Growing pains. That’s how doctors explained away the nagging ache in 15-year-old Natalie Barr’s back.
The lithe basketball and netball player seemed to grow taller each day, so it made perfect sense that the persistent pounding in her spine, the one that refused to let her sleep through the night, was just all that burgeoning bone and muscle.
Still, the doctor referred Natalie to a local Bunbury physio, who kneaded and stretched her sore body.
“The physio treated me a few times and sent a letter back to the GP,” the 48-year-old Sunrise star recalls now. “And I never saw what was in that letter but that afternoon I was in an orthopaedic surgeon’s office and he saw me for 10 minutes and put me in hospital. I was sitting up and he said: ‘Lie down. If you sit up you may never sit up again. Your spine is crumbling in two places. You’ve got a disease called osteomyelitis and it’s a bug that’s landed in your T11 an T12 vertebrae and it’s almost eaten them away. You may never walk again.’ So that was a bit of a shock.”
Bunbury St John of God hospital couldn’t do the tests Natalie needed. “So they drugged me up and put me on the Royal Flying Doctor plane and flew me to Perth. I was just crying and on drugs and in pain and frightened.”
Her parents, Jim and Julie, drove to Perth to be by their daughter’s side. The affable local real estate agent and his wife were, naturally, “beside themselves.”
In Perth, the terrified teenager was given a lumbar puncture. Natalie shudders at the memory of it. “It’s this massive needle in your spine. They had to find what strain of streptococci bug was in my spine. So they did, and I went back to Bunbury where I lay on my back for about eight weeks in hospital on a drip with a high-dose antibiotic to kill the bug.”
The surgeons’ hopes those still-growing bones would heal themselves proved prescient, meaning Natalie avoided a tricky operation. She also avoided the second term of Year Ten (despite Brother Harry from Bunbury Catholic College kindly delivering assignments to her bedside) — and, unhappily, the work experience stint at GWN the budding journo was so excited about.
“I was all ready to go to GWN, I was all sorted. Meanwhile I’m on my back in hospital, unable to walk. I distinctly remember thinking I would never walk again. I can distinctly remember lying on my back for that long your muscles start wasting away, all your organs don’t work properly. Every time I needed a shower they’d tip me up an d get me into the wheelchair — that was after weeks of sponge baths. “I remember sitting in a wheelchair in the corridor of the hospital thinking: ‘I won’t get out of here.’ I just didn’t think I’d ever be strong enough to get up.”
But get up she did, and back at the family home at the top of the hill with her folks and two younger brothers, she gradually regained strength — and a sense of perspective that eludes most blissfully ignorant 15-year-olds. “It was a bit of a wake up call — a real sense that anything could happen. Bad things can happen to anyone at anytime. Unexpected things can happen, life’s not necessarily rosy. I’m lucky to get out of this,” she says. “When I look back I really think there’s a real sense of just: achieve, do what you can, don’t take this for granted. Which I think a lot of people learn but sometimes later in life and I that helped drive me from that moment on.”
Madonna is lying rather inelegantly on the lounge-room floor, licking her bum.
The coiffed blonde Samoyed is a “share dog”, who splits her time between Natalie’s house in Sydney and her actual owners, friends around the corner.
“I don’t even like dogs, I’m the non-dog person,” she says, though not entirely convincingly. Flash, the old black and white cat, is lying half in and half out of the cat door. “I’ve never liked animals and look at me in my old age. I’m sitting here with two of them.”
Natalie, husband Andrew and kids Lachlan, 15 and Hunter, 11, moved into a beautiful but by no means ostentatious home last year after more than a decade on a smaller block down the road.
“We bought this at auction. I suppose we didn’t think we’d get it. And we were the last ones standing going ‘Ooooh hang on.’”
The former long-term rental property needs a bit of work, but Natalie is enjoying the renovation process (there’s a paver there the morning we visit) and the property’s proximity to work. “It takes me 10 minutes. I’m at work at 3.30 every morning.”
That day, in the Sunrise studio in Martin Place, Nat, along with her teammates David Koch and Samantha Armytage (and the beloved Cash Cow) gave away 20 grand. She read several updates and signed autographs. She showed a smitten young fan around the studio and managed to avoid having knives chucked at her by a visiting circus performer (Kochie got that gig).
After the show she’ll usually pick off the false eyelashes, peel off the make-up and pop on some gym gear. “And you just step into this other life where there’s the animals and the kids and getting something for lunch or dinner. Roast chook. Defrosting the mince. It’s like two different lives.”
On weekends you’ll find her on the sidelines. “I just stand on footy fields all summer,” she says with a mock groan. Just don’t expect to see her shouting for a goal or screaming for a mark. “No. I barely yell, I don’t like that,” she says. “And it really annoys me when parents march up and down the field and start yelling at the kids and yelling at the umpires, which happens surprisingly often. Shut up. They’re 11 years old, it doesn’t actually matter.”
She’s a proud and passionate mum these days but when Nat had Lachlan at 33, maternity was a mystery.
An awful pregnancy — “vomited for 40 weeks, hated every moment” — only got worse when her beloved Dad died from a heart attack six months in.
“I was doing the late news, got the midnight phone call, got on the plane, flew back. Horrific. And when it’s sudden you’re just in so much shock you don’t even know how to grieve.”
Jim and Julie had visited just a few weeks earlier. “We made Dad come in and see the four-month ultrasound. He was so excited and he took the print-out of the picture to the golf club and showed the guys and was quoting all the figures of the length and the head size, which is so cute. I didn’t know that until afterwards…” her voice trails off.
While the nausea stopped the day Nat gave birth, her problems weren’t over. “I had a horrific time, he was a terrible sleeper so I hated motherhood. I thought ‘This just sucks.’ All he did was scream and everyone’s saying: ‘Isn’t wonderful’ and I thought, No! This isn’t wonderful, it’s awful. They actually sent me to get tested twice for post-natal depression but they said ‘No, you’re not depressed you just don’t like being a Mum.’
“And I felt so left out because all these mums at the mothers group were saying how much they loved it and thought ‘I don’t love anything about it.’ I felt completely alone. I thought why don’t I love this? It took me quite a while to bond with him. And obviously dad had died three months before, I’m sure looking back that had some impact. Mum came into the delivery suite when he was born and we were all crying and I don’t know whether we were crying because Dad wasn’t there or whether we were crying with happiness. It was so emotional, such a bizarre time in my life.”
She hits the big dining table as if to illustrate those feelings of frustration and sense of failure. “So I thought the best thing to do was to go back to work because unfortunately I thought I’d failed in that department where I can be this herbal, loving, staying-at-home mum who sweeps the floor between feeds and puts dinner on. I was so bad at that, let’s get back something I know I’m OK at.”
Natalie Barr reckons she was destined to be a journo.
“Dad was a real social butterfly and they always had dinner parties, and I didn’t necessarily want to play with the kids, I would always find it more interesting listening to the adult conversations. I’d be sitting in the doorway of my room, listening. And Dad would say: ‘Have you got your notebook?’ I just think I had a natural sense of curiosity. And I loved talking — I was always in trouble for talking at school.”
She made up for the work experience she missed out on in Year 10, spending every school holidays at GWN until she finished high school. “I just thought: This is what I want to do.”
Natalie got into what was then WAIT (now Curtin) — the first in her family to go to uni. “But I hated every second, I felt like the country bumpkin in the cool city uni, did not understand any of the people there, felt like I was on a different planet. Mum and Dad said I could drop out — only if I got a job.”
The determined young woman wrote to every newspaper and radio outfit in town (“I didn’t write to TV because I thought that was so glamorous and so above anything I could do”). She even sat a cadet test at The West Australian. “I never heard back, which is fine, I’m sure it was terrible.”
It was at the Wanneroo Times where Nat’s career in journalism began in 1987. “I loved it, just thought this is it. I am Hollywood.”
She’d move on to the Eastern Suburbs Reporter in Morley and the Guardian Express, before landing a job at GWN in Kalgoorlie at 21. “All my friends had moved to Europe. I had the offer to go with them but I thought if I leave here, I’ve got nothing to fall back on I’ve got no degree and I haven’t got much experience. I’ve got to stick this out. That was really hard — but amazing.”
Meanwhile a former flatmate and Bunbury friend, cameraman Andrew Thompson, had become her boyfriend. He was being sent to Nine’s Los Angeles Bureau and it became her mission to go, too. “I thought If I don’t go with him, I’ll lose him. I’d been offered a job at Channel 9 in Perth and made one of the biggest decisions of my life: do I turn down the job and, much to my Catholic mother’s disgust, shack up with my boyfriend in LA, or take the job I’d always dreamed of.”
She followed Andrew to LA, where she freelanced as a producer and news writer. “There was the Rodney King riots and then there was the earthquake. Oh, and the big OJ Simpson chase, they were the big stories that happened while I was there, which are still huge stories.”
Sadly, her attempts to get on camera were not met with deaf ears. “They listened to my accent and laughed,” she says. Her determination to report on television led her to drop in on Sydney during a Christmas visit to Australia. Seven picked her up as a freelance journalist, before offering her full time work in 1995.
While Nat carved out a career in Sydney, Andrew continued to work in LA. They reunited in Bunbury to wed that same year. “We got married at St Patrick’s Cathedral, where my mum and dad had got married. Dad and I walked up the aisle and Dad and I bawled from the moment we got out of the car all the way down the aisle and all the way through the service and all the way back down the aisle. And a reception on the golf course in a marquee. It was really gorgeous.
“Then Andrew moved back to LA I moved to Sydney. We spent about another eight months where he was tying up loose ends before he eventually move back here. We had no doubt that’s what we had to do but everyone else, I think, had a bit of a doubt.”
More than 21 years on, they’re going strong: “We’re just very lucky that it’s all worked out and we stayed together — but it is hard work. You really have to make an effort to see each other, you know, and keep it going because there are so many pressures on you.”
In Sydney, Nat did the hard yards on the road before taking over the late news, which is where she was when she broadcast real-time coverag of the September 11 terror attacks — all while weeks away from giving birth to Lachlan.
“I was vomiting so much every day but I had put on 20kg because all I was eating was stodge, anything to stop me vomiting. So I was looking like a whale and the whale was in charge of the news coverage of arguably the biggest story of our time,” she says, laughing.
There was another stint back on the road and then a phone call that changed everything: it was Adam Boland, then producer of a fledgling morning show called Sunrise.
“He said ‘We’ve got this new show and Kochie and Mel (Doyle) are hosting. I think we need a newsreader.’ I don’t think it was even registering on the ratings it was so low. I remember sitting on the back step at home and talking to Andrew and thinking ‘Well, you know, I’ve worked my way up to a position as a senior reporter, do I want to risk all that and go on this chatty breakfast show?’ Adam convinced me. That phone call changed my life.”
In her 14 years on the top-rating Sunrise, Nat has become one of the most-loved members of the team. She also regularly slips out from behind the desk to cover huge stories such as the Dreamworld tragedy and the Nice terror attacks. The mum of two found both particularly heartbreaking.
“It obviously makes you a better journalist because you’ve got that much more empathy. Because you can think ‘That could so easily been me.’”
That empathy was painfully evident when Natalie sobbed on air when reporting on the death of mother-of-three Katrina Dawson, who was killed in the Lindt cafe siege in 2014.
She rejects criticism from people who label news crews vultures for broadcasting from the scene of a tragedy. “Yeah, we could all just do it by computer inside our offices in big cities but you’re not going to get the real story,” she says.
Covering last year’s US election was another big moment for the “bare footed girl from the back blocks of Bunbury”, as Kochie once lovingly described her.
Nat loved talking to regular people and getting a real feel for the mood of the country. And she became frustrated in the aftermath of the poll by journalists and commentators simply criticising the process or the result. “No, stop. Don’t put your views onto someone else, whether I like (President Trump) or not, try to understand why. I think that’s more important than just bitching and moaning. Why did someone like him win at this point in time? We know the whole Brexit story and the whole rally against the establishment and isn’t that interesting? Don’t complain about it, try to understand why.”
That same house on the hill where naturally curious Nat once eavesdropped on her parent’s conversations is where she, Andrew and the kids spent Christmas, catching up with Julie and cruising past the locally-famous milk-carton candlelight display.
“We spend a few days in Bunbury and then go down to Dunsborough because we’ve got a beach house that Mum and Dad bought in 1972,” she says. “There is something about WA, particularly the South West — it will always feel like home. And as a West Australian you have such an attachment to other West Australians. We go out every day ad sign autographs and have a chat and people come up and say ‘I’m from Perth’ or ‘I’m from Mandurah’ or ‘I’m from Rockingham’ and there’s this sudden connection.”
So when those same suburbs are not named in a news story, it rankles the proud West Australian. “I’m always emailing the newsroom saying ‘Can we put the suburb in? It’s not just Perth, where exactly was it? Would you do that in Sydney?’”
Natalie spends time after each show responding to Facebook posts and emails — not all of them complimentary or kind — and laments the cruelty of online trolls.
“People are so rude and personal and vicious why can’t we agree to disagree,” she says. The only team member to escape the vitriol is Cash Cow. “You just have to dress up as a big fat cow and then you’re right.”
Back home after work, she might head to the shops and chat to the butcher or the barista or the hardware guy about the news of the day. Then she’ll grab dinner and catch up with the family before a toddler’s bedtime. She admits there are some sacrifices. “I go to bed at 7.30 at night and I can’t go to certain kids stuff and everyone has to be quiet because Mum’s in bed and then Mum’s trotting off to wherever with no notice so the family has to accommodate you,” she says.
“Lots of people ask me about the impact on the kids, and I care but I also want boys to know that in our family and in our experience, Mum’s job’s just as important as Dad’s job. That’s how I was brought up. (Mum didn’t work) but what she did was just as important, it was never put down, it was never thought of as less because she ran the house and took us kids everywhere and worked in the canteen at school and volunteered on the school camp. And Dad’s job was important and it never occurred to me that one was less than another.
“And that’s how we’ve brought our kids up and I’m so lucky because from everything I’ve seen: you can do whatever you want, whoever you are.”
Sunrise is on Seven weekdays from 5.30am, Weekend Sunrise is on from 7am.