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Family

EXCLUSIVE: "Every day is hard": Sports presenter Mel McLaughlin speaks about the pain of losing her sister

''There's literally not a day where she's not in our hearts and our thoughts.''

By Tiffany Dunk
The Weekly set is a hive of activity. Coffee is being dispensed to the roomful of cast and crew, a welcome pleasure after an early morning start. A rack of clothes whizzes past, stuffed with outfits in various creams and neutrals, the stylists pulling out pieces to be steamed.
Voices are necessarily raised in order to be heard over the cacophony of hair dryers as Mel McLaughlin, her mother and sister attempt to continue their conversation whilst make-up artists attend to their faces. Our photographer and her assistant are hunched over the monitor, discussing set-ups and lighting as a publicist fills me in on some last-minute updates on Mel's work schedule for the Commonwealth Games.
For softly-spoken family patriarch Eamonn McLaughlin, it's like entering a new world. "Is this what Mel has to do every day?" he asks in disbelief while taking in the organised chaos.
"No Dad," Mel laughs in return. "This is not a normal day."
Indeed for the 42-year-old sports reporter it's about as far away from her usual routine as she could get.
Growing up the middle child of three girls – raised by an Anglo-Indian mother and English father – in Western Sydney, she'd never worn make-up. And when she got her first job in radio, the behind-the-scenes nature meant she didn't feel the need to start.
But after moving to an on-air role at Sky News some years later, it was a skill she had to master. Because far from being waited on by a talented entourage, it was all about DIY in the world of sports.
As she travelled from World Cups to cricket pitches, from netball to Rugby League ovals, Mel toted her make-up with her, taking over Portaloos, locker rooms and public toilets as temporary make-up stations, balancing her various lotions and potions on any available surface.
Mel grew up in Sydney's western suburbs. (Image: Alana Landsberry)
"We had to do our own make-up, which was fine, but I was no expert – I'd never worn it," she recalls now. "I had to go to make-up lessons.
"I remember the first hour I did on my own [on air] and I had four different interviews and guests, and I was a bit nervous. But afterwards I was really happy with how I went because my passion is interviewing.
"One of the bosses said, 'Have you got a sec?' and so I stuck my head in. And he said, 'Yeah, you've got too much blush on.' And I walked off thinking, 'But the interviews were alright?' "
Another time a high-profile football coach stopped her in the hall. "You're a woman," he said, gesturing at his made-up visage. "My face. Is it fine?" She'd never worn the stuff, she thought. Why on earth would she know simply by being female?
It's a dichotomy in her industry that still rankles all these years later. Because while the world of sports reporting is slowly changing, there is still – all these years later – the assumption that she was chosen for the role simply for her gender and looks.
"Mel is a sports nut, she has been obsessed with everything sports-related since we were kids," younger sister Leanne, 41, says. "When people say, 'Does your sister even like sport?', I find it quite offensive. Just because she's female and in that role, don't assume she's not into sport. She is a walking, talking sports encyclopedia. And she works her butt off.
"At school, she would never take a day off. She was really sick once with pneumonia and another time with bronchitis, but she refused to take a day off because she wanted a perfect attendance record. She is the only person you know who never went through the right of passage for wagging a day of school."
"She loves telling everybody that," Mel says with a groan. "I was very nerdy. Leanne was a cool kid. But I just preferred sport and going to school."
Mel was raised by an Anglo-Indian mother and English father. (Image: Alana Landsberry)
Certainly, Mel's childhood was one that seemed destined to lead her down her chosen career path. Those days were spent in and out of the backyard above-ground swimming pool, playing neighbourhood cricket and racing to a variety of netball and soccer games. Her older sister Tara was equally into sports. And her father Eamonn introduced her to her first great love, Manchester United.
"My earliest memories are watching and playing sport," Mel says.
"I would sit with my dad back in the day and listen to the English football with him until suddenly I was listening to it on my own. I would sleep on the couch downstairs with the old red alarm clock and set it for 3am to get up and watch the games. And I'd sit with Mum and Dad watching the Grand Prix. I grew up with the sounds of the roar of engines.
"My sister would buy Dolly magazine. For me, I'd go down to the newsagent and buy Shoot or the Score or the FourFourTwo – whatever I had saved up for. I would get the football magazines and Dad would get the International Express and that would be the latest football news."
"I am a fan of cricket," Mel's mother Leonie, 72, adds. "When Mel was a baby, I would watch the late-night Test games from England. And now we watch her interview our heroes like Ian Botham."
"It's wonderful watching her interview your idols," agrees Eamonn, 71. "People that you dream of. Many people think she appears on TV for 20 minutes, half an hour and that's it. But we see how much time she puts in. When she's at our place, many nights she'll spend two or three hours in her room making notes for specific things the following day."
Mel is often at her parents' home – the same home she grew up in after Leonie and Eamonn emigrated from the UK in the 1970s. Her parents had met at a youth club as teenagers – one that Eamonn had set up at a local church hall.
"It was just him and 19 girls," laughs Leonie, whose father moved his family of 10 from India to the UK when she was 11. "We actually went to the same school and didn't know each other. We met in 1969 and we didn't start going out until 1971. We married in 1973."
She grew up as the middle child of three girls. (Image: Alana Landsberry)
Tara, their eldest daughter, was born in 1975. One day, Leonie, a schoolteacher, was vacuuming when she spotted an advertisement for Australia under the couch. Eamonn had been restless, talking of moving to Canada.
That chance sighting changed their course, and shortly thereafter they packed up for life Down Under.
"Tara was three and when we were on the plane she kept standing up and talking to the people behind her," Leonie recalls. "She said, 'We're going to Australia to have a baby.' I said, 'No!' But sure enough, a year and a half later, Melanie was born. Our little Aussie. And 18 months later we had Leanne."
As kids, the girls were inseparable. While Tara was a few years older, they played sports together, rode their bikes, played imaginary games in the backyard and shared mutual friends and interests.
"Every New Year's Eve was at ours," Mel says with a fond smile. "The neighbourhood would all come round, as well as our friends. We weren't that family where it was, 'There's five of us so there's five sausages.' There was always heaps of food because you never knew who was going to turn up. Everyone was always welcome."
That closeness endured beyond childhood and into adulthood as Tara and Leanne started their own families. And then the unthinkable happened. After suffering a series of miscarriages, Tara was thrilled to finally be a mum to two young boys, Harry and Flynn.
A senior constable and former director of NSW Police Legacy, Tara was fit and healthy – and had never smoked a cigarette in her life. But after giving birth to Flynn, she felt unbearably tired and there was a constant pain in her chest that she couldn't explain.
"Tara had never complained about being tired," Mel says today of the early signs. "She went to a GP and they said, 'You're tired because you have a baby and your chest hurts because you are breastfeeding.' And she had stage four lung cancer."
The diagnosis was made shortly after that first GP visit when Tara's lung collapsed during her daily walk. Two and a half years later, she lost her short but fierce battle at the age of 39. Her sons were five and three.
Today, Mel is a vocal ambassador for Lung Foundation Australia, a role which doesn't come easily to her but one she continues in order to honour Tara, who was "an amazing human being, always thinking of others".
"It's still hard," she says of talking about her sister's passing. "It took me years to get involved. But the mortality rate is disgusting and the stigma is staggering. The Foundation needs more money and attention. Maybe I'm not doing enough, but I'm trying."
Tara's loss rocked the close-knit family. Today, as they gather for our shoot, Tara's name constantly crops up as they fondly remember times past.
"She was the nicest one out of the three of us," says Leanne. "There's literally not a day where she's not in our hearts and our thoughts. Every day is hard. Every milestone. Watching our sisters' kids grow up without a mum. But you realise once you've gone through it that there are so many people affected by [death from cancer]. It's a horrible group that so many people are in."
Mel sadly lost her older sister Tara. (Image: Alana Landsberry)
Harry, say Leanne and Mel, is the spitting image of his mother. Flynn has certainly inherited her sweet spirit.
And the boys, along with Leanne's three children, have also inherited the abundant kindness and generosity of their "Aunty Mo".
"Harry's the oldest and he couldn't say Mel, so I'm Aunty Mo," laughs Mel of her moniker.
"My kids are obsessed with her," adds Leanne. "She's a very doting aunty, throwing herself into being with the kids. And she'll always put her hands up to have the kids whenever we need. Especially the oldest – Tara's boys and my oldest son. She and her partner [former English footballer Ashley Westwood] will take the three boys and I'll say, 'Good luck with that', but they have a great weekend. She's fun Aunty Mo."
"She spoils them terribly," adds Eamonn with mock disapproval. "She's busy, but she makes the time to do it."
"I'm very much about family," Mel responds. "Always have been over the red carpets and things like that."
At time of publication, Mel will be in Birmingham as a key part of Seven's Commonwealth Games coverage. Travel is a huge part of her job, covering everything from Ashes tours and World Cups to the Olympics and more.
It's a role she says she's never taken for granted and one which still sees her sick with nerves ahead of each live cross. But when there's a big sporting event and she's not on duty, you won't find her courtside or at the oval. Instead, she'll be sitting next to Eamonn at the family home, watching it there.

"I'd rather watch the State of Origin with him than go to it, if I'm honest," says Mel. "Mum is my role model, but so is Dad. I did something one International Women's Day and when I said my dad was my role model, nobody gave it any air. What about the men or dads in your life who have made you feel equal?
"And who have raised you with respect to show respect and not made you ever feel anything different or lesser? Because there are a lot of men who make you feel different if you love sport. In something typically male like sport, it was only out of the house that I learnt that was different. Dad and I would speak about sports as equals.
"If she's not working, she loves coming over, which I think is beautiful," Eamonn says with a fond smile. "I know that if she's free she will come."
Her nephews and niece aren't the only kids being spoilt by "Aunty Mo", either. Leonie says that their daughter lavishes them with special outings and events – and even offered to buy her a ticket to the UK when she's there for the Commonwealth Games.
Sadly, she had to pass on the offer. Instead, she'll be doing what she's done since Mel's first sports reporting job on now-defunct station Radio 2: taping her daughter's performance.
"If I haven't got it, it's because she didn't tell us about it," Leonie says of her impressive collection. "I'm a fan. It's my thing. I'm retired, I need to fill in time! I'm just finishing [watching] the Winter Olympics at the moment."
If the family were to build a time capsule for Mel, they'd have plenty of material. In addition to the recordings, there's her childhood bedroom.
Mel is very close with her family. (Image: Instagram)
"There are Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs posters," Mel chuckles. "Photos from the 2005 qualifier. A bit of cricket. Warnie and photos of those guys back in the day. Plus the photos of my school friends and a lot of old sports stuff.
"Every year we used to go to Kiama for the school holidays. There was a place called The Soccer Shop – it's not there any more, I'm devastated – and I would buy a new Man United bag as my schoolbag. I'd wear oversized men's Man United jerseys. They and the Socceroos were my first great loves."
Her current great loves, outside of those here today and her nephews and niece, lay in the family she has created for herself with partner Ashley and their two dogs, George and Alice. She's reticent to talk about Ashley, as she's been burned in the past. But her smile says far more than words can of their happy home.
"We've been together for five or so years," she says. "We love our dogs, we are very outdoors and active, and he loves hanging out with the family. He's English and they all really get on."
And with that she turns back to her family, who are laughing uproariously as they gently tease Eamonn for his 'Blue Steel' poses for the camera.
"We are lucky we are very tight," she says. "I don't know how people who aren't tight do it."
Mel will front the exclusive Birmingham Commonwealth Games coverage on Seven and 7plus from July 8 to August 7.
You can read this story and many others in the August issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now
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