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EXCLUSIVE: Turning 60 is just the beginning for Amanda Keller as she embraces a new stage of life as an empty-nester

She once thought this would signify the beginning of the end; but it's actually the start of an exciting third act.
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Harley Oliver vividly remembers the day, in 1987, when he first set eyes on his future wife.

The tenacious blonde had cut her television teeth as a researcher on children’s magazine show Simon Townsend’s Wonder World!, defying the rule of never working with animals and children. Yet a small submarine was something she hadn’t counted on.

Auditioning for a reporting role on Beyond 2000, Amanda Keller was wedged into a tiny two-man submarine, readying to make the ascent from the choppy waters. Harley, a producer on the show, was one of several gathering to see how she fared.

“She was being a brave soldier – and that’s what she is like.” Amanda’s husband Harley on first meeting her.

(Photo: Peter Brew-Bevan)

“The lid was lifting up and there was Amanda desperately trying to remember what her piece to camera was going to be,” he laughs of what would prove to be his introduction to the woman he would wed in 1989.

“And all she could do was vomit over the side as the thing bounced around the harbour. It attracted quite a crowd in the viewing room! But she was pushing through it. She was being a brave soldier – and that’s what she is like.”

Certainly, as Amanda sits down to chat with The Weekly, it seems like a fitting description.

It’s just gone 9.30 on a Wednesday morning, and Lismore has just been hit with the start of the devastating floods that will decimate homes and towns, taking lives along the way.

She’s clutching a strong cup of tea – one of many that have fuelled her through three hours of live breakfast radio, sharing updates while listeners have called in to describe the escalating horror.

As we enter, she somehow pushes that to the side, determined to give her all for this interview, despite a difficult morning.

“Radio is a gift and it’s hard all at the same time,” she says with a warm and welcoming smile. “Part of our job is to be what we call a tribal drum: to have people talk about what they are going through and what we are all going through and how we experience the world. But another part is to make people feel better – to lift the energy, lift the spirits, and say, ‘Hey, we’re here with you. We know it’s terrible and you’re going through a shit pie but let’s all hold hands and have a laugh together.’

“Today we threw out the rundown we had and went, ‘I think people want information. They want to hear how people are faring and they want to tell us how they are going. And that is kind of what we did.”

Amanda and Brendan “Jonesy” Jones back in 2005.

(Image: Getty)

The “we” Amanda refers to is another significant man in her life – someone she has been sitting alongside at the WSFM radio desk for more than 17 years – Brendan “Jonesy” Jones.

The pair first worked together on breakfast radio when he filled in for her former Triple M co-host, Andrew Denton, who had suddenly fallen ill. He was given half an hour’s notice, arriving panting in the studio as the opening credits were playing.

“All I could say was, ‘Hello Amanda, I’m Jonesy and we will be working together’,” he recalls of a moment that would lead to radio magic and kickstart a strong friendship between not only the duo but their spouses and children.

“A lot of people felt the chemistry in our show, and there were a lot of rumours when I filled in. Andrew Denton even said to me, ‘Thank you for doing a good job. People are talking about you as my replacement!’ ”

WATCH: Amanda Keller on the 2019 TV WEEK Logie Awards red carpet. Story continues after video.

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That instant connection, he believes, stems from the women who raised them.

“My mum is still alive, Amanda’s mum, Jennifer, passed away in 2004 but they were similar,” he says. “They were hard on us but they meant well. They wanted the best for us.”

Jennifer passed away from emphysema at just 70. And while it’s been 17 years since that sad day, Amanda’s mother remains very much front and centre in many conversations she has, be they with Jonesy, with radio listeners, with viewers of The Living Room, with her family and friends, and today with us.

“It was a huge thing to me that Mum met my boys, knowing I’d had them after all these years of IVF,” she says.

“But it’s a big sadness to me that she doesn’t get to know them and see how amazing they are. That’s the thing I know she would be proud of. And often with the boys, when they do well at school and things, I’ll say how proud Grandma would be. I remember when Liam, or it might have been Jack actually, said, ‘I wish I’d known Grandma when I had a brain’. And I thought, ‘What a lovely thing.’ She’s a big seam in their lives.”

“What a lovely thing.’ She’s a big seam in their lives.” Amanda speaking about her own mother, Jennifer.

(Photo: Peter Brew-Bevan)

In February, Amanda and Harley waved off their younger son, Jack, 18, as he entered his first year of university.

Two years earlier they’d done the same to firstborn Liam, 20, but now they were preparing for an empty nest. For Amanda, who has always crafted her career to fit around the hours she spends raising her children, it was devastating to think about.

In the weeks preceding Jack’s departure, she found herself fussing about, worried he’d not have everything he needed, that she hadn’t prepared him properly.

“I nagged him,” she admits, her eyes welling up. “And I heard my mum in my head. I didn’t like it when she did it to me and now here I am doing it to Jack. And I thought, ‘Well, the difference here is that it’s me! He needs this. I didn’t!’ When I left home to go to uni in Bathurst, I felt like my life began. And it’s shocking for me that it will be the same for my kids. That their lives begin now. Whereas mine gets so much smaller without them.

“The laundry chute is empty. I’m cooking these little portions and the dog’s probably being smothered. But I have to remind myself that this is a stepping platform for them to begin. That’s mind-blowing, and yet there it is. And I miss my mum because I want to say, ‘I’m sorry that I went off without a look over my shoulder.’ I have to remind myself of that. I don’t know if I was gracious, but I want to be gracious to let them go.”

Amanda with her two sons, Jack and Liam, who are now young men.

(Image: Getty)

When Liam left home, she found herself still putting out four placemats at the dinner table each evening. Now Jack is gone also, and she’s learning not to put out three. But two are always placed as she and Harley are determined to keep the family dinner ritual going, albeit as a pair.

“I don’t want us to find ourselves eating on our laps now it’s just us,” Amanda says. “I want to have some kind of rhythm in our lives which is that we sit at a table to eat. But I have found that during the week I was trying to hurry us along so that we could sit in front of the television and not talk to each other.”

She hoots with laughter at this, clarifying that she and Harley are still adjusting to a child-free rhythm. Together, the pair pride themselves on having raised two well-adjusted and loving children they once feared they may never have after their long and painful IVF journey.

“Amanda is a very full-on mum,” says Harley of his wife’s passion for their boys. “She thinks about it all the time. Or she did before the boys disappeared. But she’s a very natural mum as well. She’s good at talking to them. And getting them to talk back, which is a skill!”

“I don’t know if I was gracious, but I want to be gracious to let them go.” Amanda struggled to let her last son leave the home for uni.

(Photo: Peter Brew-Bevan)

“Mum has always been super supportive and really relaxed,” adds Liam, who calls us from his campus in Newcastle, where he is studying Biomedical Science.

“Anything we were passionate about and wanted to pursue, she always felt really passionate about too. She was never controlling or anything like that.

“When I left home, she called me every day and she still does. I look forward to 10 o’clock when she’s finishing work and she’ll give me a call. I like that she takes time out of her morning to check in with me and see how I’m going. She’s my first port of call whenever I am stressed or have a problem I need to talk through. Mum’s a really good listener. She could have the worst day in the world but if I call her with a problem, that’s her priority. She’s always got time in her day to make sure that I’m okay and that my problems aren’t as big as I think they are.”

Emotional support isn’t the only kind Amanda gives her kids in spades. She’s also a huge supporter of adventure and fun.

When we catch up with Jack – who is following in his mother’s footsteps by studying Arts and Media Communications – he reveals that his favourite memory of the two of them together took place on a family trip to Queenstown, New Zealand.

“We went bungy jumping together,” he recounts. “I think it threw mum’s back out and it threw my back out for a while. But we talk about it at every opportunity we have because that was a big thing. We really enjoyed it.

“Mum will always try her hand at things more than we will. I remember, in 2012, we went to Disney World and she was the only one out of all of us who rode the Abominable Snowman ride, which was pretty full-on. I have this image of her on the ride by herself with all these random people she didn’t know. It was pretty funny.”

Wholeheartedly throwing herself into things is an approach that Amanda has taken since her early years.

It’s what led her to pursue a media career at a time when women – especially older women – were vastly under-represented.

“I came from a very modest, non-show-offy family,” she says. “I was never a show-off but I wanted to be a writer or an actress or something dramatic and different. Journalism seemed like the most practical way of being creative without being a show-off. I imagined myself being a writer.”

Amanda loves to throw herself into life and this is backed up by the fond memories her family shares.

(Photo: Peter Brew-Bevan)

Her first job out of uni was Simon Townsend’s Wonder World!, and the rest, as we now know, is history.

Her long-lasting tenure in the medium is something that constantly takes her by surprise.

On February 25, Amanda turned 60. To celebrate another lap around the sun, she posted a series of pictures of herself on Instagram.

The first was the famous portrait of Whistler’s Mother, a black-clad dowager hunched over in her rocking chair. The final shot was of Amanda that morning, beaming on the beach as she took the family dog, Millie, for a walk.

Whistler’s Mother, she laughs, was how she once thought she’d look at 60.

“There weren’t role models for people who worked at this age and if they were, maybe they were teachers,” she says of the inspiration for the post. “Even in my daggiest teenage years, to think I’d be doing this at 60, oh my God, they’ll have to put ramps in so I can be carried in on a rickshaw or something. The image of what 60 was in my head, and what 60 actually is, are two very different things.

Much of the woman Amanda is today was shaped by her beloved mother, who died 17 years ago.

(Image: Instagram)

“I’m okay with being 60. We’ve lost friends along the way who would have given anything to be 60, so I’m very aware of not lamenting a day. I’m lucky to be busy. I’m lucky to be working. If my biggest angst is that my healthy boys are off having an independent life, then that’s okay.”

Originally, Amanda had planned a big bash for what is seen as a ‘milestone’ birthday. She’d sent out the invitations, booked the venue, organised the entertainment. And then six weeks out she cancelled.

With the world in such a state of flux, she felt like she was “carrying an anvil having to think about all that stuff”.

Instead, she spent a long weekend with her husband, her brother and his wife, and a few close friends, none of whom work in the media, at their holiday home on the NSW South Coast.

What about her work husbands, we ask Harley? Jonesy and her Living Room compatriots, Barry Du Bois, Miguel Maestre and Dr Chris Brown?

“The four of us are such a tight unit that we travel as a pack,” Amanda laughs of their on-and-off-air bond.

Indeed, the five colleagues and their families have become interwoven across the years, with children playing together and weekends spent enjoying each other’s company off the air.

“No, they didn’t even hear about it,” Harley says with a mischievous chuckle, acknowledging the faux rivalry between the radio and TV factions for Amanda’s attention.

“It’s impossible because they just get aggressive with each other. If we had invited one, we would have had to invite another thousand. I don’t complain about [the competitiveness]. It just reaffirms that I’m punching above my weight.”

“When I first met Amanda, as she says, it was like two dolphins coming together and forming their own pod,” Barry Du Bois, her Living Room co-host for 11 years, says.

“We are very different – she’s incredibly articulate and funny and witty and beautiful, and I’m a bit of a bogan with not a lot of dialogue, but somehow we are a match. We’d been through similar life experiences, although not at the same time. We both lost our mums and that is an experience that is very raw in both our hearts. We shared that. And we shared our IVF stories [Barry’s nine-year-old twins were born via surrogate in 2012].

“She finds a way to make people feel as good a she possibly can. And that’s what people who watch our show and listen to her on the radio feel because that’s the fan I was before I knew her. I already felt like I had Amanda in my life. Now I can actually hold her hand as well, which is pretty special.”

Surrounded by men as she is – her only sibling is a brother, her children both boys and her on-air work colleagues all male – it’s a common assumption that Amanda is a “guy’s girl”, someone without a lot of firm female friendships in her life.

Nothing could be further from the truth, she insists. The producers on both her radio and TV shows are women. She’s got firm and long-standing friendships with women she’s met while bringing up her boys in the seaside suburb of Coogee in Sydney.

And then there are the female power players who inspire her in her work. Women who – through years of bucking the idea that women over a certain age shouldn’t be seen on TV – have found themselves forging strong relationships along the way.

She may not have had those role models as a fledgling reporter, she says, but today they abound.

It’s a common assumption that Amanda is a “guy’s girl”, someone without a lot of firm female friendships in her life.

(Image: Getty)

“My role models are women who are of a similar age to me,” she says. “The Lisa Wilkinsons. The Leigh Sales. They are also all friends of mine and I am very pleased to be able to say so. And it’s the same sort of thing when people say, ‘Oh, the Rolling Stones are still performing’. And you think, ‘well, what else are they going to do? That’s what they love.’ The idea that you get up in the morning and do a job that you love – aren’t we lucky to have these choices? To have a family. To have a career.

“I have a lot of friends wondering what the third act is. For a lot of women in previous generations, once your kids leave home you’re thinking, ‘What’s my next act?’ The third act might be working on their art. One friend of mine has joined local politics. At 60 it’s certainly not over.”

And for Amanda?

“I’m not busy because I’m scared it will disappear,” she says of her ongoing work schedule, “I think I’m busy because I like it. And I’m waiting for the day I don’t so then I can step back. These are the halcyon days.”

You can read this story and many others in the April issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now

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