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Leila McKinnon – Bondi’s Kiwi Queenslander

By Dan Hutton on May 3, 2011 in

Photo: Andrew Goldie

During the month The Beast caught up with Channel Nine presenter and reporter Leila McKinnon to talk about marrying the boss, meeting Kerrbox, dealing with natural disasters and being a Kiwi Queenslander…

Where are you originally from?
This is a hard one to start with. I was born in Iran but my mum’s English and my dad’s a New Zealander. I grew up in Auckland mostly and I moved to Queensland when I was 15, to Brisbane, and I spent 14 years in Queensland. I’ve been here in Sydney for 9 years.

I didn’t realise you lived in New Zealand for so long…
I’ve been keeping it a big secret. No, I’m always supporting the All Blacks on the Today Show. I have to confess that I’m a Kiwi Queenslander.

Have you had to work hard to remove the problem vowels from your vocab?
Sometimes now if I get tired they can creep back in. Things like ‘beer’ and ‘bear’ I have a bit of trouble with but I think I lost it pretty quickly because I was a teenager when I came over and obviously you don’t want to have a New Zealand accent in a Brissie high school.

Where are you living these days?
We live in Dover Heights but I like to think of it as north North Bondi. We’re the first house in Dover Heights, I think, but I like to think of it as the last house in North Bondi.

Can you actually see Bondi from there?
Yes, we’re just up past the stink pipe.

On the good side of the stink pipe?
Yep. About three days a year it’s not a good side of the stink pipe but other than that we’re fine.

When did you first move to the east?
When I moved to Sydney at the end of 2001 I moved to Paddington, on Glenmore Road, and then when I met David (Channel 9 boss David Gyngell) I moved to Dover Heights.

When did you guys get married?
We got married in 2006 in Byron Bay, I think. No, it was 2004. Oh, I could be in trouble here. Hang on, we got married in 2004 but I moved up to North Bondi in 2002.

What do you love about living in the Eastern Suburbs?
Obviously it’s so beautiful. I love doing the Bondi to Bronte or going the other way. Sometimes I go up to Diamond Bay. But the real sense of community is what I love the most about it; that people look after each other. You’re always attending a fundraiser for someone who needs a bit of a helping hand or meeting up at the Diggers for a drink with your mates. My brother lives in Bondi too and all of David’s family live in the Eastern Suburbs so we just love it. It’s got everything; we try not to leave. When we have days off we try not to go beyond Syd Einfeld Drive. One day we did go to dinner at Glebe but David felt sick and had to go home.

David’s a genuine Bondi local, isn’t he?
He is. He grew up in the back streets of Bellevue Hill but he moved to Bondi when he was 16 or 17 and apart from when we went to LA for a couple of years he hasn’t left. You can’t wedge him out of the place; he loves it.

Does he still get down for a surf much?
Yeah, nearly every morning. He gets up really early and either does soft sand and paddle boarding or goes surfing.

Is there anything you don’t like about living in the east?
Trying to find a park, half hour parking meters, and the fact that it takes you 20 minutes to drive up Bondi Road when everybody’s heading home from the beach. I think that’s it. It’s mostly just traffic and parking problems.

You mentioned LA; what took you over there?
When David left Channel 9 he was looking for work and a job came up where he could run Granada in Los Angeles. I’d always wanted to go to LA as the Nine News correspondent, and I turned it down the job a couple of times because David didn’t want to go, so when he got offered a job in LA it was great. I got a job in production for a show called What’s Good For You for a year or so and then when one of the girls frm the bureau went on maternity leave I filled in while she was away.

How did life in LA compared to life in Sydney? Did you guys like it?
We did love it. It’s similar to Sydney living. We lived in Laurel Canyon for a while and it was very similar to Bondi but with the big drawback that there was nowhere decent to swim or surf. Like even Malibu, it’s freezing and there are no waves. We really enjoyed the lifestyle though. It didn’t help when we were getting copies of Bondi Rescue sent over to watch or that David was getting the Aquabumps emails every day. So yeah, we enjoyed it but at the same time we wanted to come back.

How did you get started in journalism?
I’d always done work experience with newspapers when I was at school, then I went to Queensland University of Technology and I studied communications and I tried out the film and TV major and the journalism major but I preferred journalism, so I did a journalism degree and then I got offered a cadetship with the WIN Network in Rockhampton. I ended up going there and working in the country for a few years. My uncle and my grandfather were journalists but I never really connected with it. I didn’t grow up desperate to be a journalist but I drifted in that direction.

Have you worked in any other media or just television?
I worked at the Sunday Telegraph in Brisbane part-time when I was looking for a cadetship, so I did a small amount of print work there. I write book reviews for the Australian Women’s Weekly and I like to do a bit of writing but mostly I work in television.

What is it about television journalism that excites you?
I love live television. I love the rush of adrenaline when you’re bringing a report from somewhere like Cyclone Yasi or the Queensland floods, and you have to think on your feet and get the point of story across. You get to meet people in all kinds of extraordinary circumstances and that’s really the best part for me. I have done a lot of celebrity interviews but I usually find that it’s the stories with ordinary Australian people that are the most fun.

What shows are you working on at the moment?
It depends on whether it’s summer or winter. When Tracy (Grimshaw) goes away on holiday I fill in on A Current Affair but when she’s around my normal job is three days at A Current Affair reporting, and then on Saturday and Sunday I host the Weekend Today Show.

Do you get sick of the early morning starts on the weekends?
I don’t. They’re not ideal but I compare it to what Karl (Stefanovic) and Lisa (Wilkinson) do and they get up so much earlier, five days a week and the show is longer, so I don’t complain. It’s fun once you get there. The hardest part is just rolling out of bed and then you’re okay after that.

When you’re on holidays is that the first thing you look forward to, a Sunday sleep in?
Definitely, I love a sleep in and I lay down the law because David’s an early riser. He gets a lecture the night before about not waking me up.

Who works harder, you or David?
It depends. Probably him. His job is constant. He’s always working and I tend to work hard in bursts.

How did you and David meet?
Just at work. A lot of people at Channel 9 are with other people at Channel 9. We just ran into each other at work and got chatting a few times and then I ended up going to the pub with him and his friends and going back the next week and, yeah.

Surely going to the pub with him and his mates is not the recipe for a relationship?
Well, if that didn’t put me off nothing would so I guess it was a good start.

Was Rod ‘Kerrbox’ Kerr there at the time?
No, Box wasn’t there. I think David held him in reserve for about date three. I love Box; he’s so fun. We’ve got a great mix of friends at Bondi.

You mentioned the Queensland floods earlier, how was it going back to your first Australian hometown and seeing the devastation up there?
It was really sad, but at the same time just so strange. I’ve covered natural disasters all over the world but this was different because I know Brisbane so well. It was so weird to see the Brisbane River just huge and boiling – it looked like rapids. We went up in the helicopter and saw it coming and it was really worrying. It was frightening and worrying and weird but then afterwards when that army of people turned up to help I was really proud. There were people queuing for kilometres with shovels and hats just waiting there patiently to get in and help out and it was a really good feeling.

Do you have any family up there still in Brisbane?
No, my mum and dad live on the Gold Coast and my brother lives in Bondi. I’ve got plenty of friends up there but none of them were badly affected.

Have you ever feared for your life while out on assignment?
I wouldn’t go that far but I went to a coup in the Solomon Islands and I was very nervous flying in there. I was probably more nervous about the plane than the actual military though because it looked like it had been made out of four other planes! In all seriousness though, I was doing a piece to camera outside the headquarters of one of the rebel groups and they came running at us with guns, these huge guys with big submachine guns screaming at us. I’ve had situations where I’ve nearly been punched by con men and I thought twice about flying in to Cyclone Yasi but only for about 10 seconds. So I wouldn’t say I’ve feared for my life but there have been situations that potentially could have turned bad.

Has David ever said, “No, you’re not going there, it’s too dangerous”?
I never really got offered to go to Iraq but if I had I don’t think he would have been keen on me going. He didn’t really want me to go up to Cyclone Yasi either but I just ignored him. If he was really, really concerned about me going to somewhere like a war zone I would think twice about it. If I was single I’d do anything but I don’t think he’d be happy for me to go to Baghdad. We’d have to work it out if it happened.

Your mum’s a Pom, your dad’s a Kiwi, and you spent part of your youth in Queensland; who do you follow in the cricket and the footy?
I’m an All Black, a Maroon and a Rooster. I don’t really follow the cricket. I’m a very mixed up person really.

And I believe you’ve got some involvement with the Roosters beyond the average fan; what are you doing there?
I’m heading up the Chic membership, which is for the female supporters of the club. It’s great because we’ve got a really big family following at the Roosters, so we have champagne events and things like that for all of the female supporters. I love being part of the Eastern Suburbs community, supporting the Roosters, getting out the bunting at premiership time and finding a wooden spoon on your doorstep when you come last. Because I did move around a lot when I was young it’s good to be part of a community.

Do you reckon the Roosters are a good shot for the title in 2011?
Definitely. I think with Todd Carney and Mitchell Pearce working together we’ve got a really great combination there.

Do you have a favourite player?
Probably Anthony Minichiello would be my favourite. I love Mini just because we’ve followed him through the ups and downs over the years and he’s just amazing. Apparently sometimes they call him the cat because he won’t fall on his head. He’s just so bouncy and he’s a real acrobat. He’s a great guy. He’s got all the time in the world for the fans too.

Do you have a career highlight thus far?
I really loved being the correspondent in Los Angeles. I think that was one of my favourites. And I remember the first time that I read Nightline when I first moved to Sydney was just after the bushfires and I was so excited when the theme track came on. I’d been watching Jim Waley on Nightline all my life. I enjoyed doing the Today Show and A Current Affair too. I love everything about it but I think working overseas in the LA bureau is probably a highlight.

Do you have a favourite interview?
The most nervous I’ve been was when I interviewed Michael Parkinson this year because I was interviewing the interviewer I had a bit of a sleepless night before that. I also flew to South Korea to interview Tom Cruise and that was pretty nerve wracking because there are lots of rules about what you can and can’t ask but then the flipside of that is there’s all the questions your boss wants you to ask. Another one of my favourites was when I interviewed all the members of this club for 100 year olds back in about 1999. I was interviewing people about the Depression and World War I. There was a married couple, one of them was 98 and one of them was 100, and they were telling me about starving in the Depression and how excited they were when it rained one day and all these mushrooms sprung up and they had something to eat. It’s not a celebrity interview or anything but I’m so grateful that I met those people.

Are you at all worried that your lasting legacy will be your interview with so-called ‘party boy’ Corey Worthington?
I’d forgotten about that one. That was all in good fun and he enjoyed it, I enjoyed it and I don’t have any concerns about it. I knew that I’d go viral one day and I’m glad it was for doing that rather than some weird mistake or something.

As a kid, or even as a young reporter, did you ever imagine that you’d be interviewing Hollywood celebs, tracking down fugitives like Jayant Patel or hanging out at Guantanamo Bay?
No, not at all. I used to think when I worked at WIN in Rocky and in Cairns that the absolute pinnacle for me would be working in the Brisbane news room and being able to say “Leila McKinnon, National Nine News”. I just love every opportunity that I get and no, I never imagined that I would cover any of those stories, go to Guantanamo Bay, or interview any big celebrities. It’s just all been such a great ride. I love it.

Have you ever had a situation where you’ve re-encountered someone whom you’ve exposed in a story or interview?
There was one that I did about (fashion designer) Wayne Cooper and his wife. When they broke up I did an interview with her and she said that he tried to chop off her little finger and now it’s kind of embarrassing whenever I see them because they’re back together. Sometimes I run into her at the Fruitologist on Bondi Road. That’s a little bit awkward but I’m happy that they’re happy and it was nothing to do with me. I hope that everything’s working out.

Do you support any charities?
I support Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontieres. And with local stuff in Australia, I try to support whatever comes up, like the flood appeal or different fundraisers that we have in Bondi.

Do you have any advice for youngsters looking to get into the media game?
I think the most important thing is to be persistent. When I got my first job at WIN Rockhampton I sent my tape and then I rang up. When I rang I said to the boss, “Did you like my tape? Is there anything I can do?” He said he really liked it but when I asked if there were any jobs going he said no. So I said, “Well do you mind if I call you once a month?” He was fine with that and that’s how I ended up getting my first job.

Do you have any big plans in the pipeline or are you just cruising along at the moment?
I’ve always been a cruiser. I just cruise along and any opportunities or stories that come up I put my hand up and you win some, you lose some. Two of the things I’m hoping to do work wise are the royal wedding and the Olympics in 2012. Other than that I’ll just be keeping up with friends and family and enjoying Bondi in winter. I think we’ve had enough of the summer crowds now.

Winter’s so good…
I love it. In summer, if it’s the weekend and it’s a hot day and a big south westerly comes in you can just see people abandon the beach and you think, “Yes, go home.”

In an ideal world what does the future hold for Leila McKinnon?
I’m so happy right now, so more of the same would be great. Everything’s going well. It’s like I never go to fortune tellers because I don’t want anything to change. I’m one of those people who is always wondering when the other shoe will drop. I’m pretty happy and I hope things continue the way they are.