It’s the laugh that is the signature, that chuckle that is right now ringing out across the St Kilda cafe. It seems to embody the joy Kate Langbroek gets out of a surreal thought or a bit of mischief or the innate humour of tiny stuff in our everyday lives, the comedy borne from recognition and familiarity.
We’re having coffee and Kate is sharing random thoughts – she can’t stand parents who talk endlessly about their kids, who bag Halloween as “too American” (fun-stoppers), and she says she hates cyclists when she’s driving and hates drivers when she’s cycling.
There is a lot to love about Kate Langbroek, media star, mother of four, wise soul and long-time radio partner of another St Kilda legend, Dave Hughes. She talks about having four kids.
“It’s so brilliant,” she says. “And trying! [there’s the laugh]. It’s a complex group of people but it’s like a little tribe.
“Sometimes you crave solitude and when you get it, it feels so strange, this silence that we just never have in our house.”
And kids don’t leave home, either. “They’ll be 45, still living with us, trying to save up to buy a bedsit in some far-flung location that doesn’t feature on Unreal Estate.”
Unreal Estate is her newest venture, a Channel Nine project in which Kate and co-presenter Cameron Knight visit exceptional properties and interview the owners.
“Just a stickybeak,” says Kate of her interest in the area. “When there’s an open for inspection in my street, I’m always, ‘Come on, let’s go’. Doesn’t matter if it’s a flat, house … Love it.”
She squeezed making the series between working with Hughesy on KIIS’s Drive program, which the pair have been doing since January last year, after 12 years on the Nova breakfast show.
It’s a busy life, mainly a family one, certainly not one driven by the desire for fame. “It gets banned in our house, the concept of fame,” she says.
“Just for being tedious. Just like devices get banned. The same way television gets banned [or] asking grown-ups how old they are. No, not your business.”
Kate grew up on the Gold Coast, Brisbane and, for a few years, Papua New Guinea in a family deeply involved in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Her father was an elder. “I only left because I couldn’t stay,” she says. “You can’t bear the claustrophobia any more of not being true to yourself.”
She says there were some positives, though. “Strong sense of community, mixing with people of all ages, of all ethnicities, of all social strata. I learnt sign language because we had some deaf brothers and sisters in our congregation.”
She attended five meetings a week and learnt how to prepare for “witnessing”, door-knocking with copies of the church’s magazine. “We’d act out scenarios where somebody would play the ‘worldly’ person and someone would play the Jehovah’s Witness. “That probably gave me a sense of being comfortable with words or make-believe.”
Kate worked at a deli in a Brisbane Coles when she was at school, “plotting my escape”, and later moved into a house with a girlfriend. It was a relief to be free. She found living with the church’s tenets restricting.
“I found the paucity of ideas just really sad. It didn’t make me happy. To rule out so much … to be on the straight and narrow, which is the path you’re supposed to be on … I don’t like the straight and narrow, I like the wide road, possibly leading to destruction.”
Was there rebellion later? “Anything I did that wasn’t according to the tenets of the church was rebellion.”
Being raised in the Witnesses meant birthdays were not celebrated. Her parents later left the church and embraced the notion of birthdays. “Now they’ve left the Witnesses of course they’re ready at every birthday, a gift, a party,” she says.
“Now it suits them. ‘When you ask me to plan your milestone birthday mum/dad, why don’t we first of all just flick through all the pictures of my birthday parties you threw for me when I was little and we’ll get some inspiration. Oh hang, on, there aren’t any.’ It’s fun to persecute your parents.”
Being a parent herself is the heart of her life. She lives in St Kilda with her husband Peter and their kids, aged from seven to 12. It’s a juggle. “Some days you feel like you’re amazing, and some days you feel like you’re roadkill. And I think neither is true. Or both are true.”
It’s Peter who coaches them in basketball and takes them to swimming. “Because of my lack of interest in sport, I think he realised early on that if the children were going to be anything that didn’t involve being morbidly obese, he would have to run that side of things,” she says, “whereas if it was going to involve a couch and television, mummy could handle that.”
In 2013 Kate spoke for the first time publicly about her eldest son Lewis, then 10, and his battle with leukaemia. Lewis was diagnosed at age six and underwent three-and-a-half years of treatment at the Royal Children’s Hospital.
Last May, Kate wrote a beautiful newspaper article referring to a bravery certificate, which is stuck on the wall above Lewis’s desk. It gave some insight into the family’s journey, the sadness, the courage, the family life that had to be got on with.
“I really came to prize normality through that and just ordinariness. We’re very happy for ordinary and happy. Don’t need a superstar, don’t need a super brain, don’t need an accelerated learning program …”
I ask after Lewis. “He’s beautiful, he’s 12, in year 7,” Kate says. “We’re up to six-monthly check-ups, which is great because we’ve gone from daily, weekly …”
Last year Lewis went on a school trip to Italy. Kate and Hughesy had left Nova and were between engagements and Kate planned to “do the irritating book writer’s thing, Three Months under the Tuscan Sun”, with all the children.
Then the KIIS gig came up and Kate went back to work with Hughesy. “One night I was tucking [Lewis] in, talking about the school trip and he wasn’t as happy about it as you’d imagine, and he said, ‘What if I get sick over there?’. Which gave me pause, because we don’t talk about this in our daily life.”
It was decided Lewis would go with his “adored” grandma Maree, Peter’s mother. “When Lewis was sick, Maree was the third wheel in our rickety little stool when we were in hospital.”
It was meant to be a two-week trip until Maree said, ‘Do you mind if I stay longer?’ They ended up staying nearly three months. “I said to Peter, ‘That’s ludicrous. We either have to get Interpol involved or we have to go and get that boy back’. We went over and had the time there in Italy and all came back together.”
Lewis’s illness was the ultimate test for a parent. “Sometimes I have to pull myself up when I’m resenting one of the responsibilities that I have as a mother, and just realise what a blessing it is,” she says.
“I really try to be mindful of that because we’re very fortunate to be parents of four, to not have one that fell, you know?
“Because we have seen the little ones … It’s terrible, beyond imagining. It’s something that you don’t imagine, and neither should you, because it’s really rare. But in the event of it occurring, you really don’t know yourself until that happens to you.
“You don’t know what your partner’s like. You don’t know what your friends are like. You don’t know, until you face a foe that is mercurial and dark. You’re just full of dread.”
I ask how she kept working on the radio, especially when she needed to be light-hearted and funny.
“They said to us at the hospital when Lewis was first diagnosed, which at the time was like some sort of white noise, you couldn’t hear over the chaos of what was going on in yourself … that it is important to try and lead as normal a life as you can.
“During that period we decided we would try and lead as normal a life as we could. For a number of reasons. One was we had three other little children. And the other [reason] was that if we didn’t lead a normal life, what were we saying to Lewis about what we believed was going to happen?”
She talks about the two sides of the mask – comedy and tragedy. “My life has always been in comedy. And when tragedy was attendant, comedy saved me – as it saves a lot of people every day. It consequently gave me more respect for the work that I do.
“When Hughesy and I finished our last gig (at Nova), we got some astoundingly beautiful feedback from people we’d meant a lot to in difficult periods of their life. And that’s what laughter does.
“I couldn’t always get in there and do the show, I missed quite a few shows, but sometimes it was the only three hours of my day that wasn’t about cancer. And it was such a salvation. It was great. And Hughesy was such a soldier.”
I ask Kate if it gave her a perspective she didn’t think she’d ever need. “You don’t think about it. It’s like when people talk about having a child, I’d say, ‘I don’t know, I’ve never had a child before’.
“Life is a series of unfolding scenarios that you find yourself in, that you’ve never previously encountered. And that’s the point of life. And some of them are brutal … That is what happens if you live a full life, that the dreadful will eventually happen.”
Peter, a former engineer who co-owns the Cherry Bar music venue in the city and is very often at home with the children, was a rock. They married in 2003. “You don’t know who you’re married to until you’re placed under those trying circumstances,” Kate says.
“He’s just a very beautiful, rock-solid, kind, patient, clever, intuitive person. And where he’s slow and patient, I’m quick and decisive.
“We had some terrible moments where I realised things about him and he realised things about me, but the important thing was realisation, and the realisation comes from love.”
Kate is now an ambassador for the Children’s Cancer Foundation and in her they are blessed with a highly articulate voice. She’s insightful, honest and, while living a life in the public glare, she’s also undeniably one of us, someone with flaws, someone feeling confusion, exasperation, tiredness, joy, pain – all those things we all feel, too.
After so many years of her in our lives, we feel we know her so well and it’s certainly not because she does lots of media interviews.
“Have you heard our radio show? All we do is reveal stuff about ourselves. I’m never going to be described as mysterious.”
- Unreal Estate screens on Channel Nine on Tuesday, September 27