It was my first big break – a job To Die For. Like Suzanne Stone in the Gus Van Sant film, I’d convinced my lover to kill my rival.* It was worth it. Finally I was a weekend weather girl.
The year was 1989. I strutted into the studio at Channel 10 in Melbourne wearing pearls the size of ping-pong balls, shoulder pads
that could take an eye out and hair like an electrocuted poodle. But my armour concealed a fragile heart.
Two years earlier I’d been axed as newsreader at a country television station for telling a ribald joke during an ad break. The punchline was, ‘F*#k ’em all!’ At that precise moment, the director got her sleeve caught in the audio fader. (It might have had something to do with the fact that I was sleeping with her boyfriend, but I digress.)
I had just told 220,000 people in the greater Gippsland region to get f*#ked.
Apparently this is not one of the steps recommended by Chris Masters on the path to becoming a credible journalist. The station received three complaints. Two were along the lines of, ‘We thought that newsreader had a stick up her arse but, jeez, she’s
a top bird after all!’ The third was serious. It went to the Australian Broadcasting Authority. I was lucky to keep my job. But I learnt a valuable lesson: Never swear around microphones whilst engaged in adultery. I went back to digging up stories, from the cowpat-pocked paddocks of Bairnsdale to the human equivalent in Moe – the local courthouse.
To relieve the boredom, I took a job at Channel 9 in Melbourne – the home of Australian television. Living under that same rock was a legendary news director. He was the source of another learning: It’s best to hide under your desk from four to six p.m. every afternoon to avoid being targeted with taunts such as, ‘I want two inches off your hair and two inches off your arse!’ Also avoid open windows, lest you find yourself hanging out three storeys up with these words ringing in your ears: ‘If I have to tell you again that the plural of water cannon is not water cannons, I’m gonna drop you – RIGHT OUT THIS F*#KING WINDOW!’
My female colleagues formed a cabal called the Pussy Mafia, which was nurturing and supportive – two words you don’t usually associate with newsrooms. It worked until our program was axed. This was when I considered whether I could do the weather. It
wasn’t my dream to be a weather bimbo (no offence to any other meteorologically unqualified men or women doing this important job). I wanted to be a war correspondent. But ya gotta pay the bills.
The boss at Channel 10 was a lovely chap who’d never been known to drop journalists out windows or comment on the size of their buttocks, so I took the job as on-the-road reporter and weekend newsreader.
Take a look at Tracey’s showreel – post continues after video.
In the meantime, due to the untimely demise of the weathergirl, he needed a fill-in. Really, how hard could it be? You just do a bit of shadow puppetry with your hands and say ‘all important’ before ‘forecast’ and bingo! It’s not rocket surgery. (God, I love a malapropism.) When the big day arrived, I was suffering from a terrible lurgy. I looked like a fluffy dog that had fallen face-first into a bowl of strawberries. I snuffled onto the set and took a deep breath. My nose was blocked so I started breathing through my mouth. Big mistake. Now, I don’t know if you’re a fainter. Most of my life has been spent passing out at inopportune moments. One doctor, upon taking my blood pressure, expressed surprise that I was able to remain upright.
‘That’s why I sleep around so much, Doc,’ I quipped, to a disapproving frown. I was speaking about the squiggly lines on the map when they began to blur. A familiar feeling crept over me: cold hands and feet; raised heartbeat; rivers of sweat. Then I started swaying. Holy crap, I thought. I’m going to pass out, on air, in front of half-amillion people. What the f*#k am I going to do?
There were two options. Let nature take its course and fall from the frame, crashing onto the concrete floor. Or simply walk away. I chose the latter. Halfway through the cloud map, I stopped.
‘I’m so sorry, I have to go,’ I announced rather formally, and walked off-camera before collapsing in the corner.
The poor director didn’t know what to do. He cut back to the newsreaders, David Johnston and Jo Pearson, who were staring at the floor, mouths agape like those of clowns at the circus. I wanted to die. Prickles of shame covered my body. David stuttered something about Tracey not being well and threw to a commercial break. I genuinely don’t remember getting home that night. I do remember eating an enormous bowl of spaghetti carbonara and crying myself to sleep.
Friends thought it was hilarious.
‘It looked like you had an important appointment to attend,’ one said. ‘So sorry, I must go to the dentist immediately!’ I couldn’t laugh. I felt like an idiot. Every teenage feeling of worthlessness and insecurity came flooding back. I grew up in a pretty rough area. Weekend activities consisted of doing doughnuts in the car park of the 7-Eleven, smoking durries at the end of the pier and being fingered in the back of a panel van.** Still, I managed to graduate dux of my sub-senior year at school.
But I felt like a piece of shit on the bottom of someone’s shoe when I walked into my first lecture at university. Here was a bunch of glamorous, confident women from Brisbane’s top private schools, and I was the chubby loser from Redcliffe.
Fortunately, I had wonderful parents. Mum was beautiful, brave and bolshie. After the collapsing incident, she told me, ‘You go back in there and you try again tomorrow,’ in no uncertain terms. So I did. I donned my lime-green power suit and walked back
through the doors. The newsroom was filled with flowers, messages and chicken soup recipes sent by kind-hearted viewers.
‘Maybe you were overheating in there under the studio lights,’ the boss said, setting up a pedestal fan.
It brought me to tears. And so it was that, once again, I started speaking about squiggly lines. I got to the clouds, today’s temperatures and tide times, when lightning struck twice. At least I knew what to say this time. ‘I’m so sorry.’ I smiled. ‘I even have a Bee Gees-style fan in here, but I think I’m going to faint again. So, David and Jo, back to you,’ I said, before slumping in the corner. I wanted to disappear through an escape hatch in the floor so I didn’t have to face my colleagues. But everyone was lovely. And that made it worse. I felt like I’d let them down.
It was Groundhog Day. I went home, buried my head in leftover carbonara, called Mum and cried. Dad wanted to fly down to give me a hug. A friend phoned to say that a new alternative band had formed named The Fainting Weathergirls. Enough was enough. At that point I vowed to stand on my own two feet – and not fall over. The next day I told the boss, ‘I think I must have hyperventilated breathing through my mouth because my nose was blocked up. Do you think I could fill in reading the weekend news, sitting down, to see how I go?’
It turns out I’m much better sitting down than standing up. After a few weekend shifts, I auditioned to read the five o’clock news full-time in Brisbane. The audition was a complete disaster. The paper autocue kept jamming, stories were thrown in at the last minute, live crosses failed. Again, you know the drill: home, carbonara, Mum. Incredibly, I got a call the next day: ‘The job’s yours.’ Apparently the mistakes were deliberate, included to test me, and I hadn’t flinched. My face was a mask of calm, an effect you can get these days using Botox.
It seems, after the fainting incidents, nothing surprises me. There is an unfortunate legacy, though. I occasionally suffer panic attacks if I’m presenting while standing up. The first time this happened was during another great moment of mortification. I was chosen to MC a dinner to celebrate the relationship between Australia and China. Among the 500 guests were the top business and political leaders of both countries, including every living Australian PM, past and present.
I even had a floor manager who kept me hidden behind a curtain before my dramatic entrance. Subsequently, I couldn’t see who was in the room until I marched up to the podium. My first line was, ‘Would you please be upstanding for our distinguished guests?’ who were then, I believed, supposed to walk through the grand doors. I looked towards the doors, but the only people coming in were wait staff carrying silver banquet trays. People started shuffling. Then there was muttering. Something had gone wrong. I glanced over to the other side of the room and almost fainted. Standing there, looking bemused and somewhat slighted, were former Prime Ministers Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, and the then PM John Howard. They were probably wondering why they were applauding the wait staff. My vision became blurry, my heart rate increased, and rivulets of sweat ran down my back.
If I faint now, that’s it, I thought. It’s the end of my career.
Fortunately, I’d been reading about how to avert panic attacks: Count slowly, breathe moderately, and self-talk. Everything’s going to be okay, I told myself. And it was. Again, I looked like an idiot, but no one died. I simply asked everyone to sit down so we could continue proceedings. Sure, I stabbed the floor manager with my butter knife. But it was worth it. Nowadays, I reckon I can cope with anything. I could not possibly be more humiliated than I was when swearing and fainting on air. I guess there’s always full or partial nudity. But I wouldn’t give a damn about either of them now. As a very wise friend said over a bowl of spaghetti carbonara one night, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen? No one died. Get over it.’
And I did.
*This may or may not be true
** This is definitely true