Why Jude Dobson nearly quit her TV career

Critics came close to ruining the much-loved TV presenter’s fledgling career.

By Donna Fleming
Jude Dobson is flicking through a pile of magazine clippings when she bursts into peals of laughter.
“Look at my hair!” she chuckles, pausing over a 1992 article in New Zealand Woman’s Weekly about her different hairstyles.
“That was my Princess Diana phase – short hair and a long fringe. And there’s the bob, and the slicked back look... There’s no forgetting my bad hair days, is there? They are preserved for all time, thanks to the Weekly.
Jude (50) is taking a trip down memory lane, reminiscing over some of the many, many articles the Weekly has written on her over the years. Since landing her first television job with Sale of the Century in 1989, many of the major milestones of her life have been covered by this magazine.
The births of each of her three children featured on the cover, the Weekly shared all the details when she landed new TV jobs – such as the lifestyle series
5.30 with Jude – and we also talked to her when those jobs came to an end.
The then Judith Kirk modelling her Princess Diana haircut in the magazine in 1990.
“I guess a lot of my life has played out on the pages of the magazine,” says Jude. “It’s amazing to have a record of so many events like this.”
Jude first featured in the magazine back in April 1989, when she was chosen as Steve Parr’s co-host on the new game show Sale of the Century.
Then Judith Kirk, she was our cover girl and the story provided some background into the glamorous presenter, who was a former maternity nurse-turned-medical rep and part-time model when she was offered the position.
Nearly 30 years on, Jude admits she wasn’t sure at first that the job was the right fit for her. She’d met TVNZ’s head of entertainment Chris Bourn when she and several other models were persuaded to enter Miss Universe New Zealand (Lana Coc-Kroft won) and he told Jude that her spark and personality made her ideal TV talent.
“He suggested I keep in touch, which I did – I wrote him a few letters. I went for the audition for Sale of the Century, but when I was told I had got it,
I thought, ‘I don’t know if I want this job.’ I wasn’t really a frilly dress kind of girl.
“But TVNZ said I should give it a go, as did my family. My boss at the pharmaceutical company where I was working at the time said it was a great opportunity that I should at least try, and if it didn’t work out, they’d keep my job open for me.”
As it happened, she nearly did go back to her medical rep job after just three months working on TV.
Jude in her very first story for the Weekly in April 10, 1989.
“It was kept very quiet at the time, but I resigned from Sale of the Century after three months,” reveals Jude. “I didn’t want to do it any more because people were being really horrible. Viewers would leave comments, which were written down in a phone log or they’d write letters, and some of what they said was quite venomous.
“People said I was too effusive and I spoke too much. They were used to hostesses like Tineke Bouchier and Hillary Timmins, who were a lot quieter. They complained that I threw my hands around and added too much personality. Those letters got sent to me and, after reading so many of them,
I thought maybe I should go back to my old job.
“But the producers said, ‘Why don’t you give it a couple more months?’ Then they started opening my mail and filtering it so I didn’t see the bad stuff.
I stayed on and got sidetracked into doing TV, and here I am nearly 30 years later!”
The public exposure from being a familiar face on the telly did take a bit of getting used to, as did the media attention. It was a shock when her wedding to air force pilot Graeme Dobson in 1992 prompted so much interest that photographers climbed trees outside her parents’ home, trying to get photos of the bride.
But over the years, having a public profile is just part of the job. “Although it is a bit strange at first, after a while you get used to it. There were times when you’d be in the supermarket and see yourself on the cover of a magazine and think, ‘Oh, that’s me.’
“The thing is, I have always just been myself. I couldn’t try to be someone I am not.”
Jude was happy to share the arrival of her children Ella (now 22), Jack (18) and Rosie (14) with the Weekly, and can’t help going “awww” as she leafs through the stories from when they were little.
When first-year uni student Jack wanders past on his way to the kitchen, she shows him an article from 2004 that includes a photo of him with his sisters, sporting a wide grin and a missing front tooth.
“Talk about cute,” she smiles.
Jack, Ella and Rosie in 2004.
Jude made the deliberate decision to stop including her kids in magazine articles she appeared in once they started school.
“I figured that by the time they hit school, they needed to have their own lives. When they were younger, their friends didn’t make a big deal of them being in magazines because they didn’t really know about it, but I think it gets to a point where you aren’t doing your kids any favours with all this publicity.
“I remember a stranger once saying, ‘Hello, Jack,’ in the supermarket and Jack said, ‘How do they know me?’ They were okay with it, but I think it is important to respect your kid’s privacy. That’s why I always ask them before I do things like put photos of them on Facebook.”
When Rosie was born in 2003, Jude did a story with the Weekly that included posing for a photo while breastfeeding her then six-week-old daughter. It attracted a lot of comments, with most people praising Jude for being pictured doing something so natural.
The presenter caused a bit of a stir with this picture of nursing Rosie in 2003.
“As a preschooler, Rosie had a bunch of photos on the wall in her room about her first years and the breastfeeding one was among them. She never paid it any attention, but when she was about five or six and we were changing the photos for her own artwork, she said to me, ‘That’s rude.’ I said, ‘No, actually this is normal.’ She said, ‘It was brave of you to do that,’ but I just wanted to show people that there shouldn’t be anything wrong with seeing mums breastfeeding babies. That it is very normal.”
When Jude first became a mum in 1995, she’d finished working on Sale of the Century after it was axed by TVNZ and moved into presenting lifestyle shows, including The Paradise Picture Show, Body and Soul, and Open Home.
She loved getting out and about, and telling people’s stories. It was much better than being stuck in a studio, so when she was offered the chance to host her own lifestyle show, 5.30 with Jude, in 1997, she nearly turned it down.
“I said I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t see how I could work three full days a week with having Ella, who was a toddler at the time.”
But thanks to finding the perfect nanny, Tina Abram, and with additional help from her mother, Naomi Kirk, Jude was able to balance work and motherhood, and 5.30 with Jude – later called 5 O’Clock with Jude Dobson – kept her busy over the next five years.
Jude pauses as she looks at a Mothers’ Day article on her and her mum, who died 18 months ago. “It’s lovely to see these photos,” she says quietly.
“My lovely, lovely mum. I couldn’t have done it without her. She helped so much.”
As well as the stories about her family (other than with Graeme who has always steered clear of publicity), Jude has also talked over the years about causes close to her heart, such as breast cancer awareness (she is an ambassador for the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation).
In 1997, she spoke out about a serious reaction Ella had had to the whooping cough vaccine as a baby.
Her research revealed her daughter had been given an older vaccine, which New Zealand was using up supplies of, instead of a newer, safer one, and she called for parents to be better informed about vaccination and the newer vaccine that would be available.
“I wasn’t saying don’t vaccinate, I was saying we should be informed about what we were getting with each vaccine and what could go wrong. I got a letter from the Ministry of Health rebuking me and saying I shouldn’t say anything because I was a public figure. But I am all for prompting debate on what is an important issue. It is your right to know what your children are getting."
Working on Homegrown, university study and looking after teenagers keeps her busy, but Jude still finds time to unwind by walking Coco.
Thankfully, that particular type of older vaccine is no longer given.
Jude’s interest in health and parenting led to establishing her own TV production company, Homegrown TV, in 2000. Among the programmes she has made over the years are a documentary on cot death and several series on parenting – Homegrown, Nought to Five and Raising Children.
Raising Children, which is currently re-screening daily on Prime and was made in conjunction with various government agencies has a website, https://www.raisingchildren.org.nz/, as well as an app.
The website includes more than 100 video clips covering all aspects of parenting, from getting a newborn to sleep through to talking to kids about sexuality. People who download the app can sign up for regular notifications offering a huge range of parenting tips.
The website and app are a lot of work, but hugely rewarding, says Jude. “I am really enjoying making digital resources and working in the wider public health field. In fact, I am now doing a post-graduate part-time degree in public health.
“I am two papers into it and I got two A minuses, which nearly killed me! It was strange to start with, sitting in a lecture theatre and writing 4000-word essays. I’ve even got a student ID!”
Jude points out that in a way, she has come full circle, going back to the health field more than three decades after she started her nursing career.
“I’m not quite sure where I am going with this degree. I am doing it because I am really interested in public health and society, and I hope I can use it in some way to do something that is helpful in a wider sense.
“Whatever I end up doing, I’m sure I will end up telling the Weekly about it!” she laughs.
  • undefined: Donna Fleming

read more from