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“It’s cathartic to talk”: Sarah Harris talks about the simple things that make all the difference amidst her whirlwind career

The Studio 10 host opens up to The Weekly about her rollercoaster ride.
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It all started with a stack of Christmas cards.

Clad in the gold buttoned, shoulder-padded Rockmans suit she’d spent her hard-earned McDonalds wages on, 16-year-old Sarah Harris was sitting on the floor of the Channel 7 mail room in Brisbane, determinedly stuffing envelopes as if her life depended on it.

It was her first day of work experience and the task was expected to last the Caboolture State High student the entire week. But nobody had reckoned on young Sarah’s determination.

“I was so keen to make an impression that I had those Christmas cards stuffed in envelopes by mid-morning,” the Studio 10 host laughs throatily today, as we sit amidst another chaotic Christmas scene (albeit one with far more expensive designer outfits).

“And so they sent me into the news room and I just fell in love with the place. It was this crazy hive of phones ringing and printers buzzing and keys tapping and people yelling. I’d stay late, make myself available and try to be of help and by the end of the week they said, ‘We’ve actually got a job on weekends, it’s a news transfer coordinator and it pays $12 an hour if you want it.'”

She did. And a short year later, having shown not only her drive but her ability she would make her on air debut as a rookie reporter, setting into train a 20 plus year career in journalism that has seen her traverse several networks, travel the globe and win plenty of hearts along the way for her mix of smarts and sensitivity.

It’s a long way from her humble start in a housing commission unit in Sydney’s Western Suburbs and one that Sarah admits she still has to pinch herself about.

Having arrived just one week after her mother’s 18th birthday, Sarah and her three-years-younger brother watched as her single mum juggled work and study – living pay check to pay check – hoping to improve their lot in life.

Sarah has had a 20 plus career in journalism that has seen her traverse several networks, travel the globe and win plenty of hearts along the way.

“She was always working on bettering herself, she wanted to be a teacher, but obviously she had to put food on the table,” Sarah says of her mother’s sacrifice.

“Hand-me-downs were the norm, mum drove around in a fourth hand car, we didn’t go on overseas holidays or to fancy private schools.

“But despite life obviously being tough for my mum she shielded us from that. And she instilled in both my brother and I that education was important, to do well in school. Shoot for the stars, she’d say, and dream big. I really pushed myself hard because I wanted to make my mum proud. It became the driver for me to do well and create a better life for myself.”

At the age of seven, Sarah’s mum packed up the on-it’s-last-legs Sigma (which, Sarah chuckles, broke down and caught fire halfway through the journey) with their meagre possessions, driving up to Bribie Island in Queensland to be closer to her parents Peggy and Bill.

Cramped housing commission quarters were swapped for caravan parks and family Christmases were now marked with camping trips at Second Lagoon.

The Studio 10 host has come a long way.

“We’d put everything in the back of a four wheel drive and camp behind the sand dunes,” she recalls.

“You wouldn’t shower for a week, you’d swim in the ocean and play on the beach all day. You’d be exhausted from jumping waves and the sun beating down and you’d be as brown as a berry after a few days there. It was pretty special.”

Peggy was an amateur poet, Sarah recalls, who would read the newspaper in bed with her while Bill would pick the kids up from school in a cart he’d fashioned on the back of his bike.

A keen dance student, at the age of 11 Sarah was invited to attend a dance camp in New Zealand.

But, “it was a lot of money,” Sarah recalls of the international opportunity, “whereas other kids could easily front up the cash.” And so mother and daughter got to work, washing cars and selling raffle tickets until the funds were raised for her to join her classmates.

“It was a huge sacrifice for my mum, she hadn’t even been overseas,” she says in wonderment now.

“It makes you really appreciate everything that is hard fought and hard won. I got my first job at 14 because one, my mum wanted me to know the value of money and two, I was expected to contribute. If everything is handed to you your whole life you don’t savour those successes. I have always worked hard and chased down every opportunity that has been given to me. I’ve never just sailed through.”

That’s certainly something those who have known her longest can attest to. Cecilia Woodhouse, 73, was the head of English and languages at Caboolture State High. She was also Sarah’s house group teacher for five years and she vividly remembers the moment 12-year-old entered her world, a few days after her fellow students.

“She was like a sunflower – she was tall and straight and with an open, smiley face. She was a sensitive girl but also very resilient.”

“She’d had a terrible few days at her closest high school, she used to go home in tears so unhappy and so her mother brought Sarah to us,” Cecilia tells The Weekly.

“She was rather a woebegone little starter having had a bad experience. And of course coming in a few days late she didn’t know anybody. But within a week she was like a sunflower – she was tall and straight and with an open, smiley face. She was a sensitive girl but also very resilient.

“She was very outgoing, made friends easily, was open to other people and a good communicator. She was in school musicals, the dance group, the drama group… she was always throwing herself into things.”

A self-professed perfectionist, Sarah suffered from anxiety in those days, a trait she says has now been stripped from her in the wake of becoming a mother herself to Paul, 4 and Harry, 2 (“I don’t have the luxury of time to stew or labour on anything anymore,” she laughs).

But it made her a champion student, something Cecilia (or Mrs Woodhouse as Sarah insists on still calling her) relished.

It was Cecilia – along with Mr Boxall, another of Sarah’s favourite teachers – who lined up that fateful work experience gig.

And it’s to them that Sarah gives a lion’s share of the credit for her confidence in fronting up, dressed to the nines news-reader style, ready to take on the TV world.

“I genuinely believe they altered the course of my life,” she says earnestly, adding she went back to visit the pair 20 years later while pregnant with Harry in order to thank them personally.

“They could tell I was a highly anxious kid but they had seen in me an ability to write and they nurtured that.”

“I had certainly never expected her to be back in contact but it was lovely to see her,” Cecilia, who retired from teaching in 2009, says proudly.

“Just last night I dug out the school magazine for Sarah’s final year and was looking through the little snippets her house group all wrote to sum each other up. I thought, ‘What did people say about Sarah back then?’ And there I saw in front of me six words. ‘Sarah Harris: Fashion model. Academic model. Role model.’

“It’s never surprised me that she is successful because when you put talent, a lot of hard work and personality together I think you’ve got a pretty winning combination.”

Sarah Harris hosts Christmas With The Australian Women’s Weekly, 7.30pm Thursday December 10, on channel Ten

To read our full interview with Sarah Harris, pick up the Christmas issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale now.

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