Radio and TV star and all-round lovely person Amanda Keller releases her autobiography – Natural Born Keller – this week. B&T’s editor John Bastick sat down with the irrepressible media star to talk all things radio, TV and Barry Manilow…
Your autobiography is out this week but I have to confess I’ve not read a single word as the publicist never sent me an advanced copy…
Look, I do radio interviews all the time with book authors and I’ve never read the book either. So I just talk about the font or something like that, ha, ha!
You often talk about your experiences growing up in (incredibly dull north-west Sydney suburb) Carlingford. I grew up there and so did a lot of people I know in media. What is it about Carlingford?
I don’t know what it is, but what I was looking at through the book, and I didn’t realise it until I was in the midst of writing it is that it (the book) is a celebration of a good suburban childhood. I know a lot of books are about people who didn’t have a good time when they were growing up and I had a really nice childhood. I think when it comes to Carlingford in the 70s and 80s, yes, it was a great place to live. I think that classic suburban upbringing has stood me in very good stead and I think it gives you a good BS detector.
Was the book difficult to write? Trying to remember all those things way back that get stuck in the deep, dark recesses of the brain? As an example, I can’t even remember what I did this morning!
Yes, it is funny, I’m often out with friends and they’ll regale these old stories that involved me and I’ll have no recollection of it. It was a few years ago that I found my teenage diary. I’d thought I’d been a pretty regular teenager but finding this diary was excruciating and it took me right back to my teenage years – everything was so heightened, every emotion was so heightened. I was outrageously in love with Barry Manilow and I hated my mother because she wouldn’t let me watch Cabaret on TV. Every hurt and every outrage is writ large in this teenage diary. That was a tipping off point for me in terms of triggering a whole host of memories and my love of Barry became a bit of a true line through the book. I saw Barry in ’96 in Vegas and earlier this year we got to see him in his very last show at the end of his world tour on his 72nd birthday and it was like a bookend to my life, really.
Does he remain a strange bright orange colour?
Yes, there is an unusual colour. I think I picked him all those years ago because he wasn’t classically handsome. And yes, part of it has always been he looks unusual, and now, at 72, he looks even more unusual.
And, of course, he has a mullet and growing up in Carlingford in the 70s you would have seen lots of them. But we digress. You’ve had a phenomenally successful media career over a number of decades, what do you believe has been your secret? Why do you think audiences so take to you?
Oh, that’s a very, very interesting question. What do I give the audience? I think I’m a very normal person – and in many ways that goes back to Carlingford – and in media, in radio, you talk a lot about your life. You can’t put up a mask, you reveal a lot about yourself, and I think audiences relate to that. People see a familiarity, they see you as a friend almost. I’m not unusual, I’m not inaccessible; I think I often reflect people back at themselves.
Is it hard to be funny at 6am in the morning?
It can be hard to be funny at any time. But you’re right, early in the morning, if you don’t have that partner – and that’s why I love working with Jonsey (Brendon Jones is Keller’s WSFM on-air partner) – between the two of us we muddle through a show. Sure, days you’re exhausted, days when you’ve got a sick child at home and feel dreadful yourself and that other person gets you through it and you have to just hit the ground running. I write in the book for a number of years about trying to conceive and going to IVF and some of my darkest days and having somewhere to go, to escape that, to think about something else, I think it (radio) was the saving of me.
Radio ratings make what you do very measurable. Does that heap on the pressure?
Yes, it’s so hard. I’d disagree that you are only as good as your ratings. There are plenty of great (radio) shows that don’t rate. There’s a whole lot of things that come into it – timing, music, how many ads you have, management, there’s a thousand things that can affect your ratings and how good your show is is just one of those components. But no matter what the ratings result is, you have to pick yourself up, get up at 4am and do it again.
Radio and TV – to me as an outsider – appears quite catty and bitchy. You breakfast jocks are often sniping at each other. Why is that?
Yes, I would agree with that. You only ever see the other radio hosts when we’re all doing a celebrity junket, we’re all off to interview Arnold Schwarzenegger in a hotel, and there we really get on. I think the media loves a feud. I’ve never been party to a feud, I’ve never seen one, and people love writing about it and I don’t know about the actual reality of those feuds.
What’s the next move for you? You’ve been very successful in everything you’ve done thus far, any plans to try something new?
With breakfast radio, do I want to get up at 4am every morning? But it gives you such an adrenaline rush, I really think I’d miss it. I also think breakfast radio is a lot, lot harder than breakfast TV. We feed the program with our words, our thoughts, our listeners, there’s no job like it, there’s no more immediate expression you can have every day. I have done a little bit of stupid acting in the past, I loved that, and it would be nice to work on a drama or a TV show as an actor. I’d like to give that a crack before I cark it.
Do you know when you’ve nailed a show or when it wasn’t as good as it should be? Or does the producer tell you?
You can feel it. You can come off air and say, ‘That was a great show’. Some days you feel you’re wearing another person’s dentures – every word comes out mangled! But you know when we’ve really entertained ourselves, we’ve covered all the main bases and I enjoyed doing it. And no, you don’t say that every day.
You interview some very famous Hollywood celebrities on the show. Do you ever think they don’t get that sort of larrikin Aussie humour that you do and the interview comes across as flat and awkward at times?
There’s a raft of reasons for that and often it’s a time difference. You get a three-minute interview slot, so you try and get as much out of them as you can. Who’d we interview the other day? Bryan Adams. He’s just a prickly pear. When they can’t be bothered, that’s annoying. Or they’ll do TV and all of a sudden they can be bothered and that winds me up. They’ll bust a nut to get on the morning shows (Sunrise and Today) and we (WSFM) have more audience than all the morning shows combined and we’re only in Sydney.
Media is fragmenting, changing all the time. Old media is reportedly in strife. Where do you see it all heading over the next, say, five to 10 years?
Yes, it’s interesting. Obviously newspapers and TV are dropping off. On TV we no longer have those family shows where kids and grandmothers can sit and watch something together, where the whole family can sit and watch a show. But take radio, people have been talking about its demise for years and I don’t think it’s going to happen. For sure, music on the radio is no longer as important and that’s why the show around it is so telling. So the people on radio have to be better and I think the listeners are still there, but I would say there’s more (shows) in the market than there needs to be. But I think radio is very healthy.
Any topics you guys won’t touch on-air?
Our show’s not made for political interviews. One – we don’t have a lot of time and it’s not about inviting a politician on the show to give them the chance to do their PR blurb. If we do have politicians on it’s about having a personality chat rather than a political chat because otherwise they just come in and read their press release. People are getting plenty of news anyway and it’s not our job to show a black world anyway.
Your advice to young people contemplating a media career as illustrious as your own? Radio – as we all know – it’s bloody hard to get a gig there?
You’re right – it absolutely is. I think when I came through I was absolutely lucky in that I was the last of the breed that came up through the ranks. I was a researcher, a producer and then got a chance in front of the camera, just after me that loophole closed. These days, to get on TV, you have to be a celebrity. You have to be a swimmer or a model or a whatever, you have to have been someone before you get a crack at being a presenter these days. But I don’t think young media graduates need to get bogged down in dreaming-up who they think they need to be; my advice would be take a job, take any job. I remember getting offered a presenting role on Beyond 2000. I remember thinking I can’t do this, I can’t do science and technology and yet it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Once you’re in there you’ll discover that it could be the making of you. Never pooh-pooh things, don’t say no to things because you don’t think it’s what you want to do; it’s about the journey, the side doors in life that often give you the real opportunities and the professional riches. Don’t panic, don’t lock yourself in and go with the flow.
Why should people buy your new book?
I’m not the person to answer that…
… well, you wrote it…
Ha! It’s not for me to say why people should buy it. I think it’s a book that people can relate to. I’ve worked on various shows that people have watched and relate to. In my life I’ve had fertility issues, I’ve balanced motherhood and a job and not always successfully. There are plenty of funny stories throughout my life that I think people can relate to.
This is a very difficult question to ask and you can ignore it if you like: is there sexual tension between you and Brendon Jones?
Ha, ha, ha! Look, there probably is and we’re best friends and I do think if we didn’t know each other so well there might be. I think we’re more like brother and sister and he’s like a cheese-grater on my face and I can wind him up very easily. If we didn’t know each other there might be but we know each other so well there can never be. He’s like a brother, he does things (to annoy me) deliberately. He looks for the vulnerability and pokes the hole and that’s what he does to wind me up and I know how I can get a huge rise out of him. Sometimes it’s fun and playful but it can become serious. We spend three and a half hours in that small room every day and it’s real – the emotions are real, the laughter is real, the tears, the anger, it’s all real, you can’t fake it.
Lastly, you do score some amazing A-list interviews on the show. Who’s been the worst interview you’ve had? Anyone you thought was just an A-grade pillock?
Yes, we’ve had a few.
If I recall recently you had it in for Redfoo?
Yes, he’s definitely one. He’s a grown-up pretending to be a Cabbage Patch Kid and he’s so dismissive. We make jokes that he only ever phones in a phone interview. He’s so glib and dismissive and even when he had that awful song out that everybody objected to, I asked him about it and he’s all ‘it’s about having fun’. No, you’re a judge on a family program; you’re allowed to answer the question. I didn’t like him. I didn’t really take to Toby MaGuire. Like, how hard is it to talk about Spiderman? I don’t know if it was shyness, but he just came across as disinterested. And Harrison Ford was the same. I hear he’s notoriously shy but he just comes across as prickly and disinterested. You want to say ‘I’m not here because I’m a fan, I’m here doing a job’. I’m happy to say nice things about your latest movie but you have to meet me halfway and treat me like I’m doing my job too. They’re the ones that come to mind.