MIA Freedman has a quality about her that makes you feel like you have known her for years. Maybe it’s a result of being in the public eye since becoming the youngest editor of Cosmopolitan at 24, or maybe it’s because her latest offering, a memoir, speaks so candidly of her life in all its lights -— both good and bad.
It could even stem from having followed her weekly column in Fairfax’s Sunday Life magazine and her blog mamamia.com.au, both of which are open accounts on her thoughts from fashion, breastfeeding in public, to body image.
So when she arrives for the interview, resplendent in a hot pink kaftan, I resist the urge to fall into “catch-up with a friend”-type conversation, seeking an update on her life from where her memoir Mama Mia left off.
Instead, we settle for chocolate brownies, almond horse-shoe biscuits and soy lattes.
“Even with all the help I’m fortunate to have, I stuff up all the time,” she says, apologising for being a few minutes late for the interview, at which point I compliment her on her outfit.
“Well, I put make-up on, got myself a frock and had my nails painted. I don’t roll out of bed looking like this; my life isn’t like this.
“I will probably go home tonight and burn lasagne or feed my kids Weet-Bix for dinner or forget to help my son with a project. I’m human,” she laughs.
It’s at this point that I realise Freedman has this charm because of her honesty.
“I always think it’s more interesting to be honest than to give a glossy picture,” she enthuses.
It’s those comments that seem incongruous to someone who has become known across Australia as a magazine icon. Indeed, most of her career was established in a glossy world -— where lipsticks are mandate, new frocks are practically compulsory, red carpets are standard, and image is everything.
For Freedman, who was editor of Cosmopolitan for seven years and later chief of staff of several women’s titles at ACP Magazines, image might be important but it’s just that -— an image.
What Mama Mia, released last month, reveals is that while she has grown up with the glossy image attached to her like an appendage, she really is just an ordinary gal -— full of successes, but also plagued by her own failures and periods of self-doubt.
While much of the book covers her career highs, it also equally portrays her personal highs and lows, including a turbulent relationship, becoming pregnant only three months into her role as editor of Cosmo, later suffering a heartbreaking miscarriage and dealing with her husband’s difficult 18 months with chronic fatigue.
“There’s nothing really that has happened to me that is unusual at all, except not enough women speak about the tough times,” she says.
“I think we are so ready to celebrate our own successes that it’s harder for people to be honest about their failures, dark times and their disappointments in life.”
And the 38-year-old mother of three knows the pain of suffering in silence all too well.
“I remember standing in the book shop looking for something on miscarriage and not finding anything. I just felt so alone and isolated. Women don’t talk about it because you feel like you have failed in the most fundamental way as a women and that’s a terribly isolating and lonely road to walk on.”
Freedman hopes Mama Mia will speak to women facing similar circumstances, particularly when it comes to miscarriage.
“I’ve always believed that it’s important for women to be honest and by sharing stories we can support each other.”
AT just 19, Freedman sat nervously in front of her long-time role model Lisa Wilkinson -— then editor of Cleo -— with an unimpressive CV (listing check-out chick and sales assistant among her work highlights) and prayed silently for a job.
Instead, she was offered a two-week stint doing work experience, assisting the fashion editor.
It was her first foot in the door to achieving the ambitious goal she set herself -— to be the editor of Cleo before turning 25.
“I was just completely focused. I’m very driven and competitive. It’s just how I’ve always been,” she admits.
So when her fortnight at the magazine ended, Freedman convinced Wilkinson to let her come in one day a week, unpaid. She dropped out of her university degree after only nine months and tactfully began working at the magazine on more days, until she made herself so indispensable, that Wilkinson eventually offered her a paid position as beauty writer.
Soon she became beauty editor and then climbed the ranks — with a few setbacks along the way — until becoming editor of Cosmopolitan at the age of 24.
Not quite her goal, but close enough.
She was daring, made mistakes and was “sat on [her] ass a few times”. One of her more bold and much-publicised decisions was when she committed to having models from size six to 16 in the magazine.
The decision caught the ire and eye of the media. Photographers wouldn’t shoot the images, the fashion editor was appalled, it was hard finding models, the make-up artists and stylists didn’t want their names associated. But Freedman stood by her decision.
“It wasn’t difficult for me personally cause I felt with every fibre of my being that it was the right thing: the right thing for women, for the magazine and for business.
“I wanted it to just be part of the fabric of the magazine, part of the wallpaper, and they had to work a lot harder to make that happen, so it wasn’t easy.”
Eventually, after 15 years in the magazine world and 100 issues of Cosmopolitan, she grew tired of the sealed sections and the slow pace of monthly magazines and left.
“It was a long time coming,” she admits. “I was never the Cosmo demographic. I did live and breathe the reader, but I was more interested in getting pregnant, not stories about contraception. I was just ready to move on.”
She had a stint on the Nine Network as creative services director. Surrounded by men, she copped flack after her initiative, The Catch-Up, a daily panel show led by women, flopped.
In her self-deprecating humour, she sums up her experience as the title of a chapter in the book, “TV: Just not that into me”.
Looking back, Freedman admits she was always more inclined to work with women than men. She even used to cook “pre-menstrual cookies” for the ladies in the office.
“I love working with women. I’m such a girls’ girl, but it’s intense when you are working with a staff of 70 young women,” she says, lowering her voice as if they might hear. “Women just communicate, which is a great thing, but also an exhausting thing cause they never stop communicating,” she laughs.
Does Freedman consider herself a feminist?
“Absolutely, I don’t understand why there is such a fear of that word; it has been so misused. I think it’s so sad that it’s seen as a negative when all it means is that you believe in equality. I’m proud to be a feminist.”
BORN in Australia, Freedman had a Jewish upbringing in Sydney. She was schooled at Mount Zion Preschool and later Ascham School.
Fundamentally and morally opposed to apartheid, her father, Laurence Freedman, fled apartheid-era South Africa after the Sharpeville Massacre in the 1960s and came to Australia with nothing.
He built up Equitilink with philanthropist Brian Sherman, which they eventually sold for $150 million. He now runs the Freedman Foundation.
It’s clear Freedman has inherited her father’s drive and determination. “My dad has achieved amazing things as has my mum. They’ve always been a team. I’m very much a product of both of them in different ways.”
Growing up with a working mother -— her mother is a psychologist and gallery owner -— Freedman says it was never a question that she would work and have kids.
In the book, she uses the analogy of spinning plates on sticks to describe balancing motherhood and her career.
“Just when you think all the plates are stable, one wobbles and then suddenly four are teetering as another two crash to the ground. Occasionally, I have brief flashes of contentment when I feel like all my plates are spinning at once,” she writes.
For now, though, Freedman, who openly admits to having a short attention span, is focused on her online blog.
“I’m getting worse at doing a million things at once,” she laughs. “Maybe it’s a reflection that I’m in a better place now that I can just do one thing at a time.”
We say our goodbyes and Freedman leaves, but returns a few minutes later for the left-over brownies.
“I forgot the brownies,” she says, racing through the glass doors. “My kids will love me for them.”
It’s then that Freedman shifts again from the glossy persona of the hardworking career woman to a mum. I think of her analogy of the spinning plates and realise that Freedman is more than capable of juggling them, even if, occasionally, one begins to wobble.
Mama Mia is published by HarperCollins (rrp $27.99).