She was the smart, sexy, hilarious young rising star of Australian television in the 1990s – until one disastrous live TV interview almost ended her career for good.
In the latest episode of Australian Story, broadcaster Libbi Gorr looks back on her early television days, working under the alter ego Elle McFeast, and opens up about the night it all came crashing down.
“After that episode, television didn’t want me. It felt like I was cancelled before cancelling was invented,” Gorr says of the infamous 1998 interview that spelled the end of Elle McFeast.
Gorr shot to fame as McFeast in 1991, working as a field reporter on the Andrew Denton-hosted ABC sports series Live and Sweaty. She was unlike any other sports reporter: Cheeky, sometimes very flirty, and with a razor-sharp wit.
Her first televised interview was with AFL player Warwick Capper, the camera following as she got down on her knees to admire his toned buttocks.
Eventually, her interviewees would include politicians and international rock stars. Her specialty was launching headfirst into interviews with powerful men she could dazzle with her sex appeal, then run rings around with her cheeky humour.
Looking back, Gorr calls it “Spice Girls feminism. What was I like to work with? Probably very difficult – but if wanting to be an equal part of the conversation makes you difficult, so be it.”
After Live and Sweaty finished, she made a series of successful one-off specials on hot-button topics with attention-grabbing titles like Breasts and Portrait of a Power Pussy.
Then in 1998 came a new career pinnacle: Her very own tonight show, McFeast Live. It was the first late night talk show anchored by a woman in Australia.
Her very first guest was a controversial pick: “Self-confessed killer and best-selling author Chopper Read.” The career criminal had only just been released from prison.
The interview went off the rails almost as soon as it began.
Read was, by his own admission, “as pissed as a parrot.” He pawed at McFeast, who tried to keep the interview on track but struggled in the face of his visible inebriation.
“I did my best, as any woman would do at any dinner party with some drunk leering all over her, peeling him off,” she recalled.
Afterwards, the team thought it had been a good first show – she’d held her own and it had made for some engaging, if chaotic, live television.
Then the backlash began. Angry callers had swamped the ABC switchboard to complain, and by the next morning, media and politicians were labelling the interview “crass” and “horrendous,” disturbed by Read’s drunken bragging about the fellow criminals he’d killed.
She opened the next week’s show with an on-camera apology, but the damage had been done – the show was not picked up for a second season, and Gorr’s Elle McFeast character was quietly retired.
Gorr recalled that the controversy “went on, and on, and on … but, I do think the decision to open the show with Chopper Read was a valid decision – it was just badly executed.”
In the wake of the scandal, Gorr sought counselling, and eventually found a new role, as a presenter ABC local radio.
“The deal was I had to do overnights, swallow my pride, and do it as myself – to learn how to do it myself,” she said. Goodbye Elle McFeast.
From there, she just kept working. One transformative moment came when she reported on the ground from the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires – she found the existing public affection in her Elle McFeast character was a secret weapon, allowing her to build a rapport with survivors who wanted her to help tell their stories.
While radio has been her focus over the past couple of decades, those television doors did open again too: Gorr hosted the Nine show The Catch-Up and has appeared as a contributor on Studio 10.
Now 58, Gorr balances her own regular media commitments with another role, teaching young film and television students.
25 years on, that infamous Chopper Read interview is merely a footnote in her career, rather than the end of it.
Watch Libbi Gorr – To Elle and Back on ABC iView.