Find joy in missing out: Melissa Leong, Melbourne
Text KATE PASCOE SQUIRES
Photography KATE PASCOE SQUIRES
Melissa Leong will never let you believe it’s all love, hearts and sunshine. Life is fabulous, yes, but there is more going on behind the shine.
Fierce as all hell, Melissa is breathtakingly beautiful – but that’s not even the start of it. It’s no secret that she is incredibly talented (tv, mc, radio presenter, food + travel journalist, editor), but she’s also an advocate for diversity, a feminist and never afraid to call people on their bullshit.
So how does a girl who is always on the move actually slow down? You’ll be surprised. Melissa is heart-breakingly honest about her struggles with both her physical and mental health in this issue. But she’s not a victim. Not for a moment. She also shares her incredible resilience and ways of coping when things aren’t going to plan. She’s never going to sit around and wait for someone else to make it all ok – Melissa is the definition of strength. Full stop.
The Slowdown. How does that phrase resonate with you?
Figuring out who we are is a lifelong journey. We try on various personas, styles, friendship groups and ways of living until hopefully we are lucky enough to find a real sense of self. My Slowdown meant taking the time to sit with myself, get to know and become good with who I am outside of obligation, appearance and perception. I spent a lot of time trying to be who I thought I should be, but the moment I said “F*ck that”, and began to own myself, I got free. The Slowdown is a vehicle to getting to the place where you’re you. I believe that owning who you are is the most liberating and valuable thing you can put into practice.
Your work involves long hours, lots of travel and a requirement to be ‘on’ – so how do you actually put your slow into practice?
We can all identify with needing to be ‘on’, no matter what our job or life entails. Sometimes though, my job requires me to be ‘on’ in front of lights, cameras and a full studio of crew or a few hundred people at an event. But even just interviewing someone and trying to get the best out of them takes a certain part of yourself. They’re all such fun parts of what I get to call work, but they can be very draining.
Whether I’m travelling or just super busy, doing something that’s just for me is probably the most important thing I do in a day. I’ve learned to take advantage of my surrounds – turn a hotel room into a day spa (hellooooo sheet masks!), meditation room, movie theatre or private gym, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. I like to use flights to listen to music or podcasts instead of catching up on work. On set, I have DEFINITELY used breaks to nap…and I’m not the only one! I think what’s also important to me is pursuing interests outside of work. I love going to my friend Cat Webb’s pilates studio Good Times when I’m in Melbourne, it’s such a modern zen space. And I also LIVE for fashion, beauty and interiors, so they’re an escape for me.
Are these things you do daily, weekly, once in a blue moon? Do you have flexibility or are you rigid in your practices?
I’ve worked full time as a freelancer for about a decade. There is no normal day, week or month, so I have learned to be flexible with my time and self care. I try to integrate work with slowing down into every day, I don’t feel like the day is done if I haven’t done something small for myself. We all know balance is key, but I think we get caught up on what we think balance should look like. A quick meditation, workout, a walk, a chat with a friend, a nap, taking the time to eat lunch without working on your laptop at the same time…get what you can, when you can get it.
How important is the concept of The Slowdown to you?
Slowing down is crucial! Otherwise, life will find a way to force you to. I grew up in an overly competitive, high pressure environment where success was the only option. Learning that you don’t fail when you slow down, but that you can evolve and become ever more successful in your endeavours because of it; that’s a powerful realisation.
Have you experienced a turning point in your life that brought about an acknowledgement of needing slow?
There have been major points in my life where life has literally made me to slow down and reflect or recuperate. I’ve been pretty public about my lifelong battle with depression and anxiety, and there have been times I’ve packed a lot in to distract myself from dealing. And man, did that approach backfire on me! Our issues will still be there when the party stops, the people leave and the lights go off. So ultimately, learning to take the time to face these bigger themes in life help us to win the freedom to go at our own pace in the long run.
You spent some time living on a farm in Tasmania – what drove that life change? Was a slower pace something that attracted you and, in turn, how have you found returning to city life?
A few years ago, I found myself in a ‘perfect on paper’ life… sadly, it felt completely hollow on the inside. I had the dream job, power relationship, cute apartment, cuter dog, glam pictures in the social pages, but it somehow felt wrong. It prompted some investigative thinking. One day, I woke up and decided two things. Firstly, I would go on a vipassana (that 10 day silent retreat everyone starts talking about doing in their 30’s when they start to wonder if the choices they made in their 20’s were the right ones); and secondly, I would ask a cheesemaker friend whose family owns a sheep dairy in southern Tasmania, if I could go and spend some time learning how to make cheese.
A month into my Tasmanian odyssey, I returned to Sydney, ended my relationship, packed up my car and drove to Tasmania. I lived in rural Tasmania for two years, mainly on an abattoir and the dairy. I learned to hunt, milk sheep, grow vegetables, care for chickens, chop firewood… and yes, even make cheese. Going someplace in the world where nobody knows or cares who you were before, is a gift that I realise not everyone has the opportunity to receive. But I’m glad I saw the gap and went for it. I met a slaughter man/butcher friend, who said he believed we met because he was meant to help ‘de-shine’ me. I like that notion. We build up such a glossy, hard outer shell to deal with the world, and wonder why we have issues with vulnerability (or at least, I did). I think we all need a good de-shine a few times in our lives!
As soon as I listened to myself and started living my life truer to myself, everything clicked. Two book publishers called me and offered me work (one, my first co-authorship), then a lucrative consulting gig offered to fly me back to Sydney once a month for a city fix (there are no dumplings in the country other than the ones you can make yourself!), but most importantly, I started to feel happy again.
I returned to city life to work on a book, with every intention to return to the country when I was done. Life had other plans in store for me, but after Tasmania, I realised the liberation of saying ‘no’ to obligations and other people’s expectations. And you know what? Instead of being detrimental, it has proven quite the opposite.
Have you ever experienced burn out?
Sadly, yes. I worked on a book which involved a lot of travel and close living with a small crew. As an introvert who manages depression and anxiety, it was a situation asking for disaster. The work and the people were amazing but managing my mental health in such close confines was challenging. Add to that the fact that living on the road can pile on the pounds – when you’re at a truck stop four hours outside of Alice Springs at 6am, there are only so many food options, you know?
When the book was done, I took a break, but in hindsight I just replaced a high-pressure job with a crazy exercise and diet regime, to ‘get back on track’ (whatever that meant at the time). One day, I woke up with what I thought was a bad cold, and it was the beginning of the end. Months later, with thousands of dollars spent on wellness retreats, colonics, acupuncturists, Chinese medicine, endocrinologists and gastroenterologists, I was finally diagnosed with Pyrroles; a stress-induced autoimmune condition that stops your body from absorbing zinc and b vitamins. This meant chronic insomnia (I was sleeping 1.5 – 3hours a night), hair falling out in clumps, nails would shatter just by looking at them, and the idea of walking 100m up the road to the shops for groceries was an impossible task.
My initial recovery took nine months to begin to feel better, and it’s now an ongoing part of how I live. Part of that is learning I can never go full throttle again where work, diet or exercise are concerned. It’s a big lesson in listening to yourself and what your body and mind needs and wants, and prioritising it.
Social media can be all encompassing – do you ever find yourself falling down the rabbit hole of comparison or do you have ways of keeping on top of this?
At the beginning, I think we all fell down that rabbit hole. Comparison is innate for humans! The amount of passively competitive comments I received when Instagram gave me a blue tick was odd! These days, I draw a pretty clear line with social media. I use it mainly to share my professional endeavours, talk about issues that are important to me, or share things I think people might find useful. I try to only follow people who inspire me, or who I admire for kicking ass. I’ve also become more than fine about unfollowing people! Liberating stuff!
There is also something to be said for keeping something back for yourself. That has to be more important than growing followers or getting likes. A very high-profile friend (who shall remain nameless) once said to me “Privacy is the last luxury”.
How important is your exercise regime to your physical and mental health?
Recovering from Pyrroles is a daily mission. In the beginning, I had no energy to exercise, and I felt really down. Now that I am feeling better, I find that doing something daily is crucial for me feeling balanced and calm. Instead of pushing it to the max (I will never be able to do F45!), I have found a combination of things I love to do, that help me feel strong. I started Pilates a few years ago to help with back issues, and it has completely transformed my body – I love the discipline and focus and have had the fortune of working with some inspiring teachers. I mix this with Tabata and HIIT, and when I am on the road, I love PopSugar Fitness’ YouTube channel for workouts I can do in a hotel room with no equipment.
I think it’s important to know how to read your body and learn when ‘tired’ means you need to rest, or you need to sweat. Both are beneficial.
Do you agree with the premise that we all need to slow down at times or do you think it’s actually possible to have it all, all of the time?
If you could have it all, all of the time…would you want to? What is ‘it’ anyway? Even as a self-confessed A-type over achiever, I don’t think ‘having it all’ is something we should want to attain or retain for too long.
Perception plays a big part in the pressure we put on ourselves to have it all. You mentioned comparison earlier, and we sometimes forget that just because someone is in the media spotlight (which is fleeting, I might add), is crazy successful or has a zillion followers – that stuff doesn’t necessarily bring that person the kind of fulfilment others may think it does.
I think there’s also real value in having very little of ‘it all’ sometimes. How else do we value the good stuff, if we haven’t experienced the negative space that holds it?
For those of us who are walking our own slow down path, do you have any ideas to share that might assist us in our journey?
Find joy in ‘missing out’. Say ‘no’ more often when it’s better for you soul to say so. Be selective about who you bestow the title of ‘friend’. Get comfortable with your own company. Find a place and an activity you can do that gives you a break from anything going on in your life; whether that’s to be in nature, a bookstore, or even a space in your own house. Most importantly, the greatest lesson I have learned through this process is to listen to your gut. It’s not just for digesting food!