 5 sole friends on Myspace (the other 4 spots exclusive to her offspring). To this day I still can’t believe I was the only person who tried to reach out to this weekly warm literary hug of a person in this way, via the primary communication platform of the time.

Nonetheless, as I rolled through my uni years, I developed a regular morning TV habit. Not only did I discover how to transform my upper, lower and middle abs in just 3 minutes a day with the Ab King Pro, I was also introduced to some great women who, refreshingly, were on tv because of what they had to say, not how they looked. Yes they wore nice clothes and TV makeup, but essentially they were just there doing a job, exercising their brain, charm and opinion muscles like we all do at work. They just happened to be doing it on TV.

I can relate to these people, at least more so than Hollywood types, so I am interested in what they have to say, what they have achieved and how they managed to do it.

So, it is against this background that I find myself reading memoirs from middle-aged B grade celebrities on a semi-regular basis. The latest being Jessica Rowe’s ‘Is this my beautiful life?’ which I hustled through the other weekend. I followed that up with Russel Howcroft’s funny little book called ‘When it’s right to be wrong’ last week, and then, slightly off-genre, Rosie Waterland’s ‘The Anti-Cool Girl’ the weekend just gone.

I hadn’t intended to write any lessons learnt about these books, as they’re great but not particularly instructive. But, on reflection, I did pick up a couple of things in each which I thought worth writing down for posterity. In what I shall lovingly call the B Grade Celebrity Guide to Life. Over to you Jess, Russ and Rosie.

Jessica Rowe on Losing Your Job

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Beautiful and bubbly, and a regular on our screens, it would be easy to assume that life has always been good to Jessica Rowe. Not so. As her memoir will attest, with brutal honesty and good humour, Jessica has endured her fair share of ups and downs. Mental illness has played a part, her Mum’s bipolar and her own post natal depression, as has a very public and rocky career path. I can’t remember this (it must have been before my morning TV days) but Jessica was actually a co-host on the Today show pre-Lisa. From her stories, it seems that her reign as brekky TV royalty was fraught from the start. She copped a lot of unsolicited criticism, about her hair, her clothes, her laugh, and found herself cowering in the face of public opinion, becoming a quieter, duller, less authentic version of herself.

Amid rumours of an impending ‘boning’ and general nastiness, Jessica received some wonderful news. After a long struggle to conceive through IVF, she was pregnant. As you do, Jessica embarked on four months of maternity leave. Around month 3, she was told she could have a few more months off. And a few more after that. For she had been fired.

Then ensued a tumultuous identity crisis, as one would expect from someone who had just slipped from the top of their game into unemployment in a single phone call. In the throes of maternal monotony (‘cow-heavy and floral’, as Plath would say), she struggled to find her place in the world. After some time and a bit of help, she took steps to restore her confidence and career. Two daughters and two failed Playschool auditions later, she was offered a spot on morning TV.

It’s a good story, and an honest one. From someone we look at and assume has never been subject to such rejection. It reminds us that we all have to fortify ourselves for inevitable set backs. As smart, pretty and kind as Jessica is, she was rejected in a most painful and public way. But she found her confidence and bounced back, which is all that matters.

As the renowned philosopher Dita Von Teese once said, ‘You can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world, and there is still going to be someone who hates peaches’.

Russel Howcroft on Changing Your Mind

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If I had to choose a ‘word of the year’ it would be this: Agile. Everything is so agile right now. The Prime Minister is calling for agility, project management is agile. It’s enough to make even the most flexible among us call for calm.

I heard a commentator on a Sunday morning political talk show that is not Insiders (yeah that one), say that agility is ‘just a shield against criticism for chopping and changing your mind every week’, or something along those lines. I disagree. A new attitude to risk, change and failure is definitely an emancipating thing – and policy and business will benefit from it.

This is one of Russel’s points in ‘When it’s right to be wrong’. You know Russel from Gruen. Not the hairy guy, or Todd ‘slogan tee’ Sampson, but the one with the collared shirts and the Toorak accent.

As I said, his book is a bit odd. I ordered it online, expecting a novel, but soon realised it was more of a ’74 illustrated tips’ type book, 75% of which are directed at ad-types. It’s not the evidence-based manifesto I was expecting, but an interesting handbook nonetheless.

Tip 6 is this: ‘Change your mind’. Russel tells us to be brave enough to be agile. He says that circumstances change, new information is received and dynamics shift. And it’s better to change our mind and be right, than ‘be dogmatic, entrenched and fall back on a stand-by view that is increasingly and demonstrably wrong’. There is a way to do it, though. We must declare that we have changed our view, argue why, and sell our point. Sounds reasonable.

For so long I avoided the words, ‘you’re right, that’s a good point’ for fear that I must hold my ground or risk looking stupid (am lawyer, after all). How wrong I was. And what a great feeling it is to say, ‘actually I see what you mean, I have changed my mind’. I feel good, they feel good. It’s a good result.

Oh and by the by, I just glanced at an online piece by Russel’s wife, Kate (the only thing more interesting than a B grade celebrity is their spouse), in which she referred to him as a C grade celebrity. C grade! Not on my blog!

Rosie Waterland on Finding Your Taco-Kerb

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Finally, proving that age is no precondition to wisdom, came a lesson in self-accceptance from Rosie Waterland. It’s hard to summarise Rosie’s ‘journey’ in a short paragraph, so I’ll just say that, sports people aside (yawn), not many people have enough material to write a memoir at age 28. Except Rosie, who has endured the fear, pain and disappointment of a thousand sub-optimal lifetimes. Though nothing can erase a traumatic childhood, I hope the book serves as some form of bizarre compensation for her. And, in my view, books make far better homewares than Oscars.

So one story I loved came right at the end. Rosie talks about being sent to the US to cover the G’Day LA Gala, which seemed like a pretty awesome and glamorous thing to do for work. She frocked up and took her media pass to all the cool parties, literally living out a childhood fantasy she had imagined for all of time. Initially she basked in the ‘look how far you’ve come’ of it all, but then the reality of that world started to hit. Behind the Instagram filters were a whole bunch of fairly boring strangers, and she felt weird and awkward and out of place. Until she realised that just because she could be there, because she had made it, doesn’t mean it was that great. So she left. Walked out of ‘the coolest situation’ she had ever found herself in. Like the perfect ending to a film she found a food truck and sat on a kerb, ball gown and makeup in situ, eating a taco. She had never felt more relieved. That kerb was exactly where she was supposed to be.

It’s a good reminder. Sometimes, the cool place, the seemingly right place to be, is actually not the right place. I’ve gazed at enough race day and party pics this year, from the warm embrace of my couch, to know exactly where I like to be. I just want to read my books, fall asleep on my boyfriend and listen to my middle-aged lady heroes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the Women’s Weekly Christmas Special has commenced and I know my taco-kerb when I see it. Ciao.

Thought Leader(s): Jessica Rowe, Russel Howcroft, Rosie Waterland

Book(s): Rowe, J (2015), ‘Is this my beautiful life?’, Allen and Unwin; Howcroft, R (2015), ‘When it’s right to be wrong’, Penguin Random House; Waterland, R (2015) ‘The Anti-Cool Girl’, HarperCollins. 

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One thought on “When it’s right to be wrong, and other lessons from B-grade celebrity heroes

  1. Pingback: Top Reads 2015 | thingsilearnt

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