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Mia Freedman is a media mogul
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Mia Freedman is a media mogul
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"You have more meaningful connections with other women when you’re real."
1 July 2012

Mia Freedman is a media mogul

Interview by Berry Liberman
Photography by Toby Burrows

Berry Liberman on Mia Freedman

I haven’t left my kids. Ever. Now I’m sitting on a plane flying solo up to Sydney, luxuriating in the peace and quiet. It’s a rare treat. I’m heading to the office of Mia Freedman, one of the most influential female voices in Australian media.

She began her career as the youngest ever editor of Cosmopolitan magazine at the ripe old age of twenty-four. Instantly, she displayed an uncanny feeling for what women want. Soon recognised as a major player on the media scene, she became a familiar face on television and in print. She was bold, unguarded and interested in what lies behind the glossy images of advertising and celebrity. For years, she’s written her nationally syndicated lifestyle column, dealing with everything from motherhood to politics in her distinctively fresh, honest and hilarious way. The age-old pressures on women to conform and adhere to pre-packaged ideas of beauty, motherhood, work and sex were the grist for her mill. Mia is not shy. I’d wager to say she’s brave.

Her writing draws heated conversation from those who feel understood and amused, to those who feel offended and incensed by her strong opinions. Mia doesn’t pull any punches. She follows her gut, speaks her mind and always enters a public debate with a strong sense of her own voice. That’s come with its fair share of pain.

The big impact came in 2007 when she launched Mamamia, a women’s interest website covering headline news, politics, gossip, fashion and opinion that has rapidly become an online powerhouse. While newspapers and magazines (ahem) are going out of business, Mamamia’s readership is dwarfing the numbers they had even in their golden age.

There’s no denying the power of the platform or the woman. So, what to expect as I get out of the cab on this sunny day in Sydney? I’m thinking she will be tough, savvy, and quick, kind of like I imagine Dorothy Parker would have been in the twenties, and that I had better have my best game on.

That’s not what I find. Instead, there is the sincere, warm, and generous person who greets me at the door with that famous smile. There is no guarded trepidation, no small talk. She makes me a mammoth cup of tea and welcomes me into her office, where her team are running around putting together the week’s posts with sticky notes on the wall.

In a quiet room at the center of this beehive, we talk about family, motherhood, marriage and grief. From the start it’s like chatting with an old girlfriend as we kick into gear mid sentence about what kind of tampons we prefer. Therein lies the magic of Mamamia.

For all Mia’s easy conversation, fabulous clothing, and sunny laugh, she is a woman who has suffered deep sadness and loss. She has crumbled and rebuilt herself and defends her right to be ambivalent about it all. As so many women look for role models other than celebrities, Mia is happy to be one, but only if the demands do not include perfection. Perfection is just not that interesting.

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

Berry Liberman: The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, visited your office recently. That must have been surreal.

Mia Freedman: That was so funny! I met her for the first time when she was deputy opposition leader, at an off-the-record dinner organised by Fairfax. It was a whole lot of female Fairfax columnists and journalists and her. She was just funny and warm and engaging. And the next time I saw her after that was during the last election. I did an interview with her on the Prime Ministerial jet which was surreal and hilarious. I didn’t have a pen and I was still scared of flying, and then there was turbulence. I was recording it on my phone and then they said, “You’ve got to turn off all electrical things” and I went, “But I don’t even have a pen!”

They contacted us a couple of weeks ago to say “she’s starting this conversation about childcare, and she really wants to talk with Mamamia readers.” Her press secretary called me as I was making hamburgers for the kids. She says, “We could come to you.” And I was like, “Yeah, I could make that work”. [Laughs] It was funny, I treated it a bit like my wedding, I just started inviting people. I brought my kids and my kids’ friends. I’m like, “Come and meet the Prime Minister! Come and meet the Prime Minister!” She was just awesome—she was gracious and warm, and out of that formal political setting, she’s just very engaging and humorous. She’s got an incredibly hard job. It was a bit of a “pinch yourself” moment—she’s coming to this business that we’ve built to talk to our readers. And whatever you think of her, she’s the Prime Minister of Australia.

It’s a marker of the influence of Mamamia.

Yeah, it is. And of the understanding of politicians that they have to engage with people on their terms, you know? She’s not just a Prime Minister for people who watch the ABC and Insiders and Q&A.

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

She’s also the Prime Minister of people who watch The Voice and who are on Mamamia. And some of those overlap.

But that idea of actually engaging with women and listening to what they have to say, you know, I think that that’s something that we’ve been working towards for a long time.

Having Julia as a role model doesn’t necessarily make you want to be the Prime Minister, but it shows you that it’s possible to grow up and be the Prime Minister of Australia. It’s possible to grow up and be the Governor General. I didn’t think we’d see it in our generation, I just didn’t. Which is why on the morning that she was sworn in, and I was on the Today show, I was at the desk and Lisa, my mentor and I were squeezing each other’s hands as we watched the first female Governor General swear in the first female Prime Minister. And that was a really amazing moment. That was an incredibly kickass moment that I will treasure forever.

Have you always been conscious of the politics around Mamamia?

I would say that there’s an element of activism to Mamamia. There are certain tenets that we have a strong voice about. We have a very strong position on refugee rights, and same-sex marriage. I first became aware of this influence that we have on the day that Tony Abbott was elected opposition leader. Mamamia was, back then, really just me and my laptop. I was watching it unfold on social media; I just quickly banged out, ‘Oh this is a terrible day for women’ and, ‘Tony Abbott’s against contraception and he’s against abortion and he’s against IVF and he’s against all these things’, and, ‘this is just awful.’ I hit publish in the heat of the moment and didn’t think anything of it, and within a few minutes my inbox began to pop and my phone began to ring with people asking me if I’d like to comment—everywhere from The Australian to the ABC—about what this meant for women. I said no to all those requests, because I’m not a spokesperson for women. It was just my own view in that moment. But Tony obviously heard about it and ended up calling me and saying he’d like to meet me, so we had this breakfast a couple of years ago. My Mum, who’s an absolute lefty and a die-hard Labor supporter, called me up and asked, “Darling, what was it like?” I said, “Oh Mum, I really liked him, it was a disaster.”

It’s very easy to hate someone that is a caricature that you see through the media, whether it’s a politician or a celebrity. It’s easy to have strong black and white views. But when you meet them, you connect. You’re reminded that you can disagree with someone and yet respect them and even like them. Some of us are married to people whose political views we don’t share! It didn’t sway what I thought of his policies and the things that I thought were wrong, but it made me see that it’s important to acknowledge those shades of grey.

How did you go from being what you’ve termed, I’ve never used the term before, but what you’ve termed a “Mummy blogger” in your pyjamas…

No, I’ve never been a Mummy blogger. I was a blogger, but I wasn’t a Mummy blogger.

Okay. So what’s the distinction?

The distinction is that Mummy bloggers tend to write about their experiences as mothers. Predominantly. I never did that. From the start, Mamamia, even though it was in blog form, was much more of a general interest website. I’d never publish pictures of my children online. I don’t write about them very much at all. It took me a couple of years to work out what Mamamia was going to be; I didn’t think I wanted it to be a personal blog, but I didn’t know what else it should be, because, of my other models or role models in that genre, the only one I knew best and I liked the most was Heather Armstrong from dooce.com. She’s the most successful Mummy blogger in the world; I thought what she did was awesome, but I wanted to be more outwardly focussed, and less focussed on my family.

You had a hugely successful career in magazines at a very young age, and you talk about that time as being in a hurry. What were you running to or from?

I’ve just always been very competitive. From the time I started in magazines, I knew Lisa Wilkinson had been the editor of Dolly when she was 21, so I set that as my benchmark. Saying that I wanted to be the editor of Cleo by the time I was 25 seemed almost defeatist. What was I running to and from? I don’t know! I was competitive with myself, I was competitive with other people, I was impatient to kick those goals. I wanted to have babies and, you know, next, next, next.

I was offered a couple of editorships at 21—I was offered the editorship of Girlfriend and ACP offered me the opportunity to go move to New Zealand and launch Cleo there. And bizarrely—well, fortunately looking back—I turned down both of those roles because I just wanted to sit at Lisa Wilkinson’s knee and learn a whole lot more. I was confident and arrogant and thought I knew everything, so that was the one thing that I really got right—I wasn’t ready to be an editor yet. I could have done it, but there would have been those foundations missing. If only I could have applied that same principle in my personal life, where I’ve always been very much in a hurry to fast-track relationships. That’s how one-night-stands become relationships!

When I met Jase, it was clear that he was the one. And clear that he was right. And yet it still just went like a freight train. And it was a different kind of freight train to when I’d met people and they’d been wrong, and it had gone too fast. But by everything happening so fast we didn’t build those foundations. And, you know, when the wind blew, the house did shake.

You’ve recently started writing about that time in your life when the house shook. I was deeply moved by your piece on Mamamia, ‘Letter to the Daughter I Never Got to Meet’. You lost your second child late in your pregnancy. That’s every parent’s worst nightmare.

It was recently her twelfth birthday. The hardest thing when you lose a baby like that is that there’s nothing to grieve, there’s nothing tangible, there’s no memories. They’re not embedded in the fabric of your family, or in your life in any way, so, you’re grieving a ghost, you’re grieving the future and an idea. She becomes the sister that my kids never met. She’s part of the fabric of our family in that funny way, and that’s just a really recent thing. On her birthday this year—for the last few years I’ve just, to be honest I’ve just sort of not even remembered—I was sort of feeling funny at the end of April, and I said to Jason, you know, I’m really feeling a bit low, and he goes, ‘It’s that time’, and oh, right, that time! For many years I didn’t write about it, I didn’t talk about it, but with publishing that letter I really felt like I honoured her this year. When you lose a baby, you feel that you fucked up, you feel that you failed your child in the most basic thing that you’re there for—to protect them and keep them safe. When a child dies inside you, is there any more fundamental feeling of failure?

I called her May because she was born on the first of May. There was that awful time after I’d been to the hospital and I’d had the operation, and she’d been removed, or however you say it. I said to Jase, “I need to know where she is, where is she?” He rang, and he found out she was in the mortuary area. I was just like, “She’ll be so cold.” She’s just there, and you just feel like such a failure, you feel like your body has failed you, and then you feel like you’ve failed your baby—she’s in some cold drawer in a lab., I mean it was just the horror of it, so then, I called White Lady Funerals and they collected the body and did the cremation. Then they rang me and they just said, ‘She was so small that we don’t have ashes.’ That was like losing her all over again. And so I’ve got nothing. I’ve got a box with an ultrasound picture, and my yellow card, and the tag that I wore when I was in hospital.

I’ve got all that stuff in a box, because I needed proof that she existed.

I needed something to say she was real, even if she wasn’t to anyone else. And, you know it happened only a week after our wedding, I was very pregnant when I got married. It has taken me years since I could look at our wedding photos and our wedding video and feel anything other than devastated.

I remember standing in a book store just looking at the bookshelves, and looking for something… all I wanted was to read other women who’d gone through it, and I wanted it reflected back to me how I was feeling, because some of those feelings are so dark and hard to put words around. It’s a lonely, lonely process because no one understands except people who have gone through it. People try, and people are gorgeous, and they mean well but, there are some really dark things that I couldn’t even discuss with Jase. About seven months or so after that he and I separated, because we just… didn’t have the tools. We separated for two or three years.

What?! I thought you were going to say two or three months!

No, no, from when Luca was about two to when he started school. My grief became a very lonely process and we just found our way back to each other. We got back together very slowly and dated again and had our first kiss again and went through that whole process, and did the things we should’ve done in the beginning. We built that foundation; you need it, when you’re working together. We didn’t move in together for a long time, as opposed to when we first got together and it was the second night. We took a long time before we decided to start trying to conceive again. We did it in the right way the second time.

I wasn’t where I wanted to be. I didn’t want to be a single mother with a two-year-old. I recognised patterns in myself that were going to cause me problems for the rest of my life if I didn’t address them. I’ve often gone for therapy, but I’ve always just gone and put a Band Aid over it and then run away when the emergency was over. But, as anyone knows, it’s back-burning that gets you the real results. It’s the therapy that you have when your life isn’t in absolute crisis but when you want to dig a little bit deeper and maybe address recurring themes and patterns. I realised that my life was no longer my own to fuck up—I had a child now. So I could go from, running, running, far, fast, next, what’s next, which clearly wasn’t a formula that worked very well. I knew that I needed to work out what that was about and to change course. My career was at a point where I was desperate to become an editor. Once I was, I was cool with that. Like, that felt like, career-wise, I’d had a baby and I’d become an editor. So part of that need to go forward, forward, forward, had been sated by doing that. Or enough of it had been sated that I could actually stop and actually work out what was driving me. I found that when I take away the busy, I get anxiety, and the anxiety comes in and fills the space. I’ve had generalised anxiety my whole life, but there have been a few points where it has tipped into extended panic attacks. That’s the thing that I’ve never written about, and never talked about.

How did you get yourself out of it?

Therapy and anti-anxiety medication. I’ve always been big on therapy. My mum used to be a marriage guidance counsellor, so I grew up with therapy being like going to the dentist.

Mental hygiene!

I love that!

People who don’t connect with Mamamia, or those who criticise what you’re doing, they often say “Mamamia’s just Cosmo online.”

I’ve never been a believer that something’s only cool or valuable or credible if very few people like it. I’ve never believed that popular or mass or mainstream is a dirty word. If I was ever going to edit another magazine, I would have been more interested in Women’s Weekly than Vogue. For some people the top of the tree is a fashion magazine. But they have a tiny reach compared to a Cosmo or a Cleo. If someone says, ‘Oh, it’s just Cosmo online,’ well, in its heyday, Cosmo was reaching almost the number of people that we’re reaching now. And they would be gagging to do that today, you know?

Talking about issues in women’s lives is nothing to be ashamed of. What I love about Mamamia is that I can go broader. Cosmo was not as narrow as a fashion magazine or a cooking magazine, but as a woman’s lifestyle magazine, they only had a certain amount of room to shift. With Mamamia, I wasn’t confined by those things. Cosmo is a magazine for predominately single women in their early twenties. Even when I was editing it, I wasn’t living it. It wasn’t my life stage. So that’s why I was always a bit ‘itchy feet’. I’ve always wanted to work on something in my own life stage. So, with Mamamia, I’m able go that little bit broader.

Your writing is incredibly real and warm It’s very much about ambivalence and imperfection, and what it is to be a woman in real life, in the public space. Do you think that’s part of why Mamamia has been able to reach that incredible audience?

That’s what online enables you to do. When you’re working in magazines or on television, it’s a very glossy, pre-packaged, narrowly defined version of who you are. It has to be. You look at the editors’ letters—it used to be the photos were just a snapshot at the front. I remember Lisa, when she was the editor of Cleo or Dolly, she used to have her glasses and just her hair and no makeup. And then towards the end of my time editing, the editors’ photos were becoming like fashion images. They were highly stylised, with wind machines, posed like models, dressed like models. And I was really reacting to that because I felt that you were just getting further and further, building such a barrier between the readers and the editors. So, one memorable month my editor’s letter was me with a pair of underpants on my head. I’ve always felt this absolute need to deconstruct the gloss and the idea that somehow, because I’m in the public eye, I have my shit together, or that I’m better than someone else, or that everything’s easy, or that I’m somehow unflawed. I just think that that’s a disservice that you do to other women. I know what it’s like to feel inadequate about myself after I read an interview with someone who is like, ‘My child has never had antibiotics and only eats macrobiotic food and doesn’t watch any television and speaks four languages.’ You just want to go [vomity sound]. You think, Oh God, my child watches a hundred hours of TV a day and eats Weet-Bix for dinner. You have more meaningful connections with other women when you’re real. It’s not just a community service to other women, doing that, it’s also just easier. It’s easier to be yourself than to try to have to maintain some glossy ideal.

I have to say it was incredibly endearing when you tweeted how the Prime Minister likes to have her coffee.

Yeah, that’s the shit that’s interesting! And then people were like, ‘You didn’t ask her about refugee policy, and you didn’t…’ and I’m like,

‘Dude, one thing doesn’t disqualify the other.’ Being interested in details or being interested in fashion or celebrity doesn’t mean that you’re stupid.

And not being interested in those things doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily intelligent. You know? I’m interested in the fact that Portia De Rossi has cut two feet off her hair. And I’m interested in whether there’s going to be a conscience vote about marriage equality that’s been tabled in the parliament. I’m equally interested in both those things, and that’s fairly typical of most of the women I know.

You have a strong public voice and you’re not afraid to say what you believe about controversial topics like child vaccination. You’re opening yourself up for a lot of criticism when you invite public debate about that stuff on your site.

I used to really need everyone to like me, and I remember when I started Mamamia and it was a blog, I was terrified to look at the comments—what if someone said something mean or what if someone disagreed with me? Now, there’s a tiny part of me that thrives on that. You get used to it. You just have to harden up. You want to work online, you have to have a big bowl of cement for breakfast every morning. You are in the cut and thrust.

Rick, our news editor, is keeping the leaderboard of all the groups that hate me. At the moment the top of them is cyclists, and then we’ve got coeliacs, the sugar-free people, hipsters, geriatrics, free birthers, anti-vaxxers, and, who’s the newest? Oh the attachment parenting people.

I’ve got to use what I’ve got for good, I’ve got this public profile, I’ve got these platforms, whether it’s the Today show or the newspaper column. I’ve got the ability to say what I think and that’s an absolute privilege—I can write whatever I want every week and six million people will read that newspaper column.

It takes a lot of chutzpah.

Maybe it’s just that I want to tell everyone what I think. I’m sure it comes from my parents—my mum’s a big hippy, my dad left South Africa because his family was opposed to apartheid in the sixties when it was not fun to leave South Africa. My father’s family had an amazing life in South Africa, his father was the surgeon general and they were wealthy. At that time, you had to leave everything—you couldn’t take money, you couldn’t take property, you could take nothing. So, because they were so opposed to the injustice, they came to Australia with nothing and started again.

Was that the dinner table conversation for you growing up?

Yeah, and my mum was a big hippy. I went to a private girls school—only for high school because we couldn’t afford it before then—and it would be tennis day on Palm Sunday, and my mum would make me go on the No Nukes on Palm Sunday nuclear disarmament march. My parents are very left leaning, they’ve got a strong social justice bent in their culture. Whether that is partially from my dad having family who survived the Holocaust, there’s got to be something in that, that politicises you. How could it not?

But there’s a difference between being politicised and having millions of people listen to what you say, and being a woman, in public, and saying I’m going to get up every day, I’ve got three beautiful kids and a husband I love, and I’m going to eat a bowl of cement for breakfast.

Yeah but I’m only telling you about the awful stuff; there’s also some great stuff. I’m not going to be disingenuous and say I’m a crusader for no personal benefit. I’m paid well for what I do.

But yes, sometimes, you know, like last year with the Cadel Evans thing…

The cyclist.

Yeah. I’d never experienced anything like that—it was actually quite a turning point. I was getting death threats. I was fearful for my physical safety, and the safety of my family. A lot of it was kept from me until quite recently. My staff were trying to shield me. I thought that I had a pretty thick skin and then something like that happened that took me a while to recover from.

What did you learn from that?

I learned that I can’t get too comfortable when I’m on television. I made some really big mistakes that day. I misjudged the national mood, and I wasn’t on top of my game. I was doing the ‘What’s Making News’ segment on the Today show, and I’d been doing it for years. I know Karl [Stefanovic] really well and I’m really comfortable on the show; what happens usually is that I go in early in the morning and they give you the topics a twenty minutes before you go on.

Everybody filters stuff out, there’s so much information coming at us. Without even realising it, you naturally filter out stuff you’re not interested in. For me it’s sport, I just don’t hear it, I’m just not aware of it. For other people it’s celebrities, for other people it’s politics. I was coming to work and listening to the news, and it was something about Cadel Evans and the Tour de France, but it was a big Monday, Amy Winehouse had died the day before, it had been the Norwegian mass shooting, and eighty people had been killed or whatever. I was assuming that we were going to cover those. So I was sitting in hair and makeup and the producer came in and said, “Karl just wants to talk about Cadel,” and I just went, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’. He made everyone on the set get up and sing the national anthem and he was just going on and on and on about it. I got on and I didn’t have anything to say about that; I was rolling my eyes very much at Karl, because that’s the kind of relationship we have, like brother and sister. People perceived that I was being disrespectful to Cadel, and my timing was bad. My point, that I stand by, is that we place too much emphasis on sporting achievement and sporting heroes, and that takes away so much oxygen from other people who are doing truly altruistic acts. You define hero as whatever you want, but I don’t define hero as someone who rides a bike.

My timing was off. Everyone was so buoyed, the sweat was barely dry off his brow, he was still getting off the podium and I went and popped a balloon. When there had been a weekend of really awful news, and this was some great news and I’d just gone like that. That’s how people perceived it. And then I got death threats. And then the abuse, the things I was called, the names that I was called, that my family was called, my children, my parents, my religion—just everything.

Like what?

‘You Jew bitch should die.’ ‘You fat ugly Jewish dog.’ Threats of sexual violence against me, against my children, against my mother. It wasn’t just a little flare up, it went for two weeks and it’s still going—I’m looking forward to when the Tour de France starts up again. Every time anything happening with sport or cycling or Cadel Evans happens, Twitter flares up again. It was going so fast it was like watching the hash tag on Q&A. By lunchtime I was scared for my physical safety, and that’s when you can get really confused about what’s real and what’s not. It gave me a brilliant insight into cyberbullying and how it must feel for kids—you don’t know if the person who’s looking at you in the sandwich shop is the same person who said, ‘Die you Jewish cunt.’ It was extraordinary how many people would write me messages like that, and then you’d see their avatar and it’d be a picture of them and their kid. You just think, You’re a parent and you think it’s okay to get online and do something like that?

It must take an enormous amount of resilience to get past that.

Resilience and therapy. Resilience and women. Having strong women around me. That idea that the arms of all of the women who’ve been there before you are holding you up—that is the sisterhood at its best. Women are interesting, and it doesn’t have to be all, Let’s hold hands and sing Kumbaya, but whether it’s looking at Oscar frocks or laughing over some device that makes you not have camel toe, or debating whether or not to have botox, Mamamia and the Internet are at their best when women are sharing and discussing and holding each other up. That sounds a bit Mary Poppins, because not every post is like that—just because I have a vagina, doesn’t mean that I have to support every other woman because they also have a vagina, you know? Just because you’re a woman does not mean that I have to agree with you, or support you. That’s not what the sisterhood is about. But to give someone the space to share those feelings, whether it’s me with my daughter, or someone talking about their disability, or the fact that their heart has been broken and have people go, ‘Yeah, me too’, or, ‘Thank you, I never thought about that’

The site seems to be about naming things women experience, including ambivalence and grief, regret, courage and bravery.

And hypocrisy. That’s the thing that I’ve always had to resist—it doesn’t happen so much anymore but a year or two ago people were always trying to find faults and, ‘You said this and now you’re saying this’. I am a hypocrite, I do kind of want botox but I know it’s really wrong, I’m not crystal clear. I’m not a robot—yeah I’m a hypocrite and I’m inconsistent sometimes. I’m imperfect and I think that this is the most important thing for me to be if I can serve any kind of role as a high-profile woman.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Photography by Toby Burrows

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