EXCLUSIVE: ABC News Breakfast host Michael Rowland opens up about life behind the camera

Michael Rowland has the best job in the world, he’s head over heels in love, and, adds wife Nicki, is the daggiest of dads. But a freak accident at 19 cast a pall of insecurity over the breakfast TV host, he tells Juliet Rieden.
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Michael Rowland says his knees literally “quivered” when he proposed to the love of his life, fellow journalist Nicki Webber.

It was late December back in 2001. Oh what a night! to quote a seasoned Frankie Valli song.

The ABC News Breakfast anchor is a self-confessed music tragic, so it’s tempting to add a soundtrack to his life story, although his song of choice would be slightly more blokey.

He cites The Rolling Stones, Midnight Oil, The Beatles and Cold Chisel among his top of the pops.

He actually took Nicki to a Stones concert on the night son Tom was due.

“We hadn’t bought tickets naively thinking the baby would be born on its due date,” recalls Nicki.

But when a colleague couldn’t use their tickets Michael couldn’t resist.

“He absolutely loved it … I was uncomfortable and unborn Tom spent the whole concert kicking.”

“Michael also croons Frank [Sinatra],” Nicki adds.

He can’t hold a tune, though he thinks otherwise, and to prove it gives The Weekly team a few bars of Fly Me to the Moon as he corrals his family for our photo shoot in their home.

Yup, he can’t sing.

Nicki says Michael is the quintessential “daggy dad” and right on cue his footy-mad son Tom, 16, who plays for home club Altona Vikings, and daughter Eleanor, 15, who has a beautiful singing voice and performs in school musical theatre productions, roll their eyes.

“It was the most nervous I’ve been in my life,” says Michael, continuing his marriage proposal story.

“I’d booked a table at the restaurant at the top of the Sofitel Hotel. It has big views over Melbourne, although that was the last thing on my mind in the elevator on the way up there.”

The couple had been living together for a little over a year, having met as political journalists covering parliament.

“He was a radio reporter for the ABC and I was the state politics reporter for the Herald-Sun,” says Nicki.

“I’d see him at door stops and outside Parliament House. He was very handsome and a bit aloof. He didn’t speak a lot but he’d ask a question of a politician and I thought, ‘oh, there’s a bit going on in there’. I didn’t ever expect that he would look at me.”

Both had had relationships before, but knew this was different as they entered what Nicki calls “a very old-fashioned courtship … we didn’t want to stuff it up.”

Nicki was raised in a tiny country town “in the middle of nowhere”, riding horses and running free. Her natural bent is to embrace adventure, something she did when she married a handsome Greek on the island of Antiparos.

“We were together for two years, married for one – short lived, but everything brings you to where you are today and how lucky am I?”

For Michael, Nicki was the first girlfriend he had lived with and while he was in no doubt she was the one, nor that she would say yes, “it was a big life decision to make. I’d never asked anybody to marry me before”.

On Nicki’s part, she was preparing for the worst.

“I didn’t see it coming,” she recalls.

“I met him for a drink beforehand at a little bar in Collins Street and he seemed twitchy and uncomfortable. I thought, ‘he’s going to dump me!’. He was so nervous and out of sorts. Then we went for dinner and he ordered expensive champagne and I thought, ‘that’s unusual’. And then he blurted out: ‘It’s been the greatest days and months of my life, will you marry me?’.”

A sense of humour is one of the qualities that sealed this union – “she’s got that in spades,” says Michael – and 20 years after they first found each other, the couple is still laughing, a picture of love’s young dream.

“I still look forward to seeing him every day,” says Nicki.

There’s a yin and yang-ness to Michael and Nicki; their differences completing the whole.

He is quiet and considered, while she is a ball of passionate energy.

“I operate on a much faster orbit than he does. Michael goes at Michael’s pace. He’s very calm and steady. My world before I met him was chaos, delightfully so, but he’s the ballast in the ship for me,” explains Nicki.

“We balance each other. We make each other laugh. We frustrate each other as well. It sounds such a cliché – but we’re a really good team.”

Michael Rowland is the host of the ABC’s popular News Breakfast program.

(Image: The Australian Women’s Weekly)

I’ve been talking to Michael and Nicki separately and again I feel a song coming on.

This one goes – We met at nine, we met at eight, I was on time, no, you were late. Ah, yes, I remember it well – for their stories often conflict, even though Michael is spot on when he says, “We’re both on the same wavelength.”

Unlike Nicki, Michael tells me, “We both decided early on that we wanted kids together.”

Nicki’s memory is that when they met neither of them wanted to have children.

“We had a disagreement when we were going out, when I’d realised that I wanted to have kids with this man and he said, ‘I don’t want them’. Then he changed his mind, and quickly. From that moment on it was: ‘I want kids straight away’.”

They married four months after the proposal; Tom was born less than a year later and Eleanor 17 months after that.

As Michael tells it there were “no real bumps in the road” in their early years as a family.

Nicki proffers a knowing smile when I tell her this. Michael has never been a panicker, treating drama with calm reason.

“We’ve had bits and pieces along the way,” explains Nicki.

When Eleanor was 18 months old the couple was told she may have cancer.

“She didn’t, but it was scary. We nearly lost Tom a couple of times too. He had unusual food allergies and nearly died at four months. Then when he was five he was diagnosed as legally blind in one eye. I felt terrible because we hadn’t noticed. We were in the US at the time. They made Tom look into binoculars asking him what he saw: a tractor, a cake?’ they asked. Nothing. We were shocked.”

It turned out to be a type of amblyopia – also called lazy eye – and was fixable with special glasses that Tom had to wear for a long while.

Now it’s corrected itself and he’s completely fine and a passionate Aussie rules footy player.

Michael and his wife Nicki in their Melbourne home.

(Image: The Australian Women’s Weekly)

Michael and Nicki with their two children.

(Image: The Australian Women’s Weekly)

Michael was the eldest of five living in a close-knit home in Sydney’s inner west.

His dad was “a public servant in one of the NSW electricity authorities before they were all privatised” and his mum “had five kids under eight at one stage, which kept her busy”.

He was extremely shy growing up, a nerd who loved to study.

“I was always a good boy at school,” says Michael.

“I only copped the strap once or twice and that was because the whole class was getting it because some idiot down the back was throwing things at the teacher. I recall a couple of teachers who enjoyed wielding what was quite a thick leather strap. It hurt like bloody hell.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself around exam times. When I was in Year 12 I had no idea what I wanted to do and my first job after school was as a management trainee at Westpac. It lasted three months. I didn’t want a career in banking in the end. I got a good enough mark to get into a journalism degree at the University of Technology in Sydney. I’ve been in the journalism game ever since.”

Although he didn’t realise, there was a signpost to Michael’s future which sits in the family film archives.

“There are tapes of me commandeering the cassette player and pretending I’m a newsreader. ‘Hello, this is Michael Rowland’ – I’m seven or eight – ‘this is the news’. I’d forever be stealing the microphone from my siblings.”

Michael quit UTS after a year.

He had been a copy boy at The Sun and when he scored a cadetship with the ABC all his dreams came true. Michael was on his way.

Michael’s career at the ABC began as a cadet.

(Image: The Australian Women’s Weekly)

But his world came crashing down when a freak accident threatened to ruin everything.

“It happened in January 1988, I was 19,” remembers Michael.

“I was out with a mate driving through Sydney when some idiot with a slingshot was taking pot-shots at cars. The pellet – an acorn – hit me directly in the eye. If I had been driving I probably wouldn’t be here. It ricocheted off the back of my eye. I can still hear it. Then my eye started filling up with blood and I couldn’t see a thing.

“My friend drove me to hospital. They operated that night and the surgeon told me he came close to having to take the eye out. He saved it but as a result the pupil is permanently dilated.”

When Michael woke up, his parents were by his bedside.

“Dad went up to St Mary’s Cathedral for the first time in many years and lit a candle while I was in surgery. He and Mum had been told the worst-case scenarios by the surgeon: that I’d have a glass eye. So, there might have been a bit of divine assistance … ”

Michael was scarred by the accident and that trauma is still in evidence.

“I came out of it thinking life’s not going to be the same, the first thing people will notice is this bung eye, as I thought of it. I had to wear an eye shield which cramped my social scene for a long time. And a patch for a period after that, so I got pirate gags.

“It did have a big impact on how I viewed the world and how I thought the world viewed me. I was very self-conscious. It accentuated my shyness and I’d go to parties and think everyone was looking at my eye.”

That feeling has lessened over time, but it’s still there.

“I don’t notice it at all but when I first met him he wouldn’t make eye contact with people,” says Nicki.

“I’d introduce him to my friends and he would hold his hand over his eye. He thinks that’s all people see. Sometimes he’ll get an email from somebody saying, ‘you might need to get your eye checked out’ which is hard … But he’s become more comfortable with it and in his own skin as he gets older.”

Today Michael has regular check-ups.

“If I close the good eye there’s a bit of a gauziness over my sight and if I come in from bright light without wearing sunglasses I’m temporarily blinded coming into a darker room.”

Michael’s eyes also play other tricks on him because he’s colour blind.

When I ask him the colour of his wife’s wedding dress he says pink. It was blue.

It’s something the whole family laughs about and there is no way Michael is let loose on furnishings and clothing choices.

“I just wear blue and white” he quips. “But I always double-check. To the naked eye it’s blue but you’ll hear me asking ‘are you sure it’s not purple?'”

“A few years ago I was away and Michael took the kids shopping,” adds Nicki.

“They were in a clothes shop in the mall and Tom pointed to Michael’s feet and said ‘Dad, what are you doing?’ He was wearing odd shoes. Both sneakers – but one was blue and one was white. The kids wanted him to go home and change but he carried on shopping.”

In May, Michael celebrates 10 years at News Breakfast.

When he was picked for the job it was with four years as the Washington correspondent under his belt, which included Barack Obama’s election.

“One of the highlights of my career has been standing in Grant Park, Chicago, on the night Obama won. There were thousands of people, lots of African-Americans crying, it was such a great moment. As a journalist it feels you’re writing the first draft of history.”

WATCH BELOW: Barack and Michelle Obama’s cutest moments. Story continues after video.

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In 2010, Michael set his alarm for 2.45am – Nicki says it’s 2.30am – and joined Virginia Trioli on the breakfast sofa for what today he calls “the best job in broadcast journalism. On any day you could be interviewing the PM or a film star. It requires nimbleness.”

Back then, the show was drowned out by the commercial networks and had a tiny audience.

“Three people and their dog,” jokes Michael.

“People come to us because we’re the best news brand in Australia. That’s fine, but as Paul Keating said, you’ve got to know how to flick the switch to vaudeville and flick back. That’s an organic process. I was at the forefront in wanting to loosen it up. It’s a different beast 10 years on.” The show’s ratings recently hit a record 262,000.

The ABC is also a different beast and Michael is strapping in for a tough 2020 of cutbacks. How is morale?

“It’s much better now with both Ita [Buttrose] as chair and David [Anderson] as Managing Director. Ita was a controversial appointment in the sense she was a personal pick by the Prime Minister but she’s very popular and garners respect as a journalist.

“She and David make a very effective double act compared with the dysfunctional relationship between the then MD, Michelle Guthrie, and Justin Milne the chairman.”

Beyond Breakfast, Michael and Nicki have big plans.

“We’re starting to look forward to the next stage when the kids grow up and we spend more time with each other,” he says.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s a bit exciting,” agrees Nicki, who celebrated her 50th in January; Michael is 52 in July.

“We got together, married, had kids, went overseas and then he’s doing this crazy, intense job. We’ve been go-go-go. It’ll be nice to pause and go, how good is this?”

The April issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly, on sale now.

(Image: AWW)

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