Meeting Ita

Cleo and I were born in the same year. Cleo was born in Australia in 1972, her mother the now iconic Ita Buttrose and her father the late Kerry Packer. I was born in New Zealand, the love child of two teenagers. Suffice to say it didn’t last and I was raised by a single mother.

I grew up in hippy communities in Western Australia where the women grew organic vegetables, baked and sewed everything from scratch, and helped each other raise their children. The men, in contrast, seemed to pass their days smoking marijuana and living the ‘free love’ philosophy with abandon.

People tend to imagine hippy communities were all about peace, love and lentils. And to be fair there were some wonderful people – my mother and her close friends all had considerable grace and integrity. But in my observation, these communities were littered with lost souls on a road to nowhere. I wanted out.

My mother was a ‘radical feminist’ and a powerhouse. She was intelligent and well-read, with a fiery temper and a heart of gold. She encouraged me to chase my dreams.

I’ll never forget the day one of the hippies asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was about 10 at the time. “I’m going to work in public relations, live in the city and drive a fast red car,” I snarled at him. He almost choked on his hash cookie. Well, I actually drive a blue car now but it was pretty close.

I recently attended the PR Directions 2011 conference in Sydney and Ita gave the closing address, ‘Does media change society or society change the media?’ During her presentation, which was sharp and insightful and very funny, I actually felt like I was falling in love. So it is when you meet an icon.

I am one of a generation of women for whom Ita was made relevant again by the ABC mini-series Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo. My mother didn’t buy Cleo but, as Ita pointed out at the conference, radical feminists were not the Cleo reader. Middle class women were.

As a young woman I would escape into magazines. I wanted to write for them, I wanted to be in the pages of them, I wanted to be part of them. My first regular reads were Girl and Dolly and I moved onto Cleo and Cosmopolitan as a teenager. I remember Mia Freedman from Cleo and Cosmo, of course, but I only knew Ita as the editor of Australian Women’s Weekly.

Paper Giants opened my eyes to the incredible influence and impact Ita had on my life. Everything from how I perceived my sexuality to my choices in life has been informed by Cleo and debated in its pages. But it also made me realise that Ita was both an editor and a single mother.

I was one of a handful of delegates who milled around after Ita’s address hoping for a few words and perhaps a photo. During my brief conversation with Ita – with me panting like an excited dog and her spectacularly warm and gracious – I blurted out, “I’ve always wanted to write for a magazine full-time!”

“Well, you know what to do,” Ita said. “You just keep on going, you know how it works.”

And so I do. My career has been a study in delayed gratification. Married in 1996. First article published the same year. My son is born. Separated in 1997. Began a journalism degree in 1998. Divorced. Raised son, studied and worked. Graduated in 2005. Son is now eight. Worked full-time as a journalist. Moved into public relations. Met wonderful new man. Son is now 15.

Is it time to chase that dream of being a magazine writer yet? Well yes, actually, I think it might just be.