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DIMINUTIVE AS SHE IS, JO CORNISH CAN STAND TALL FOR HAVING BROKEN THROUGH SOME STEREOTYPES.

She recalls her surprise at being named Miss Tasmania, then later Miss Australia in 1993, given that at 5’3” she was up to a foot shorter than all the other contestants. She broke the hoodoo on Tasmanian entrants in the national judging, for there hadn’t been a Tasmanian crowned Miss Australia since 1927. She has also fought her own demons, and found salvation in a remarkable career since then that has made her one of Tasmania’s most recognisable faces.

Jo, whose then surname was Dick, says of winning Miss Australia: “I was the shortest by far, but I had a wonderful support team for fund-raising over nine months and we raised thousands of dollars.

“It was surreal to win,”she says of the national success. “But it was not a beauty quest (the sashes and crowns had been dispensed with by this time) and I had grown up in an environment of disability as my dad suffered multiple sclerosis (MS) so that gave me great awareness of the awards aim – to help services for those with disabilities.”

Her support team included Launceston publican Grant Beaumont; Carlton United Breweries and the Launceston law firm Rae and Partners, where Jo worked as a legal secretary. “They had so much confidence in me; they saw a lot of personal growth, and that in turn was a benefit to them.”

When crowned Miss Australia, Jo admits to feeling like she was living a dream. “Here I was an average girl, who had never starred in anything and it was weird to be singled out and get that sort of attention,”she recalls. “Given that no Tasmanian had won for 70-odd years I didn’t think I had a hope. We had had some amazing women, but it just hadn’t happened. I guess I was so relaxed with no expectations and although I was the shortest contestant, I think the judges were won over by my sense of calm.”

Press her more for attributes that would have impressed the judges, and she peels away a layer or two of closely guarded family history.

Suffering from multiple sclerosis, Jo’s father was wheel-chair bound and institutionalised for much of the time. Services to help her and her mother and brother were limited. “Home life had prepared me well for helping to raise awareness of services needed for people with disabilities,” she says.

Despite her own experience, Jo admits she wasn’t prepared for how hard it would be when crowned and travelling as Miss Australia to spend time with parents of children with disabilities. “We spent lots of time in spastic centres and it could be very sad, and there I was at 21 having the best time and couldn’t imagine what it must be like as a child with cerebral palsy.”

The hardest thing Jo really had to deal with was finding time to be alone during her 12-month reign. “Every state had a support team. Here in Tasmania it was led by Muriel Heron, and you were chaperoned everywhere. There were other funny rules too, such as you couldn’t fly in a single-engine aircraft, and I remember when I went bungy jumping in Cairns it caused a big uproar about my safety and insurance. All I often craved was to be allowed to sit in my room and eat baked beans,”she confides, with a disarming girlish laugh.

Despite the painful memory of having four wisdom teeth out in between the State final and the Miss Australia judging, Jo counts that time as the most amazing of her life. “It took two months to get word to my mother I had won as she was in Iraq working as a missionary, but

I’ve been incredibly lucky, my life’s blessed.

it was as if I had 2000 set of parents watching over me here. Everyone was concerned at seeing to my every need, complete strangers would take me under their wing.

Jo says that it was her visit to Tasmania’s West Coast that made her realise what an impact her win had had on people. “They really fussed over me but it made me realise that Miss Australia was about all those who had been fund-raising over all those years. It was so lovely that it wasn’t just me celebrating but that the State was able to celebrate success after so many years of hard work.”

It’s also been heartening to Jo to see greater community awareness for the needs of those with a disability – wheelchair access to most venues and more community support systems in place. “It’s great that the message is finally getting through that we are all people and we all

have a disability of some sort – we all have issues. We live in a very lucky country and we are heading in the right direction with services and attitudes to people with disabilities.”

For her, the titles opened doors into a television career that she is sure she could have otherwise only dreamed about. Southern Cross gave her a job in its Hobart newsroom and from there she was groomed for an on-air news-reading anchor role, which five days a week has her radiant smile beamed into every television across Tasmania at 6pm. “It’s been a marvellous journey for my teenage dream had always been to be a legal secretary, get married and then have kids.

“With the titles I have seen so much of Australia, been able to help others, been a legal secretary, been a journalist, had a television career, married (and divorced) and been blessed with two beautiful children.”

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“The kids – Henry in grade three and Lily, who is in grade one – are the joys of my life,” she says, with deep motherly devotion. While Jo and her husband have gone their separate ways, she takes pride in that they have been able to work through the divorce so that they can both raise their children in a loving environment. It’s just not in the nuclear family mould. “It’s a joint effort and I feel blessed that Henry and Lily have parents who can put their differences aside and get on with life.”

Like thousands of other mothers, therefore, Jo single-handedly is juggling the demands of motherhood, gradual home renovation, friends, family and a career. “If I didn’t have my mum and close friends it would be a nightmare. There is very little support in the community for a working single mum,” laments Jo, who rises early to organise the house to get the children fed and out the door for school by 8.30am.

Her typical day revolves around school timetables and voluntary work at her church, getting her hair and makeup done at the TV studio at 3.45pm ready to be in front of the cameras by 6pm. In between she is busy with radio interviews, reading scripts and practising foreign names that may crop up within a news story. Any given evening could then demand that she be a guest speaker at an awards night, at a Rotary function or any number of community events. With all her commitments Jo admits to having been a “tortured soul” over her children and her role as a mother.

Despite massive success as Miss Tasmania, Miss Australia and as Tasmanian Of The Year also in 1993, then landing such a high-profile job as TV anchor/newsreader, Jo felt something was missing from her life.

“There was nothing to feed my soul,” she explains.

Finding God about four years ago by joining the Energiser Life Church in Launceston and befriending pastors David and Lucy Meech, has brought her “real peace”.

“Christianity has completed me – it has nourished and nurtured me and when things now go wrong on a day-to-day basis I have confidence and peace that somehow things will work out. I no longer think life is about coincidences of fate, it’s about God’s path for me and now I think my children and I are in God’s hands and nothing that this world can throw at me will bring that undone,” she says, totally unconcerned that such a personal revelation could unearth some cynical detractors.

The Energiser Life Church offers contemporary church principles – so modern that young Henry was suitably surprised when a rock band played the songs and he didn’t have to be quiet or read Bible verses.

Through the teachings of the Church and her life experiences, Jo is confident that her children will grow up with a sound attitude to all people, whatever their race or religion. “I just want them to have a balanced view and, above all, to recognise that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and kindness,” she says. Jo describes her Church as one that deals more with life skills, giving the example of Henry learning how to deal with bullies if the need ever arises. The support network is absolutely huge and I have a beautiful support base now within the community of the church as well as with the wider community of Launceston,” she says.

Southern Cross is Jo’s other support base. She talks with affection for her an on-air team, admitting they all enjoy playing the occasional practical joke on one another as well as it being a very professional and serious newsroom where last-minute hitches often occur.

But the newsroom is far from a tense environment, she says. “No one wants to hear the news from a frantic woman, so I work at staying calm. I have a responsibility to get facts across to Tasmanians and they don’t need my emotions telling them how to react.”

She has been known to cry over a news story that she has to put to air – child abuse being the subject she finds the hardest to deal with. “You absorb too many of the facts of such a story and you would think this world has no hope,” she says.

Jo Cornish in the Southern Cross newsroom with Courtney Hogan.

One occasion comes to mind where Jo was just unable to keep her emotions in check. “I reacted just as any mum would when I reported the story of how an autistic boy who had been lost in the bush had been reunited by helicopter with his mum. “Tears were flowing down my face so I turned to Murph (weather presenter Peter Murphy) for support only to see he was all emotional as well. Quickly I recovered enough to say: “We will now go to a commercial break.”

While she’s flattered to be a household name and that toddlers recognise her in the street, she and her children can sometimes find the attention a struggle; her friends can also feel self-conscious and uncomfortable being with Jo in public.

Hers could so easily be a glitzy life, but at 34 and with two children it’s “just Jo and gardening” at home that gives her the greatest happiness. “We’re home bodies – we read, play games and give each other lots of cuddles.” I’ve been incredibly lucky, my life’s blessed,” she says, as a serene smile sweeps her flawless face.

Peace personified – that’s Jo Cornish at home.

  

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Jo Cornish