There’s a calm self-assurance to Lucy Zelic. It’s likely been cultivated through her years of being in front of the camera as a presenter on SBS, notably hosting both the 2014 and 2018 FIFA World Cups. Sport is in her blood – born into a traditional Croatian family, she was raised playing and watching football, and her two older brothers went on to play professionally. But as a woman, she tells us, “I’ve copped a hell of a lot over the years”...
There was the bizarre ‘scandal’, for example, over her correctly pronouncing players names during the 2018 World Cup. “While it was upsetting at first, I’ve realised that staying true to myself is the only way I can handle it because I’d rather go to sleep at night believing in the woman I am, rather than pretending to be someone that I am not.”
Since becoming a mother to one-year-old daughter Mila, though, the unshakeable Zelic has discovered a new vulnerability within herself. Some of it is born from the struggle most working mothers grapple with – “there are still times where I get in the car and cry all the way to work”, she says, “but I now recognise that I am doing this for my daughter and her future.” Even since the pandemic hit and she’s been largely working from home, the guilt is inescapable. “I can be stationed in one room, interviewing the coach of the Australian men’s national team while Mila is yelling ‘mama!’ at the top of her lungs just a few rooms away…my mum guilt is through the roof.”
But there’s a more insidious, brutal side to motherhood in the public eye. While Zelic is protective of her daughter and doesn’t share images of her face, a picture of Mila on social media attracted a comment that enraged her: ‘Burn, you fucking witch, and your child too.’ “Reading that particular comment triggered such an irrepressible rage in me”, she tells us. But while many may have shut down or retreated, Zelic is not one to be easily intimidated. She took action, launching the #BeAccountable movement on social media to call for more responsibility and accountability for online bullying and abuse. She’s currently campaigning for Members of Parliament to make changes around online security. “When I looked at the escalating statistics for suicide amongst young children”, she explains, “and that they were linked to social media use, it terrified me. I don’t want social media to potentially have that type of impact on my child or anyone else’s.”
If there’s one thing Zelic knows how to do, it’s get the job done. She was still commuting between Sydney and the Central Coast while heavily pregnant and coming off-air at 3:30 in the morning. And while she’s not afraid of hard work, her priorities are clear: “nothing outside our little bubble of three really matters anymore and it’s such a liberating and heartwarming feeling.”
And her new-found vulnerability may just be her greatest superpower. When we ask Zelic how motherhood has changed her, she captures it perfectly. “You’re going to be vulnerable”, she says, “but it’s such a beautiful thing. I cry at just about everything now, and feel things much more deeply than I ever did before – it’s been a terrifying but magical side effect.”
We spoke to this dynamic mother about her childhood, facing discrimination, the joy of breastfeeding, and the pressure she puts on herself…
Tell us about your childhood. What are some of your most vivid memories?
I truly had the most pure and happy childhood. Most of my memories involve my brother Ivan and I playing football in the backyard and going exploring on his bike. I had such a wild imagination so it wasn’t uncommon for me to run out to the front yard, stand on our concrete letter box and belt out a song, or build a fort with the next door neighbour’s kids in their garden. I was always on the go, looking for the next adventure – whether it was real or imaginary – and I genuinely enjoyed being active.
I grew up in a very traditional Croatian household so it always smelled of my mum’s cooking and on Sundays we’d go to church, then come home for lunch and watch the football on SBS. I have a sister and two brothers plus a host of extended family members, so there was always someone around or we were visiting them which I loved. Growing up, I wanted to be so many different things from a lawyer to a storm chaser, a photographer and an actress – you name it! It wasn’t until I was 21 that I chose to study a Bachelor of Journalism and Sports Business and settle on something that truly felt like ‘home’ to me.
Growing up in an avid sporting family, and with brothers, was there a particular moment or experience in which you realised that girls or women face discrimination in sport?
The beauty of my household was that there were never any limits to what we could do or be. My dad and brothers always encouraged me to get involved in their sporting activities and never told me I couldn’t compete because I was a girl. It was only really once I started studying at University that I realised how limited the opportunities were for women in sport, both in front of the camera and as athletes. I wouldn’t understand the true extent of those limitations until I fully broke into the television scene and started speaking to women who had been grafting for years to gain some kind of recognition as athletes, and not just as ‘women who play sport’. Then the ‘what do you know about football, you’re just a woman…’ comments started rolling in on social media. Can you imagine women asking male makeup artists what they know about makeup? It’s just absurd. My theory is, it shouldn’t matter what your gender is – as long as there is genuine passion and commitment there, everyone deserves a seat at the table.
“ Then the ‘what do you know about football, you’re just a woman…’ comments started rolling in on social media. Can you imagine women asking male makeup artists what they know about makeup? ”
You work in a male dominated industry. What shifts have you seen in recent times?
All considered, I am really pleased to say that there has been a positive shift and we’re seeing so many improvements across the women’s sporting landscape. A lot more women are involved in sports broadcasting now than ever before and they’ve proven that they add tremendous value. I stand on the shoulders of giants like Debbie Spillane who carved out an incredible career at the ABC, and worked through a time where the discrimination of women in sport was at its most abhorrent. I am forever grateful to women like her because they never gave up and paved the way for passionate football fans like myself.
You're an accomplished journalist and awarded presenter, and you were also a Miss Universe Australia finalist in 2007. Do you ever feel that there's pressure for you to be a certain 'type' of woman - either the serious journalist or the charismatic entertainer?
I can honestly say that I never tried to fit a particular mould or stereotype when I came into the role. I always knew that I wanted to be myself and to not shy away from having an opinion, even though it might not be the populists’ view. Arriving on the scene can be really daunting for any young woman because there’s this fear that you’re going to rock the boat or that you’re going to cop a lot of grief on social media for stepping outside of the norm. Take it from me, I’ve copped a hell of a lot over the years and while it was upsetting at first, I’ve realised that staying true to myself is the only way I can handle it because I’d rather go to sleep at night believing in the woman I am, rather than pretending to be someone that I am not. A common myth is that women have just been placed in these roles to ‘look at’ or to tick a box, and while it may have been the motivation many years ago, there are a host of exceptionally talented women dispelling that theory. I am a journalist yes, but I also have a cheeky and sarcastic side to me and I think there’s a time and a place for both because it’s true to who I am.
Family is obviously very important to you and you've spoken about your close relationship with your nieces. Did you always know you wanted to be a mother?
I always knew I wanted to be a mother, but the desire really took over about three years ago. I had reached a point in my life where I felt really satisfied with where I was at in my career, my relationships with family and friends were flourishing, but there was something missing and I knew that it was a family of my own. I felt this palpable loneliness and this longing to explore the next phase of my life because I had already given so much to my work. For a long time, I put a lot of pressure on meeting someone and trying to make that happen and it was emotionally exhausting. I still remember calling my mum one day crying and saying ‘I might just have to have a baby on my own’ because it wasn’t happening, and there was no way in hell I was going to get on Tinder or date online. It didn’t help that all I did was work, work, work and had no interest in going to pubs or clubs either! It wasn’t until I decided to let go of all the angst and just have faith that it would happen for me that Corey came along. We were both on the same page about life and wanting a family so for things to progress quickly for us wasn’t frightening, it was a welcome step because now we have everything we’ve ever wanted.
How did you find managing work during your pregnancy? Was there pressure to prove it wouldn't affect you, or did you feel supported by your industry?
Two weeks prior to falling pregnant, I had just returned from the World Cup in Russia and moved from Sydney to the Central Coast to join Corey, who relocated there for football. The plan was to commute to work in Sydney which plenty of friends of mine had said wasn’t a problem. Well, try doing it when you’re heavily pregnant and coming off-air at 3:30 in the morning! It was crazy when I think back to that time. I was falling asleep on the studio couch while we were covering games towards the latter stages of my pregnancy, and when I wasn’t up to the drive, I’d stay at a friend’s place. I was lucky that I had a great pregnancy and I’m grateful that I was able to stop working six weeks prior to my due date. I felt my own internal pressure to carry on working as though everything was normal, but SBS were very good at reigning my schedule in and looking out for me.
What's been your greatest joy of motherhood so far?
Seeing my beautiful baby grow into this sweet, funny and feisty little person. It’s just been so incredible to watch her personality develop, and see the world through her eyes, because I feel like I am on this road of discovery all over again. I’ve also really enjoyed breastfeeding and it’s why almost 14 months on, I am still going. I had initially made a promise to myself to breastfeed until Mila turned one, but as we got to the 10 month mark I said to Corey “I can’t stop now!” I’ve been very lucky that it’s been a pleasant journey for me and it’s such a wonderful bonding experience between Mila and I. I know the day will come when it will have to end but I am dreading it already. I feel for all the mums out there who have tried and haven’t been able to for whatever reason. I just hope they know that ‘fed is best’ and that there is no such thing as a ‘failure’ in this department, only what’s right for you and your baby.
Seeing Corey become a father and how much it has softened him has also been really special for me. One of the other great pleasures has been letting go of all the things that used to trouble me in the past. Nothing outside our little bubble of three really matters anymore and it’s such a liberating and heartwarming feeling.
And the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge by far was returning to work. Mila was five months old and I cried uncontrollably for hours the night before my first day back. I can honestly say it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. I remember thinking ‘it’s just not natural for a mother to be away from her baby like this’. Eight months on from that day and there are still times where I get in the car and cry all the way to work, but I now recognise that I am doing this for my daughter and her future. I know of many women who have said that they really looked forward to going back but for me, I had already dedicated so much of my heart and soul to my career that I just wanted all of that energy to go to Mila. A few months prior to this, Corey had come off contract with his football club and made the decision to stay out of the game for a year, which I fully supported, but it meant that I had to go back. The greatest upside to all this was that he could be at home with Mila and he is the most wonderful papa. She is just crazy about him and nobody makes her laugh the way that he does.
Another challenge is that we don’t have our families here in Sydney. My parents are in Canberra and Corey’s are in Wollongong so everything is on our shoulders, which can make things a little tricky every now and again. That said, SBS have always been incredibly supportive, particularly my Head of Sport, Ken Shipp. He kept reminding me from day one not to rush back to work, and to take as much time as I needed. He has a family first policy and I am very lucky to have someone like that in my corner, particularly in an industry like this.
How has your life had to shift since Mila was born? How do you and your partner negotiate the juggle with your careers?
It’s shifted enormously, but in the best possible ways. Everything we do is geared around Mila. A big priority for me is making sure that I am there in the mornings when she wakes up and that I am there to put her to sleep at night. I still haven’t had a night away from her since she was born and I don’t think I’ll be ready for that for quite some time, because I just love being her mum and don’t want to miss a thing. Corey and I have developed a great system where he will take care of Mila while I am working and when he has to be out a few nights a week coaching, I am always home with her. Mila will always be at the forefront of our decision making when it comes to careers, and not the other way around.
You faced some heated backlash over correctly pronouncing players' names during your coverage of the 2018 World Cup. Do you think that speaks to Australia's issues with racism, cultural cringe, or something else?
This is a really tough question to answer because it’s something I grappled with when it all blew up, but I haven’t been able to settle on any one thing. What’s really strange is that I haven’t changed my presenting style in the seven years that I’ve been in the role, including while I was hosting the 2014 World Cup, yet it became a big story for the 2018 tournament. Both myself and Craig Foster saw it as an opportunity to educate the wider audience on why we do what we do at SBS, and that includes taking the time to pronounce players names correctly. We do it out of respect for the nation that we’re covering because Australia is so beautifully multi-cultural and at SBS, we’re all about servicing those communities and making them feel like they have a safe place to come to. The one thing we also have to factor into all this is that not everyone is going to like you and the reality is, they don’t have to. I am not a wallflower by any stretch of the imagination and some people will love you for it and others will hate you for it. It’s just the way the world works and I am ok with that. It’s just what you do with those feelings and sentiments that’s up for contention in my view.
You've recently fought back against online abuse after receiving a comment on a photo of your daughter that read “Burn, you fucking witch, and your child too.” Why is the #BeAccountable movement so important to you?
Reading that particular comment triggered such an irrepressible rage in me because it disturbed me to think that someone could say that about a five month old baby. Irrespective of what they think of me, it’s downright sickening. Before I gave birth to Mila, I had already decided not to share many photos of her on social media and of the few I have, none show her face because she’s entitled to her privacy and when she is old enough, she can make that decision for herself. I used to have so much fun on social media but it’s become such a nasty, toxic place and I feel like it’s only getting worse. The online world is starting to effect everyday life and I feel for teenagers growing up in an era where there’s already so much pressure on you to find yourself, but now you have to do it in front of your peers and the world via a social media account. When I looked at the escalating statistics for suicide amongst young children, and that they were linked to social media use, it terrified me. I don’t want social media to potentially have that type of impact on my child or anyone else’s which is why #BeAccountable was born. Its objective is to call on everyone that owns a social media account to be responsible for their behaviour online, just as much as they are in the real world. The COVID-19 outbreak has pushed my targets for the launch back but I have been holding discussions with Members of Parliament and other important figures in the background to work on ways we can ensure everyone is safe online.
What does a typical day in your life look like?
It’s certainly changed since the pandemic struck! I’ve been working from home for the last 14 weeks and it’s hard not to feel torn between your work and family life. I can be stationed in one room, interviewing the coach of the Australian men’s national team while Mila is yelling “mama” at the top of her lungs just a few rooms away. It’s been tough to find a balance and switch from work mode to mum mode because you always feel like you’re ‘on’, or should be doing something, and my mum guilt is through the roof. A typical work day involves waking up with Mila and breastfeeding her before we make our way down for breakfast. From there, we usually go for a walk to the nearest park or oval and have a good run around. Once we get home, Corey whisks Mila off for playtime while I start on my emails and take phone meetings. I usually conduct a string of Zoom interviews with various football identities, write blogs or host a weekly program called ‘TWG LIVE’. In between all that, I still make time to stop for lunch and put Mila down for her afternoon nap, which is really important to me. Once the working day winds down and Mila wakes up, we go out into the backyard for more playtime before I get dinner started. I really love to cook for my family and see it as a chance to unwind. After dinner, it’s bath time and then I breastfeed Mila before putting her down to sleep. Some nights I can be up late interviewing talent in the UK, USA, Switzerland or Germany, so keeping on top of the time zones can be challenging, but no two weeks are the same. When the weekend rolls around, that’s my opportunity to spend uninterrupted time with Mila and Corey and catch-up with my lovely girlfriends.
You've recently celebrated Mila's first birthday. What advice would you give to a new mother about that first year?
For goodness sake be kind to yourself mama bear! As women, I feel like it’s written in our DNA to put enormous pressure on ourselves to be everything to everyone so don’t strive for superhero status, just try to be the best mama to your baby, because you’re already Wonder Woman. Don’t ever feel guilty when you ask for help, delegate duties or take some time out for yourself, because you’re no good to your baby or your loved ones if you’re strung out from trying to get on top of the laundry or write thank you notes. Everyone is going to try to give you unsolicited advice about how to raise your baby but here’s the amazing truth: no-one, and I mean no-one, will know your precious little one better than you, so trust your instincts and just smile when someone thinks they know better. The rough days won’t last forever and neither will the newborn phase so be as present as you can because it goes by oh-so-quickly. I was so consumed with Mila that I didn’t want to spend my days looking at her through a phone, but I wish that I had taken a few more videos and photos of her while she was that teeny tiny. Finally, you’re going to be vulnerable but it’s such a beautiful thing. I cry at just about everything now, and feel things much more deeply than I ever did before – it’s been a terrifying but magical side effect. In order to feel the kind of love you have for your baby, your heart has to expand and with it, so do your emotions. Feel them, don’t hide them, and remember in the eyes of your divine little boy or girl you are their whole world. To me, there is no job or role in this life more important than that.
What are you loving at the moment?
I’ve been hiding a dirty secret for years and it’s that I have this shameless penchant for bad reality television. At the moment I am watching the Real Housewives of Beverley Hills and the New York City version too. I spend so much of my days watching football and talking about it that it’s nice to have mindless pleasures to get into. I also got into Stranger Things recently (I know, I am behind) and watched all three seasons in two weeks. It’s bloody epic.
My makeup routine has changed a lot since having Mila so when I want to try and look like I’ve had eight hours of sleep and not been up with a teething baby, I indulge with La Mer’s The Mist, Kevyn Aucoin’s The Sensual Skin Enhancer and Chanel’s Healthy Glow Bronzing Cream. It’s nice to feel human every now and again, right mamas?