Lunch with Helen Kapalos

Helen Kapalos says a recent trip to hurricane-hit New York put things in perspective.
Helen Kapalos says a recent trip to hurricane-hit New York put things in perspective.

Read more in tomorrow's Life & Style section in The Saturday Age

IT'S an unwritten rule that news presenters should look, speak and behave in a certain way - even when they're not on air.

As former Channel Ten host Jennifer Hansen told ABC Radio, network executives prefer women who ''dare not show any personality or have a life, because that would just be outrageous … actually, a robot is probably what they want''.

That was in 2006, when Hansen's contract was not renewed. She was replaced by Helen Kapalos - herself sacked last month in a blaze of headlines.

Like Hansen, Kapalos has resisted pressure to censor her life offscreen. Recently, she wrote a blog post titled ''Single, childless and not getting any younger. Take a chill pill. It's going to be A-okay. Here's why.''

''I wasn't going to upload it because I thought it was too personal,'' Kapalos says over lunch at her favourite Japanese restaurant, Mina-no-ie. ''Then I thought, 'No, we're all grown-ups. We can talk about stuff like this.'''

That post was inspired by her 41st birthday, during which she joked with her nieces that she had ''missed the boat'' on love and children. ''I was mucking around and saying, 'Aunty Helen is a loser' and I think they thought I was serious. To be honest, people have wondered, 'You've been divorced for six years now; why haven't you moved on?'''

Except Kapalos is happy with her lot in life: her five nieces, her extended family, her friends, her career, living in Melbourne. ''That stupid, dumb line from Jerry Maguire - 'You complete me' - we've got to stop buying that,'' she says. ''You complete you.''

She pauses, then adds: ''I haven't always been this way. I've definitely been in a space where I've thought, 'What's wrong with me? Why can't I attract a good relationship?'''

Kapalos was 18 when she met physiotherapist Craig Boettcher. They were together for 18 years before divorcing in 2007.

''This is not how I thought my life would unfold,'' she says. ''I expected to be in a stable relationship at 40. I expected to have children. Yet I can still look at my life and feel so fortunate. I'm never lonely; I have a rich and varied existence.''

To her friends, Kapalos is ''Hurricane Helen'': the woman who juggles a hectic career with her love of cycling, piano, guitar, reading and an active social life. Which is why Mina-no-ie is something of a sanctuary to her.

''I hate going into a kitchen where people are screaming and tempers are flaring,'' she says. ''Here, they're never stressed, even when they're busy.''

It's true: chef Megumi Tanaka runs the open kitchen with the poise and hushed tones of a librarian. There are three lunch options and we select the biggest - tofu and prawn patties with purple carrots, radish, broad beans, Lebanese cucumber, quinoa and rice. Everything is local, seasonal and fresh. Even by Japanese standards, the flavours are delicate and clean. My organic ginger beer is almost too sweet in contrast.

''It might seem strange for a Greek girl to love Japanese food so much,'' Kapalos says, ''but actually, the two cultures share a similar approach to eating. We don't have an attitude of deprivation; food is about sustenance and nurturance.''

Born to one of just three Greek families in the New South Wales town of Newcastle, Kapalos didn't speak English until she went to kindergarten. She felt isolated and frustrated but grew to love the coastal community.

By her early teens, she was stacking shelves for cash. Yet she gave much of her earnings to her parents and, even now, she sends money to her relatives in Greece. ''When you come from an immigrant background, when you've seen your parents working day and night, you feel like you have to contribute,'' she says. ''They're doing it tough because of the financial crisis and I want to help.''

After her mother died in the mid-1990s, Kapalos' father returned to his small village in Greece. She visits him every year but in November chose to holiday in New York.

The night before she left, she was sacked by Ten as part of a cost-cutting drive. Her email was closed, her pass deactivated and she was not allowed to farewell viewers. It has been reported that she is in legal discussions with the network and she was unable to comment at the time of our lunch. Nor could she discuss her rumoured appointment as the new host of Channel Seven's Today Tonight.

''What I can say is that my job doesn't define me,'' she says.

Her time in New York, she adds, put her career dramas into perspective. Volunteering with the clean-up of hurricane Sandy, she was assigned to help an elderly woman. By the time she arrived, the woman had died of a heart attack, believed to have been induced by the freezing weather. ''This was a real life-and-death drama,'' Kapalos says. ''It made me see things in a different light.''

Needless to say, she has seen countless such dramas in her 20-year media career, which began at ABC Radio in Newcastle. She went on to work at SBS, Prime, two commercial radio stations and NBN, where she wrote, produced and presented a documentary about the closure of Newcastle's BHP steelworks. (It snared a massive 62 per cent audience share.)

One day, she presented an NBN news break during the cricket. Kerry Packer, who was watching in a pub, vowed on the spot to move her to Channel Nine, where she worked on the 6pm news, Nightline, Sunday and A Current Affair. She also penned a column for The Newcastle Herald, including one in 2006 about sexism in the industry. Viewer criticisms about appearance, she wrote, were generally limited to female presenters. Therefore, her bosses sought women who were young, glamorous, thin (but not too thin) and smart (''but not too steely, or you'll come across like a bloke'').

What's it like now?

''Well, it's not just media,'' she says, ''and it's not just women. Sexism hurts men, too. There are all these limitations on men, on the way they can behave and the personas they're expected to have, especially in the sporting and corporate worlds. And women feel it in every realm.''

But, she says, things are changing: a female prime minister, more women on the frontbenches, more women on the global political stage.

''I feel like there's a shift in consciousness around the way women are perceived,'' she says, ''and I'm happy to be one of the women who are espousing those values. To be open about your life, to be vulnerable, to just live the way you want to is actually very empowering.''

This story Lunch with Helen Kapalos first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.