Profile: The world according to Kaz Cooke

Profile: The world according to Kaz Cooke

Kaz Cooke snapped by the delightful Megan Burke
Every now and then, when you feel yourself getting a bit cocky, you can be sure you'll be sent a timely reminder of your oft-fumbling humanity. You know, like the juice stain on the white shirt spotted after you have been in a Very Important Meeting. Or pronouncing a word incorrectly in front of an author you admire.

And so, over fruit toast and tea ("Fake sugar," if you please) with Kaz Cooke, it is that I learn how to say "awry" correctly, and resolve to listen more to ABC radio. It's not "a-wry", my dear, but "uh-rye". But, because Kaz Cooke is a nice person – a true gentlewoman – she is quick to cover my bumbling embarrassment by sharing one of her own recent foibles: finding her dress caught up in her knickers on approach to a podium to give a speech.

"I actually kind of went, 'That was kind of “awks”,' as my 13-year-old would say, 'But there’s nothing I can do about it now. And I’m just going to laugh and keep going'. What else can you do, honestly? And then an elderly man came up to me and complained that I was 10 minutes late and that he’d been asked to give a gold coin donation to charity and he thought that was too expensive and he’d given them 20 cents." 

Kaz Cooke meets all sorts.

As a doyenne of advice (she reads problem pages with a particular fascination), albeit one who is suspicious of anyone who claims to be a guru ("bollockular" is the word she uses to describe them), she makes it her business to be genuinely interested in people. This can be overwhelming, such as when people confide in her, hoping that she will have a ready answer for them.

"A woman came up to me recently and told me she had cancer and I stopped what I was doing and talked to her, but I thought of things later that I could have said," she says. "That’s like the confidence chapter in the book – giving you things to say if people are putting you down, for example, or are saying something you disagree with, because very often you are stuck for words."

Admittedly, Cooke still gets stuck for words. She's gobsmacked by radio presenters who push her onto the back foot by asking her to recall advice from her book ("It's 700 pages; please don't test me live"); plastic surgeons who have no qualms operating on an 80-year-old to make them look younger; women who ask her, 'What weight should I be?'; people who assume you are childless (or have only one child) by choice; and 14 to 16-year-old girls whose most common question about sex is, 'What do boys want me to do?'.

Then there's the women – more women than she anticipated – who shared through her Women's Stuff survey their experience of grief, struggle, loss and abuse. 

"The rapes and the beatings and the things that women have endured…," she says, welling up with tears. "What really shocked me about that is that I didn’t expect there to be hundreds of responses of women saying this happened to me. It was totally across cultures, classes, ages. Every single one of them, the only total consensus in the book, said, 'Leave as soon as it happens once'. Even women who’d been stuck in these relationships, some for 30 years, every one of them had the beautiful heart to say that they wanted to get other women to get out of it. I just thought that was a really brave gift to give other women."

Cooke writes books because she cares. She wants women to lead good lives and not stumble into making bad decisions because they simply don't have the information. Or because there are forces greater than them at work in the world who don't have their best interests at heart. She's a truth-seeker; a word-slinging Nancy Drew sleuth.

A journalist of 20 years, Cooke got her start in publishing on The Age a month after her 18th birthday (the math would deem she's now 48). Her third interview, with then acting editor (turned PR man) Michael Smith, took place at one o'clock in the afternoon, at which time he had a whisky in his hand.

"I don’t know where it came from – I’d obviously been reading a lot of Groucho Marx or something – but I said, ‘Is that cold tea or are you just trying to impress me?’," she says. "He laughed and I found out later when I was working with him as the News Editor that that one line, which came out of me being a bit nervous, but being cheeky, was enough."

Her cadetship began on the reporter's floor. The sub's desk at the time was all men. After it was agreed all the gains of feminism had been made, the women's section, ACCENT – then edited by Sally Wilkins and Deborah Forster – was cut and absorbed into the larger paper.

"I remember Sally Wilkins, I was so scared of her, but she actually taught me how to write," says Cooke. "I just thought you had to do it as fast as you could and get it in because I’d been on the news pages. She taught me about going back and crafting and editing. But I think what it taught me more than anything else, all those years, was the fear of missing a deadline and the fear of getting something wrong. And I’ve still got both those things in spades."

Hence her thorough approach to research, and the all-encompassing enormity of her books. She says, "I don't write books because I know all the answers. I write books because I have a lot of questions." But her close friend, the novelist Lily Brett, won't have a bar of Cooke attributing all her success to her journalism training.

Cooke was brought up in what she calls a "very ordinary, middle-class family in the suburbs with lots of laminex". It wasn't a happy childhood, but she rightfully won't be pressed about why. She immersed herself in books to escape, with her mother taking her to the library and buying her books from the op-shop to satiate her child's love.

"It was second-hand, big-volume stuff," she says. "Enid Blyton, The Famous Five, adventure stuff, just losing myself in the book. I think that when you grow up in an unhappy home, you will look to anything that takes you out of that, in the physical environment."

She was drawn to George, the feisty, short-haired, headstrong girl in The Famous Five, and Pippi Longstocking, the orphan girl who dances to her own tune. But it was discovering the cartoons of Ronald Searle that was a key turning point.

"He illustrated with a guy called Geoffrey Willans and they were satirical novels about boarding schools," she says. "They were Harry Potter without the wizardry, but with a lot of humour. The big thing for me was working out that you could be naughty and write satire and get paid for it, or at least published. I found that revelatory and extremely exciting."

After working the news beat and becoming editor of the Friday what's-happening-on-the-weekend section EG, Cooke left The Age to work on an independent paper a friend had started up, which folded after just six weeks. She's been freelance ever since.

To say her book publishing career has been prolific is an understatement. From children's picture books to satirical plays on feng shui and a novel in between, she's covered a lot of territory. Her entertaining advice columns – for newspapers and magazines – were collated into four non-fiction books – Living With Crazy Buttocks; Get a Grip; Get Another Grip; and Keep Yourself Nice.

Her signature cartoon character, Hermoine the Modern Girl, was turned into a series which won an AFI award for best animated short film in 1994. And she has also experimented with radio, though not entirely successfully. In 1998, she did a radio show with Judith Lucy called Foxy Ladies. When the network wanted to have it sponsored by Diet Coke, they said no.

"We said, ‘We don’t want a sponsor with diet in its title’, and they could not for the life of them understand. It’s just a different world. They said, ‘But, diet’s good’. They just thought we were mad. I think to this day they don’t get it. ‘But all chicks love diet coke!’. And that’s fine, but we don’t want our sponsor to have diet in it."

Then, in 2004, she hosted a breakfast radio show on 2DAY-FM in Sydney with Lucy and Peter Helliar before moving to an afternoon slot in Melbourne. She readily admits the experience was hellish.

"I’m not saying that it was perfect radio or that we were wonderful – I mean, our ratings were crap – but the stuff that happened was unbelievable. It was worse than journalism in the early 80s in terms of the sexism. I just couldn’t believe that people were behaving like that," she says.

"I was a gossip reporter at the end of that time on radio. It just got incrementally worse to the point where I had so fooled myself that I was doing a really good journalistic job. And then, when I was finally told – a month before we were sacked – that my session was going to be preceded by a voice that said, ‘And now, The Hot Sauce sponsored by (name of sauce company) with Kaz Cooke’, I just thought, if that happens, I can’t go on. That was my lowest point. I’m not saying that what I’m doing now is necessarily any better or more useful to the world but I certainly couldn’t go on saying what was happening to Angelina Jolie’s bottom without losing my mind, frankly."

She then went on to write Girl Stuff "as an atonement" while Lucy subsequently went on to tour the country with a successful stand-up show called I Failed. While it took Cooke a long time to get her confidence back, ultimately she is grateful for the lessons radio taught her. Writing non-fiction books gives her the leeway to tell it like it is without commercial interests creeping in.

"I couldn’t write what I’ve written in Women's Stuff about hair products in a magazine," she says. "I can remember writing for women’s magazines years ago and having editors ring me up and go, ‘Can you rewrite the first paragraph so it says that you’re really freaked out about your thighs and so are all your friends?’, and I would say, ‘No. I’ve written what I want to write’. But they sort of had this formula that had to be personal and you had to write, “Cheryl, 26, hates her thighs…”, and I’d be like, I don’t know anyone like that."

Not that Cooke hasn't had to fend off her own insecurities.When she was a teenager, she was obsessed with her nose to the point where she felt she should have a nose job. She didn't.

"Frankly, I got busy," she says. "It’s not like now I go, 'That is a magnificent conker and I would never mess with it', but I just have too much else to do to really scrutinize myself at that level. Talking to plastic surgeons for Women's Stuff, I asked one surgeon if he felt that people who have surgery might have been able to come to terms with that part of themselves, or grow out of it, like I did. He said, 'Yeah, but, you've got a brain and a career, and for a lot of these women, they've got nothing else. He absolutely meant it – that you can afford to be ugly if you've got something to do."

It's these sorts of encounters that light the fire in her belly; her desire is to help build up women's self-esteem and get them thinking about the broader context of their decision making, thereby positively influencing the next generation – including her daughter (is there more noble a thing than wanting to nurture one's progeny and their contemporaries?) – through this consciousness raising.

For Kaz Cooke, knowledge is power.

"I say quite pompously [in Women's Stuff] that there’s a smorgasbord of options to choose from, but I do also say now and again, 'Please don’t do this', or, 'If you do this, know that this is what might happen'," she says.

"I suspect that a lot of this search for ‘How does something work?’ and ‘What’s the real truth’? and ‘Where does that come from?’ and ‘If that happened to you, what would you do?’, comes from that place of not knowing and being unsure and I really hope it’s not just because I’m a horrible, bossy, busy-body. That would be bad, wouldn’t it?"

Well, it depends what your motivations are. Recently Cooke accompanied Andy Griffiths and Kate Greneville on an Indigenous Literacy Tour. The three authors discovered they all loved Blyton's Magic Faraway Tree in childhood; felt it was formative. So perhaps this seeking knowledge and striving to deliver her best is her way of creating a Magic Faraway Tree type place right here?

"Some of it comes from within you, and some from other places," she says. "It's feeling like you're in the wrong place, too, when you come from a very unsophisticated Kraft Singles kind of family, and you don’t know how to pronounce Camembert, or indeed 'awry'."

See also: Book Shelf - Women's Stuff by Kaz Cooke

Girl With a Satchel


Adelaide Dupont said...

It's good to be pompous if you open life up for others, and that's what Kaz Cooke has been doing for the past 30 years.

Now I know there are 3 different pronounciations of "awry", and "awks" is a great abbreviation.

I don't love diet coke :-<.

And as for the "Cheryl, [age], hates her [body part]...".

I remember Cooke around the time of Keep yourself nice and Hermoine the modern girl.

My cousins had their lives changed with Real Gorgeous.

It's great that Cooke has questions and fears.