Small town to small screen
Standing at the front of her NIDA class – a band of budding presenters and others just looking to boost their public speaking confidence – Karen Ledbury holds up a pen.
Just as she was asked to do at an audition early on in her career, she challenges her students to talk about the pen, and talk, and talk, and then talk some more.
“One of the programs that I run is talking about nothing. Sometimes in live TV your producer might be in your ear saying we can’t go back to this person, you need to keep talking, and you don’t want to say, ‘Um’ or ‘Ah’.
“Talking about nothing” is a skill Karen’s learned and perfected over her two decades in show business.
But sitting here with North Shore Living at Stella Blu, looking out over Dee Why beach on a picture-perfect autumn morning, there’s no meaningless babble. The Freshwater local is thoughtful and deep with her answers during a wide-ranging interview.
Despite being fiercely private when it comes to her personal life, nothing is off limits and she share’s an incredible journey that started in Queensland’s Darling Downs almost 50 years ago and now sees her regarded by many as the ‘Queen of Infomercials’ on Australian television.
Growing up in Dalby, Karen recalls flood waters rising above the windows of the family home – her mum helping the kids and dog evacuate down the main street of town in a rescue dinghy, while her dad, a police officer, was out saving lives.
She looks back on her country upbringing fondly. Relives days spent drag-racing, karate competitions, and generally the strong community values.
A black belt, Karen even went on to represent Australia in the martial art and later became an instructor. Now, at 48, she maintains an active lifestyle with regular sweat sessions at F45 in Dee Why – where she’s a proud ambassador.
But back to Dalby, and a young Karen Ledbury – no doubt wearing flannelette and denim in equal measure – decided her future lay in hairdressing. She gained her qualifications and made the brave move to Sydney, where she began managing salons.
It wasn’t long before she started to grow envious of her friends working in sales. They were getting around in company cars and looked flush with cash, and understandably, she wanted a piece of the good life. On a whim, she made the second fateful decision to can the clippers and join a lipstick company.
It just so happened that ‘Poppy Industries’ had a Direct Response Television (DRT) division – which involves infomercials and advertorials.
“They were selling a nail product and I was the only one with great natural nails, so they said, ‘We need you to be a hand model’,” Karen begins.
“Just like that I was a hand model, and we rehearsed and rehearsed. I had to put my hand in at a certain time on a certain word, and I’d never even been in a TV studio before, so I was quite nervous. I couldn’t believe it, I rang mum, told her, ‘My hand’s going to be on TV, look out for it!’
“Then the afternoon before, the girl that was supposed to be presenting got pharyngitis, she literally could not say a word.
“They had spots paid, very expensively, on Good Morning Australia with Bert Newton. It was Bert so you couldn’t just cancel. At 5pm they came to me and said, ‘Well Kazzy, tomorrow morning you’re going to be the presenter’.
“So, I went home and practiced my lines non-stop, got out my wardrobe and worked out what I’d wear and rocked up the next morning with zero sleep.
“I did the spot and it went perfectly, and Bert was amazing and generous, and they said they loved it. I then threw up all the way home and had a migraine for two days because I’d worked myself up into such a state.”
Karen didn’t waste the ‘foot in the door’ moment, securing her big break on Channel 7’s The Morning Show as an advertorial host alongside Glenn Wheeler.
She was also a popular presenter on Sydney Weekender, which celebrated its final episode last year.
At the time of writing, Karen was preparing for a week-long trip to Samoa to shoot for The Morning Show, and she still can’t believe how fortunate she’s been to land “the best job in the world”.
She highlights too, how privileged she feels to be in a position to advocate for children’s charities Variety and Save Our Sons, and local cancer research fundraiser Fight on the Beaches.
But even now the familiar face of free-to-air struggles to accept her status as a bona fide TV personality.
“I still see myself as a country hairdresser and I just happen to do this,” she smiles. “Each day, I look over my shoulder expecting it all to stop.”
“I’m naturally an introverted person, which a lot of people don’t know about me, because I have such a big personality when I’m working.
“But I love being at home, I love having my privacy, and I love people not knowing too much about my personal life.
“I don’t share my kids on Instagram, because I think with so many social platforms, and so much out there that people make up, there’s very little that you can just keep for yourself.
“Sometimes I’ll read on the internet, ‘Is she married?’, ‘Is she gay?’, ‘Is she single?’, and people still don’t know. I love that because my husband and kids have their privacy, and I think that’s really important for people to have somewhere to escape.”