July 11, 2024
People & Places

Annabel Crabb’s Recipe for success

Media personality Annabel Crabb takes us inside her Sydney home and talks TV, politics, family, Fringe, career and dealing with the depths of grief.

Annabel, Jeremy and the kids in the family kitchen of their previous home where Annabel filmed much of Kitchen Cabinet.

When media personality Annabel Crabb describes herself, she uses words like “disorganised”, “shambolic” and “in a flap”. Yet it is this chaotic and unplanned approach to life that perhaps sits at the heart of this famous South Australian’s success.

Without much forethought, Annabel will take on overlapping, demanding and high-profile commitments and nail them. In the process, the 51-year-old journalist has accidentally transformed herself from political commentator into one of the country’s most in-demand, well-connected and popular media celebrities.

Her drivers are simple – a natural curiosity, a willingness to take risks and an absolute aversion to being bored.

Add to that mix Annabel’s rapid-fire intellect, wit and warmth, and it’s easy to see how she has endeared herself to Australian audiences while conveniently indulging her favourite things – politics, cooking, reading and chatting.

“I don’t really work in a planned way,” she says. “I don’t have a sort of bucket list. It’s just if something strikes me as fun or if an opportunity comes along, I’ll kind of gallop off.

“And I get asked to do interesting things with particularly interesting and weird people and you know, I do want to do all of it.”

Political pundits will know Annabel from her political reporting days at newspaper mastheads such as The Advertiser, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age and The Sun-Herald, as well as her regular TV appearances on ABC election night panels and shows such as Q&A and The Drum.

It was with these major journalistic credentials and a bulging political contact book that Annabel took the idea of her lifestyle show, Kitchen Cabinet, to ABC executives in 2011.

The show, now in its sixth series, takes us into the homes of our most famous political powerbrokers – Malcolm Turnbull, Penny Wong, Julie Bishop, Barnaby Joyce, Scott Morrison, Peter Garrett, Kevin Rudd, Clive Palmer – all the big names have cooked Annabel dinner while chatting informally and then enjoying one of her delicious desserts.

“It’s basically a sneaky way of combining my favourite hobby, which is cooking, with my nosy delight in poking around at people’s houses and asking them questions that are more prying, that I couldn’t ask them in a straight interview,” Annabel says.

“Taking people out for coffee, beer or dinner is an extremely good way of sussing them out. Interviewing people in politics is one thing – they’re inevitably on their guard. But when you’re sharing a meal and there isn’t a notebook in sight, that’s when you can really work out who they are.”

The success of Kitchen Cabinet has enabled Annabel to springboard to other documentary-style shows including The House (a behind the scenes look at the workings of Parliament House), and Ms Represented (exploring politics from the female perspective).

But the real ratings bonanza has been built around the media identity’s hit podcast Chat 10 Looks 3, launched in 2014 with friend and former 7.30 host Leigh Sales.

The show sprang from the idea of the two high-profile journalists just catching up to discuss what they were reading, listening to, watching, cooking and generally experiencing in life; a way to de-stress.

At first the duo wasn’t sure anyone would actually tune in, but the podcast accidentally tapped into a burgeoning target market – generally speaking, middle-aged women, avid readers and keen cooks. It went on to spawn a movement, a legion of fans now known as “Chatters” and at last count it had a listening audience of more than 100,000 per episode, and a Facebook community of some 45,000 followers. Annabel and Leigh also wrote a book, Well Hello, and developed a live stage show, all based on the success of the podcast. Chatters in their thousands flocked to have their books signed and photos taken with their Chat 10 idols. “I cannot go anywhere without running into Chatters,” Annabel says.

She duly recounts how she cut her hand last year and ended up at a Sydney hospital: “I was being triaged and sitting in this booth and a nurse came over and said, ‘Oh my God, I have to say hello, I’m a Chatter’. There are lots of weird things about being sort-of recognisable, so obviously my ability to shoplift is very affected. But sometimes you can super cheer someone up just by saying hello and that is a very nice thing to be able to do.

“The downside is that when I’m out with my kids and I stop and talk to lots of people the kids say, ‘No, you’re going to talk for a million gazillion hours’, which is true because I don’t know when to stop talking.”

The key to the Chat 10 Looks 3 community (the name came from a line in a musical) is that listeners feel they have morphed from fans to friends, included in the minutiae of Annabel and Leigh’s lives. It is now a community that is built around kindness and friendship, and that is what makes Annabel most proud.

Annabel with her Chat 10 co-host Leigh Sales at the Logies last year.

“It’s one of the best things I’ve accidentally done in my whole life,” she says. “It feels like being connected to tens of thousands of people you haven’t met, but you know you’d absolutely really like.”

The rawness and depth of her connection with the public was clear when Annabel shared her own deeply personal and distressing news. In January 2022, Annabel’s older brother James, 51 years old and a gifted artist, took his own life.

The shocking grief for Annabel and her entire family, parents Mac and Christobel, younger brother Tom and his partner Karen Butcher, was overwhelming.

That grief was compounded when, in June last year, Annabel’s beloved sister-in-law Anisa Zulfiqar, 46, passed away from cancer. Anisa was married to Annabel’s brother-in-law Damien and was a devoted mother to their two young daughters Soraya, 13 and Amina, eight.

For Annabel, it was a dark and devastating period and she coped in the best way she knew how – by keeping busy.

She and partner Jeremy Storer have three children, Audrey, 17, Elliott, 14 and Kate, 11, and Annabel pushed on with her work commitments including as the ABC’s online chief political commentator, as well as hosting a variety of television shows such as the Back In Time series.

When James died, Annabel was mid-way through an intensive eight-episode shoot as host of the ABC comedy show Tomorrow Tonight. With the support of her younger brother and parents, she honoured her commitments to the show before flying home to Adelaide.

“I had to ask that no one on the show be told what had happened, because I knew I couldn’t cope if everyone was asking me how I was,” she says. “So, I went straight from there, to then making a new series of Back in Time for Dinner and at the same time the 2022 election campaign was on, so I was working seven days, insane hours and we bought a house in the middle of that.”

Annabel’s parents Christobel and Mac with Annabel and Jeremy’s children Audrey, Elliott and Kate.

Eventually, something had to give and, in this case, it was Annabel’s health. She lost her voice and had to start seeing a speech pathologist.

“I discovered I wasn’t breathing properly and I was using too many muscles to talk, using muscles in my shoulders and neck and chest to project my voice and basically, I just broke it,” she says.

“It was scary because I hadn’t realised how much psychology affects the voice. So, because I had two tragic events in the space of 18 months and I was making TV shows … I just put on a bright face and kept going. I was using all these weird muscles to kind of get through. It was messed up.

“I held it together and then I took long service leave and then the wheels really fell off, because the human body is amazing, it will kind of hang in there for things that you can’t get out of and then the second you get a minute to yourself, it’s like you just fall apart. Which is a necessary part of the process.”

Annabel also sought professional help for her mental health.

“I hate the secrecy and shame that has existed around mental illness and suicide,” she says. “I think, frankly, that one has historically led to the other. Suicide is horrifying, but it’s everywhere. It’s a brutal thing to have to explain to your children.

“But not talking about it is even worse. It’s like pretending James never lived. Or defining a whole life by one act.

“Anisa’s death was different – a slow death, from cancer, unbearable in a completely different way, for my brother-in-law Damien, for their young daughters, for everyone in the family who watched it happen and couldn’t stop it.

Annabel’s sister-in-law Anisa, who sadly lost her battle with cancer. She is photographed with husband Damien Storer and their daughters Soraya and Amina.

“There is no such thing as an upside to these terrible events … but there are flashes of powerful humanity that are unforgettable and permanent. Watching my parents gently take care of each other in the aftermath of their eldest child’s death. My younger brother’s steely resolve and dark, dark humour that fished me out of unspeakable depths. Anisa’s courage and wisdom in death. Meeting and falling in love with her siblings from the UK and Pakistan. My children’s relentless love for their cousins, and refusal to turn away even when things got scary. Realising how lucky I’ve been to have in-laws I’d choose as friends.

“Also meeting Sophie Relf-Christopher, the priest at St Jude’s Brighton, who conducted my brother’s funeral. My brother was an irreligious man, but would absolutely nevertheless have loved Sophie as much as we all now do; a finer embodiment of Christian charity, love, intelligence and warmth I am yet to encounter.”

Living life in the spotlight is a long way from Annabel’s childhood, growing up on a sheep and cereal crop farm near Two Wells, some 40 kilometres north of Adelaide.

Farm life was all about mucking in, building stooks from wheat sheaves, stacking hay bales and shearing, crutching, or dipping sheep. To this day Annabel won’t eat land-based meat.

“It’s weird, I think of my childhood as totally average and unremarkable because it was the only one that I had, but looking back, I realise that growing up on a farm is quite an amazing and fortunate experience where you learn a lot,” she says.

“To this day, I am very good at refashioning rubbish or lashing things together with twine; as an urban parent this skill has won me the permanent contract for Book Week costumes. And still the smell that makes me happiest is the smell of rain on hot dry earth. I reckon any kid who’s grown up in a drought-prone region has an affection for that smell, which even has its own magical name, petrichor. If there was a room spray available, I’d buy it.”

Annabel says the other thing she learnt from living in a regional community is how to get along with a diverse range of people, as well as the importance of helping others out.

“Even the dickheads!” she quips. “Because in a good community, people will help you too … this becomes quite key down the track when it’s you being the dickhead, for whatever reason. Seasons turn. You have to take the crunchy with the smooth. You try and err on the side of generosity.

Annabel with her younger brother Tom just before he sailed in the Melbourne Osaka Yacht Race.

“It’s a pretty good philosophy and even though my kids have grown up in the city, it’s been probably the biggest thing I’ve hoped for, actually, no, that I’ve expected from them.

“The thing I’ve said to my kids most often as a parent, other than ‘hang up that sodden towel and put on sunscreen’ is, ‘I know you will make mistakes and do dumb things from time to time and that is normal, but I don’t want you to lie and if I ever catch you being cruel to another person, I will be seriously angry’.”

Annabel attended Two Wells Primary School and at age 11, was awarded a scholarship to the prestigious Wilderness School where she was a boarder.

While initially “a complete country bumpkin” she gradually began to thrive, both academically and socially, and was eventually voted head prefect.

The gifted young student excelled at debating, a talent she continued to foster at Adelaide University where she went on to study Arts/Law.

It was in her Adelaide Uni days that Annabel got to know a host of future political and media types, including sharing a house with Francis Greenslade, (now a regular on the ABC comedy series Mad As Hell), Rachel Healy (who went on to become the artistic director of the Adelaide Festival), and now-book illustrator Andrew Joyner.

“Looking back, it’s genuinely weird how many baby politicians and political journos were at Adelaide Uni at that same time,” she says. “I’m sure I’m leaving some out, but Penny Wong, Jay Weatherill, Pat Conlon and Mark Butler I met during those years, plus George Karzis and Jack Snelling from the Labor Right, while Christopher Pyne and Andrew Southcott were up and coming in the Libs, and Natasha Stott Despoja was the students’ association president while I was there.

“In first year, I became friends with (future journalist) Samantha Maiden, who along with Dave Penberthy, who was then-editor of On Dit student newspaper, are among the most naturally gifted journos I’ve ever met. Both of them went on to incredible media careers and both knew they wanted to be journos; personally, I don’t think I ever considered it for myself, which seems strange now.”

A young Annabel with her father Mac and older brother James, who tragically took his own life in 2022.

It wasn’t until Annabel graduated from law school that she realised she had no interest in becoming a lawyer. So, in 1997, her friend, journalist and soon-to-become MP Chloe Fox, suggested Annabel sit for The Advertiser cadetship.

“I didn’t have many other big ideas at that time and I was already in my mid-20s with two degrees and a history of odd jobs ranging from waiter – which was disastrous and short-lived – to Wilderness Society koala to Census collector, farm hand, cleaner and bowser attendant. I was ready for a proper job,” she says.

While a junior journalist at The Advertiser, Annabel says her favourite story was her page one exclusive: “This Dog Had Surgery In A Public Hospital”, where a vet had snuck a dog into a hospital operating theatre, using the respiratory equipment while it was fitted with a Pacemaker.

“Outrage, abuse of public resources etc; basically, in the tabloid newspaper trade, we used to call a ‘F**k Me, Gladys!’ story. As in, ‘F**k me Gladys! Did you see this story about a dog getting surgery in a human hospital?’ she says.

“Legendary ‘Tiser photographer Chris ‘Mango’ Mangan and I set forth to find the dog, and were successful; it was a purebred, wire-haired schnauzer called Melody, who, happily, we were able to photograph through the front gate.”

After much nagging, Annabel was appointed to the state politics team where veteran journalist, the late Greg Kelton became a mentor and friend, as did respected political commentator Phil Coorey, now with the Australian Financial Review, and journalist Miranda Murphy whom Annabel says is “one of the funniest writers and quickest minds I know”.

“She has now retrained as a speech therapist, which is a loss to journalism, but bang on time for my speech needs. And Sales and I still force her to write jokes for us in the Chat 10 Looks 3 newsletter,” she says.

By 1999, Annabel had made the jump to the Canberra Press Gallery, arriving on Federal budget day, suddenly acutely aware of how little she knew outside of SA politics.

Annabel on the set of Back In Time For The Corner Shop with the show’s stars Sienna and Olivia Ferrone.

“The only way to get across this stuff is to talk to lots of people and ask dumb questions,” she says. “Fortunately, South Australia always punches above its weight in federal politics. Back then, the Howard Cabinet had Robert Hill, Amanda Vanstone and Nick Minchin, while Nick Bolkus and Chris Schacht were in Kim Beazley’s shadow cabinet. The Democrats, about to become hugely powerful in the negotiations around the GST, were SA-ruled thanks to Meg Lees and Natasha Stott Despoja.”

During her years in Canberra, Annabel says the press gallery was a male-dominated domain and she sought support from female colleagues such as Samantha Maiden, Helen McCabe, Emma-Kate Symons, Elizabeth Meryment, Kath Cummins and Michelle Grattan.

“But like many women over past generations who felt excited and fortunate to be able to work in a place as interesting as the national Parliament, I realise now I accepted a lot of crappy, sexist behaviour as part of the deal,” she says

“Politicians who were either offended to be dealing with a young female reporter, or massively pleased for reasons that had nothing to do with the interview. Staffers who offered insights, but turned into octopuses after a drink or two. Press secretaries who talked to your boobs and then demanded to talk to your boss. And always, always blokes at any level who you’d sit down with for 20 minutes while they explained things to you, and after a while you’d arrive at the sickening, but inescapable, conclusion that they were actual, proper idiots.

“To be honest, realising that there are idiots at every level of the federal power structure is something of a relief, because you don’t feel so much of a fraud yourself. But it’s a worry for the nation, especially when we make such a fuss about being a meritocracy.

“So, yes, Parliament was a sexist place when I arrived. But I was ideally placed to cope with it; I was young and ambitious, I had no kids, I could work endless hours and handle my booze and I never experienced a late-night lunge I couldn’t confidently deflect. Plus, I had a mouthy bunch of female friends.”

In 2003, Annabel was made London correspondent for the Sunday Age and Sun-Herald and in her spare time, the prolific writer also published her first book, Losing It, The Inside Story of the Labor Party in Opposition.

Her other books have included Men At Work: Australia’s Parenthood Trap, the 2009 Walkley Award-winning Quarterly Essay Stop At Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull and the important The Wife Drought published in 2014, addressing the work-life balance for women, an issue Annabel can talk to from first-hand experience.

Annabel will be back in her hometown of Adelaide this month to present her new Fringe show The Grilling Season at The Flamingo in Gluttony until March 17.

“Half the time when I was trying to make it to a TV shoot, I was also juggling babies,” she says. “I did a whole season of Kitchen Cabinet with baby Kate strapped to my chest and then strapped to my producer’s chest because she would not be put down and she was 12 weeks old when this was happening.

“I mean there were mad things. I got mastitis on camera when I was interviewing Nick Xenophon. We were cooking over a charcoal fire, so I thought I was just getting hot because of the coals, but if you look closely, you can actually see my right boob inflate.”

She credits her long-time partner Jeremy, a media lawyer for the ABC, with making the work/life juggle more manageable for their family of five.

The duo met in 1991 when Jeremy was the barman at the Exeter Hotel and studying law. Annabel says she liked that he was “a bit shy but very smart”, and they liked the same books.

“We are quite different people in some ways,” she says. “I’m outgoing, he’s shy; he’s massively organised and methodical whereas I’m more, let’s say creative and spontaneous.”

The couple were engaged several years ago, but Annabel says there are no plans for a wedding at this stage.

“I have nothing against marriage – it’s just that I’m disorganised, and I’d rather take time off work to have children than get married,” she says. “That’s pretty brutal, isn’t it? But Jem and I have been together for 30 years. I reckon we’ve toughed out all the vows. It hasn’t always been easy, of course, but it works because we have complementary skills and similar values.

“In our relationship, he does all the jobs that require attention-to-detail and, crucially, the filling out of any forms. He does uniform ordering, school forms, holiday planning, all the bookings for Chat 10 live shows, my tax return, keeping passports up to date, and so forth.

Annabel with former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“I do all the bits that involve talking to another human, plus cooking, special projects, Book Week costumes, card writing … I’m trying to think of something else.

“He never gets in a flap the way I do – I once sat next to him in a sushi restaurant and listened to him legalling a TV program as it went live to air. I was nearly dead with stress, but he didn’t crack a sweat,” she says. “He’s incredibly ethical, thorough and if he tells me I’m going too far journalistically, I listen.

“I also love the way he takes care of his family, not just us, but his brothers and sister, and his parents when they were alive.

“I’ve never known him to be mean, and we never fight about money. Just about things like ‘Why are you still not ready?’ (him), or ‘Would it kill you to give me a hug?’ (me). I’m more demonstrative than he is, but over the years I’ve learned that he expresses his devotion in other ways.”

The family gets back to Adelaide whenever possible to see their vast network of friends and family, including the large and close Storer clan, Jeremy’s brothers Mark, Damien and Tim (an ex-SA Senator) and sister Margot, as well as Tim’s partner Belinda Chan, and Margot’s partner Rob Gordon.

Annabel was back in Adelaide last year for her first Adelaide Fringe show, 50 Odd Years of Crabb, which was a sold-out hit and written to celebrate her 50th birthday.

“The show was kind of a dare to myself to do something that absolutely terrified me,” she says. “I’m actually fine about speaking in front of people, but it’s usually me interviewing somebody, so getting up and talking about myself for an hour was super confronting.”

The versatile performer will return to the Adelaide Fringe this year with her new show The Grilling Season, which she describes as “50 minutes of me telling funny stories about politics around food”.

With youngest daughter Kate who dressed up as her famous mum for Halloween – and nailed it.

As for the future, Annabel says there are more TV shows on the horizon, including a new season of Kitchen Cabinet, a bunch of podcast ideas, and she is also working on a book about politics aimed at primary school children.

Reflecting on her life and success, Annabel is understated.

“All careers make sense in the rear vision mirror,” she says. “There wasn’t much of a plan. I’m ambitious and always have been, I hate that somehow ambition is a bad word when applied to women. But a better word is ‘opportunist’ I suppose.

“I just like finding out about people, especially the ones I don’t agree with or who have different lives from mine. I’m a flawed person; I’m horrendously disorganised and I get in flaps when I’m stressed, but I don’t have one persona for TV and another for home, which makes life a million times easier when you have any kind of public profile. You’re not worried all the time about being caught out, or photographed without makeup or whatever.

“Leigh once gave me an excellent piece of advice about social media, which was take everything with a pinch of salt, whether you’re being praised or being abused. If you drink the Kool-Aid when they love you, it’ll hurt a lot more when they hate you. It’s terrific advice.”

If this article has raised any issues, 24-hour help is available: Lifeline Australia 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636 beyondblue.org.au.


This article first appeared in the March 2024 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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