David Langdon could hear the revs a mile away as his old pick-up truck tore full-throttle around the property. "Holy hell, he's giving it some boot today," thought David over the din. But when David strode up to tell his brother-in-law to keep the ruckus down, long blonde hair was whipping out the driver's side window. Behind the wheel was his daughter Allison, age 12, hooting and hooning.
"She'd pinched the keys and hit the gas. Even today, Allison's a speed demon. If you're in a car with her, you hang on!" laughs mum Helen. "Another time she lit a fire nearby and it got into our land. Next thing … BOOM! Up went the ute in a huge fireball. BOOM! Up went David's Valiant Charger next. We're a family of larrikins and storytellers, but Allison is the adrenaline junkie."
Pedal to the metal, wind in her hair. That's how Allison Langdon, 42, rock'n'rolls. The breakfast TV queen from King Creek (pop: 1568) on the north coast of NSW might look polished and poised fronting the Today show five days a week, but ask around and most folk will tell you "Ally" has always lived fast and furious.
In 20 years as a news reporter, she flew into bushfires, bombings and civil wars. As an author, she waded through court transcripts and crime scenes to get to the truth. On 60 Minutes she shirt-fronted A-listers, stared down terrorists and swam with sharks as big as the truck she loved to "bang around the back paddock".
"Never underestimate Allison Langdon!" says 60 Minutes colleague Tara Brown. "She's incredibly adept at getting to the nub of a story and managing the unique demands of travel, danger and hard work. I'm in awe of her adventurous spirit but it's the warmth and compassion she gives to people that makes her unique."
And here's something else: Allison Langdon is an enthusiastic swinger. On the rope swing at The Weekly's shoot, she swoops and soars, kicking her heels up for speed and height. Her husband, Michael Willesee Jr, 53, watches in awe. "Ally's a big kid at heart," he laughs. "Before Mack and Scout arrived, she was 'naughty Aunty Ally' revving the family's kids up with lollies, games and stories … then handing them back."
We're on Sydney's northern peninsula, atop a grassy headland overlooking Palm Beach. A dolphin pod frolics off the cliffs as Allison's own pod – son Mack, four, and daughter Scout, two – puff soapy spheres onto the spring breeze.
Allison watches on, smiling, a buttery frock billowing around her, then glides over to say g'day. There's no haughtiness. The warmth of a country girl is in her shake, the savvy of the city in her stare. Straight away I like her: she's direct and down-to-earth.
But bearing battle scars, alas. In February Allison was hydrofoiling on the Gold Coast for Today when her knee imploded. Nine months on, she's lost the limp and the wheelchair but not yet thrice-weekly rehab. "It's been full-on but it's given me an appreciation for people who live with chronic pain," she grimaces. "I'm pretty tough but I came back to work too soon ... "
Allison's work ethic is epic. A fortnight after giving birth to Mack, she was in the office, baby on her hip, to finish a script. Six weeks later she returned full-time. These days, with the pain in her knee, Allison sleeps only a few hours a night. She wakes at 3.28am and leaves at 3.35am in her pyjamas and ugg boots.
"As a mum and a journo, Ally's the hardest working person I've ever known," Michael says. "It's always deep research, heavy workload with her. Often it's more than I think is necessary. She still takes people she interviewed years ago for 60 Minutes out to dinner! But that's Ally's way – she's all-in."
This laser focus stress-tested their union. "Until the kids, we were mostly separated from each other," Allison admits. "When we were together it was every minute of every day – and that's a different sort of pressure cooker. Not many couples can survive such highs and lows. But Mike's an extraordinary, understanding man. He's been by my side, supporting me, for 15 years now."
In the decade after meeting at a Sydney bar in 2006 and marrying in 2008, the couple spent as little as two months in 12 together, and at most six. "Ally had her dream job at 60 Minutes and I was flying around with [then Federal Treasurer] Joe Hockey," Michael recalls. "It's why we weren't immediately driven to have kids. We were open to it, but we'd considered both paths. A relationship was barely sustainable, let alone a family."
That all changed when Mack was born, then Scout in March 2019 (just two days after the death of Allison's father-in-law, iconic TV journalist Michael Willesee).
"Initially Mack would join me on 60 Minutes assignments, then Scout would come," she explains. "But it got tricky. Every time I left the room, Mack would think: 'Is Mummy gone for a minute or a week?' I loved the job but it wasn't working. Breakfast TV is the right gig at the right time for me now."
Channel Nine's troubled morning show, Today, had immolated four hosts in three years before recruiting Allison to the frontline of the "morning wars" in 2020. Then, doubling down on the challenge, they paired her with Today's newly-axed, now-reprieved ex-host, the network enfant terrible, Karl Stefanovic.
For 10 years, with unflinching professionalism, Karl's co-host Lisa Wilkinson had practised un-bunching her fists and unfreezing a rictus grin at his oafish antics. Not Allison. "Half the time I want to hug Karl, half the time I want to slap him," she laughs. "But so far there's never been a moment where I've had to take him aside in an ad break and say: 'You went too far'. If it happens, I'll pull him up."
This frisson is the "dance" of the 5.30-9am timeslot, a frenzy of bulletins and live crosses played out for an audience readying their household for another day. "Who wants to watch two people agreeing on everything?" she asks. "Karl and I are mates. We feud like brother and sister, but it's authentic. We can't fake our relationship – the audience would see through it – so it plays out naturally. We keep it real and if someone needs a slap down, it's done with love. "
It's fun to watch, and according to Allison, fun to make because their chemistry is real. "Karl's got my back and I know he'll never let me fail. I've never trusted anyone I've worked with as much as him." Indeed, they talk on the phone up to five times a day and in June, holidayed in New Zealand together with their partners. Most importantly, in the cut-throat world of TV, it's working.
Since making their dramatic debut during the bushfires, then rolling through the US political upheaval and the COVID crisis, Langdon-Stefanovic has gained on Koch-Armytage/ Koch-Barr. These days, as few as 5000 viewers split the rivals. And in September, Today beat Sunrise in the ratings for the first time since 2018.
I ask if she's satisfied merely with making good TV and not winning the ratings war. "I won't sit here and say: 'I don't want to win'. Winning feels good. We're in a battle we welcome. I'm glad it's close. Competition is healthy. Everyone works harder."
It's always been thus, says Helen Langdon. "Even age 14-15 she was volunteering at a local radio station, working a job at the local chemist and another at the dance studio teaching ballet, jazz and lyrical. Then she'd come home, eat dinner and pull an all-nighter on her studies."
Allison grew up on a farm with older brother Heath, 45, and younger sister Kristen, 39. Father David was handy, working in spare car parts. Mum was at the NRMA when she wasn't corralling kids. Holidays were rare. "We didn't care," Allison recalls. "We swam in dams, climbed trees and roamed free. It taught us to trust our instincts."
Money was tight. Hard work and kindness were higher currencies. "Allison was a good kid, full of spirit and mischief, confident in her own skin," recalls Helen. "She was sensitive too, she felt other people's pain. I think it's why she's always stood up for what's right."
Her empathy sharpened early when Kristen's diabetes spiralled into renal failure. In 2014, a kidney and pancreas transplant were needed to save her life.
"It was stressful for us all," admits Helen. "But Allison's incredibly protective of her family. When Kristen finally found a donor for a transplant, Allison dropped her 60 Minutes story in the Gaza Strip to be by her side."
These days, when home, Allison loves to mow neighbours' lawns with her dad. "Hey, I used to shovel horse manure into sacks and sell it for a dollar a bag!" she laughs. "I'm a country girl at heart and it taught me the value of hard work."
In 2019 Allison told graduates at her alma mater, Wauchope High: "Where you come from, how much money you have – none of it matters. If you have a passion for something – pursue it. There's nothing better than doing what you love."
As school dux, Allison earned a television scholarship with Channel Seven at Charles Sturt Uni, and studied at New York State. Then Channel Nine came a-wooing. "I remember Dad saying: 'Are you sure you're tough enough?' After two years in the Sydney newsroom writing for Brian Henderson and sitting next to Peter Harvey, he pulled me aside. 'Ally, your mother and I are worried you're getting a little too tough'."
Maybe Dad had a point. In 2009, a year after authoring The Child Who Never Was about the mystery of newborn Tegan Lane, Allison and her crew broke a police ban by helicoptering into the crime scene that was Marysville, where 45 people had died in Victoria's Black Saturday bushfires. "That was an inadvertent mistake, but it was a valuable one," Allison admits today.
That commitment to getting a story saw 60 Minutes come calling in 2011. It was pedal to the metal time again. Drug wars in Mexico. Abseiling into active volcanoes. Trekking Patagonian glaciers. Face to face with leopard seals and grizzly bears. Entering Shark Alley, Allison deadpanned to the camera: "If I die, tell my husband to mourn me forever."
The badlands of Somalia "left scars" and "haunts me," she says. "I met women braving incredible danger to teach girls in underground schools. I interviewed two boys brainwashed as Al-Shabaab terrorists to blow up a market. For years I kept in contact with a mum who told me she'd left her two sick children to die by the road to carry her other five to a refugee camp.
"But you can't harden your heart, you've just got to accept your limitations," she says. "As journalists, we can't save everyone we meet but we can tell their stories. That helps."
Such depth of empathy is rare. But it might just be Ally Langdon's secret weapon. "I do have a really intense connection with my interview subjects, even if we talk for just a few minutes," she confides. "There's a guilt I feel leaving people in what's often the most dramatic moment of their lives, and moving onto the next story." It's why she keeps her contacts close, calling up and checking in.
This ability to unify professional and personal life leaves Tara Brown in awe. "When you're on TV it's natural to build this façade – deeper voice, bigger hand gestures – to establish authority. But Ally's not afraid to be herself. She's never been frightened to be seen."
Next up? Perhaps Allison's most dangerous assignment yet: hosting Parental Guidance, a TV experiment where 10 sets of Aussie parents – helicopter dads, tiger mums, free-rangers, tight-leashers, married and step, gay and religious – go head-to-head with their well-intentioned but very different parenting beliefs. Allison has the tricky task of asking each one tough questions in a caring way.
"Ally was masterful in how she managed vulnerable people's emotions, probing gently but objectively," says her co-host, parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson. "It was inspiring to see a hardened journalist step into a place of empathy and tenderness. She was totally invested. I didn't expect her to cry so often!"
Parental Guidance is Allison at her intimate best. "It's changed the way I parent," she admits. "Up until now, Mike and I took from our parents, books, Google, and the rest we made up as we went along. But since the show, we've had conversations about consistency and calm. We're far from perfect but we've made some tweaks and I think we're better parents."
Behind the scenes, like most parents, Ally oscillates between love and fear. "Being a mother to a teenage girl terrifies me. I've done stories on Facebook and Instagram targeting teens – the unhealthy messages and disorders that follow. I know what it is to be targeted [Allison took out an AVO against a stalker in 2007] and for keyboard warriors to target my home, threaten my family, my kids … " Tears prickle at her eyes. "It's why I ignore the haters and do so little on social media."
These days Allison lets the tears fall. "We all have moments where we crack under the pressure or stress," she admits. "I'm lucky to have people around me who say, 'It's okay'. It might be Mike, it could be Karl – lots of people have my back."
And in the corridors of power at Channel Nine, there's a new driver at the wheel. "The newsroom I arrived in 20 years ago was very blokey," Allison recalls. "It's unrecognisable today. Everything seems geared around family and kids, maternity leave, school pick-ups. The handful of women who welcomed, nurtured me and protected me back then … they're everywhere now."
Allison Langdon is blazing a new trail. (Just pray she hasn't pinched your keys).
Read this story and more in the December issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now.