A life less ordinary with Wendy Harmer

From her humble beginnings in rural Victoria to becoming the highest-paid woman in Sydney FM radio, Wendy Harmer’s journey is nothing short of extraordinary.

INTERVIEW: Olivia Williams 

In her recently released memoir, Lies My Mirror Told Me, Wendy Harmer candidly shares her experiences as a stand-up comedian, national television host, author, and journalist, offering insights into the influences that shaped her humour, resilience, and the evolution of her career.

We sat down with Wendy who shared with us her reflections on beauty, self-acceptance, and her unique perspective on the changes in the entertainment industry over four decades. It’s a conversation filled with wisdom, laughter, and the remarkable story of a woman who paved her own path in the world of entertainment.

​​Your memoir, Lies My Mirror Told Me, delves into your extraordinary life journey. What inspired you to share your story now?

In part because I finished up working on daily radio (3:45 am alarms) and finally found the time. Also because I’ve been an eye-witness to many changes in entertainment and media in Australia. It’s hard to recall a time when women weren’t out front in comedy and commercial radio, writing our own scripts. It was a world where men did most of the talking and I wanted to remind readers of how far we’ve come.

From your early years in rural Victoria to becoming the highest-paid woman in Sydney FM radio, your career has been diverse. How did your experiences shape your sense of humour and resilience?

Well, I take an entire book to tell the story! But pivotal was my father and mother’s message to get on with life, stand up and take whatever came my way…there was no “helicopter parenting” back then. I grew up tough. Times were very different!

Wendy Harmer as a child

You’ve worn many hats – stand-up comedian, national television host, author, and journalist. Which role has been the most challenging and rewarding for you, and why?

I do love working “live” – so live TV and radio suit me very well. There’s no opportunity to go back and do things over, so it’s exacting and challenging. I adore that. And since I was very small, I have loved words, so consider myself very lucky to have made a living from stringing them together- for fun and profit!

The book touches on your childhood in one-teacher, one-room country schools. How did growing up in such an environment influence your worldview and approach to adversity?

As a country kid I think I had an advantage in life. With my father as a teacher, we moved around quite a bit and I often had to make new friends – so I became quite adept, socially. From my small pond I thought life could take me anywhere and knew I’d “fit in” wherever I landed. I still feel that wherever I am, I’m home.

The title, Lies My Mirror Told Me, is intriguing. Can you share a bit about what this title signifies to you and how it encapsulates your memoir’s essence?

It comes from a childhood memory of telling my mother that boys at school were picking on me because of my appearance, so she said: “Go look into the mirror and when you can find something to complain about, you come out here and tell me.” So I did look, and there was plenty to complain about, but I told her I’d seen “nothing”. Mirrors have become a motif and I begin each chapter with looking into a mirror.

Wendy Harmer at Christmas as a child

Your memoir touches on your experience with reconstructive facial surgery. How did that process impact your self-perception and journey toward self-acceptance?

I had my major surgery in my teen years, so I had already grown to understand that self-worth wasn’t inextricably tied to appearance. It was a long and hard lesson.

You’ve mentioned the surgery falling short of transforming you from a ‘witch’ into a ‘princess.’ How did you redefine notions of beauty for yourself, and what does true beauty mean to you now?

I think the old saying of our grandmothers’ “Beauty is as beauty does” still holds true. Even though we live in a society that places a high value on physical beauty…and increasingly does so. In the book, I share my affirmation that if you are looking for validation, mirrors are the wrong place to look. Instead, you can see your worth in the faces of those who love and respect you.

Your memoir reflects on an extraordinary life. How has your perspective on aging evolved, and what wisdom would you share with others entering the so-called golden years?

I’m not sure that I have much to offer at all! Except to say, tend to your friendships, engage in your community and then the wider world. For me, a personal project or two is always motivating – whether it’s a written something, mastering a new recipe, learning a new skill or tending my garden in the face of marauding brush turkeys who are intent on destroying it!    

Being a woman in the entertainment industry for four decades is remarkable. How have you witnessed the industry evolve in its treatment of women, and what changes do you hope to see in the future?

There have been so many changes in the workplace. I experienced the kind of rampant sexism which I trust my daughter never has to face. So we have come a long way, even though sometimes it doesn’t feel like it. I see increasing diversity and equality ahead of us.  

Your book has been described as “deeply moving, wise, hilarious, and raucous.” What message or emotion do you hope readers take away after reading it?

There is an adage that “You cannot be what you cannot see”. My husband tells me (because I couldn’t quite see if for myself), that I decided to be what I couldn’t see. So the message is, if you cannot quite see a path ahead – make your own.

Knowing what you know now, if you could go back and give your younger self some advice, what would it be?

Hah! As if she would have ever listened to me!! Instead I think young Wendy would say to me: “Be brave. Get on with it. Don’t take ‘no’ for an answer and there’s nothing to complain about”.

Wendy Harmer’s Lies My Mirror Told Me is published by Allen & Unwin. RRP $34.99


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