Prue MacSween subscribes to the philosophy of Eleanor Roosevelt, who once said: “’A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.”
This former journalist, small business owner and media commentator believes that challenges early in her life have shaped her career and destiny and made her the strong personality she has become.
While not always everyone’s cup of tea, because of the strong opinions she expresses on Channel 7’s Sunrise, Channel 9’s A Current Affair and on radio 2UE and 2GB, Prue is always noticed.
This was not the case when she spent over a year of her life in a wheelchair as a young girl, having undergone hip operations, spent months in hospital and learning to walk again.
“In those days, people found people with disabilities or in wheelchairs awkward,” Prue explained. “Wheelchairs in those days were big and cumbersome and you were this ugly piece of furniture in the room. People felt intimidated. What can you say to a child of 10 who desperately wants to be playing with the other children outside and can’t?”
Prue believes that it was during this period that she acquired some valuable insights and lessons about people, communication and interaction.
“I was an unfortunate piece of furniture in the room. Ignored or overlooked, spoken about, not with. It was an interesting period in my life and a huge learning curve for me. I think it’s when I became assertive, strident and intent on voicing my opinion! I refused to be ignored and cast as a ‘victim’. It was certainly a way to be noticed!”
Another challenge Prue faced early in life was the loss of her father, who died suddenly when she was 17 and just starting her career at a suburban newspaper group.
“Dad was larger than life, our rock. At that age I felt I would have had my father around for a long time. Our relationship as father and daughter was transitioning as I was entering adulthood. We were communicating on a different level and there was so much more to say to each other and do together in the coming years. He was taken from me, my Mum, my elder sister and brother way too early.
“To this day, I feel robbed of the chance to know my Dad as an adult, as a mentor, advisor, loving father and friend. Lessons in life about business and financial management were not available to me and I had to acquire these skills by default and trial and error.”
Prue always knew she wanted a career as a communicator. At school she was in the debating team and an editor of the school magazine.
“If I could get out of sport, I did. Debating, editing, doing anything with words was my calling. Sadly, fielding on a cricket pitch I found boring and I was never very good at any sporting activity sadly.
“It was because I was creative that I toyed with the idea of working in the advertising world or journalism,” she said. “I graduated high school and was offered a Commonwealth Scholarship at university, but I really wanted a cadetship in journalism or an opportunity as a copywriter in advertising.
“Having a tertiary education was drummed into me, so not furthering my studies was never an option. But in those days there wasn’t a journalism degree, so after I gained a position at Eastern Suburbs Newspapers, I studied marketing and communications at Sydney Technical College three nights a week for four years.
“Marketing was a comprehensive discipline. It teaches you to hone in on exactly what your objectives are, who your target audience is and what messages you want to communicate. I learnt how to develop strategies, to be creative and evaluate results.
“I would recommend it to anyone as it can be applied to any business.”
Her life was about to change in a big way when Prue’s Mother saw an advertisement for a TV Hostess for regional television station, TNQ7 Townsville.
“I applied for the position and sent an audition tape in, along with a thousand other young hopefuls. I was lucky enough to get an interview and was invited to a meeting at a hotel in Kings Cross.
“I was young and inexperienced and my Mother was suspicious that the producer I was to meet may have had ulterior motives. She waited downstairs in reception while I knocked on the hotel room door, wondering if I was going to be chased around a casting couch!
“Imagine my relief when Ken Sutcliffe, now a familiar face as Sports Presenter on the Nine Network, opened the door!”
Ken was Head of Production at the channel at the time and had the job of deciding which four hopefuls he would fly to Townsville for a screen test.
“I was lucky enough to be one of them. Landing that job was a turning point in my career,” Prue said.
“Flying into Townsville, which at the time, seemed to be at the end of the earth, was a big challenge for me. I was young, friendless and miles away from my family and entering a new and scary job!
“It was a case of shape up or ship out!”
It was the perfect training ground. Prue started working as a reporter in the newsroom, learning to edit her stories, writing the links and eventually reading the news breaks.
“I was also given my own children’s afternoon show, which I had to produce and present. I even had to drive down the mountain to collect the talent and handle those awkward live television moments when their pet animals ran amuck or the children announced they wanted to go to the toilet!”
Prue also created her weekly women’s talk show where she interviewed visiting celebrities and sports stars, politicians and local personalities.
“Looking back, it was the perfect place to hone your interviewing skills and deal with all sorts of issues. In addition to my television commitments, I had to compare Masonic and Debutante Balls, do a lot of charity work and personal appearances. I had the time of my life.”
Out of the blue, Prue received a call from Gerald Stone, the highly-respected then News Director at Channel 9 Sydney.
“Gerald had seen a tape of me and offered me a job in the Sydney newsroom. I jumped at the opportunity as I was homesick and this was an amazing career opportunity,” Prue said.
“I remember my first day walking into the newsroom. There were some of the journalists I had grown up with and respected, Ian Ross, Barry Matheson, Jim Waley, Peter Meakin, Peter Harvey, Greg Grainger. All top in their field and so highly regarded. I was intimidated, over-awed and privileged to be working alongside them.”
Being a woman in a newsroom was a rare thing at the time, so Prue experienced some challenges during this period, including learning to handle politicians who called her “girlie” or asked her out on a date.
“Sometimes you had to fight to be taken seriously. You had to be louder and more assertive than the other journalists to do the job.”
Prue was then offered the opportunity to join the all-female current affairs program, No Man’s Land which was produced at Channel 9 Melbourne.
“I seized the opportunity as we were encouraged to come up with story ideas and we had more time to explore issues. It was a stimulating, exciting period and I was working with a great bunch of women including Susan Peacock, Debra Lee-Furness, Jeanne Pratt and Mickie De Stoope.”
Prue went on to work at Channel 9 Perth and then accepted a position as journalist at Southdown Press, publishers of New Idea and TV Week.
“I was keen to get back to the east coast and seized the opportunity to gain experience as a magazine writer. I had a magical time, travelling to America to interview famous stars of television and film and looking after the big-names who attended the Logies like John Wayne, Muhammad Ali, Rachel Welch, Dennis Waterman and Ernest Borgnine.”
Prue transferred to Sydney when she was made NSW Editor of TV Week, a role she found stimulating as it was a time when the magazine was enjoying one of the top weekly circulations.
“I was approached by Brian Walsh, who was then Head of Publicity at Network Ten. He suggested I start my own PR business and the network would be my first client,” Prue said. “It was an offer I could not refuse and I doubled my income immediately.”
Prue’s then business, Prue MacSween & Associates became an instant success, with big brands attracted to her creativity, connections and results.
“I was privileged to work with global brands like British Airways, Nestle, Westfield, Arnott’s, Government entities, celebrities, media outlets and major events like Australia Day, the Bicentenary and Royal Visits. It was an exciting rollercoaster period of my life where I had to learn on the job, understand how to manage a rapidly expanding business and juggle staffing issues, cashflow challenges and the myriad of tasks and trials small business faces on a daily basis.”
In tandem with the success of this undertaking, Prue and a few partners went into the skincare manufacturing business.
“During my time at TV Week, looking after celebrities, I formed a great friendship with Ernest Borgnine and his wife, Tova, who had a highly successful beauty business in America. Tova wanted me to go over there and work with her, but I decided I would introduce the business model of online selling in Australia instead.
“It was naive of us to believe that we had enough capital to make a business of this type work,” Prue said. “We made the classic mistakes of a poorly-devised business model and a lack of funding to compete against the big international beauty houses.
“We set up business in a warehouse and I located my PR firm there. In between business meetings, I would rush into the warehouse to spruik on a microphone, selling to the busloads of shoppers wanting a magic pot of skin cream.
“Our problem was that the product we were selling was of the highest quality and very expensive to manufacture. We couldn’t get enough turnover long-term to compete against other big brands as a full page in the Women’s Weekly cost close to $20,000. Eventually, we ran out of funds and I was out of the beauty business, with many lessons learnt!
“I decided to focus on my core business from then on.”
Prue now runs PR company, Verve Communications with her business partner, Louise Di Francesco, another former journalist. We have a great team and wonderful clients including Bayer, Tourism Fiji, Scalabrini Villages, IMB Building Society, Grocon, Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, Business Events Sydney to name just a few.
“While running your own business is immensely satisfying, there are constant demands and pressures. But what I do love about it is that you are master of your own destiny. You get out of it what you put in. I will always have some involvement in my business and will happily die at my desk.”
Prue’s love for the media has never died and she regularly appears on television and radio. She is probably best-remembered as a feisty panellist on ‘Beauty and The Beast”, which was hosted by Stan Zemanek. The show began at FOXTEL and was a huge success, so much so, that the TEN Network began airing it every afternoon.
Other regular “beauties” on the show included Jeanne Little, Lisa Wilkinson, Carlotta, Johanna Griggs, Ita Buttrose, Maureen Duval and Jan Murray. Guest appearances were made by Rose Hancock and Pauline Hanson and visiting celebrities who seized the opportunity to appear on a show that had a huge national cult following.
“I was in Parliament House Canberra, attending a meeting with a client and everywhere I went, the Ministers’ staffers were keen to tell me how much they loved the unpredictability and outrageousness of the show. Some of them even missed Question Time when they could so they could catch it!
“It was fabulous television because it stretched the boundaries, was unpredictable and very un-PC. Sadly, it would not get to air these days with all the political correctness and laws that make it difficult to even express your opinion,” Prue lamented.
When Stan Zemanek left his top-rating 8pm – midnight program on 2UE, Prue stepped in to take his role. She won a big audience who were attracted to her strong opinions and naughty sense-of-humour.
“I absolutely love radio. It is testing and spontaneous. You know immediately what people think about you. I loved sparring with them and hearing their stories. It was wonderful fun but exhausting as I was running my PR company concurrently.
“After a year of high-ratings, I had to quit as both jobs were suffering and I was running out of steam. Happily, I get the opportunity occasionally to do the odd shift or comment on radio shows in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra.”
Having met Carlotta, Australia’s most famous trans-sexual when they were both panellists on Beauty and the Beast, Prue agreed to write her biography, “I’m Not That Kind Of Girl”.
“I was doing an afternoon radio program on 2UE at the time and I had to rush home at the end of the shift at 3pm to start writing,” Prue said. “It was a fascinating period in Sydney when Carlotta was growing up.
“We traversed her early years in Balmain as a young boy called Richard and then we followed him to Kings Cross where he transformed into Carlotta, perhaps the most famous performer at Les Girls.
“She had some wonderful stories about life in the Cross in the sixties. The big-name stars and gangsters she met at the Silver Spade and Chevron. The fabulous glamorous clothes, the colour and the characters who frequented the famous strip.
“It was also a dangerous period if you were gay. The police raided the bars and nightclubs and many a time Carlotta had to jump out of windows to escape the wrath of the law.”
The book was a best-seller, going into five reprints and it was the basis for the recent telemovie on the ABC.
“It rekindled my love of writing and I intend to do another book in the years to come,” Prue said.
Prue recently appeared in two television programs as a celebrity guest. She cooked up a storm in Celebrity Come Dine With Me a couple of years ago and, more recently, was on Celebrity Apprentice, competing against Triple World Boxing champ, Jeff Fenech, former Olympians Stephanie Rice and Dawn Fraser and a host of other colourful personalities.
“It was a gruelling, taxing, exciting experience,” she said. “We were operating on very little sleep and under great pressure to raise money for our nominated charities.”
Prue works for a number of charitable organisations including one close to her heart because of her Father’s death, the Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute, Save Our Sons, which seeks to raise money for clinical trials to find a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, Youth Off The Streets for homeless young people and Cancer Australia.
“I was diagnosed with breast cancer last year and underwent chemotherapy, an operation and radiation. It was quite a year and one I would not like to go through again, but I am grateful to have come through relatively unscathed, although I am keen to get my hair back!”
Since meeting her partner, Chris Lehman eight years ago, Prue has become step-mother to three children, Jock, Claudia and Susanna one of the biggest challenges she has faced.
“I was always pretty old-fashioned in my attitude towards parenthood. Working the kind of hours I do, I didn’t think it would be fair to have latch-key children who would have to come home to an empty house and fridge full of champagne.
“Thankfully, they have turned out extremely well and their Father was able to step in and play a major role while I was handling work commitments.
“Having children adds a new perspective to your life and of course, new pressures – financial and otherwise. But I can’t imagine life without them and as they enter adulthood, it is wonderful seeing their lives flourish and develop.
“I also sponsor a delightful little boy in Cambodia. To see this sweet little child, who has so very little in life, work so hard at school and beams with pride as he achieves in class or in sport, is truly amazing and rewarding.
“I firmly believe that, if it is within our capacity, we should all give back wherever we can.”