Jacqueline Henderson, Jackie O, reveals a more raw side of breakfast radio, and an even more vulnerable side of being a mother, in the public eye.
Jacqueline Henderson, aka Jackie O, has paid her dues. One half of the phenomenally successful commercial radio duo, Kyle & Jackie O, on Sydney’s KIIS 106.5, Henderson began her career in the decidedly less glamorous surrounds of regional radio, where she initially worked the phones – unpaid – for her then-partner, Phil O’Neil, at Canberra’s FM104.7. She later moved with O’Neil to Triple M in Adelaide, however this time she was his co-host. It was the beginning of her upward trajectory in the cut-throat environment of commercial radio, a boorish, blokey world driven solely by ratings and the advertising dollar, where nowadays the diminutive Henderson resides as a star bona fide.
It is impossible to write about the forty-year-old Henderson without also writing about her long-standing partner in crime, Kyle Sandilands, her controversial co-host. The duo, who have worked together for fifteen years, have built their careers on a frothy concoction of Top 40 music, entertainment news, interviews with celebrities and reality TV stars, and tabloid shock-jock antics that regularly draw the affection of fans and ire of the broader listening public. It’s a polarising mix that hits the spot for a great swathe of passionate listeners, and frequently enrages the duo’s ever-present critics, who accuse them of lowest-common-denominator broadcasting. While Henderson and Sandilands have undoubtedly had their low points, there’s no arguing with their popularity; they grab a large slice of the market share, although have continued to lose percentage points to rival broadcasters in 2015.
“In radio you need to be polarising to have a passionate audience and a live audience, because if you’re bland it’s probably not going to last.”
I just think it takes years to get comfortable. It takes a long time to just truly be comfortable with being…yourself, I think.”
“He’s a lot of fun to work with, and we have a really good chemistry that’s built up over the years. We get on really well, we genuinely do, and I think that’s what’s made it work. I think it all boils down to that, it’s just the chemistry.”
Somewhat incongruously, considering her current market niche, in the early ‘90s the young Henderson modelled herself on the steely journalist-of-the-moment, Jana Wendt. Wendt, an enigmatic, icily precise, presence on primetime current affairs shows was a network star in her own right, renowned for her intellect and uncompromising standards.
What Wendt, who frequently publically expressed her dislike of the increasingly tabloid nature of current affairs television, and indeed severed contracts with networks if her journalistic standards were breached, would make of Henderson’s early hero-worship is anyone’s guess.
“If you had heard what I was like when I first started on radio, it would be awful,” Henderson reveals.
“I was trying to sound like Jana Wendt. I wasn’t myself at all. I was pretty young when I first started radio, I was eighteen, but I just thought ‘well, that’s how you are supposed to be on radio or on TV’ so I was reading all my entertainment stories like a newsreader, but that quickly went out the window.
I’m glad I got to have those trial runs in smaller places and markets where I wasn’t being scrutinised like you would here [Sydney]. I just think it takes years to get comfortable. It takes a long time to just truly be comfortable with being…yourself, I think.”
In 2015, Henderson is not only comfortable in the relentlessly competitive environment of breakfast radio, she regularly has the upper hand. In the male-dominated world of commercial radio, where women are often relegated to low-profile support roles, she is something of an anomaly. Impossible to separate from Sandilands, Henderson is a savvy force to be reckoned with, with a multi-million dollar price tag to boot. Indeed, such is their popularity, the duo was reportedly offered 12 million dollars to return to the network they defected from in 2013, Southern Cross Austereo, which has lost significant market value since they departed after a breakdown in contract negotiations.
The duo was reportedly offered 12 million dollars to return to the network they defected from in 2013…which has lost significant market value since they departed after a breakdown in contract negotiations.
But right now, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in Sydney, the queen of commercial radio simply sounds weary. She makes a good fist of juggling a phone interview with keeping an eye on her daughter, Kitty, who periodically interrupts her mother to discuss four-year-old things, yet an undercurrent of fatigue is often present, lifting periodically when she discusses her family or relates an amusing anecdote. Indeed at times Henderson seems to be playing such a low-key version of herself, it’s hard to reconcile the person on the end of the line – articulate, thoughtful and astute, with a nice line in wry self-deprecation – with the glitzy brashness of her public persona.
The fatigue can be attributed in part to the gruelling hours of breakfast radio, along with that peculiarly twenty first century insistence on being constantly connected. Henderson, who has a small radio studio at home, so she is available to do celebrity interviews at all hours, readily admits to the difficulties of combining her career with motherhood, citing her inability to switch off as a constant source of guilt and strain.
“It’s always a balancing act I think, for anyone really. I’m pretty fortunate in that I get off earlier than most, so my hours are that I’m up early and I finish early. So I probably get to spend a bit more time than most with my daughter, which I feel very lucky for, but I think the hardest part is, even though you’re at home, you’re still always buried in the phone, emails.
“I try and be as present as I can when I am at home but I do find it so hard. With mobile phones these days and emails, it’s just never-ending. Even though you’ve knocked off for the day, you never really do. I always feel so guilty when I’m on the phone so much, so I try and make more of an effort to put it away and give her [Kitty] my attention.
I was thinking yesterday, ‘what did we do before email?’. We survived fine! I don’t think it’s made it any easier. I think it’s made it harder for us. It’s just created so much work and we are all CC-ed on a million emails we don’t need to be. I don’t know if it’s as beneficial as we think it is.”
While work pressures are clearly something of a strain, Henderson’s voice literally lightens when she speaks of her daughter and her husband, Lee. She laughs easily and often when relaying family anecdotes, the ever-present demands of her career forgotten for a while. It’s clear she is besotted with her little family.
“It’s definitely a lot harder than what I thought it would be,” she says, candidly. ‘I think every parent will say the same thing. It’s incredibly rewarding too. I wouldn’t change it for the world and I just absolutely adore her [Kitty] and she’s just at the most beautiful age. She’s about to turn five and they just share so much with you.
We have this thing we do, every night at the dinner table. It’s my favourite part of the day, sitting down and having dinner together as a family. We tell each other the best part of our day and the worst part of our day and I just love hearing what she has to say. She makes me laugh so much, so it’s incredibly rewarding, you’re definitely experiencing a love you’ve never felt before.
The hardest part is, the part I really struggle with is when you’re sick. It’s usually because they’re sick as well and you don’t get to have a day in bed and feel sorry for yourself. You still have to carry on even though you’re sick, but before child you’d just lie in bed all day and watch a movie. Oh, those days were so good!
It was such a shock for me. I remember the first time it happened. She was sick for a week, I was sick for a week and I was still having to work as well. I just remember going to the shop and needing to get some milk, and they only had skim milk and I broke down in tears. I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore’. The littlest thing! You’d do it now, but that was probably the hardest part at first. I thought, ‘this is awful’.”
Kitty was a much wanted child, eventually conceived through IVF and born on December 10, 2010. Henderson has spoken publically about IVF, noting her relative good fortune at becoming pregnant after one round of treatment, along with the havoc the daily hormone injections wreaked on her mental health, a state of mind not helped by having to quit smoking on doctor’s orders.
“I think my experience of IVF was probably better than most in that I only had to do one round, so I’m so thankful for that,” she explains.
“I probably didn’t realise just how hormonal I was at the time…in hindsight, I know I was quite erratic and emotional. I’d also just given up smoking in preparation, so you know what I mean? I had no chance. I was horrific.
I think I had to call and apologise to about ten staff members after the fact, I was thinking ‘God what did I say to everyone? I just exploded at the drop of a hat’. But I couldn’t complain about it. The whole process was pretty easy, I think. If you had to keep doing round after round, it would be really, really difficult and so frustrating. I have a girlfriend who went through it, and she went through so many rounds of it, and it can be heartbreaking so my experience was nothing to complain about.”
“I try and be as present as I can when I am at home but I do find it so hard. With mobile phones these days and emails, it’s just never-ending.”
Kitty was only a couple of months old when Henderson inadvertently stumbled into a new storm of controversy. As a media veteran with many years in the public eye, Henderson was no stranger to public criticism, even vitriol. This time, however, was different. It was personal.
Henderson was crossing a quiet street in an inner city suburb, while holding baby Kitty and bottle feeding her. A cameraman caught the whole thing on film and the images were published in the press and online, creating a rolling furore. The then-NSW Families Minister, Pru Goward, publically criticised Henderson, calling her ‘unnecessarily cavalier’ and likening her to Michael Jackson when he dangled his baby over the balcony of a third floor hotel suite in Berlin, in 2002. A number of high profile women then rushed to Henderson’s defence including the then-Federal Women’s Minister, Kate Ellis, who instructed Goward to stop judging other women’s choices and start focusing on supportive and flexible work arrangement for parents.
“We were running late and Kitty was screaming and I knew I had to feed her because, you know, what else can you do? When your baby’s hungry your baby’s hungry and I pulled out my express bottle and I fed her…while walking,”
At the time, a clearly fragile Henderson attempted to smooth the increasingly agitated waters of public discourse, apologetically stating that she was running late and acknowledging that her choice was not ideal.
“We were running late and Kitty was screaming and I knew I had to feed her because, you know, what else can you do? When your baby’s hungry your baby’s hungry and I pulled out my express bottle and I fed her…while walking,” she said.
“I’m the first to admit it’s not the ideal place. Of course 95 per cent of the time I’m seated…The last thing I would ever want to do is jeopardise her welfare.”
It was a startling public fracas that snowballed further, with Henderson ultimately being publically excoriated for returning to work too early, placing more importance on her career than her family, and leaving her husband to look after two month old Kitty. People from all sides of politics and the media weighed in, with Henderson’s innocent stroll through a quiet street with her baby a flashpoint for a raft of judgement and criticisms about motherhood, parenting and gender roles within the home and workplace.
Aside from her initial, careful explanation, Henderson said very little publically while the storm raged around her. Four years on, however, the incident still rankles, and she admits she felt increasingly vulnerable as the story refused to die.
“I think that’s a good word – vulnerable,” she says, quietly. “I think that’s how we all feel when we become a mother. I have been on the receiving end of half-stories in the past, and I think I can take it pretty well. I’ve been in the media long enough that it is like water off a duck’s back now. I mean, it took me a long time to get there, but there’s hardly a story today that would affect me or that I would lose sleep over.
“But I think when that happened, I was quite surprised at how hard that hit because when you become a mother you become very vulnerable, and you’re very protective as well. I just didn’t want to think that I was doing something wrong. I was embarrassed as well. But I did appreciate the people that defended me. I mean there were some that didn’t, and they were pretty unscrupulous about it, and I won’t mention names, but there were others.
I remember Lisa Wilkinson was one of the first to come to my defence on the Today show and I was so appreciative of that and she offered me some great words of support. But yeah, it wasn’t a great time, and it went on and on and that was the worst part, it just kept dragging, and they [the media] do like to blow up those things, so I get how it works but, yeah, it wasn’t nice.”
Four years on, Henderson has settled more confidently into motherhood. Content with her little family of three, she says she probably won’t have another baby despite having some “pretty good embryos” available. On the work front, she’s maintaining the status quo, unwilling to commit to more projects that will take her away from her beloved Kitty.
“I think that’s a good word – vulnerable. I think that’s how we all feel when we become a mother.
“I don’t think I’m doing anything yet,” she muses. “Radio takes up a lot of time. Surprisingly. I know people think you go in for a few hours and leave, but it’s not that at all. I do want to make sure I’m focused on that one hundred per cent before taking on anything else…maybe when Kitty’s in school next year.
I just haven’t wanted to take my focus away in those first five years…doing a bunch of other projects that don’t really mean anything for the sake of it so, maybe when I’ve got a bit more time next year, but nothing’s in the pipeline just yet.”
She pauses for a moment, then laughs ruefully. “I don’t think I could handle it right now. I’ve got my hands full enough.”