The singular Leigh Sales has many talents: interrogating politicians, baking cakes, telling stories, making music with her armpits, writing, and singing.
She is also gifted at counterattack.
When former adviser to John Howard, Grahame Morris, said she could be “a real cow sometimes”, Sales shot back on Twitter: “I’d rather be a cow than a dinosaur”.
She’s grown used to such barbs.
Shortly after taking over from Kerry O’Brien as 7.30 host, Sales, who has also worked as a US correspondent for the ABC, scooped up a Walkley (her second) for an interview in which she asked Tony Abbott if he had been “loose with the truth”.
Oh how Channel Nine management must be kicking themselves for telling her she did not have “the looks or the voice” for television.
Now Sales, just back from maternity leave with her second child, is one of the most respected journalists in Australia.
She is also remarkably self-deprecating and very, very funny. I interviewed her about anything but the ABC, 7.30 and politics.
When was the last time you laughed really hard?
It was at a dinner about a month ago with Caroline O’Connor who is the legendary Australian Broadway star, in high demand around the world for stage musicals, starring in Anything Goes in Australia next year.
She’s a good friend with a friend of mine and so we lined up a dinner because she was here.
It was one of those days where I felt really flat and tired and thought, ‘Should I cancel? I don’t really feel like going to dinner’.
Anyway we went and I was just screaming with laughter at Caroline.
Firstly, she just has that Broadway broad vibe going on.
She told hilarious anecdote after hilarious anecdote about auditioning for people and meeting celebrities and mishaps in shows.
And towards the end of the night she made a roast chicken out of a napkin.
She set it up by saying, ‘Sometimes when a technical rehearsal is going on and it’s really boring, I just do this little number’ and she laid out the napkin in front of her and she sang a little song. ‘Do I look like chicken buk, buk…’ and started rolling up the napkin and it really looked like a chicken.
I was laughing for about three days afterwards.
You’re also someone who tells self-deprecating stories – can you tell us about one of your most embarrassing moments?
This was years ago when my oldest school friend was getting married and she had an engagement party.
She hired a karaoke machine and a guy to run it, but nobody was doing it.
At the time, I was at uni and had a job as a wedding singer and so Melissa, my friend, said, ‘Can you please sing a song at karaoke … no-one is doing it and I feel embarrassed’. She begged me. So I said OK.
She wanted me to sing an Amy Grant Song called That’s What Love Is For and so this entire room filled with parents and grandparents just sat there and looked at me.
This song has a key change in the middle, and it’s a weird key change, and there’s no sort of lead into it.
I can just feel this freight train coming at me where this key change is and I have a stab at where I think it actually is and it’s not there at all… and so all I can hear is this God-awful thing where the music is in a different key to my singing and I can’t hear the music well enough to get back in key.
And I could see people in the room (groans) it was awful. That was 22 years ago.
I have never sang karaoke again. I was deeply scarred by that experience and I still feel like this friend owes me.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
I really love when I go on a flight somewhere and get to buy trashy mags… Who Weekly or New Weekly.
So if someone sees me at an airport, host of 7.30, I’ll be reading New Idea or something.
I love a list, best dressed, the issue that comes out after awards nights to look at all the outfits.
One of my fondest memories was when I ran on the plane and didn’t have time to get my mags and my producer Justin said, ‘I didn’t know what to get you so I got Who and New Weekly’. I just wanted to marry him.
So when you were doing 7.30 you were pregnant and you were also feeling queasy. How did you cope with that?
I had a bucket in the studio next to me and it was the night when [Kevin] Rudd called the last election.
I thought I was going to vomit, I felt deeply ill.
Of the 28 minutes, 26 minutes of the show was live. The guests were Penny Wong and Mathias Cormann.
If I thought I was going to vomit we had planned to crash out of the interview and throw to a taped piece so I could rush outside of the studio and vomit.
The next day Penny Wong rang me and said ‘I would never be so rude to ask if you’re pregnant, but I just want you to know that I know’.
On the world
A guilty dislike? Anything that drives you crazy that you feel bad about?
I don’t find Monty Python funny. Whenever people uphold this as the comic gold standard I feel bad about myself.
I can seriously watch the Holy Grail completely stony-faced. I not only don’t find it funny, I find it vaguely annoying as well and whenever I have this conversation with someone they always say ‘Oh but what about when he does the fish dance or this is not a real parrot?’. Yeah, I don’t like it.
If you could design your perfect break what would it look like?
This is exactly what a mother of a baby and a toddler would say. I wouldn’t even have to go anywhere. I’d go to a five-star hotel in the CBD, put on a bathrobe, get room service, switch off my phone, have afternoon naps and not talk to anyone for 48 hours and just stare into space.
Do you have any irrational beliefs?
I have this belief that I have used up all my good fortune and good luck in the first 40 years and now I’m worried bad things are going to happen to me. Yeah, it’s sad… I feel like I’ve had a good life.
I had nice parents, a great childhood and lovely friends; haven’t had any ill health.
I have this fear that everything is going to come undone because why does anyone deserve such good fortune?
What are you most unsure about today?
It’s shallow but whether this dress is appropriate to wear on 7.30 tonight.
I dress extremely conservatively on 7.30 because I’m interviewing politicians and business leaders so I feel I should look like the people I am interviewing, but every now and again I just want to be me.
How did you learn to make songs with your armpit?
I feel if I answer that then everyone would be able to do it.
After I did that on ABC’s Mental As variety special my nephews said, “Can you actually do that Aunty Leigh?’ They thought it was the most impressive thing I’ve ever done.
What’s a book you’ve read that most represents who you are as a woman?
Anne of Green Gables. It was a very important book for me when I was young.
She had red hair and freckles. She was talkative, quite ambitious and loved reading.
I felt a connection and it was wonderful to have a female role model like that in literature.
When I was an adult and I lived in the US I took a holiday to Prince Edward Island purely because I was such a fan of Anne of Green Gables.
It was beautiful, green and rolling hills and rich red looking soil.
It’s a bit overdone with the Anne kitsch… but there was enough of the natural beauty that you could get a sense of LM Montgomery’s book.
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