EXCLUSIVE: Lisa Millar on finding the silver lining

After Lisa Millar exits ABC Breakfast, we look back on our 2021 exclusive interview where she bares all on her greatest triumphs and tragedies...

Picture the scene. We’re in the tiny country town of Kilkivan in Queensland’s Gympie region and at the end of a dusty driveway “that seemed to stretch forever”, a precocious seven-year-old clicks ‘record’ on her dad’s dictaphone as she rushes around the house interviewing members of the family.

Our intrepid cub reporter would hum the ABC news musical fanfare and proclaim in as deeper voice as her developing vocal cords could muster: “Here we are, it’s the seven o’clock news and Mr Whipam, what have you got to say?” as she held the recording device under the nose of her younger sister, Trudi.

“I couldn’t even pronounce Whitlam, that’s how young I am,” explains Lisa. “Then Trudi would start talking in this very deep voice. We only knew that men had those kinds of positions, which strikes me as sad, that these two little girls are putting on deep voices because they think if you’re going to be a politician or a journalist then you’re going to be a bloke. Trudi would start talking and then pretty quickly I’d say, ‘thank you very much, that’s all we’ve got time for’. So … I’ve been cutting people off since I was seven!”

That this country kid would end up crossing the globe as a foreign correspondent, covering terrorist attacks and yes, interviewing prime ministers, politicians and all manner of famous folk, may have felt far-fetched back then, but with hindsight it seems predestined.

Lisa Millar walking on the beach. Photo by Sam Bisso
Photo by Sam Bisso

Lisa Millar has just arrived home following her morning shift on ABC News Breakfast, co-host to Michael Rowland, when she sits down to chat to The Weekly. The 52-year-old landed the role in mid-2019 having returned from a gruelling spell in the ABC’s Europe bureau the previous October, which in turn followed a second posting to Washington. And while many would baulk at the relentless early starts, for Lisa anchoring on the brekky sofa is the calmest day job she’s had in years.

“When people say to me, ‘what’s it like getting up at 3am?’ I say, it’s okay because I know that every day I’m going to one place, I’m sitting in one seat, and then I’m going home and will be in my own bed each night. For the entire time I was overseas I never had that guarantee. I would go to work and not know where I would be sleeping that night. I loved that and I thrived on it and even if you’d said to me, back in 2017 ‘in your London posting you’re going to cover seven terrorist attacks on top of the three you have already seen and face personal challenges that will push you to the very edge’, I would still say, ‘okay, sign me up’. It was a very special – ‘special’ as in ‘difficult and challenging’ – time in my life but I still managed to wake up every morning with a smile on my face.”

Lisa’s knee-jerk positivity is certainly her secret weapon but that doesn’t diminish the mentally gruelling days she has grappled with along the way. In the past decade she has been approached countless times to write her story but felt she never had the time or the capacity to relive what were undeniably compelling but also emotional times. But during the COVID lockdown in Melbourne last year, Lisa Millar found her voice.

“I don’t have children, I’m a divorcee, I would finish the program at 9am and because of the COVID rules in Melbourne I would have to come home immediately. Then I was allowed out for an hour to exercise and following that, a whole stretch … there’s only so much crap TV you can watch!” she jokes.

Cover of Lisa Millar's memoir Daring to Fly

Daring to Fly was published on September 1, 2019, and buckle up, because this candid memoir is a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat roller-coaster ride.

“There are a couple of chapters, especially the Paris attacks [coordinated terror attacks in 2015 that killed 130 people and injured 494], where everything starts melting down in my life,” notes Lisa. “I have to say my heart still races when I’m reading it and I guess the further away from it I am, the more I realise what an extraordinary period in history that was and to be there as a correspondent was incredible.”

As we settle in, I sense that writing her memoir has been a form of therapy for Lisa. Her passion for her job has come at a price that, as she was writing, came into sharp focus.

“I think because I lost both Mum and Dad in that period overseas – Dad when I was still in the posting well and truly but Mum, sadly, on my very last day in the bureau, after nine years overseas, when I had the ticket home in my hands, and I just felt so ripped off that I did not get to see her again – so yes, this has been therapeutic.

“I miss Mum and Dad terribly. I’ve dedicated the book to them and I’ve called them ‘the best support crew a daughter could ever have’. Normally I would be having a bit of a cry now,” she says, as she has a bit of a cry.

Lisa Millar on assignment in Bali after the 2005 terrorist attack. Picture supplied
Lisa on assignment in Bali after the 2005 terrorist attack. Picture supplied

Lisa is the fourth of Dorothy and Clarrie Millar’s five children, raised on a dairy farm in the mining town of Kilkivan. Dad Clarrie was dotty about flying and hatched a plan to build an airstrip on their land. “At that stage, Dad had no plane – he didn’t even have a pilot’s licence. But he was a believer,” writes Lisa, who I sense inherited a large dose of her father’s positivity. Clarrie, who later entered politics and was elected as a Member of Parliament for what was then the Country Party, believed that an airstrip would put Kilkivan on the map as a refuelling stop for pilots, and miraculously managed to garner council approval for his idea.

Then when Lisa was two years old, still a babe in arms, her grandma Ida Emma Cooper changed the family’s life. “She bought Dad a small plane. It was an amazing gesture.” Money was tight for the Millars and the idea of owning a plane a lofty pipedream. But Clarrie’s personal ambition was always to fly and overnight that fantasy came true.

Dynamic Ida was a major influence on Lisa. “There was always something exciting going on with Grandma, even if it was just when we visited her in Brisbane. She lived on the 14th floor and you could look out at the lights from her place. For a country kid, looking over city lights, that’s huge!”

Ida and her husband, Alfred, had lived on a plantation in Papua New Guinea, which is another exotic and tragic story, but her belief in following your heart was clearly addictive.

“Later on she discovered this great life of travelling. She didn’t take cruise ships; she got on freighters. Who does that?!” Lisa marvels. “Then, of course, to say to Dad, her son-in-law, I’m going to buy a plane and let’s make this happen … It meant that our world was opened up. I’ll never forget not only where we went with it, being able to fly to Great Keppel Island or down to Brisbane to pick up Grandma; it also meant the people who came into our lives, like the Australian skydiving team who came to our airstrip in the 1970s to practise for the world championship. It was so magical.”

Lisa says her upbringing shaped her. “It was an idyllic, protected childhood that probably meant I was naive and not as sophisticated as others. I trusted everyone because that’s what you did. But it also made me think, what else is out there? And that happened when Dad went into politics; that’s when my interest in media happened.”

Lisa Millar with her dad Clarrie in his parliament office. Picture supplied
Lisa with her dad Clarrie in his parliament office. Picture supplied

On a visit to Canberra, Lisa remembers sitting in the family members’ section of the House of Representatives with her father in the chair as Deputy Speaker. “He’d come back and say to me ‘What did you think of all that?’, waiting for me to say, ‘Oh Dad, you were great!’. But I would come back with, ‘Wow, I saw Paul Kelly, Peter Harvey, Richard Carleton’. I was so excited by everyone who was in the journalists’ gallery.”

Lisa admits to “a professional crush” on Richard Carleton, who died in 2006. “From a very early age when the news came on, Dad would get his knife, tap the plate and that meant everyone had to be quiet. Richard had this show, The Carleton-Walsh Report, which I always watched. I thought he was formidable, and yes, good looking, as a teenage girl would, but the idea that he was doing something that one day I could do totally drove me.”

When Clarrie asked Richard Carleton to meet his daughter, she was invited to watch him record. It’s a moment she will never forget.

“He went out of his way to be encouraging. He said, ‘If you’re going to do something, be good at it; don’t waste time being mediocre. The world does not need more mediocre journalists’. I kick myself that I didn’t make contact with him a decade and a half later to say, ‘hey, you know that dorky country teenager you met? She’s now the ABC’s Washington correspondent’.”

Lisa’s road to the ABC was hard won. Following university, she worked in newspapers, then regional TV, then after endless applications she landed a role in the newly opened ABC Townsville newsroom. From there she was picked for Canberra and her career began to soar.

But a devastating car accident following the day of her graduation from university rocked her world. Lisa was already working at The Gympie Times and was driving from Brisbane with her mum and sister as passengers. She was 19-and-a-half.

It was raining hard, the traffic was slow and Lisa hit the accelerator to overtake when the car was hurled into the air. It crunched down and bounced into a tree, the trunk springing open, suitcases flying. “We’re in this gully and the rain’s still coming down and I can see the blood on Mum. It was terrifying. We clamber out, the doors can’t open so we’re trying to get Mum out the other side, and then I climb up the embankment gripping on to the wet weeds.”

Lisa’s mum was rushed to hospital. “Mum had put her hand up to brace herself and it had gone through the window, slicing nerves in her right hand. She never really recovered, it was always weak, and it was her dominant hand. I felt terrible.”

Lisa Millar with father Clarrie, mother Dorothy and sister Trudi (right). Photo supplied
Lisa with father Clarrie, mother Dorothy and sister Trudi (right). Photo supplied

The accident affected Lisa’s confidence but a bigger battle came in 1993 when a turbulent journey in a six-seater plane kickstarted a fear of flying she was powerless to control. By this time Lisa was working in the ABC’s Townsville office and was sent at the last minute to a job at a mine in central Queensland.

“It was all in a bit of a rush. We chartered a plane, as we always did. We got down to the mine, did what we had to do and, on the way back, hit tropical storms. The pilot was moving between the storm cells, the rain smashing into the windows. It was rough but that really didn’t bother me. I’d grown up on a plane. I knew that as long as you’re up high you’re okay.

“So, I’m sitting in the back, headphones on because I’m spooling on the big tape machine to find the grabs for my report, and that’s when it happened. I hear, cough cough, as the propeller on the left-hand side stalls. We start to fall fast and I could feel it in my gut. It would only have been seconds. There was an air lock in the tank … We flew on, the propeller restarted, we landed in Townsville. As we got off, shaken, we said to each other, ‘that was not fun’ but I didn’t think anything of it.

“But then it started for me. I kept on thinking, I could have died, and my fear grew from there. It took about three years before the fear became so massive that getting on a 737 to Sydney would cause me to vomit and have diarrhoea for days beforehand at the thought of having to get on the plane. It grew and every single day I would be thinking of how many hours until I have to get on a plane again.”

Everyone knew about Lisa’s issue. “I couldn’t hide it … and then there was the moment when I couldn’t sit in the airplane seat and I ended up lying on the floor. Queensland Premier Rob Borbidge got on the plane and saw me there. That was the worst point.”

Lisa  Millar sits on a bench by the sea. Photo by Sam Bisso
Photo by Sam Bisso

Lisa was now in a relationship with newspaper reporter Sid Maher, whom she ended up marrying. Sid watched on as the clever, high-achieving woman he loved was consumed with anxiety before each and every flight and after five years declared “This. Cannot. Go. On”.

In 1999 Lisa signed up for a groundbreaking new course to tackle fear of flying created by psychologist Neil McLean for Ansett. It eventually changed Lisa’s life, though not overnight. “I reckon it was a good two or three years before I got to a point where I was feeling comfortable about flying,” she says.

Not long after the course Lisa actually turned down a job offer to work as a foreign correspondent in Moscow because she was so terrified of flying with a Russian airline.

“That’s the first time I’ve ever said that out loud, in this book,” she confesses. “It is something that I felt ashamed about for a long time. I’d done the fear of flying course but I was still recovering.”

But when a move to Washington came up in 2001, Lisa knew she had to hang in there and stop this thing from derailing her career.

“Two things happened to make that move happen,” she tells me. “First, the fact that [ABC presenter] Leigh Sales, who is my best friend, got a job in the bureau at the same time and second, my husband was coming over later. Also I had a producer who understood my situation and went out of her way to book flights that were – as we dubbed them – ‘safe for Lisa’. I knew all of the plane accidents. I was ‘Rain Man’ of airline data. I knew what had gone down, where and why, and I also knew which companies had changed their names and rebadged themselves after fatal accidents.”

Lisa Millar's first business card for The Gympie Times saw her name misspelled. Picture supplied
Lisa Millar’s first business card for The Gympie Times saw her name misspelled. Picture supplied

Today Lisa is fully recovered and loves flying. But it wasn’t the only challenge she faced in her 12 years as a correspondent. The cumulative effect of what were emotionally draining world events is heartstopping to read and I wonder if Lisa feels she suffered from post-traumatic stress. “I don’t think I had PTSD, but I can tell you exactly when I realised that something was not right, which was after covering Van Nguyen’s hanging in Singapore.”

Van was a convicted drug trafficker who was arrested in Singapore airport. Lisa was there with his mother, Kim, as Van faced the death penalty in 2005. Kim had pleaded to be able to hold her son before he died but that request was cruelly refused by the Singaporean government. In his final hours Lisa remembers this heartbroken mother reaching through the prison bars of his cell to touch her son’s cheek. That scene stayed with her.

“Coming home and hearing Ave Maria on the radio news story and remembering that the prisoners had sung that to Van as he was walking to the gallows, I started to cry and I couldn’t stop. I had to pull the car over on the freeway and sob and sob. That was when it fell apart for me,” she says. “That was sobbing for a whole lot of things – over Van Nguyen, the end of my marriage, the 2005 Bali terrorist attack I’d covered … I can remember thinking, ‘am I losing my mind?’ because no one had ever said anything to me about the effects of cumulative trauma.”

A month or two later Lisa took part in a focus group with psychologist Cait McMahon from the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. “It was like someone had flicked on a light switch and everything made sense. It was such a relief to know that what I was feeling was completely normal.

Today Lisa can see that one of the big casualties of what she still considers “the best job ever” was her love life. Her marriage collapsed and later a beautiful seven-year relationship with a Frenchman, who she calls Philippe in the book [not his real name], also fell apart. “The trouble was when they were signing up to be my husband or boyfriend, they probably didn’t realise they were signing up to be with someone who was not just a work addict; I honestly loved my job. I didn’t have to force myself to do it. I felt so incredibly lucky, even on the days when I got no sleep and I was dealing with hundreds of dead people.”

Lisa Millar black and white image Photo by Sam Bisso
Photo by Sam Bisso

When she got the call to join ABC Breakfast Lisa was in Queensland reconnecting with her family. “I certainly never for a second thoughtthat I would ever host breakfast television,” she laughs. “It was not the plan. I was coming home to be with the family that I had been away from for so long, getting to know the great-nieces and great-nephews, the children of my nieces and nephews.”

Does she miss the cut and thrust of her former life? “No. Every time I do a live cross with one of our foreign correspondents I am on the inside thinking, thank God I’m not there. It was the right time to call an end to that part of my life.”

In her downtime after the show Lisa has taken up tennis and singing lessons. She does Pilates and runs. And following the advice of a trainer she interviewed on the show, she’s even started intermittent fasting to lose the kilos she put on following her mother’s death.

“I get up at 3am and rather than having a white coffee I’ll have a black coffee and then I don’t eat until midday. I have my dinner by 6pm, so I’m pretty much fasting for up to 18 hours a day. After the first week it was like my throat had been slashed because I was starving, but then your body gets used to understanding that being hungry is not a bad thing. And the kilos dropped off. Disappeared.”

She has a crazy ambition to sing in her own cabaret show when she hits 60 in eight years’ time. “I’m constantly trying to find the silver lining and there are so many things in life that I want to do and now is the time to do it,” she beams. And is finding love again on that to do list?

“Yes, that would be nice. I’m not actively looking, but definitely. I hope I will meet someone.”

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