For our August issue, Fiona MacDonald and Jessica Montague interviewed inspirational women from very different walks of life. They were both so moved by the piece and the remarkable Australian ladies they encountered, that they decided there was much more to say...
What was your highlight when working on the story?
Jess: There were so many! But probably above all, it was having the opportunity to meet and interview such amazing women. Working as a journalist, I think the biggest privilege or perk is hearing the stories of people you otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to meet. In terms of meeting people, the biggest highlights were Jenny Kee and Ita Buttrose (which I spoke briefly about on the Contributors page in the issue). Ever since I was a teenager, the careers and achievements of these two women have inspired me. They both started out in the ’60s and ’70s as the emancipation of women was also unfolding – and to hear their stories of those times in their own words! – it was just amazing. They are both so frank, honest, generous and strong. I hope I am half the woman they both are by the time I hit their age.
Fiona: A real highlight was having the freedom and opportunity to create our own list of inspirational women. This meant we weren’t bound to typical ‘inspirational women’ list that only includes the big names, and could really find people that inspired us, either with their work, their attitude, their life, their commitment to charity or all of the above. Of course another highlight was speaking to these amazing women – without fail they were always more interesting and amazing in person. I can’t pick favourites from the story, but I really did love speaking to Anna Funder, Tania Major and Julie McKay. And finally (am I allowed to pick three highlights?) working with Jess was amazing – it can sometimes be hard to work closely with someone on such a creative and stressful project, but I think we managed to keep each other sane and had plenty of laughs along the way.
What was the most valuable lesson you learnt during the story?
Jess: To be true to yourself, your values and your passion. Also, that hard work and sacrifice is crucial to success. Can I have one more? I also learned about the generosity of successful women. All the women I interviewed were willing to pass on their advice and life lessons. I think that says something about their character and integrity.
Fiona: I learnt so much! I think the most valuable lesson was that it’s OK not to be liked – you’re not always going to win fans by going after your dreams and shaking things up. A few women told me this, including the wonderful climate activist Anna Rose, children’s rights campaigners Deobrra-Lee Furness, sports star Ellyse Perry and indigenous rights consultant Tania Major. I think it’s such an important thing for women to realise, because we (or myself especially) can be held back by what others think of us. I’ve definitely upset a few people in my career so far (hopefully not too many) and I’ve come home in tears feeling that I couldn’t do anything right. But it definitely makes me feel better to know this happens to everyone – even the people we admire the most. The fact people are noticing/reacting to you just shows you’re doing something right! Other than that, I was inspired by all the women I spoke with to really follow my passion and stay true to what I want.
Who surprised you the most?
Jess: Probably Sarah Hanson-Young. She is only 30, been a member of parliament since 2008 and also has a five-year-old daughter. In the media she comes across a little cold and hard at times but she is the complete opposite. She was warm, forthcoming and really opened up about the challenges of raising a child while travelling constantly and balancing her extremely demanding career. She is also intelligent. I really think she is paving the way for Generation Y women at the moment.
Fiona: I was constantly surprised by how down to earth and giving with their time all the women were, but I think my biggest surprise was theatre doyenne Robyn Nevin. I’d read a few other profiles that described her as a little icy, so I was pretty intimidated when I gave her a call. But she was so warm and open and kind. She told me about her deep love for theatre and the fact she sometimes wishes she’d had more children. I really connected with her and felt very honoured to have had the chance to speak to her.
What was the biggest challenge?
Jess: The logistics! Trying to shoot people all on the same days when we had the studios booked. But this is all part of working in magazines and it makes me a lot prouder of the end result when I know it’s been a challenge to pull it all together. Also, I was quite sick for a few weeks while we were shooting, so I was running on pseudoephedrine, antibiotics and adrenalin a lot of the time. For two of the phone interviews (Maggie Beer and Aimee Marks), I had to do them propped up on pillows in my bed (after arriving home from a morning of shooting). I remember looking down at my doona – I had my dictaphone, my iPad, a box worth of used tissues and cough lollies everywhere – and thinking, ‘Wow, what a glamorous life!’
Fiona: We pretty much produced the whole story from start to finish in a little over three weeks, so there were quite a few challenges in there – particularly when it came to organising photo shoots. We’d picked these women because they were busy and successful, so trying to schedule time with them wasn’t always easy. I also hadn’t organised many photo shoots before this so I was a little bit of a novice in that respect – thankfully Jess is very experienced and took over most of the logistics. I would have been lost without her.
What was the funniest moment from your shoots?
Jess: Besides not trying to infect everyone, I can list these funny, memorable moments:
*Ita whipping out a small brush from her handbag and teasing her own hair upside down. After a few minutes of extreme back-combing she flipped her head back over, did a little of her own styling – et voila! – the perfect Ita ’do.
*Lisa McGuigan arriving late in a huff because she’d tripped walking in her wedge boots over a speed bump of one of Clover Moore’s notorious bike lanes. Turns out she had to run back home to bandage her hand. Once the camera got rolling though, all was forgotten and she had a ball.
*Jenny Kee refusing to let me go get her a cab (after the shoot she had to travel to Bondi to pick up her granddaughter from school). Instead, she said she’d catch the bus, “Because doll, I’m a senior now so I have my concession card!)
*Fuzzy turning up to the shoot the morning after the finale of The Voice . Turns out she’s been DJ-ing til 5am at the wrap party and only had a few hours of sleep (not to mention no food). Ever the professional (and happy person she is), Fuzzy just shrugged it off, hooked up her laptop to the studio speaker system and was soon doing her own little DJ sesh for us. The girl gave some wicked dance moves for the camera too.
Fiona: One of the funniest moments was interviewing Magda Szubanski, who’s as hilarious as you’d imagine. She’s just so lively and warm and kind that I felt I was having a chat with an old friend. We swore, giggled and talked about camping – she loves the outback so much she says she should be the new face of tourism Australia.
Also, finding out it was UN Women Australia executive director Julie McKay’s birthday on the day we shot her was pretty funny – she hadn’t mentioned it until we asked her age for the story! It was great to be able to share some of the day with her.
I also loved working with the beautiful Ellyse Perry and had to laugh when she described a pair of heels on the set as more painful than the majority of her sports injuries – ah, the things we do for fashion.
In the behind the scenes world, I was very proud of poor Jess staying positive and happy despite clearly having the world’s worst flu – I remember looking over during one of the shoots and saying, “I love you, but you really need to go to bed.”
Also, every time we’d secured another woman from our ‘most inspirational list’ you’d hear squeals of delight coming out of the features office (sorry Nicholas!) – we had a running sheet going of people we were trying to get and it was pretty exciting crossing them off. I think I may have once broken into a spontaneous little dance. It was such a fun project from start to finish, I’m so lucky to have worked on it.
Are you happy with how it turned out?
Jess: Absolutely. I couldn’t have asked for a better result. In particular, I love how we were allowed to write a couple of hundred words on each woman (thanks Lizzie!), rather than just have a few tokenistic quotes. I feel like this piece has real substance to it and hopefully the reader will feel this way too.
Fiona: I couldn’t be happier, honestly. I had no idea how it would all work out, we had such an assortment of women and images. And at one point we thought we might only get six pages for the story. But thankfully it ended up covering a huge ten pages and it looks amazing. We have such a great design team and our art director Lindy Goodwin made it look better than I ever thought it could.
Who are you inspired by?
Jess: In all honesty, I was inspired by every single woman in this piece. I feel they all had amazing lessons and words of wisdom to pass on. On a personal note, I am inspired by my grandmother, Olive. And interestingly, a lot of our inspirational women were inspired by strong female family members too. Olive is 84, and the most generous, caring, loving woman I know. She is completely selfless and always puts the welfare and needs of others before her own. She also still has a rocking social life, lives life to the fullest, and can cook absolutely anything.
Fiona: I’m constantly inspired by women who manage to live their life with strength, joy, passion and grace. Obviously all the women in this story inspire me greatly, and meeting and speaking to them made me even more inspired by their passion. Other role models include Marie Curie, Joan of Arc, Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Portman, Margaret Atwood and Jane Goodall. And most importantly, my mum – she’s been through so much in her life and is still funny, filled with joy and very much her own person. She’s one of the smartest women I know and is ridiculously strong (even though that means she’s also very stubborn). But anyone who can see beauty in the world and loves life will always inspire me. I like happy people!
Do you have any words you live by?
Jess: I have a couple. Firstly, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” That one comes from my dad who taught me the value of groundwork and the need to put in elbow-grease in order to achieve amazing things. And secondly: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” I think that one was passed on from my dad again too. He taught me (and my brother and sister) very early on that luck isn’t something we should simply expect in life. If you have internal drive, ambition and a strong work ethic, then the rewards will inevitably come your way.
Fiona: I have plenty of words I live by but they’re not very concise. I’ve tried to turn them into slogans…
“This too shall pass”: This is something my mum has always told me and that I’ve definitely learnt along the way. There have been some pretty tough times in my past and there are still so many nights where I want to give up on everything and go and sleep for a year. But I just remember that tomorrow, everything might be better. And even if it’s not better, whatever I’m going through now will be over. Sometimes that’s all you can ask for from a day – for it to end.
“Let yourself be happy”: I definitely live by the idea that we only have one life and should try everything we want. So many people told me I’d never be a writer, but I would always just say, “Well I’m going to try anyway and if I fail that’s my problem”. At the end of the day, you only have yourself to answer to. People have called me ‘gen Y’ for leaving jobs I was unhappy in or moving house/countries/boyfriends. But I don’t really care, they can think I’m gen y but I really love my life and that’s not an accident – I’ve worked hard to make myself happy. It’s kind of morbid but every night I lie in bed thinking “if I died in my sleep tonight, would I be OK with it?” and if I answer no (which I rarely do), I know I need to make a change. Not saying you shouldn’t work hard and stick with things that you don’t like – but only if you’re doing it for a reason that’s true to your heart or a cause you’re passionate about.
“Don’t judge”: This one’s pretty straight-forward. As Magda Szubanski said in our story, we’re all just doing the best we can. You never know what someone has had to overcome to make it out of bed in the morning, so try to keep an open mind. Sometimes I think we need to all be a bit more accepting of other people’s flaws.