"Hello, thanks for dropping by!"
Wendy Harmer is one of Australia’s best-known humourists. She has enjoyed a highly successful thirty-year career in journalism, radio, television and stand-up comedy.
She has written for newspapers, been a regular columnist for magazines and is the author of five books for adults, two plays, three one-woman stage shows and a libretto for the Australian Opera. Her bestselling children’s book series ‘Pearlie in the Park’ has been translated into ten languages and is the subject of an animated television series.
Wendy lives on Sydney’s Northern Beaches with her husband, two young children, and (at last count) fifteen chickens and three ducks.She's pretty much done it all but now the comedian is doing it her own way. At last, at 50, Wendy Harmer feels she matches her chronological age.
The comedian, author and former radio star says she has always felt older than her real age, perhaps because of the responsibility thrust upon her as the eldest of four children, after her parents split up when she was 10. Or perhaps it was the toughness and maturity needed to cope with a double cleft lip and palate, enduring stares and bullying in the country Victorian town she grew up in. The birth defect was not fixed until she was 15 and required her mouth to be sewn together for three months. "One of the reasons I went into stand-up was probably to prove I could get past that," says Harmer, who was warned by broadcaster Mike Walsh to avoid "being the disabled comedian".
Instead, the acerbic and punchy Harmer has forged a career as a trailblazer for female comedians on stage, television and radio, including being the first woman to host a TV comedy show (The Big Gig in 1989). That was only four years after Harmer had performed her first stand-up gig, aged 29, following a 12-year career as a journalist. At work at Melbourne's Sun News-Pictorial, Harmer says she was always being told "stop being such a smart-arse, this is a newspaper, not a satirical magazine".
She swapped to a four-day a week job on a local paper, to develop her comedy career. "They just thought I had absolute rocks in my head," says Harmer of her Sun colleagues. "For years I'd pop in to say hello and they'd say 'have you come for your job back?' "They don't ask that any more, after Harmer became one of Australia's highest-paid entertainers during her 11-year stint as co-host of the top-rating breakfast show on Sydney's 2-Day FM, reportedly earning $1.6 million a year. She was dumped from the role late in 2003, when management wanted to attract younger listeners. How does she feel now? "I'll sound like a complete Pollyanna about it but I just loved every minute. [But] I think the cycle of the show was over. A good breakfast show probably lasts 10 years, then it gets a bit of a wheel wobble."
There have also been rumours about a possible political career but Harmer says now is not the right time while her children are young (she has a son, 8, and a daughter, 6). For now she's content with local activism, including protecting her suburb's beachfront. "In some ways that's more productive. Community groups are the greatest resource that politics has." But Harmer hasn't ruled out stepping onto a bigger political stage. "It's something that's been on my mind since I was young - Dad always used to say, 'You'll be Australia's first woman Prime Minister,' "Harmer says. "I'm keeping a watching brief, put it that way."
The big questions –
Biggest break: I was performing at [Melbourne comedy venue] The Last Laugh and John Clarke asked me to join a new writing group. That became The Gillies Report [on ABC TV in 1984-85].
Biggest achievement: Just being able to earn a good living out of entertainment, through what's come out of my head really.
Biggest regret: Once, when I was performing at the Edinburgh Festival, I saw a cashmere coat I should have bloody well bought. It's got to be 15 years ago and I often think of it. But if I'd bought it, I would have starved for three months.
Best investment: Years ago I bought a house in Collaroy. When the money came in, I didn't go off to Vaucluse, I bought the houses either side of me [one is rented out and Harmer uses the other as an office]. I'm mistress of my domain now - there are chickens and ducks, it's like a little slice of Byron Bay. But it wasn't that I was clever, [it was because] my husband refused to go anywhere, he wanted to stay in daggy old Collaroy.
Attitude to money: It's a bit like a river that runs through your life in full flood or in trickle. Do what you love and love what you do - the money comes as a corollary of that.