Karl Stefanovic: ‘Jasmine didn’t steal me from Cassandra’
Karl Stefanovic has been eating. A lot. Milkybars, lollies, Burger Rings and chips - the whole junk-food caboodle. He reckons it's an act of selflessness and a measure of the love he has for his wife, Jasmine, as she nears the end of her pregnancy.
"I don't want to be selfish, you know," he says to Stellar, laughing as he leans back in his chair. "I don't want to look like I'm Brad Pitt at the same time that she's going through a body transformation while having a baby."
He takes another sip from his can of rum and Coke and continues with faux seriousness: "When I get photographed coming out of the surf looking rotund, it's all for her. As soon as she has the baby, I'm going to hit the treadmill."
Confident, cheeky, naughty, blokeish - it's the Stefanovic of old and not the chastened, apologetic version of the past few years who sits down with Stellar for a rare in-depth interview to mark his resurrection as the Messiah - or menace (depending on your point of view, and everyone has one) - of breakfast television.
It's the end of a long day and one suspects he'd rather go home to his wife and hang out with his kids, but after 15 years at the helm of Today - including a benching of sorts - he knows occasionally letting the media in is a part of the job.
As it turns out, over two hours he barely draws breath as he discusses his marriage break-up, job loss, the end of his on-air partnership with Lisa Wilkinson, marriage to Jasmine (née Yarbrough) and the baby they are expecting next month.
While he's upbeat, moments of vulnerability surface regularly, a legacy of the bruising and soul-searching last few years of his life. "I know what pain is now," he says, reflecting on his marriage break-up with Cassandra Thorburn and the professional and personal fallout that followed.
"Truly, I know what pain is, I know what hurt is, I know what trauma is. To be aware of those things and know that I can get through them puts me in a good place."
After spending last year in network-imposed self-isolation from the studio he's commanded since 2005 - and coming to some harrowing personal realisations - he's hit the microphone running as the nation has been buffeted by drought, bushfires and now coronavirus.
These big stories are what he does best and loves most, and he's returned with renewed zeal to get the answers and prosecute a case for the viewers he says he represents.
"That's why I came back," he says earnestly. "I feel a really keen sense of responsibility to raise awareness and express those opinions [on behalf of] people. I don't just come on and say, 'Oh what about the Prime Minister, isn't he hopeless?' I hope I don't come across as a wanker, but I have an ability to change things for the better."
Stefanovic, 45, is one of a growing number of mainstream broadcasters - The Project's Waleed Aly and the UK's Piers Morgan among them - who use their platform to editorialise, either off the cuff or via scripted monologue, about issues riling them. But Stefanovic is adamant he's not grandstanding.
"I don't do it because I think my opinion is the most worthy," he says. "And I'm not so completely up myself I think everyone needs to hear what I say. I have a great ability that I inherited from my mother in being able to read situations and people in a sensitive way."
To that end, he tries to speak up when "something needs to be said, or something needs to be done or someone needs to be held to account".
Right now, he says it's his job to point out inconsistencies in the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis, but he acknowledges that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has a difficult job.
"He's working his arse off, and there are no winners in this terrible, terrible story. The only hope is he can bind the community together and impart on us that feeling John Howard used to convey in a time of crisis, that sense of togetherness. History will judge him, but if he can do it, he'll go down as a great prime minister."
Stefanovic himself has set up "Karl's Classifieds" on Facebook to give shout-outs to struggling small businesses. "We've been inundated," he says. "I'm incredibly proud of what they're doing to try to survive."
If coronavirus is the biggest story of his career, it's also impacted his personal life as he and Jasmine, 36, await the birth of their daughter in May, 18 months after their December 2018 wedding in Mexico.
He's excited but envisages it will be bittersweet being unable to share their newborn with Jasmine's 94-year-old grandmother or his mum in Cairns. "It'll be a testing time, but we're not alone in that. And it will be wonderful, too."
Stefanovic says his three children from his first marriage - Jackson, 20, Ava, 15, and River, 13 - embrace having a new sibling.
Ava was with the couple as they opened the envelope informing them of the baby's gender, while River, his father reveals, accompanies Jasmine on craving-driven trips to McDonald's and has no hesitation teasingly telling his expectant stepmother that she has "stacked it on".
Stefanovic was elated to learn he would be a father again, but was also concerned about managing a blended family. "I was worried for Jasmine, and for the kids, that it would be a hurdle, but they've been fantastic. I hope having a little baby girl in the household is going to be unifying."
So what's he looking forward to this time around? "Waking up at 3.30am, changing a nappy, doing a feed and coming in to do an interview with the prime minister!" He laughs. "No, I'm looking forward to breathing a bit more. I think I'll be a better parent than I was. You learn how to prioritise moments, and I think that's part of the evolution for a bloke."
Mostly, though, he is pleased for his wife, who's endured an element of public condemnation since they met in late 2016, five months after he split from Thorburn.
"We've been trying for a bit of time, so it's beautiful for her," he tells Stellar. "She's been through so much. She's been pilloried and accused of things that didn't happen. It's not her fault she fell in love with bugalugs, and the accusations were wrong about her stealing me from Cassandra. It's rubbish and it's hurtful.
"She's just a beautiful, sweet woman from Queensland who runs a business and fell in love with me."
Stefanovic says Jasmine is a "very modern woman", and to that end he does most of the cooking, having bought himself a set of Japanese knives. His specialities are slow-cooked lamb and lasagne.
Earlier this year, he marked her birthday with a post on Instagram showing her laughing with their dog. "You are such a light," he wrote. "A great big beautiful happy unwavering light."
He's incredulous - and grateful - that she's stayed with him and admits that, at the height of the scrutiny, he asked her why.
"There were times when I asked, 'Do you really want to do this?'" he explains, touching the tangle of bracelets on his wrist (a gift from his wife).
"I don't think I would be with me. On a good day, I can be charming, but that's about it. My best-looking days are behind me, I could be fitter. Why is someone that beautiful with me?" he smiles. "Not that I'm complaining."
While he describes their relationship as "peaceful", he also appreciates his wife's steadfastness as he plummeted from television's loveable rogue to the most scrutinised man in the nation.
For a decade, he and co-host Lisa Wilkinson successfully helmed Today, steadily clawing viewers from the once higher-rating Sunrise until, in 2016, they were neck and neck.
But his divorce, younger girlfriend, Wilkinson's 2017 defection and the Ubergate scandal that revealed him critiquing his new co-host Georgie Gardner took their toll. Just days after his wedding to Jasmine, Nine executives announced he was being dumped from Today.
On reflection, he says, "I never really stopped and went, 'Oh sh*t, I've just been taken off the show.' I just thought it was going to be a break. But I had, 100 per cent, been taken off forever. I was in denial. I don't think it dawned until a few months afterwards when I thought to myself, 'Oh, maybe I should start thinking about what I'm going to do now.'"
With hindsight, Stefanovic can see he wasn't coping. There were flare-ups at paparazzi; he became anxious to leave his home. He eventually saw a psychologist who diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
"I remember him saying, 'You tick all the boxes, my friend.' I could have kept going, but you don't know how long you can go until you break. I don't know of too many people in Australia who had that extent of scrutiny for so long. This guy raised some points and mental notes and strategies. Once I started to get knowledge of my own behaviours, I started getting more control."
The experience has left him with deep respect for mental-health agencies, but also a level of caution around those in the public eye who are going through private dramas. He has been reluctant to discuss, for instance, cricketer Michael Clarke's recent marriage breakdown.
"I think mental health is the most pressing health issue in this country," he says. "Members of my family have been through an awful lot, and it requires a great deal of delicacy talking about it.
"There needs to be more awareness among the public - people need to go, 'OK, what's happening with me? I need to see someone,' and not be ashamed to do that."
In the end, Stefanovic realised he couldn't control the interest in his personal life, his former wife's decision to speak out, or any impact the drama had on Today's ratings.
"People were saying to me, 'You've lost the female demographic,' and I'm not being arrogant or saying that didn't happen, but I had so many lovely women coming up to me, women who have been divorced, saying: 'I know there is a lot more going on here than we're seeing. Keep going and don't listen.'"
Asked if he wishes Thorburn, who now hosts a podcast on divorce, hadn't been so vocal about the demise of their marriage, he replies: "She's earned the right to talk about whatever she wants. That's just not how I would have done it. Whatever she does in her career and her life, I wish her the very best."
As for the rupturing of the other pivotal relationship in his life, his on-air partnership with Wilkinson, he says he had no control over it or the reported disparity in their earnings that apparently prompted her to leave.
"I became part of the dialogue, but I had nothing to do with the capacity of Lisa to earn, and I certainly didn't control what she was getting paid. I loved working with Lisa, but I think towards the end, she was getting pretty tired of the mornings. She was probably getting tired of me.
"We had 10 years together and we could've kept it together for a few more years, but I think we were done. It was the same with my marriage. We just ran our course."
He says he hasn't seen Wilkinson for a couple of years, but bumps into her husband at his local café. "I respect her an incredible amount and she helped me understand women a lot more than I did."
But now it's all about the new line-up. Stefanovic is enthused about the diversity and different personalities in the team, and has been a long-time fan of his new co-host Allison Langdon, who he bonded with while covering the royal wedding of the Sussexes in the UK in 2018.
As he throws his Bundy can in the bin and heads off to grab a pizza for dinner, he acknowledges the ratings battle ahead of him remains huge - but he's trying not to overthink it. "I just have to be me," he says. "With me, you're going to get the good, the bad and the ugly. Sometimes I'll fall off the rails, sometimes I'll be tired and sometimes I'll say something I'm not supposed to, or laugh inappropriately.
"But the hunger is still there, and I just want to get better at what I do. I'm hungry to make people happy."
Originally published as Karl Stefanovic: 'Jasmine didn't steal me from Cassandra'