Sylvia Jeffreys: ‘I was collateral’
FOR Sylvia Jeffreys and her husband Peter Stefanovic, last Christmas should have marked a quiet end to a tumultuous year.
As part of the Nine Network's Today show team, Jeffreys had spent months maintaining morale in the face of intense media scrutiny, while Stefanovic faced the fallout of the "Ubergate" scandal in which he and his brother Karl made no bones about their discontent with their jobs.
Fresh from celebrating Karl's wedding to Jasmine Yarbrough in Mexico in December, the couple - once dubbed the Harry and Meghan of the Nine Network - were looking forward to spending the festive season with Jeffreys's family on the Gold Coast.
Surely the New Year would bring them better fortune.
But within hours of stepping off the plane after the high-profile nuptials, their worlds had imploded.
Peter was let go, Karl was dumped from Today and Jeffreys was collateral in the biggest breakfast show upheaval in recent television history.
She apparently still had a job, but no-one knew exactly what it might be.
Months on, Jeffreys admits she was blindsided. "I didn't see change on that scale coming," she says candidly. "It was a difficult few days as everything was being sorted out, but I certainly didn't expect it."
If losing the prestigious newsreading role was a bruising shock, it was not quite on the scale of the bombshell dished out to her husband or, indeed, brother-in-law.
"It was a lot to digest all at once," she agrees. "It was an interesting dynamic but, in a sense, [both of us losing our jobs] helped us immensely. We understood what each other was experiencing and the range of emotions that were being felt. I'm glad it happened when it did because we both turned to each other. But we're pretty good at that."
That this is the second time Jeffreys has sat down with Stellar within six months for this cover interview is emblematic of the unpredictability of television.
But, interestingly, half a year on from our first meeting, it's a more rested and relaxed Jeffreys who now reprises her story.
For a start, it's 2pm and she's only had one coffee, unlike the three cups she downed before 11am when still on Today.
She's been to the gym, recently enjoyed a dinner out to celebrate her birthday and even whooped it up at a pub trivia night, an impossibility when she was rising at 3am.
There's none of the yawns or vocabulary failures of the chronically sleep-deprived, and if five years on breakfast TV left shadows under her eyes, a return to more normal hours working on A Current Affair has removed them.
She's also emotionally toughened. "I've grown a few extra layers of skin in the last 12 months," she says, laughing.
"I'm not one to toot my own horn, but with all that's happened I've been reminded of my ability to adapt. The resilience you get out of [these situations] is extremely valuable and at the end of the day, it's just television."
Indeed, far from throwing storm clouds over Jeffreys career, the machinations of recent months have revealed a silver lining.
Hard-working, tenacious and versatile, she's quickly found her footing in prime-time where A Current Affair host Tracy Grimshaw notes she's "warm and passionate", while executive producer (EP) Fiona Dear sees her as a great addition to the team.
"She's keen and caring and she's bombarded me with story ideas, which is an EP's dream," observes Dear.
While her new role offers less of a profile than her last gig, Jeffreys realises TV is best played as a long game where opportunities to hone a broader skill set are embraced.
"I'm feeling very energised," she says. "I've never had the opportunity to work on long-form, so it feels quite indulgent to have 10 minutes to tell a story. Plus, I'm sleeping like a champion!"
If Today promoted Jeffreys on its publicity posters, afforded her a national audience, supplied a never-ending choice of frocks and fast-tracked her into the breakfast club whose members are among the most recognisable faces in the country, then losing those privileges might feel like dropping from first class to economy.
But on the contrary, Nine has reassured her of its commitment by throwing out her old contract - due to expire next year - and re-signing her for another four years. At just 33, Jeffreys is clearly part of their succession planning.
"I'm feeling very supported and encouraged," she says. "It can be hard to feel complete confidence in yourself when sands are shifting, but I'm thrilled Nine is backing me and showing that commitment to me."
In an industry where salaries in the millions are bandied about, it's easy to forget that for most in the field, television is not just a glamorous job but a livelihood.
The threat to job security is as worrisome as the dent to ego, a factor sure to be felt by all affected, including former Today stalwart and Jeffreys's good friend Tim Gilbert.
Compounding the intense media attention over the past two-and-half years surrounding Karl Stefanovic's divorce and subsequent remarriage was Ubergate, a scandal that can't have helped the close-knit brothers' cause.
Jeffreys says her husband was deeply affected by the incident, which saw an Uber driver allegedly record his private conversation with Karl after switching the call to speakerphone.
"He's a sensitive person so he felt huge remorse through that period," reveals Jeffreys. "He felt the ramifications and felt terrible for his brother and for how it played out at a pretty difficult time for Karl as well.
"But we discuss everything together and we have great family units on both sides who love us unconditionally and have a great way of grounding us."
So, does Jeffreys feel she was innocent collateral in the fallout surrounding Karl's marriage breakdown and the impact it had on ratings?
"I don't know on what basis those decisions were made, but whatever way you look at it, I was collateral," she says. After all, it's not gone unnoticed that the high-profile job losses were announced days after Karl's wedding to Yarbrough.
"There was an awful lot of speculation and there still is," Jeffreys says matter-of-factly of the opinion that she and her husband may have been damaged by association. "But they [Karl and Jasmine] are beautiful people who love each other very much and that's all I really care about."
Jeffreys, meanwhile, has enormous respect for her brother-in-law's broadcasting talents - "he throws you curve balls but never leaves you hanging there in silence" - though she notes when it came to dancing at his wedding, the former Liberal Party deputy, Julie Bishop, edged him out as the star of the dance floor.
As for her own marriage, Jeffreys smiles whenever the subject is raised. The Queensland-born reporter started dating the former foreign correspondent in 2014 after the pair co-hosted Weekend Today over the summer.
Stefanovic proposed while they were on holiday in France, and the couple wed in NSW's Kangaroo Valley in April 2017. They recently celebrated their second wedding anniversary a night early because on the actual day, Jeffreys was on assignment.
"I spent the night of my anniversary having a schnitzel in a pub in Dubbo with the cameraman and the soundie," she says with a laugh.
Stefanovic, 37, is about to have a much busier work schedule himself. It was announced last weekend that he will co-anchor Sky News's flagship breakfast program First Edition alongside Laura Jayes from July 1. And he is also set to host that same channel's upcoming documentary series Lawyer X: The Untold Story, about Melbourne's infamous gangland barrister-turned- police-informant Nicola Gobbo.
For all the upheaval in their professional lives, the couple is rock-solid. Stefanovic marked their anniversary with a heartfelt message on Instagram.
"Two years on and I love her more every day," he wrote. Jeffreys remains grateful that they met at a point when both were ready to commit. "We were both willing and able to dive right on in," she tells Stellar.
She appreciates her husband's calm and sense of context - "working in war zones has given him a deep perspective of what is important in life" - while she in turn takes credit for improving his organisation.
"He's great in a work setting, but in a personal sense the guy cannot decide what he wants to have for his next meal. He'll call me seven times to consult on his dinner decisions." She pauses: "I hope I bring a lot of love to him, too."
While they would love to have children, she does tire of the speculation. "I understand that it comes from a friendly place, but it does make a girl a little self-conscious when people are constantly staring at her stomach and asking if she's pregnant because she might be wearing a peplum top or perhaps she might have had a big burrito for breakfast."
She attempts to display faux consternation but instead bursts into laughter. "I share that desire to want to have a baby at some stage, so I get it."
If television is an industry that spins on egos and cut-throat competitiveness, then Jeffreys is somewhat of an aberration.
The youngest of three children raised by her social worker mother Janine after her parents separated when she was three, she was raised to have a strong social conscience and is an ambassador for Youngcare, which campaigns for young people with disabilities who are forced to live in aged care.
Despite their divorce, her parents remained amicable - her dad walked her down the aisle - and instilled in her an instinct for smoothing rather than stoking conflict.
Her mum, Janine Jeffreys, tells Stellar she's amazed by her daughter's ability to communicate and connect with people in various situations and that she's also a ray of sunshine. "Her cheerful personality makes her a joy to be around."
Jeffreys agrees she's always "searching for the laugh" and her friendships with fellow reporters extend beyond Nine to include the Seven Network's Edwina Bartholomew, who married not long after Jeffreys and sought her advice on all things wedding.
The pair covered last year's royal tour together and Jeffreys even has a kind word for the much-critiqued Duchess of Sussex, who she witnessed up close throughout the visit.
"I don't think Prince Harry could be easily fooled, and I'm sure he's made a wise decision as to who he's spending his life with. I feel relieved for him because he's always coped with so much on his own."
It's this inclination to see the good that helped her and Stefanovic through the difficult days at the end of last year. Janine says that she was impressed by the way they operated as a team: "They supported each other in dealing with an unexpected change that impacted greatly on both of them."
For Jeffreys, though, it was her husband's trademark perspective that got her through. She remembers lying in bed on Christmas morning and hearing her nieces and nephews squealing with excitement as they padded up the stairs to see if there were any presents.
Later, she looked over to see Stefanovic with their three-year-old niece in his arms. "She was grabbing his nose and he was playing along with her," she recalls.
"It was a nice distraction, but also a reminder of what really matters."