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EXCLUSIVE: Liz Hayes was a novelty when she first hit TV screens – more than 40 years later, she’s still blazing a trail

In a revealing interview she talks about taking on the boys, her dairy-farm childhood and the shocking hospital blunder that killed her dad.
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In the cut-throat world of TV news, it’s heartening to see that still at the top celebrating more than 40 years in our living rooms is Liz Hayes.

On screen she can switch from ice queen interrogator to compassionate reporter, while her globe-trotting has ranged from war zones in Afghanistan to Hollywood.

Certainly Liz’s talent, graft and versatility are in no doubt, but as she approaches the big 6-5, the frustrating truth is that she’s one of very few women whose career longevity matches her male peers.

“I never thought I would still be a woman in television at my age. It’s a fickle business and when I started it was a novelty to have a woman,” Liz admits.

“I always used to think by the time I’m 40 I’ll be out of a job, and then maybe I’ll make it to 50 and then if I’m still here at 60 that’s extraordinary and I made that. So I’m tootling along, wondering.”

In a profession filled with show ponies, Liz is an anomaly. But as we settle in for an eye-opening trip down memory lane, I realise if there is a secret to Liz’s success, it lies in a country childhood that coincidentally prepared her for the blokey work environment she chose, and ideals instilled at a young age by her mum.

In a profession filled with show ponies, Liz Hayes is an anomaly.

(The Australian Women’s Weekly)

With four brothers, Liz says she definitely grew up in a boys’ club.

“In cricket I was the stump. In the days when you played cowboys and Indians – that you should never do now – I was the Indian. I was a necessary part of the action and my brothers loved it. ‘Go on, fall down, we shot you. Now get back up. Run!'” Liz was the second eldest but it didn’t matter, the boys ruled the roost.

They lived on the family dairy farm on Oxley Island in Taree, NSW.

Liz’s mum’s family were “Irish Catholic stock” and her grandfather was a train driver.

“They were hard-working regular country people,” she says.

Patricia Ryan was a housewife “but she broke out,” chuckles Liz.

“She would have been a feminist if she thought she could have been, I have no doubt. Oh yes, she pushed back. She worked at the local jewellers and the chemist and they would get her to do radio as part of a sponsorship deal. She was the big personality, the entertainer and the heart and soul. I could see she was revelling in it. My mother should have been me. She had that in her.”

It was Liz’s mum who encouraged her only daughter to think beyond Taree.

“She and I were very close because it was just her and me against the boys. I was her helper but we had a very strong bond and she is the one who said to me, ‘you don’t have to do anything that I’ve done, you can be your own person, you certainly don’t have to follow conventions. You can do whatever you want’.”

In the family dynamic Bryan was the stabiliser and Patricia the cultivator.

“Mum was such a beautiful, loving person and very supportive and Dad was the rock. When it all went to hell, Dad would be, ‘it’s all good, it’s not the end of the world’. He was a good, good man, that person you knew would always be there, and he always was.”

Liz grew up with four brothers on her family’s dairy farm on Oxley Island.

(The Australian Women’s Weekly)

Liz says that while the country shaped her early years, “I couldn’t wait to get out and break free.”

On leaving school Liz landed a job with the forestry commission but when a cadetship at the Manning River Times came up, Liz answered the call.

“I didn’t get it because I was told they wanted a sports writer and I couldn’t be going into the men’s sheds after the footy. So they got a bloke. It turned out he wasn’t a great speller and it came back to me: ‘Would you like this?’ I remember sighing. My mother said, ‘of course, take it,’ and Dad’s saying, ‘but you’ve got this lovely government job why would you leave’?”

As she would many times on the road ahead, Liz took the sexism in her stride and at the tender age of 17 seized the day.

The only other female journalist when she joined the paper was the social writer.

“There were other women in the front office selling ads. But out the back were the men – and me – dealing with the stories. The editor, the sub-editors, they were all men.”

She quickly rose up the ranks and at 21 married local builder Brian Hayes. He was originally from Sydney and when he was offered a job back in the city, Liz went too.

“I felt really out of place in Sydney at first and that’s when I started watching more TV, newsrooms particularly and thinking, I can do that.” Liz did get to do that when, after a brief stint in magazines, she moved to Channel 10, where news editor Tom Barnett offered her a job.

“He said something like ‘nice pins’ with a big cheeky grin and a cigarette out the side of his mouth. But then he said, ‘would you like a job in the newsroom?’.”

Liz loved her early years in the country, but she dreamed of breaking free.

(The Australian Women’s Weekly)

Liz was 25 when she got the call that cemented her career from the news director of Channel Nine.

She was one of two women in the news team.

“I was frightened beyond belief but because I have four brothers, I think I knew how to wrangle men. I had enough country in me to be quiet and watch and try not to stand out – other than the fact that you’re the only other woman!”

When she was moved to co-host for the Today Show it was again because the model was to have a female in the mix but she wasn’t complaining.

“That’s where I felt really at home, because I could be me. I didn’t know if being me would be okay but it turned out it was.”

She stayed on the show for 10 years but never got used to being a household name and all that went with it.

“I was not prepared and it was a serious balancing act for me. I’m not imbued with this extraordinary confidence. People think I might have it but I don’t have that massive self-belief. I just don’t.

“I’m really glad I’m not there in the environment we’re in now because I think social media is so nasty, cruel and in your face. If that was me starting out today as the person I was then, I wouldn’t have survived.”

There may not have been social media, but viewers did hit the Nine switchboard with all sorts of judgements.

“Mini-skirts were the thing of the day and my skirts might have been a bit short,” she recalls.

“I learned to become self-conscious and that’s where my confidence really started to come away a little bit. It took me a while to put that away.”

So much so that when the dream offer of a move to 60 Minutes came her way, Liz confesses she faltered, thinking ‘Can I do this? Am I good enough?'”

Her fears were unfounded, of course, and 15 years later she’s still headlining.

Liz went on to become a stalwart of 60 Minutes.

(Channel Nine)

In 2018 and 2019 Liz faced the traumatic deaths of both parents.

“My mum had dementia. The great thing was she never forgot who we were, but dementia is bloody awful. To see that fabulous human being die in front of you is terrible.

“Dad was amazing. That’s the rock.” As she talks of Bryan, Liz starts to tear up.

It’s coming up for 16 months since a shocking hospital blunder caused his premature death. Liz was so horrified she launched a 60 Minutes investigation, which screened last year.

For the first time Liz was telling her own story as she confronted the truth about her father’s last days. Her pain and anger were palpable and she’s now on a mission to expose the grave issues at the heart of our rural health system.

In 2021 Liz is celebrating 40 years at Nine with a new gig to add to her portfolio – host of Under Investigation. It’s billed as a studio show like no other.

“The idea is that we take a subject – a crime or mystery – and peel it back in a round table approach. The energy comes from the room and the people we have in there,” explains Liz.

In another celebration on May 23, Liz will turn 65.

“I don’t know what 65 is,” she laughs. “I’m interested to know at what point will I go, ‘gee, I’m old’. I really don’t feel old. But I’m pretty proud to have arrived.”

Under Investigation with Liz Hayes will air after the Australian Open on Nine.

Read the full interview with Liz Hayes in the February issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale now.

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