Swinging open her front door, the only thing brighter than the Sydney morning’s unexpected sunshine is Jessica Rowe’s beaming smile.
Delivering a flurry of hugs and cheek kisses, Jess’s excitement is palpable as she rushes to offer tea, coffee, water, bustling into the kitchen (which, she says, she cleaned ahead of time for us) to start up a round of refreshments.
It’s a gorgeous, open-plan living area that feels light and clutter-free. But look closely and it’s not hard to spot the influence Jess has had on the decor.
A cluster of kitsch cat figurines adorn a shelf in the butler’s pantry. Her own devoted menagerie of pets (two cats, one dog) trail her as she wafts through the room.
Vibrantly coloured cushions plump up the velvet armchairs in which we settle down to chat. And then there’s the large collection of beloved family photographs taking pride of place on the sideboard.
Prominent among them is a picture from a Christmas photo shoot she, along with Channel Nine newsreader husband Peter Overton and their two daughters, Allegra and Giselle, took part in for The Weekly back in 2018.
She’s done, she guestimates, about 10 shoots for us over the course of her career, including one for the cover in November, 2004.
But this picture – and the one we’re preparing to take today – are particularly close to her heart.
“I had it framed because I love that it sums us all up perfectly. Petey is there going, ‘Okay, I’ll wear this daggy Christmas jumper’, and I’m in a gown throwing glitter and the girls are all ‘Oh!'” she says, pulling a face of mock embarrassment.
“Can I just say that when I was asked to do the Christmas cover this year, I got all teary because it’s such an honour. I cannot tell you what this means to me. I love The Weekly and have since I was a little girl. The Christmas issue is always so beautiful, so being on the cover? I really can’t believe it. Thank you!”
If at this point you are thinking that Jess is laying it on thick, you’d be mistaken.
Her nearest and dearest are quick to point out what fans of the self-appointed “Crap Housewife” feel instinctively: That she is transparently honest, quick to laugh and proud to point out her own quirks.
She is curious about others and non-judgemental to a fault. She is, says her best friend Denise Drysdale (or “Neesy” as Jess calls her affectionately) able to be summed up in a single word: Joy.
“What you see is what you get,” the iconic entertainer says. “She’s not got a nasty bone in her body. And when she meets people, she gives them time. She looks at them and asks questions and listens and connects.”
“Jessica is an enthusiast for life,” adds Peter, her husband of 18 years. “She sees the best in everyone and everything. And that enthusiasm for life is magnified around Christmas time. Jessica absolutely injects the day with great happiness because I think that’s what Christmas is. It can be a tough time for so many people, but she goes out of her way to make it the happiest of days.”
“Christmas is such an emotionally charged time for many people,” shrugs Jess in response. “It’s not all a fairytale. It can bring up past pain about people who are no longer with us. When families break up it’s very hard. So, it’s important to be kind and compassionate because we don’t know what others are going through. But also, to be kind to yourself. Your Christmas doesn’t need to have all the bells and whistles. It’s never going to be perfect, so take the pressure off. Do what brings you joy and be unapologetic about it.”
Being unapologetic is something that Jess has wholeheartedly embraced in recent years, from her fabulously over-the-top sense of fashion to the invention of her Crap Housewife business, her candid podcast, The Jess Rowe Big Talk Show, and much more in between.
“When I had postnatal depression [after the birth of Allegra in 2007] I realised I had to ask for help and I wasn’t perfect,” she says of what allowed her to let go of the fear of what others think.
“For me, that was the start of being gentle on myself and letting go of the desire to appear to have it all together. Of letting go of that talk of, ‘You need to do this, you need to do that, you’re not good enough, you’re a failure.’ And then embracing my imperfections and revelling in them and finding the joy in that. I’m lighter and I don’t take myself so seriously.”
It’s this attitude to life which saw her form such a quick bond with her former Studio 10 co-host Denise.
The pair had dressing rooms next to each other when the latter joined the show in 2016.
They quickly realised a shared love of the ridiculous and before long they’d ditched their individual rooms to get dressed together and extend the laughing session.
“Then we would be laughing on the show, and it would go to a break,” Denise recalls. “They would come back from the break, and we’d still be laughing. Finally, they separated us like kids at school! ‘They won’t be able to muck around as much if they’re separated.’ We just found the fun in everything.”
Both acknowledge it’s rare to meet such a close compatriot later in life. Even rarer to keep one when separated by distance – while Jess is based in Sydney, Denise calls Surfers Paradise home.
But regular phone calls and visits keep the bond alive. As does their ability to egg each other on to greater laughs in the process.
On Denise’s last visit, the pair ended up performing an impromptu demonstration of Sard Wonder Soap at the local supermarket after a fellow shopper overheard her extolling the virtues of the product to Jess.
And back in 2018, when they realised there was no marketing budget for their podcast, One Fat Lady and One Thin Lady, they came up with their own idea to get some public promotion.
Armed with a video camera, Jess dressed as a pea ‘pod’ while Denise slid a ‘cast’ on her arm.
“We asked people, ‘What do we remind you of?’ and filmed it. It was hysterical,” she recalls with another peal of laughter.
After an older gentleman told Jess she looked beautiful in her green pod costume with oversized peas sewn on the front, Denise came up with a great idea for her friend.
She should wear it in bed!
That night, she told Jess. And so, sweltering in the polyester suit, she hid under the covers, giggling on the phone with Denise as she awaited Peter’s arrival home from reading the nightly news.
Sighing with relief upon hearing the door finally click open, she called seductively, “I’m in here!”, whipping the sheet off for her bemused husband as he entered the room.
“We are very different people,” Jess says with a smile. “But our moral compass is the same. The things that matter most to us – compassion, family, and being a good person – that’s the glue of us. I’m flamboyant and Petey says to me, ‘Oh pussycat, the older you get, the more eccentric you get.’ Which is true. Petey is very conservative in his approach, his outfits and things but it works because I lighten him, and he grounds me. He is my rock and I know that I can forever count on him.”
Her sense of humour, Peter says, is definitely one of his favourite things.
But he adds, “what I admire about Jessica the most is that she is happy in her own skin, happy with who she is. She lives her life the way she wants to, not how others think she should. I love that she’s complete with who she is. For a lot of people that’s a really hard place to get to and that rubs off on us as a family, without question. And I see it in our kids who have a great compass, a great self-belief and integrity as young women. I know that comes from Jessica. And I hope from my character as well.”
“I look at my daughters and I marvel at them,” Jess tells us now. “I think they are such extraordinary young women, and they teach me so much. To see them becoming the young women they are makes me feel so incredibly lucky to be their mum.”
Thirteen-year-old Giselle, Jess proudly says, is “my eco-warrior”.
“She has an Instagram account, Enviro G, which she set up a few years ago with recycling tips and all this sort of stuff. She’s on the environmental committee at school and advocates for so many things. She came with me to the Women’s March 4 Justice in Canberra last year. She has taught me so much about the environment. She’s amazing.”
Meanwhile, eldest daughter Allegra, 15, has taught her invaluable lessons in kindness and compassion.
“And being less judgemental,” Jess adds. “She is so compassionate and accepting.”
She’s also a budding entrepreneur. As keen a fashionista as her mother, Allegra has started a side-hustle where she rents out her favourite dresses.
“It’s smart,” says Jess. “Because when you are going to parties and things as a teenager, you haven’t got the money to be buying an outfit you are only going to wear once or twice. I think it’s fantastic.”
As the girls arrive home from school to take part in a special photo with their mum, it’s clear the bond they enjoy is close. Confident and self-assured, the pair are naturals in front of the camera, something Jess says she definitely wasn’t at that age.
As a teenager, she recalls, she had terrible acne. Her self-confidence was so shaken by it that she would only speak with her hands covering her mouth and as much of her face as she could manage.
“I wondered if I’d ever get kissed by a boy and I put a lot of pressure on myself at school to do well,” she adds.
“Also, during that time, my mum was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She wasn’t diagnosed until I was about 10 and during my teenage years there were lots of times where Mum was unwell and in psychiatric hospitals, so that was incredibly difficult. As a teenager, you are more selfish, so I was all very wrapped up in, ‘It’s not fair. Why is this happening to me?’ Where it’s no one’s fault. It just was what it was. I remember, during the HSC trials, Mum was very unwell, so she wasn’t home. It was difficult.”
When she failed to get the HSC mark and entry to the university course she was hoping for, Jess was crushed.
But in the typical style which would come to mark her life as an adult, she pivoted and learnt to embrace the positive, taking a year off before enrolling at a different university.
Today, she knows that the fork in the road was what led her to the happy place she is in now.
“I wouldn’t want to go back to being a teenager, but I always felt very loved, and I have an incredible relationship with my mum, as do my girls,” Jess says. “They call her ‘Marmi’ and she is just brilliant with them in terms of the conversations and text messages they have with each other. Mum is the smartest, wisest and strongest person I know.”
It was her mother, Penelope, who sparked both Jess’ love of reading and her passion for crafting.
During one school holiday, Penelope sent Jess and her two younger sisters to a sewing camp where they made individualised Santa sacks from hessian bags.
Every year, Penelope would thoughtfully select a new book to place into each of their sacks, one she felt each individual child would most enjoy reading.
“It was always very exciting, thinking, ‘What has Mum picked for me to read?’ I remember peering into my sack under the tree. For me, the smell of hessian combined with fresh Christmas tree is the smell of Christmas. That and mangoes at breakfast, the sound of shrill cicadas and the feeling of bright sun and salt water on your skin is my kind of Christmas memory.”
While her parents divorced when she was young, Jess didn’t have to battle either a nasty fallout or the prospect of a split Christmas.
The girls would spend the day with their mother – usually a casual picnic affair at nearby Neilsen Park with a sea dip – while seeing their dad on either Boxing Day or Christmas Eve.
“They were incredibly grown up in how they handled things,” she says with a smile. “We weren’t made to feel either guilty or torn. I think it’s so important for kids that grown-ups behave like grown-ups and realise it’s not actually about them.”
This year, Jess says, they will be hosting the Overton clan in their home.
Last year, they had her family there. The pair alternate each year.
“But I reckon Mum will still come and have Chrissie here with all of us,” she says. “Mum has made our girls Santa sacks that they still love, so we’ll open them together in the morning and have mango. That casualness around Christmas comes from my mum, and dad – who I’m also very close to.
“Being a crap housewife, it’s not about what dishes I’m going to prepare. Everyone will bring something. I’ll make a pav – that’s one thing I can do – someone else will bring the turkey, someone will bring seafood, someone else salads and everyone will bring wine and champers. It takes off that pressure.”
And as for her plans in the new year? Jess is open to all and any possibilities.
Already she’s preparing to release a Crap Housewife cookbook in January, in collaboration with The Weekly, as well as continuing with the podcast and her long list of speaking engagements.
People ask her why she’s decided to do one or another thing in her jam-packed calendar.
“My answer is always, ‘Why not?'” she says with her signature smile. “Give it a crack because what have you got to lose?
“Something I’ve learnt from doing my podcast is that courage is contagious. It gives other people the courage to think they can give things a crack too.”
Tune into Christmas With the Weekly, Friday 9 December at 7.30pm on 10 and 10 play on demand.
You can read this story and many others in our special Christmas edition of The Weekly – on sale now!