Celebrity

EXCLUSIVE: Tony Armstrong on his new show & why he isn’t afraid of failure

The much-loved, Logie-winning ABC TV star reveals that he’d never have made it this far if he hadn’t failed first.
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Awards ceremonies can undo anyone, and frequently reduce movie stars to stumbling messes. This year Emma Stone cried as she collected her Oscar, explaining that her dress had split open at the back. A trembling Kieran Culkin started waffling about his ear hair. These luminaries should have come to the Logies for a lesson in how it’s done. 

When the ABC’s Tony Armstrong beat a field of beloved veterans to win the Bert Newton Award for Most Popular Presenter, he loped up onto the stage in a brown three-piece suit, relaxed, humble and funny. Within seconds he had the audience in the palm of his hand as he told them to cheer for the other nominees and applaud his producer. He flagged that he expected a pay rise and the whole auditorium laughed. As he exited with a wave, Tony wished everyone a good night, his easy charisma leaving good vibes in his wake.

It’s this affable warmth that has won 34-year-old Tony legions of fans and a slew of awards, but in his first sit-down with The Weekly he reveals that he doesn’t like walking red carpets and is uncomfortable with fame.

“I just want to be a silly duffer most of the time,” Tony says, laughing.

“Those events, they’re so unnatural. There’s parts of them that are so fun, but I find them a little bit overwhelming. I would genuinely much rather be somewhere that’s as busy as this with five of my best friends, with no one else here, just hanging out by ourselves, being weirdos.”

“This” is the funky Ovolo hotel in South Yarra. The creative team thought its primary colours, Warholesque art and retro wallpaper would gel with Tony’s personal style. The man himself has come straight from the set of News Breakfast where he has been the sport presenter since 2021.

Sitting in a high-back royal blue velvet chair, he freely admits he’s not a morning person. Speaking in his low timbre, he thanks our make-up artist for looking after him and asks about her kids. “Are they crazy?” he says, wanting to hear more. He has a big, quick laugh and an interest in other people that can’t be faked. It’s not hard to see why fame has found Tony Armstrong, whether he likes it or not.

“I struggle with the idea of celebrity and fame,” he says. “I find it all really odd, because it’s just another job. It just so happens that this job is in front of a camera. For some reason, a big portion of society puts more weighting on that than other jobs, when we’re just all doing our best.”

His likability may be a product of necessity. Tony moved around a lot as a kid. He went to boarding school where knowing how to “rip a yarn” was paramount if you wanted anyone to give you the time of day.

A proud Gamilaroi man, Tony was raised by single mum Margaret Anne Armstrong and has always praised her devotion to him. When he won his first Logie he told the crowd to please give her a clap. “She’ll love it,” he said to an obliging room full of stars.

Four years into his stint at News Breakfast, Tony’s mum still texts him after every broadcast. “It’s really thoughtful. Really cute. She’s so proud,” he says.

A teacher, Margaret instilled in him a love of storytelling. Enid Blyton’s world of wishing chairs and faraway trees was a constant in Tony’s youth and taught him to value imagination.

His favourite subject was creative writing but his skill with a football led him to being drafted into the AFL. When that career ended, a stint as a footy commentator turned into a career in broadcasting, but only after a dark period of disappointment and aimlessness.

Tony says losing his AFL contract shook him, but getting through it has taught him how important it is to try and fail, and learn from failure.

As he prepares to launch his new show, Tony Armstrong’s Extra-Ordinary Things, he knows that no matter what happens, he’ll survive. This realisation has given him the courage to pursue his goals without fear. “It’s given me a superpower,” he says.

Who is Tony Armstrong?

Tony and his mum spent his earliest years on the NSW south coast, then lived in Cabramatta and Carramar in Sydney, before moving to a little town just outside of Albury.

“For me, a sense of home and comfort is actually from the thing I’m doing or who I’m with, rather than where I am necessarily,” he says.

“I had a lot of different experiences growing up. I look back at it and it’s helped me be better at making friends, I think, because when you’re moving around it can go one of two ways. You can be someone who closes off. Like, it doesn’t matter, making friends, I’m going to be moving anyway. Versus, I try to just make friends wherever I go.”

When Tony was 15 he moved to Kilmore, just north of Melbourne, to attend boarding school at Assumption College, which he says was more Lord of the Flies than Hogwarts. Tony had a secret weapon, however. He was a great footy player.

“Sport was such good currency,” he says. It signalled that you were cool. “Then they’d talk to you and go, ‘Oh, no he’s not’.” He unleashes a gale of laughter.

By Year 11, Tony was playing for NSW and being flown interstate for games. “Then the letters from the footy club start coming in. That was probably when I just turned 17, when I started going: Okay, that could be a career.”

He was recruited to the Adelaide Crows straight out of high school. “Friday afternoon was the last exam. On the Saturday, I got drafted. On the Sunday, I flew over, and on the Monday, I started,” he says.

Life with the Crows was similar to boarding school. “You get told where to be, what to eat, what to do, what time you’re doing it.” He had no idea of the scrutiny he was about to come under. “Once I got there, it was, ‘Whoa, I’m not ready for this’.”

Tony was deeply committed to his footy career but life in the AFL didn’t deliver the glory he had imagined. After eight years and three clubs his contract was not renewed. He was 25. 

“In all seriousness, you get pretty down,” he says. “I thought footy was going to be the thing, you know. When I was younger, I was obsessed with legacy. Like, what will I be remembered for? Who am I in the world? Who am I going to be? Footy’s going to be the thing and people will be proud of me because of that.

“So, I didn’t have the career I wanted. I looked on it as a failure. I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says. “I was just … what the hell is going on? I was stressed. Really, really stressed.”

A chance meeting set him on a new path. “Chris Johnson, who is an AFL legend, blackfella, he asked me, ‘Tone, would you have any interest in doing special comments on Indigenous radio?’”

Tony decided to give it a go. “I was like, ‘I’ve got a bit of a knack for this. I’ll keep trying’. So, I did more and more and that’s how it started.”

In 2019 Tony became the first Indigenous person to provide live commentary for AFL on commercial radio. He parlayed his success into jobs co-hosting Yokayi Footy on NITV, and ABC Melbourne’s breakfast radio program. He presented sport news on the ABC News channel until 2021 when he became the News Breakfast sports reporter. He’s even made an appearance on Play School. He applies the same dogged work ethic he learned in the AFL to his career as a broadcaster.

“So many people say, ‘If you work hard you’ll get what you want. Anything’s possible.’ [That’s] not quite right because I busted my arse when I played footy and I didn’t get what I wanted,” he says. “It’s actually, ‘If you work really hard, you’ll give yourself a chance and then you’ll get luckier. More opportunities will come and you’ll actually be ready.’”

A breakout star

Early on a cold winter’s morning in 2022 soccer fans gathered at Melbourne’s Fed Square to watch the Socceroos play a World Cup qualifying match against Peru on the big screen. The ABC dispatched Tony to cover the crucial game, which went into overtime with a penalty shootout. When winger Awer Mabil kicked the ball into the net Tony roared with joy. He leapt! He shouted! He cheered, until he stopped and addressed the camera. “Sorry, I forgot I was on TV there,” he said, grinning.

The News Breakfast crew cut to live shots of a similar crowd in Peru. When they cut back, the Socceroos’ victory had been confirmed and Tony was going bananas.

“We’re through! We’re through!” he screamed, jumping among the Socceroo fans. Amid the chaos, someone grabbed the scarf from Tony’s neck. “Not me scarf, that’s me mum’s,” he said, diving after the culprit.

His unvarnished fandom made international headlines. “Reporter goes wild on air,” Reuters reported. He was even featured on US comedy show Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, who claimed to have Tony’s mum’s scarf.

It’s moments like this that have earned him his reputation as Australian TV’s golden boy. An unwanted side-effect of all this popularity is that the media has bestowed him with the dubious title of ‘Australia’s boyfriend’. “Obviously there are perks and then there are pitfalls. I think that’s what I’m uncomfortable with,” he says.

In November Tony broke Australia’s heart when he went public with his relationship with musician and activist Rona Glynn-McDonald. The couple met at an EP launch in Carlton about two years ago. “We literally hit it off, bang, and we’ve been together ever since,” he says. “We are into each other heaps. She’s the best.”

Tony Armstrong's Extra-Ordinary Things on ABC features Cathy Wendelborn.
In his new show, Extra-Ordinary Things, Tony interviews Australia’s best female shearer Cathy Wendelborn.

A Kaytetye woman who grew up in Mparntwe (Alice Springs) on Arrernte Country, Rona was a finalist in The Weekly’s Women of the Future Awards in 2019 for founding the not-for-profit Common Ground, which amplifies First Nations voices, culture and stories. She is also a director of First Nations Futures, a funding platform for First Nations communities, and she’s a songwriter and DJ.

Tony laughs and says, “She’s annoying. If she wants to do anything, she’s just amazing at it. Her music is going really well. She continues to release singles. She’s just on fire. She’s a brilliant person as well.

“Selfishly, she’s so good for me,” he continues. “She’s the perfect brain to have sitting next to mine … She has perspective well beyond her years and she helps me look at everything with perspective, which is something that I’m always striving to get better at. I’m like, ‘Can I borrow your head for a little bit?’.

“She just packs so much in. Everyone who’s close to her is like: ‘Rona, slow down.’ She’s like, ‘No!’”

In this, they are a good match. After he wraps up on News Breakfast, Tony writes and does pre-production for other programs. He pops up on The Project and The Weekly with Charlie Pickering. He’s shooting another series. Oh, and later this year he’s publishing a kids’ book with Hachette – George the Wizard

“People wanted me to do a memoir, and I was like, ‘Let me do something [first]. Give me a chance, Goddamn it! It will be three pages long’,” he laughs. But he liked the idea of writing a kids’ book. He nutted out the first draft on a flight from Sydney to Melbourne.

“It’s a story about how the best way to fit in is to be different and to be yourself,” he says. The central message could be Tony’s personal motto, but it wasn’t a deliberate choice. “I didn’t go, ‘Oh, the story is about overcoming the fear of being different.’ It kind of just came out.” He’s very eager to share it with Australian kids. “That kind of stuff excites me.”

It’s clear that communicating, sharing stories and connecting with people are what light up Tony Armstrong. In Extra-Ordinary Things he crisscrosses Australia meeting people with interesting stories and important objects that represent a slice of Australian life. He uses the show to tell the story of Inkabee, 11, and his dad, Flewnt, who are hip-hop artists based in Boorloo (Perth). Inkabee writes protest songs in the tradition of Archie Roach and Yothu Yindi. He has released three singles and Tony’s admiration for the Noongar Wongi father-son duo is clear.

Tony Armstrong with Tracey Corbin-Matchett and Blanche D'Alpuget on his new show on ABC.
Tony catches up with Tracey Corbin-Matchett and Blanche D’Alpuget about meaningful objects in their lives.

“I’m walking taller today knowing Inkabee is mob,” Tony says.

Asked about extraordinary objects from the different chapters of his own life, Tony names a set list from a Red Hot Chili Peppers gig and Enid Blyton’s Adventures of the Wishing-Chair.

“I’ll never forget mum reading me The Wishing-Chair. I had that everywhere I went when I was seven or eight.” He adds another item: “Maybe something really personal like a photo of my mum and I the day I got drafted.”

These are the objects that tell Tony’s extraordinary tale: Music, stories, friendship and footy. At Assumption College his sports gear was his talisman and, in his mind, held the key to his future. To some extent, it did – just not in the way he expected.

“Finishing footy sucked,” he says, “because it didn’t work out the way I wanted but it also taught me all these great things.

“Failure’s been the best thing for me. It’s taught me that now, when I try to do something that’s a risk, I’m just like: If it fails, guess what? I’ll be okay. That’s the best thing that’s come out of footy for me – those sad, dark times – because I was like: ‘You know what? I got through it.’

“So much of what we [curate] through social media is the non-ugly side of life, so everybody perpetuates the best version of themselves. People look at social media and think, ‘they’re not failing, I can’t fail’.

“But failure is having a renaissance because people are being more honest. People are allowing themselves to suck.

“That’s the other thing. Unfortunately, you have to be shit to get good,” he laughs. “It’s like, get over yourself. Just go suck.”

Tony Armstrong’s Extra-Ordinary Things is available to watch now on ABV iview.

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