‘I wish I could ask Dad for advice’

As the son of Steve Irwin, he’s spent his entire life in the public domain, continuing to spread his father’s message. Now, aged 20, Robert Irwin is striking out in a new direction.

Eating your cereal in front of cartoons packed with superheroes – Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk and more – is a rite of passage for young Aussies across the nation. Kids are glued to the set, watching the action play out. But three-year-old Robert Irwin’s favourite superhero was far closer to home. Bounding out of bed each morning, he would beg his mum, Terri, to put on an episode of his own favourite show – to “play a daddy doco”.

“That was with breakfast, every morning,” he says now, aged 20 and ready to share all the latest Robert Irwin news. “I remember studying it and watching everything he did. Mum made sure he was in the living room. Dad was part of everything.”

Steve Irwin looms large in our conversation today at Australia Zoo as we catch up with his youngest child, Robert Irwin.

With Steve’s image still proudly displayed around the grounds, the zoo itself remains a living shrine to the man who took the word “crikey” worldwide while blazing a trail as a documentarian and wildlife conservationist.

Cover of The Australian Women's Weekly October 2006 with the Irwin family
Cover The Australian Women’s Weekly – October 2006

It was here that The Weekly first met Robert as a baby. And it was here that the family of four – Steve, Terri, Bindi and Robert – took part in a final photo shoot for us which would end up on the cover of our October 2006 issue, pulled together hastily in the wake of Steve’s tragic death aged just 44.

Recently, says Robert, Terri cleared out his old bedroom. In the sweep, she stumbled across the tiny jumper – emblazoned with a moose – that he wore in that final family photo shoot.

“She was showing it to me and saying, ‘Look how little you were,’ as mums always do and I went, ‘I remember that’,” he says. The memory instantly and powerfully flooded back.

Steve Irwin holding baby Robert Irwin

“That happens throughout my life, particularly [around] connections with Dad. Because Dad was such a passionate, prominent figure, it just really imprinted on me from a young age.

“Little things. Pieces of footage. Photos. Even something like a shirt I wore, and it will just come flooding back. I remember it was always the littlest tickle and I’d just start cacking myself laughing. So, I remember that day – my mum and dad tickling me, so I’d be laughing, and you’d get that amazing cover shot.”

Robert’s smile as he shares this anecdote contains a tinge of sadness. But mostly it’s pride that comes who shaped him – despite being on this Earth for such a short period of his young life. As we stroll through the zoo to check on the animals, he regales us with stories of watching his dad wrestle crocs, survive poisonous snake bites and interact with the multitude of wildlife residents at Australia Zoo. Cradling a koala for one of our shots, Robert talks passionately about the part the onsite wildlife hospital is playing in helping to conserve a national treasure.

Robert Irwin with Australia Zoo's rhino DJ

With time ticking down to the start date of his new job – a co-hosting role on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! – his thoughts have gone to the myriad questions he wishes he could ask his dad in preparation.

“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think: ‘Gosh, I wonder what I’d ask Dad if he was here,” he muses. “When you lose someone, a father figure, at such a young age, who is such a commanding presence of positivity and everything that is good in the world, of course all I want is for him to be here for me; to go, ‘What do you think about this, what do you think about that?’ There are so many things I wish I could ask him on so many levels.”

Where does Robert Irwin live?

Robert Irwin sitting on a stool at Australia Zoo

Born on December 1, 2003, Robert Irwin’s childhood sounds like something out of a storybook. As a toddler, the zoo was his playground; his days spent watching his parents, Steve and Terri, interact with the animals whilst sharing with Robert their insights into the natural world.

Bindi – the protective big sister six years his senior – insisted on strapping on his helmet as the pair rode their bikes on grounds dotted with kangaroos. The family would go on long camping trips around the country where they revelled in local wildlife and natural wonders.  And as they had their great adventures, camera crews would trail along to capture the magic that ensued with Australia’s own fab four.

For Robert, this was his normal – something he didn’t realise was uncommon until he was much older.

“And then you go, hang on, every kid doesn’t just have people coming up to him knowing who he is. I mean, not every kid lives in a zoo!”

NOVEMBER 29, 2013: SUNSHINE COAST, QLD. Robert Irwin, son of the late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, poses with a Koala during a photo shoot at Australia Zoo in Beerwah on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland. (Photo by Russell Shakespeare / Newspix)
Photo by Russell Shakespeare / Newspix

Steve was the showman, “The Crocodile Hunter” fronting the documentaries and bringing in the crowds. Terri was the business brains, keeping the cogs of the zoo turning whilst organising their family travel adventures and building their Wildlife Warriors charity.

As a duo, says Robert, his parents were “a force to be reckoned with”.

“They hit everything at 100 per cent together. They were a team – it was them against the world. They were fighting the good fight, shoulder to shoulder, and look at what they created together.

“For me, I look at Mum and Dad as my absolute role models in many departments, including the relationship department. That’s the goal – two people living side by side and smashing life together with such a sense of mutual admiration and respect. Who are constantly lifting each other up and never second guessing. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for each other, and they were so equal on everything.”

CROCODILE10C-C-26JUN02-DD-PC Steve Irwin, TV's "Crocodile Hunter", and his wife Terri were face-to-face with Kaja, an indigo snake. The Irwins visited the San Francisco Zoo to promote their new film. PAUL CHINN/S.F. CHRONICLE Ran on: 09-04-2006 Steve Irwin and wife Terri play with Kaja, an indigo snake, in a 2002 visit to the San Francisco Zoo to promote a movie. Ran on: 09-04-2006 Steve Irwin and wife Terri play with Kaja, an indigo snake, in a 2002 visit to the San Francisco Zoo to promote a movie. (Photo By Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
Photo By Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

When they lost Steve, he ponders now, it was a wonder his mother was not only able to keep going in the face of unimaginable grief, but to keep things “normal” at home.

As Robert’s regular routines mostly continued, Terri was wrestling with how to raise two kids on her own whilst running the zoo and foundation her husband had given his all for. Just eight-years-old herself, his sister, Bindi, was preparing to give a speech at their father’s state funeral – the heartbreaking moment televised around the world.

It’s with the gift of hindsight that he now looks back and realises the toll that keeping him feeling safe, loved and secure may have taken on the women in his life.

“When you are three, you don’t really even quite know what death means,” he explains. “Whereas for Mum and Bindi, it was pure, unfiltered devastation and loss. And it’s the same loss for me but in a different way. So, the way they helped me to navigate my life, I am so grateful for it. I will always feel like I am missing a part of myself, but I never feel like I missed out on anything.”

Robert Irwin leaning on tree at Australia Zoo

What does Robert Irwin do?

Given his upbringing, it’s unsurprising that Robert would go on to follow his father’s passions. The “daddy docos” he watched each morning sparked a love of the same creatures that had fascinated Steve his whole life. Finally, after years of nagging, at 10, Robert was allowed to feed his first croc, an achievement he recounts with as much delight a decade on as he did when it happened.

“That was my big moment,” he grins. “The people who taught me to feed crocs are the people that Dad taught. Crocs are my thing, I just love them so much. I guess it’s genetic.”

Along with his mum and sister, Robert stepped up to be a part of the Irwin legacy – filming documentaries and TV series, going on talk shows in the US to charm American audiences in the same way his father had done before him, and becoming an active part of zoo life. He’s entranced by photography, his passion for capturing the world evident in every project he tackles – on and off our screens.

The entire Irwin clan including baby Grace

As a kid it was his mum who particularly instilled in Robert the need to take that passion forward in a positive way – even if he decided zoo life wasn’t for him in the long run.

“She said, ‘Whatever you do, you have to keep your values’,” Robert reminisces. “You have to keep positive influences in your life. You need to keep people around you who lift you up. You have to stick to your guns. You have to follow your true north whatever your path is. And whatever your passion is, you’ve just got to give it your all.”

As he went from bowl-headed boy to a 14-year-old with a grown-up short crop, he recalls the day he was allowed to start his own Instagram account and quickly understood the power in the app. He could, he realised, harness social media – a destination renowned for spreading negativity – to spread a far more positive message.

Robert Irwin sitting on a log at Australia Zoo

“As I’ve grown, I’ve realised what my platform can be,” Robert says of watching his followers interact with his conservation messaging.

“My purpose has always been the same since I have been knee high to a grasshopper, when I put my first set of khakis on.”

And that’s why he feels it’s the perfect time to venture into the South African jungle alongside Julia Morris for reality juggernaut I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here!.

Robert Irwin and Julia Morris on the set of I'm a Celebrity

Why is Robert co-hosting I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here?

Being an Irwin, he’s used to speaking to people who are already on board the train of wildlife conservation. And by helping helm Ten’s family-friendly show he’s reaching a new audience – people who may not be comfortable with snakes, spiders, crocs and camping but who must play a part in preserving the future of our planet.

Robert Irwin holding a camera at Australia Zoo

It’s his generation, he knows in his heart, who will prove instrumental in that fight. “I want to reach as many people as possible, to have a worldwide voice on coming up with solutions and unifying the next generation to make a difference for our planet,” he says, leaning in with passion to our conversation. “I think young people need a voice to look up to who is making change in their own backyard – who is one of them.

“There are plenty of incredible, influential voices in the world that I look up to, but we need someone with a fresh, young perspective, who has been putting in the hard yards, who really cares about our environment, and can be a voice in the trenches with our fellow young people.”

I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! premieres on Sunday March 24 on 10 and 10Play.

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