Meet Gretel Killeen
I first met Gretel Killeen about 25 years ago when I interviewed her for an article I was writing for Dolly magazine about up and coming female comedians. I can barely remember the occasion except that at the time Gretel was living in Glebe, Sydney, and balancing her burgeoning career with being a young mum and helping her then partner run a pub. I can also remember really liking her, thinking she was funny, warm and smart.
Since then, Gretel has had an amazing career trajectory becoming one of Australia’s most prominent media personalities. As such, she is always being asked to host various events, including last year’s Happiness & Its Causes conference where she was chairperson for a day, and a brilliant one at that. That’s where I met her for the second time, and was delighted to discover she’s as lovely as I remembered.
This year, it’s our great honour to welcome Gretel back again, only this time she is to present sessions at both our conferences: The power of imperfection at Young Minds about the benefits of ‘being you’, and The power of an authentic voice at Happiness & Its Causes, all about how to project a comfortable, fearless and powerful persona. They’re perfect topics for someone who’s parlayed her own abilities as an original communicator into a very successful career.
To find out how Gretel got into this line of work and why now she’s embarking on a mission to share what she’s learned with others, check out this interview, which first appeared in Nature & Health:
What were some of the challenges you experienced while growing up?
When I was growing up there were still limited choices for girls. Academic achievement was important – that meant doing either law or medicine. We were a very odd generation in the sense that we knew there was a big wide world out there, but we didn’t know how to get at it. It was for other people. In retrospect, I think that we all thought much smaller than we should have. I found this frustrating, particularly because I had artistic tendencies. It wasn’t just me. I think it was a struggle for a lot of girls of my generation.
How did you make the transition from law to comedy?
I just wanted to be Miss Independent and move out of home. I had a boyfriend who was studying law and I was a debater so I thought … I left after six weeks and wandered about Europe like a complete idiot. I started doing stand up comedy accidentally. It was never my ambition. I wrote a serious poem and people laughed at it, which they weren’t supposed to do! After that it was a series of doors opening.
You’ve achieved an incredible amount in your career. Did you have a plan?
People used to say to me, “You need a five year plan and a 10 year plan”. But how can you do that? I’m a person who likes cruising around and stopping off at one place and having a look and then stopping off at another place. I like the deviations. There’s a lot to be said for choosing one thing and sticking to it. The one thing I chose to stick at was to express myself. In the arts and media world, however, there are lots of variables. With every high comes a flat spot, whereas in a corporate career there’s a more predictable trajectory. There’s a lot to be said for choosing one thing and sticking to it. The one thing I chose to stick at was to express myself.
What has been your greatest accomplishment?
I’m going to be corny and say my children. That’s one of the great things with my career – my children were able to come along with me on jobs. So when they moved out I wasn’t thinking, “Gee I wish I’d spent more time with them”. We’d spent all that time together. I think we underestimate how much time it takes to raise children. I raised my kids as a single parent. Quite frankly, I don’t know how I’m still alive.
What’s your philosophy on raising happy and healthy children?
I’m a big fan of ‘being there’. The relationship comes from accidental experiences, such as a funny thing that happened in the car when you’re driving them home from school. So for me that was the most important thing: to be there. I know everybody can’t do that but I’m glad I could. My mum helped a lot.
How did you balance motherhood with being a career woman?
I don’t think it was ever balanced – it was chaos! You go without sleep, you go without social contact, and you eat the equivalent of the burnt carrot or the burnt chop. It’s hard. It’s hard for people who are raising children; it’s hard for people who are single; it’s hard for people in crappy marriages. I grew a great deal in the hands-on parenting. I had mine pretty young and I couldn’t believe when I brought my son home that I was legally allowed to be responsible for this very small person. I’d never even held a baby before. Can you imagine?
Do you follow any specific diet or health regime?
No, I’m very undisciplined. I don’t eat red meat, but as you can tell I also don’t like rules. I don’t eat red meat, but that’s because I just don’t. I don’t eat chicken because chickens look so sad. But I eat fish, because they look happy. I really love having a drink with my friends and I only stop because I don’t feel like having anymore.
What inspired you to start Gretel Killeen Communications?
I was talking to a girl who was speaking at a birthday party and she asked what I thought about a joke she wanted to use. I said, “If you added two more syllables on the end it would be much funnier.” It was just the rhythm of comedy but she didn’t know that. I was incidentally helping people who would be giving a speech and didn’t know how to do it. I’ve always known how to communicate and I’ve done it in really tough mediums. I’m a big believer in teaching someone how to do something and passing on the tools. I think the essential ingredient for profound communication is finding who you are and expressing that. Giving someone the independence to do that is a great gift. The other reason is that it infuriates me when people waste experiences in life. You see it when people are giving speeches and there’s no heart in it. My mantra is, if you’re going to do something, do it passionately and do it as richly as you possibly can.
When you’re feeling blah, how do you spritz up your spirit?
I meditate. I do have a faith system that is important to me and I combine that with having time to myself. I call it filling up the tank. I think really great things come from nothingness. So you have to leave space for them to fly in and they can’t fly in if your head’s all cluttered. I’m also a big believer in finding your own understanding of why you’re here. Purpose steers the ship.