“Nothing can really prepare you for the power of television or the hysteria that comes with it or the intimacy of it,” says Chrissie Swan.
“Even though I was on the periphery of media and I wasn’t an idiot I just had no idea of what the national reaction was.”
After finishing 2003’s Big Brother as Runner-Up, copywriter Swan was still shocked to discover she was suddenly so well-known by the public. Prior to her current role on The Circle and previous gigs on radio, she tried to resume her career as a real estate copywriter.
“I went back to work about 4 days after the show finished but I couldn’t do my job. I couldn’t make a living because what used to take me 10 minutes was taking 2 hours. People would lose their mind because Chrissie from Big Brother was in their house. I think I was really naive. I just thought I could go and do this funny thing and go back (to my life) but I couldn’t do it,” she says.
“I tried for about a month but I wasn’t making any money. The bills weren’t getting paid.
“I’d have to sit down and go through their photo albums. I didn’t know how to deflect anything, I had to tell them all about the experience, talk to their aunty on the phone –it was crazy.
“Now I can gracefully get myself out of those situations, but because I was new to it I would just sit there and take it.”
Since viewers saw her stand up to Big Brother‘s resident ‘villain’ Ben, Swan has been known for speaking her mind, with self-deprecation, humour and confidence. In a medium that gravitates to svelte young presenters, her down-to-earth nature and her determination to lose weight to have a second child has won her many fans.
“I don’t think I’m very professional. I think people look at me and think, ‘That’s what I’d be like if I was on there.’ It feels like I’ve wandered in off the street, had a hairdo and whacked an outfit on and sat down on the couch. Half that time that’s actually what I feel like!” she says. “What am I doing here exactly?
“But that’s why it feels like hanging out with friends. There’s no rhyme or reason in what I do, I just turn up and it happens.
“At least we never get in trouble, we’re just like free range chickens. Occasionally Pam (Barnes, producer) will come in and say, ‘That was a bit grubby’ because we forget we’re on television.”
The chemistry she shares with Yumi Stynes, Denise Drysdale and Gorgi Coghlan has been one of the show’s assets. All four were cast separately and didn’t meet until their first photo shoot. Swan credits the show’s producer with choosing 4 women who would click both on-air and off-air.
“It was just kismet that Pam put together these people who each have their own strengths, and accept that,” she says.
“I’m not going, ‘Why does she get to do all the offside interviews with famous people?’ There’s none of that at all, we’re really happy in our roles and it’s exactly like a friendship group.
“It was sheer luck, because it could have gone so terribly wrong.”
But Swan also paid her dues when she relocated from Melbourne to the Sunshine Coast for 4 years of breakfast radio at Hot 91 (later followed by Melbourne’s Vega FM). That radio work armed her with an ability for spontaneity, which now serves her well in live television.
“I knew nothing about radio. I remember Mike Perso was the go-to-guy and I said, ‘Can I drink coffee in the studio? Can I bring my dog?’,” she laughs.
“I was really lonely but I loved the job. It was love at first break. I loved learning and I loved the gift of being 30 and getting a whole new career. You think by that age you’re done, so to have that was incredible.
“Seven years in radio I learnt a lot about presenting. I worked hard, I didn’t just turn up.
“Because The Circle is a live TV show my radio experience is particularly pertinent. I think of opportunities that maybe television people wouldn’t think of.
“Sometimes I will think up an idea and say to myself, ‘Can Kerri-Anne do that?’ And if the answer is no then I will push to do it. If we’re doing stuff that people can get from anywhere then what’s the point?” she says.
‘But I think we have easier job on The Circle than Kerri-Anne because there’s 4 of us. If you’re having an off day there’s always someone to carry you. But if you have 2 hours of television by yourself that is difficult, so I really respect her for doing it so well and for so long. I prefer to be part of a quartet.”
Surprisingly, she admits never having seen Seven’s Morning Show.
“But I probably should! I adore Larry Emdur.”
Asked about her thoughts on TV advertorials, she dubs them a ‘necessary evil.’
“If we don’t have advertorials we don’t have a show. So I’m grateful for them because it means I can keep coming to work,” she says.
In late July, Swan will temporarily exit the show to have her second child in August. Returning in October she will have only 8 weeks with her new baby.
“I did 5 weeks with (first child) Leo so I’ve treated myself to 8 this time. I’ll be fine, I’m born to breed!” she laughs.
“‘Chippie’s (aka husband Chris) going to stay at home for 8 weeks after me.”
Despite her growing television success, Swan still speaks highly of Reality TV as a genre.
“I know it’s easy to ‘poo-poo’ it but I get addicted to good Reality,” she admits.
“At the moment I’m liking Conviction Kitchen. I always watch Survivor. Thank god GO! have just put it on. I love crazy Phillip.”
So would she like to see Big Brother return? She entered the show to surprise her friends, who were all avid viewers.
“There’s always talk of bringing it back, which I’m always interested in, but I wonder if we can capture that naivety ever again. Probably not.
“I think the biggest problem with Big Brother was in the end it lost its heart.”
For now her focus is on family and The Circle, which she nominates as her favourite job yet. In its 13 month life the show pulls better ratings for TEN than 9am with David and Kim and takes the ratings fight up to Kerri-Anne.
“I love the reputation we have, we get the best guest hosts. They want to do the show, we’re not roping anyone in. And we’ve got no budget so some people have even offered to pay their own way to get here.
“Lily Tomlin wasn’t even going to do any interviews but she said to her publicist, ‘I want to co-host this show because I’ve heard about it in America,'” she says.
“I’m just really proud of it. It’s a good show with a good heart and a pleasure to be a part of.”
The Circle airs 10am weekdays on TEN.