The pair’s debut on January 4 unleashed a maddening array of headlines. In the space of a fortnight, reports told of “surges”, “slumps”, “boosts” and “drops”, culminating in a “new low” somehow greater than the preceding “record low”. Creative arithmetic aside, the problem with these stories is that surges and slumps are the rule, not the exception, in breakfast television. Viewers might catch 20 minutes one day and five the next, making their ratings uncommonly volatile. Trends can only be gleaned over weeks and months, not day to day.
“I just think about the chaos in our family house,” Allison says. “I’ll be trying to take one kid off to day care while my husband’s feeding the dog and we’re working out who’s picking up what from where.”
When she describes breakfast TV as “background noise”, it’s to explain the challenge of giving viewers the latest news, sport and weather before they rush out the door. “We want them to leave in a good mood,” she says. “But if something really big happens, they need to know we’re across it.”
We’re in Nine’s lavish hospitality suite in Melbourne Park, near the temporary studio serving as Today’s base throughout the Australian Open. Allison has just finished an extended 4½-hour broadcast. She’s wearing the archetypal female breakfast anchor uniform: an immaculate white pantsuit. The outfits in our photo shoot, which she describes as “a lot of fun”, are far more elaborate, especially the ball gown she wears while wading through a swimming pool. “So relatable,” she says with a laugh.
Of course, “relatability” is a job requirement for most hosts on commercial TV. It can also be a trap: when viewers see wealthy celebrities play-acting the struggles of ordinary folk, they roll their eyes. If it keeps happening, they switch off.
Allison seems to understand this instinctively; unlike some of her peers, she does not reflexively turn each experience into an everywoman parable. She also has her reservations about journalists swinging the spotlight onto themselves. Before praising a colleague on social media, for instance, she’ll consider whether a private message is more appropriate. “When you’ve got a crisis like the bushfires taking place, you can forget to tell your co-workers they did a great job,” she says. “But what reporters go through on the ground is nothing compared to those who are actually living the crisis.”
Does this explain her infrequent use of social media?
“No, I’m just a Luddite,” she laughs, recounting a recent misfire. While trying to congratulate the winners of a Women in Science event, she inadvertently beheaded them with a clumsy photo crop. “Nice Instagram post, Mum,” Weekend Today co-host, David Campbell, wrote in a text.
“Look, I understand the importance of social media as a tool,” Allison says. “But I’m incredibly protective of my family and I’m still pretty limited in terms of what I’ll share.”
Allison had been single for two years when she met Michael Willesee jnr, son of the late broadcaster Mike Willesee, in a bar on Sydney’s Oxford Street in 2006. Her memory is a little hazy – it was late and she’d already had a few drinks – but the next day, her friend reported that their mutual attraction was obvious. Two years later, they married in Noosa.
Accustomed to doing extensive research for 60 Minutes, Allison prepared for the birth of her son Mac, now three, in a similar fashion. “I knew what all the solutions were according to the books I’d read,” she says. “But this little baby wasn’t playing by the rules. He didn’t even know the rules existed.”
Two weeks after Mac was born, Allison dropped in to work to finish a story. Her colleagues deemed this “amazing” but for her, the office was a refuge. “I don’t think I was naturally maternalistic,” she says. “Growing up, whenever there was a baby, my sister always wanted to hold it whereas I’d be like, ‘No, I’m okay!’ I’d never changed a nappy before Mac. I loved little kids because I could interact with them, but the thought of a baby at home just terrified me.”
An element of benign neglect, Allison and Michael found, was good for everyone. Instead of swooping in at the first sign of tears, they gave Mac a chance to self-soothe. The calmer they were, the more settled he became. When their daughter Scout was born last March, they felt more at ease. “Mac’s still alive and he seems well adjusted, so I must be doing something right,” Allison says. “I thought to myself, ‘You’ve got this, you can relax a bit more.’ ”
Not sweating the small stuff, she adds, is not the same as glossing over seemingly trivial domestic matters. Anyone living with a partner will know how personal preferences – the way the dishwasher is stacked; the temperature threshold that warrants the use of airconditioning – can fester into surprisingly potent resentments.
When I ask if a “fair” division of chores necessitates a 50:50 split, Allison bursts out laughing. “You’re going into every fight my husband and I have ever had!” she says. “This is turning into a therapy session.” She believes such questions have no correct answer but a good first step is to acknowledge that no one can read minds. In Michael’s view, for instance, “doing the washing” involves putting dirty clothes in the machine; for Allison, the job isn’t done until everything is dried, folded and put away.
Growing up in Wauchope, a small town on the NSW Mid North Coast, Allison knew from a young age that she wanted to be a journalist. (Her hometown is pronounced “War-hope” but Allison calls it “War-choppy” in honour of its most common mispronunciation. This wasn’t an issue until an ABC journalist friend warned viewers about “fires coming in from the western side of War-choppy”. When her bosses corrected her, the journalist stuck to her guns. “One of my good mates lives there and it’s definitely pronounced ‘War-choppy’,” she insisted.)
At 15, Allison volunteered at community radio station 2WAY FM before earning a Channel Seven scholarship to study journalism.
“They didn’t want to give me a job but Channel Nine did,” she says. “And there are lots of reasons I shouldn’t have lasted past my first couple of weeks.”
On her first day, she copied and pasted the wrong script for Nightline host Ian Ross, causing him to stumble on air. When Hugh Riminton assigned her to do his “reverses”, she was too scared to ask what he meant. As Hugh recorded an a single-camera interview with UN weapons inspector Richard Butler, Langdon frantically scribbled down Richard’s answers. What Hugh actually wanted was a transcript of his questions so he could repeat them on camera, then splice them into the segment.
Allison’s move to presenting didn’t involve a “big break”; she simply turned up to Nine’s Willoughby studios each day, plugging away as a junior researcher and producer. “When someone called in sick or quit, I’d be right there sitting at my desk, so the bosses would say, ‘Okay, you can [step up and do their job],’ ” she says.
In her decade at 60 Minutes, she has been chased through Brunei during an undercover assignment, swum with sharks and interviewed politicians, sports stars and celebrities. But the stories closest to her heart concern the problems with Australia’s organ donation system.
Ten years ago, Allison’s sister Kristen, a diabetic since the age of 11, suffered renal failure that caused serious health problems. In 2014, a kidney and pancreas transplant from a single donor saved her life.
Kristen is now fit and healthy and while Allison doesn’t want to speak on her behalf, she talks at length about the deficiencies of our opt-in system. Most Australians have not signed up to be donors – and few appreciate the burden this could place on their loved ones.
“Imagine what these families are going through when they’re told their husband or wife or child is not going to survive,” she says. “It’s really unfair to then say, ‘Hey, can we take their organs?’ I understand why people say no, and that’s why we need an opt-out system.”
While Allison hopes to report for 60 Minutes in the future, her priority this year is Today. “It’s the best job in the world,” she says, having already spent two years on the program’s weekend edition. “If you’re getting up that early every morning, it has to be fun.”
Last year, Karl admitted his axing came as a “relief”, telling guests at a post-Logies event: “I was struggling. I just wasn’t at my best and you can’t be doing that show unless you are at the top of your game.”
“I’m very protective of him,” Allison says when I broach the subject. “He’s the first to admit he’d fallen out of love with morning TV and that’s the one thing we agree on – it has to be fun. He’s come back with a renewed passion and the Karl I’m seeing now is so positive and engaged. I adore working with him.”
“He’s come back with a renewed passion and the Karl I’m seeing now is so positive and engaged. I adore working with him.”
Since 2004, Sunrise has been Australia’s top-rating breakfast show and this year, it has maintained its thumping lead. Could Today ever return to No. 1?
“I would absolutely love that and that’s what we’re working towards,” Allison says. “But I don’t take anything for granted. I’ve made a conscious decision to focus on the job and I’m blocking out all the white noise. There’ll be troughs and peaks and troughs and I can’t control that. All we can do is make sure we’re putting together the best show we can every morning.”
Today airs 5.30am to 9am weekdays on Nine.
Fashion director Penny McCarthy. Photographer David Mandelberg. Hair Brad Mullins using O&M. Make-up Samantha P using Dior. Styling assistant Archie Pham.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale February 2.
Michael Lallo is a senior culture writer at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.