Michael Usher: ‘I’ve got a lot of dad guilt’
When Michael Usher sits down to anchor the news, nothing is left to chance. Microphones have been tested, scripts read more than once, his crisp suit jacket has been checked for lint and his hair has been smoothed into that approachable yet authoritative style favoured by newsreaders.
Yet, as has happened so often during the past few years, within 10 minutes of the bulletin beginning his mobile phone will light up with a message. "Dad, what temperature do I need to put the oven on for the lasagne?" it'll read. Or, "Dad, where's my maths textbook?"
Usher chuckles good-naturedly at his children's inability to remember when he's live on air. "It happens all the time," he tells Stellar. "My producers laugh at me because as soon as we cross to a story, I'll be texting back: 'Mate, it's 180 degrees for half an hour. And take the foil off.'"
A seasoned broadcaster across multiple roles on both the Seven and Nine Networks, Usher - who now presents Seven's The Latest as well as Sydney's weekend news - has long been a calm and polished presence on our television screens.
But those mid-bulletin interruptions are an occupational hazard of his other day job; since separating from his wife seven years ago, Usher has raised sons Tom, 18, and Max, 14, and daughter Alex, 12, for large periods of time.
And while it often leaves him madly dashing between home and the studio, this is the role he values the most.
"It may look like I've got things in hand, but I'm like a duck paddling underneath," he reveals. "I'm treading water every time and it's a mess, but I wouldn't have it any other way because the kids are my happiness." He pauses and adds reflectively, "It's a juggle and it comes with a lot of dad guilt, but it works."
As an award-winning investigative reporter, foreign correspondent and news anchor, Usher has told some of the most heart-wrenching stories and covered some of the most shocking events of the past few decades.
He reported on the September 11 terrorist attacks from New York and was in Beslan in Russia as the school hostage crisis unfolded, while his empathetic interviews with the victims of the Grantham flood tragedy and the parents of missing toddler William Tyrrell have led to a Walkley Award commendation and nomination.
But as his forthcoming 50th birthday in September coincides with three decades in the business, he's also now able to speak more comprehensively on the most difficult story of his own life.
With the same candour he expects of his interview subjects, Usher openly admits the end of his marriage hit him hard.
"I was a complete wreck for a while," he says quietly. "When you go through a sad time in your life, when you've got everything going at speed and you hit a wall and stop dead, you slide down that wall and fall in a heap - and I did that."
While on the surface he was still performing at work, away from the camera he felt like "a high-functioning failure" and credits good friends and colleagues with "holding me upright emotionally".
As he tells Stellar, "I'd literally pick myself off the floor some mornings and get it together, and go to work and take a deep breath getting out of the car as I put on that emotional suit of armour to get myself going again."
Having grown up in a happy and stable family in Perth, Usher always wanted the same for his own kids and felt "great shame and embarrassment" over the divorce. Despite travelling extensively he'd remained a hands-on dad, so when his marriage ended he was determined that his children's lives remained as close to what they'd been.
He bought identical beds, fashioned costumes for dress-up days and when Alex, then five, asked for plaits in her hair, he did his best. "I told her to YouTube it quickly and I'd give it a crack." He grimaces. "They were terrible."
Those early years of separation may have been tough, but they eventually gave way to a new sense of contentment. As coronavirus has forced us closer together, he's realised his family doesn't have to be conventional to feel worthwhile.
"Being forced to stay at home has made me really proud and happy about what my family is and what it means to me," he says. "It's not the nuclear family, but family means something different to so many people these days. The virus let us think about that and appreciate it a lot more. There's been a lot of muddling through, but also some pretty precious times."
If the Usher household is chaotic at times, it's also a lot of fun. In lockdown, board games came out, cooking became a family sport and the three kids, curious like their dad, were never short of questions from their own in-house news source.
While Tom is in the first year of a law degree, Max and Alex were homeschooling from the dining table and Usher enjoyed special insight into their days.
Often, he'd pop to the studio in the mornings, head home to make an early dinner - "sometimes we eat at 5pm" - then head back to host the news or The Latest, which screened in an earlier timeslot at the height of the pandemic.
Melissa Doyle, who stepped in to co-present The Latest for a few weeks in that period and who covered Harry and Meghan's 2018 royal wedding with him, says he's both a "perfectionist, but in a good way" and a role model for others.
"When he talks about his kids, he lights up," Doyle tells Stellar. "Managing family and work commitments the way he does, and being so vocal and strong about it, shows there's really no difference whether there's a father or a mother juggling it. You can see the relationship he has with his kids, and the fact he's so open and honest about it is wonderful to hear."
But as Seven's anchor for rolling coverage on breaking news stories as diverse as the Trump election or the concert bombing in Manchester, Usher is so often dashing out the door that his kids now call him "Breaking Dad".
He laughs: "I'm a very present dad when I'm there, but they've had years of me saying, 'Hey, I've got to go.' The kids have grown up with me having irregular hours, so that's normal to them."
He says his former wife and friends are supportive and understanding of the unpredictability. He also sees a psychologist regularly.
"It's important," he says. "I'm good at boxing things up; you've got to let stuff out." One of the delights of the past year has been finding love with a corporate lawyer who also has three children. As he says, "It takes a while to open yourself up again, but it's been a really lovely thing."
Nicknamed "Musher" since the beginning of his career, there was little doubt of him doing anything other than journalism. As a 10-year-old, he'd record himself on a cassette player delivering news bulletins while making his younger sister Jane contribute the weather and cooking segments; he recalls being glued to the television at age 15, watching as the Challenger space shuttle disaster unfolded.
Decades on, he's widely regarded as a consummate professional who has the gravitas for anchoring major events but the heart to see the human core of a story. And he believes his marriage breakdown has made him more empathetic.
Usher is elated, for instance, that his persistence in shining a spotlight on alleged evidence inconsistencies in the case of convicted murderer Scott Austic recently led to the granting of a retrial for the man accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend in 2007.
Still, and despite his camera-friendly exterior and dulcet tones, there were plenty of hiccups in the early days of Usher's career in Western Australia. He says he was loathed by his first boss in Bunbury, after presuming the man's flannel shirt and thongs denoted he was the cleaner. When the boss asked if he liked "culture", then promptly sent him to Kalgoorlie for a "culture shock", he gained renown for nailing great stories - but was also punched by a local when he turned up at a pub's fancy dress night as a priest.
When he moved to the Nine Network in Sydney, no-one thought to check how old the young upstart was. So when an executive discovered he was only 23, he was asked to lie about his age. As Usher jokes, he was 29 for a lot of years before actually reaching 29.
During his 25-year tenure at the network, he headed up the US Bureau before moving to London where he covered Europe and the Middle East.
The 2004 slaughter of more than 300 children, parents and teachers in the Beslan school siege remains one of his most affecting assignments.
"Tom was only four years old and you can't help but imprint your child's face on any child victim," Usher recalls. "I'll never forget the wailing all through the night; it was just terrible. They are the moments that can render you completely silent."
Usher returned to Australia to present Nightline, then joined 60 Minutes before being poached by Seven in 2016. And while he's had virtually every role there is (including stand-in breakfast show host) he points out he's yet to front a game show.
But if he's adept at wearing different hats - from dad, to anchor, to reporter, to host - there's one title that makes him baulk. "The other day someone called me a 'veteran reporter' and I thought, 'Steady on. There's still a four in front of my age!'"
Like most working parents, he has little time for self-care and often crashes into bed at 11.30pm, only to be up again at 5am worrying about whether it's today one of his children needed blue ribbons for a sports carnival or what he might have to rustle up for dinner that night.
Life, he says, is challenging and imperfect and he sometimes worries his kids have been exposed to too much news by virtue of his profession.
"But we're also pretty ridiculous," he says. "We laugh a lot and there's a lot of stupid going on." Crucially, after years of covering horrific events, he never forgets what matters most. "Every day we say 'I love you'," he shares. "If something bad ever happened, we've never missed out on saying how much we love each other."
Originally published as Michael Usher: 'I've got a lot of dad guilt'