LIZ HAYES - A country girl at heart
The Australian Women's Weekly|February 2021
Liz Hayes was a novelty when she first hit TV screens and more than 40 years later she’s still blazing a trail. In a revealing interview she talks to Juliet Rieden about her dairy-farm childhood, the painful hospital blunder that killed her dad and her surprising fitness secret.
Juliet Rieden

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.”

Liz makes it sound accidental, but as she kicks off her shoes, pleased that The Weekly’s photo shoot is over – she confesses she’s uncomfortable when she’s the one in the spotlight – I realise this powerhouse of Nine’s 60 Minutes doesn’t see glass ceilings at all. Rather, she follows her nose and holds on to opportunities with the quiet prowl of a benign pussycat.

Liz hasn’t built a brand around her career, you won’t see her on a red carpet and there are none of the ball-breaker stereotypes to her politesse, which in person I can affirm is utterly genuine. She doesn’t even have a manager and negotiates contracts woman to man – yes, to date her CEOs have all been men!

She admits Sam Chisholm was “affronted that I would ask for a pay rise, but you know what, he gave it to me”. And today she confesses she’s in the enviable position of being paid more than a lot of men in TV.

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.

Cows and Catholicism

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. “On Dad’s side it was a bit of a dynasty, there were a lot of them and they were shipwrights. They got the island for water reasons and set up on a dairy farm with subsistence living, but so they could also build their ships.”

Liz’s dad – Bryan Ryan – inherited the farm but it wasn’t his passion. “Dad was a sailor, a Commonwealth champion in his category. That was what gave him great joy. The cows were a necessary evil.” So, when as adults none of his offspring took on the farm, “he understood … Love a cow but not that much!” Liz smiles.

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.”

There were house rules of course: church on Sunday and chores on the farm. “We had a fairly clear view of our manners and you were not to get above your station or to take yourself too seriously. My parents kept that up with me. If they thought I’d gone a bit wayward I was reminded – I am them and they are me,” says Liz. “Maybe it was appropriate that my job was to be the first up in the house to bring the cows in and I always hated it because it was so cold early. Then I went on to the Today Show where I’d get up at some ungodly hour and I used to think, that’s probably what it was all about. Even then I still hated getting up in the morning so early.”

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