Celebrity News

Julie Christie: TV is a business not an art

Hard work, grit and surviving the knocks has paid off for Julie Christie. Judy Bailey meets the reality TV queen and discovers the back story to her success.

When I first approached Julie Christie about doing this interview she said, “Well, as long as it isn’t ‘Poor girl from Greymouth makes good’. But Julie is very much a product of her childhood. Feisty, capable, resilient – a battler. Despite her misgivings, we do end up exploring her early life.

We meet in the bar of Oyster and Chop, her restaurant in Auckland’s Viaduct. She strides in wearing an elegant grey wool poncho, her blonde curls escaping from a casual bun.

Julie Christie is a multi-millionaire and award-winning entrepreneur, dubbed Queen of the Small Screen for her impressive catalogue of reality TV shows. She is also the fifth of seven children born to Maureen and Kevin Molloy.

Kevin, a mechanic, died of a brain haemorrhage when Julie was five years old. Her mother, at 32, was left alone with seven children ranging in age from 12 years to just eight months. She never remarried.

Maureen treasured her children and was determined to bring them up on her own. A proud Irish Catholic, she had a horror of being seen as needing charity. She made do. There was little money, so she took cleaning jobs to supplement her widow’s benefit.

“It was always porridge for breakfast,” Julie remembers. “To this day I hate porridge… and silverbeet,” she adds with a grimace.

Julie obviously adored her mother.

“She always made me believe anything was possible. I think back to how lonely it must have been for her, once we’d all gone to bed, sitting there on her own every night.”

Maureen died two years ago. She had been close to her daughter, proud and fiercely protective of her. Julie found a stack of clippings related to her TV career when clearing out her mother’s belongings, along with a number of letters written to Julie’s critics but never posted.

“She was the glue that held our family together,” Julie says sadly.

Education was everything to Maureen.

“Mum didn’t believe in the flu, so we never had it… we were always sent to school. We had perfect attendance records,” Julie grins.

What were her happiest childhood memories? She pauses. “I don’t really have many that stand out, other than being part of a boisterous family, and the love and courage of my mother,” she says in a slightly bemused way.

Julie was acutely aware of growing up with a mother who struggled to make ends meet.

“We never had new bikes at Christmas; they were always old ones Mum had repainted. Our clothes were hand-sewn by her. On Sundays, she’d pile the seven of us into her yellow Bedford van and we’d go off to visit our grandparents on their farm.”

She remembers fondly the Birthright picnics to Lake Kaniere, just south of Hokitika. (Birthright supports families of single parents.) Julie now has a bach at that same lake – a retreat from the hectic life she leads in Auckland.

Although she was bright, Julie didn’t enjoy school. Why? Again, she pauses.

“Now I’m wondering if it’s because I felt I didn’t fit in. Everything was geared for the ‘average’ child. We weren’t challenged and I needed challenges,” she says thoughtfully, as if examining her early years for the first time. “I read a lot. I had a great imagination and I was very good at English, but I wasn’t one of the cool girls.”

Television loomed large in the Molloy household. It was the only entertainment the family could afford and Julie watched with intent.

“I came to understand what most people like most of the time.”

Julie went on to train as a journalist. It was a fairly random choice of career. She was desperate to leave school and just enrolled in the shortest course she could find. To this day she feels she missed a great opportunity by not getting a university education.

After a decade as a sports sub-editor in newspapers both here and in England, she found herself working as a researcher for flamboyant television heavyweight, Neil Roberts, at the production house Communicado.

“For the best part of three years I was his PA. I drove him around when he didn’t have his licence, which was most of the time,” she tells me wryly.

Neil’s storytelling prowess rubbed off on Julie, as did his love of Champagne. But Neil also had the common touch, something Julie sees as vital if you’re going to draw an audience.

It wasn’t long before Neil had her producing. The rugby series Mud and Glory was her first hit. Rachel Hunter – Cover Girl followed and also rated its socks off. Julie was hooked.

Communicado proved to be a great training ground. She learned to write, produce and direct and was soon the company’s most prolific producer. So much so that one day she looked at the glitzy lifestyle her bosses had and thought, ‘I’m earning so much money for them, I may as well start my own company.’ And she did.

“I wanted more money. They wouldn’t pay me more so I left. I knew I could earn more on my own and I didn’t want to be poor again.”

Money is important to the kid from Greymouth.

“Money buys choices and freedom… but not happiness,” she adds quickly.

Julie formed Touchdown, her production company, in 1991. Initially she wrote proposals and scripts, directed and produced.

“That’s how I made money. I would charge out those roles separately and do them all myself.”

She toiled away 24/7 and expected those around her to do the same.

“I’m not good at delegating. It’s one of my biggest failings,” she tells me ruefully. She has, however, now learned to pace herself.

“I changed a lot during this time. I think both my husbands were victims of my changing as a person.”

Julie had met and married her first husband while on her OE in London. She was 24 and “way too young to be married,” she says. They were together for nine years. She had two children with her second husband – son Tim, now 22 and completing a BSc Honours degree in physiology at Auckland University, and daughter Lexi, 20, who is a make-up artist.

“I went back to work two days after Tim was born. I had a live This is Your Life episode to produce that couldn’t wait. I thought I could do anything. Looking back, it was mad, and very painful!”

Tim and Lexi are not keen to follow their mother into television. “They look at me and reckon I work way too hard,” she says with a laugh.

What’s important for her kids?

“Family,” she says without hesitation. “Closely followed by kindness and respect. I’ve tried to instil into them that you’re given talents and you must use them.”

She wants them to figure out what they’re good at and go for it. Julie is now three years into a new relationship – one she’s keeping quiet, she says, with a twinkle in her eye.

She is blunt about television.

“It’s a business, not an art.”

She decided early on there was no money to be made producing documentaries and drama in New Zealand. She decided to go with the reality genre purely for business reasons. She knew with reality she could compete on the world stage.

Julie has endured harsh criticism for her commitment to reality shows. ‘Crap TV, thy name is Julie Christie’ brayed one newspaper headline.

“It’s made me thick-skinned,” she says.

But of course the criticism has hurt. At one stage she went to see Auckland PR guru Jenni Raynish to see if she could ‘fix’ her image. She was told to “go off and make it in the overseas market, then come home and you’ll get respect”. Which is what she did.

She came up with game show The Chair, and sold it to America and 28 other countries. She then spent five years commuting between Auckland and LA, where she made the show.

“There’s a real snobbishness in our media about reality shows,” she says. “Most New Zealanders come home from work and they want a bit of escapism. I’m comfortable with myself and what I’ve achieved.”

Her body of work includes shows that have become part of the fabric of New Zealand television. Among them, The Block, Game of Two Halves and This is Your Life. She has since sold Touchdown to a Dutch company in a multi-million dollar deal.

Julie Christie created The Block, among other shows. Story continues after the video.

Loading the player...

Along the way Julie has garnered international respect, founded two TV channels, Living and Food, owned a resort in Fiji and two restaurants. She is now branching out into workplace drug testing, a business she sees as having plenty of potential for growth.

Julie is also a board member of TV3’s parent company, MediaWorks, making what she says are the tough decisions about how to achieve a return for shareholders. There have been a number of high-profile departures, among them John Campbell and Hilary Barry.

She says simply, “That’s the TV business, people move on.”

Julie’s considerable business nous is in demand outside TV. She has worked on a board of New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, was a member of the flag panel and serves on the Rugby Union’s commercial committee. But it’s television that still rings her bells.

She is thinking about another content business. In a changing media landscape where the focus is on technology, there’s still room for people who make content. As she is fond of saying, “Content is king.”

She was once reported as saying by 60 she’d be retired and living in a bach on the West Coast.

“Ha!” she grins. “(Property mogul) Bob Jones told me, ‘Don’t retire. For the first three months you do lots of lunches, then no-one wants to lunch with you because you’ve become too boring.’”

No chance of that happening any time soon.

Related stories