IMAGES JOHN DONEGAN
Samantha Armytage is coping well with fame. Maybe there’s still a bit of the country girl in her keeping it real. Still, being on television – she’s the co-presenter of Channel Seven’s Weekend Sunrise – can change things.
“I try to make time for friends and do social things a couple of times a week, catch up with people, more than anything to keep it real, to make sure you’re hanging out with people and finding out what’s going on in the real world,” she says.
Some stars find it hard to keep it real. “Not for me, because I don’t think I get carried away with it. But at certain times of your life you’re sitting in a situation where you think, ‘Wow, this is a pretty unreal world’.
“You’re meeting incredibly famous people and the next day you’re on a plane to go to the Melbourne Cup. Then you’re back in town doing photo shoots, and you go, ‘Whoa’. (It’s important to) not to get swept up by it and not take yourself too seriously.”
She doesn’t appear to do that. Armytage has gone from a shy teenager from the Snowy Mountains to front and centre on television, in people’s living rooms at a time of the morning that lends itself to intimacy and an affectionate forgiveness for on-air stuff-ups.
She’s become Our Sam, and you get the feeling this amazing journey still slightly startles her.
I ask if she had ever overheard a conversation about herself? “I was in a café in Balmain six months ago and I heard some people at the next table say, ‘Blonde newsreader Samantha Armytage …’ I couldn’t hear what they were saying, and when you hear your name you want to hear what they’re saying.”
Did she edge closer? “Yes. But I still couldn’t hear. And they didn’t know it was me. And you wouldn’t because I had sunglasses on. When I go to the café, it’s my gym gear on. I felt like spinning round and saying, ‘You know she’s a great girl’. But I didn’t.”
Sam Armytage is a no-nonsense type with the sort of laugh that makes whatever she’s laughing about sound a bit funnier. It’s a quality that has served her well as a morning television host where a lot can go wrong and a lot can be unintentionally funny.
And useful when you’re working with a classic Aussie “bloke” such as Andrew O’Keefe, with whom she has been together on screen for five years.
“The chemistry has always been there but we’re really hitting our stride now where he is like a big brother,” she says. “He can be like an annoying big brother but I love him. We get on so well on and off screen.”
Armytage grew up the eldest of three on a property outside Adaminaby, 52 kilometres out of Cooma in the Snowy Mountains; Banjo Paterson country.
“I was a very shy girl and a very polite girl,” she says. “Ask my mother and there would be no way she would have seen me doing what I do now, which is not the most shy and polite industry.
“We were real country kids. We skied all winter; we rode horses all summer. I went to a school of 24 kids, six kids in my year. I was the school captain.”
Television didn’t play a big part in the family’s life. “Our TV was fuzzy reception,” she says. “I remember trying to watch The Goodies. If the wind blew the wrong way and moved the aerial, we had no TV.
“And we weren’t allowed to sit inside and watch TV. If you said to my father, ‘I’m bored’, he’d say, ‘There are 16,000 acres (6474 hectares) out there; I’ll see you at night-time’. We’d just get on a horse and go.”
The Armytages ran sheep and cattle, with the kids sometimes helping to muster on a motorbike. “I had posters of horses all over the walls of my bedroom,” Armytage says. “We had winter shows and gymkhanas. I loved Black Beauty and The Black Stallion.”
But there were city influences, too. “I got the Madonna showbag at the Cooma Show in 1985,” she says. “Black bangles, some kind of net thing you put over your head, a fluoro money pouch. I loved Madonna. I had posters of horses and Madonna. And Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the first cassette I owned. My sister was a little bit trendier, a bit more with it.”
The Armytages had an interesting Melbourne connection. The family owned Como House in South Yarra and sold it to the National Trust in 1969.
“We’ve had family reunions; my aunt got married there,” Arymtage says. “If we were in Melbourne, we’d go in and say hello and potter around, and we kids would pretend that we still lived there.”
“The chemistry has always been there but we’re really hitting our stride now where he is like a big brother … he can be like an annoying big brother but I love him.”
Her grandfather carved his initials in a window – they can still be seen today. “Grandpa went to boarding school at Geelong Grammar and would go at the weekend to Como and stay with his aunts,” Armytage says. “He stole one of their diamond rings one day and carved his initials in the attic.”
At the age of 13, Samantha Armytage was sent to boarding school in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. She’d been to Sydney only twice before and was terrified. It was not a happy start. “I cried for a term,” she says. “When mum and dad first sent me I felt, ‘Why are you doing this?’. Then after a term I made friends. Girls are tricky at that age, at all ages, but that age particularly. Then you’ve got to find your little spot, and it was one of the best things mum and dad ever did.”
Armytage knew it was a privileged environment. “I’d sit on the lunch lawn and we’d have our Vegemite sandwiches and we’d look up the harbour to the bridge. As a 13-year-old you don’t fully appreciate it but every now and again you’d look up and think, ‘Wow, I’m not in Adaminaby any more, Toto’.”
She soon enjoyed school. “They were all country kids, too. We were all in the same boat. By high school I became a bit of a class clown, bit of a smart alec. But the shyness is still there underneath. I’m not that great with people I don’t know. I had to become more independent and toughen up a lot.”
After school she had a gap year in England, cooling her heels after a not-spectacular final year of school.
Then she thought maybe she’d like to be a journalist. “I could always write and I like telling stories. And I could be funny. But I didn’t know what to do with it.”
She got a job at Sky News reporting out of Canberra, which was great experience. “It was exhausting. At Sky, I covered the bushfires, then the Iraq war, then the election. I did not stop. In the grand scheme of things, it was a really lucky start.”
In 2003, she was headhunted by Seven. After news reporting and more presenting, Armytage received a call from the executive producer of Weekend Sunrise.
“It was a Sunday morning and I was a young reporter so I was probably hungover. He said, ‘Can you get into the studio in half an hour? We just want to screen-test you next to Andrew (O’Keefe).’
“There was something on the autocue and we read that, then we just starting chatting and laughing and being stupid, which continues to this day. In my earpiece from the control room he said, ‘I love it, you’ve got it’. I thought, ‘I’ve got what? What am I being offered’?”
Her star rose quickly. Last year she was a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. “I’ve always been quite active and quite sporty and quite co-ordinated, so I thought when I agreed to do it that I’d be better at it. And I wasn’t. Oh my God, I was bad at it. The crew used to say to me, ‘Just enjoy it’. So I did go in genuinely thinking I would just enjoy it.
“But it is actually quite a serious competition. The more it went on and the more I realised I couldn’t do it, the more I was determined to enjoy it, laugh through it and take it lightly, which I think irritated the judges.”
Still, she made it to the semi-finals. “My mother said, ‘When they announce you’re going through to the next round can you please stop rolling your eyes?’ But everybody else there wants to keep going. I didn’t need to win it. Just being part of it was enough for me.”
Armytage, 36, has been the subject of newspaper articles discussing her weight. One recent article was headlined “I lost 5kgs and a boyfriend”.
“For some reason people seem to be interested in my weight and my love life,” she says. “I think it’s because they see me as a normal girl; because I’m not that stick-skinny kind of girl that we’ve come to expect on TV. And I think that resonates with a lot of people who watch at home.
“They think, ‘That’s a normal-looking girl’. Which is terrible if there are so many skinny girls that someone who’s a size 12 and quite normal has to stand out for being normal … But I think there are a lot of girls out there like me, and on-air these days, there are a lot of girls who are more normal-looking.”
The discussion of her weight in the media was confronting for her. “It shocked me during Dancing because I had never thought of myself as being … it had just never been discussed … it was the first time my weight had ever been called into question in the newspapers. At first I was horrified, ‘Why are they all talking about my weight? Who cares?’ You get used to these things.
“You put on weight, you lose weight, it’s just the way life goes. I feel for the girls who have babies and have to be subjected to that kind of discussion in the papers because it can be very hurtful and it’s very personal.”
And TV is an unforgiving medium with nowhere to hide. Did she ever think, ‘‘Oh dear, did I just say that?’’
“Often,” she says. “It’s morning television. Most of it is not scripted. Especially with what Andrew and I do on weekends. You have to roll with it.”
She gets into make-up at 5am. “I’m OK in the mornings these days. I’ve had to become a morning person. There was a time in the early days when it was tougher to get to bed earlier. But I still do what normal people do. I go to weddings and I go out and go to dinner. I just make sure I’m in bed at a reasonable time. Which is good. We should all be doing that.” She laughs … that self-deprecating, I’m-not-taking-myself-too-seriously laugh.
As I leave, and ponder her story, it strikes me that this infectious laugh of hers is her secret weapon and that, when we’re talking laughs, she’s having the last one.
Watch: Weekend Sunrise is on Channel Seven on Saturday and Sunday mornings 7am-10am.