‘Nicole Kidman made me the woman I am today’
If it's true that you are the sum part of all those you surround yourself with, then Gemma Fordham is a woman who wields great power. She is best friends with Nicole Kidman and godmother to Sunday, Kidman's daughter with Keith Urban.
Carrie Bickmore and Jackie "O" Henderson are close confidantes and Wendy Harmer is a mentor. Despite this proximity to some of the most high-profile names in Australian arts and media, chances are you have never heard her name.
"I've never been interested in being on a billboard," Fordham tells Stellar. "I get a real kick out of making other people shine. I find that deeply fulfilling."
She has done a pretty good job of it, too. Over the past two decades, Fordham, 36, has helped to mould and shape some high-flying careers; today she is the head of Southern Cross Austereo's Hit Network, overseeing radio stations such as 2Day FM and Fox FM.
If she has long held jobs that require her to work the phones, then the first one she landed at age 14 - answering them at Sydney's 2Day FM headquarters - provided the perfect training ground.
"I would go in after school in my uniform and I absolutely loved it," she recalls. "I was obsessed with radio. I think it's because my dad used to work at a local community radio station at night for fun."
Unlike him, Fordham has never been interested in grabbing the microphone - "It would be my worst nightmare to be on air" - but is always drawn to what happens behind it.
So much so that by the time she was 17, Fordham became assistant producer on 2Day FM's No. 1 rating show The Morning Crew with Peter Moon and Harmer.
She "basically did my HSC by correspondence", and two years later was the agenda-setting breakfast show's executive producer, making her one of the youngest people ever to be in charge of a commercial radio program.
"I don't know exactly what they saw in me, but I remember Wendy saying how I'm completely unflappable in the crazy world of live radio," says Fordham. "She was a pioneer. It was rare to have a strong female talent working on air at that time."
Harmer tells Stellar that upon reflection, she didn't realise just how young Fordham was when they worked together. "Let's face it, radio is an ego game," she says. "And she was always performer-focused; I felt safe with her."
Her unflappability eventually caught the eye of regular show guest Kidman, who was on the hunt for an executive assistant. "She really wanted an Aussie," says Fordham, who was in her early 20s when she took the job.
"She'd had Americans in the role previously and, given she was in the midst of separating from Tom [Cruise], she wanted someone who had an Aussie sense of humour. That was the beginning of a very special time in my life."
For the next eight years, Fordham was based in the US as she played wingwoman to Kidman, accompanying her aboard her private jet to the Cannes Film Festival or simply to the local grocery store.
Fordham becomes equal parts emotional and protective as she talks about her former boss. "My job was to do whatever I could to make sure she could perform at her best. She shaped the woman I am today. I learnt so much from her about looking after people.
"She's incredibly loyal. She's worked with the same people for a long amount of time and she looks after them."
Fordham saw Kidman through her divorce from Cruise and into a new phase of her life when she began dating Keith Urban. Which was why she felt comfortable resigning after her partner, fellow radio worker Del Fordham, proposed.
"One of the hardest decisions I've made in my life was leaving that job, and the only reason I left was because Nic had come full circle. She had four children, was married again, in a beautiful relationship and deeply happy. She didn't need me anymore."
Kidman, meanwhile, speaks glowingly of her ex-assistant. "I love Gemmie," she tells Stellar. "I've seen her grow from a young girl into a woman with grace, elegance and integrity and not just as a career woman, but as a mother and wife.
"That's one of the great joys of my life - being able to mentor young women and see them meet their full potential. I am so proud of her."
Fordham returned home to Australia and became the executive producer on what was then 2Day FM's Kyle and Jackie O Show. Again, she quickly bonded with the female talent at the microphone. "We just clicked," says Fordham of Henderson. "I admire her work ethic. Jackie is one of my best friends now."
Amid the career wins, Fordham stayed focused on personal highlights; she now has two sons, Darcy, six, and Samuel, four - alongside them, she looks after 52 stations across the Hit Network. Among her professional successes, in 2017 she managed to convince Carrie Bickmore to return to radio - where she started her career in Perth in 1999 - alongside comedian Tommy Little.
"It was an unconventional approach," Bickmore tells Stellar. But it worked, she says, in part because, "We understand each other and the challenges that come with having a young family and chasing your dreams."
There have, of course, been struggles. In Sydney, 2Day FM still has not found a breakfast show that has fully clicked with audiences.
But Fordham is doing what she can to shore up her expertise in the field - one of her proudest moments, she says, was receiving her Masters of Business Administration degree with her young boys looking on.
"That was important to me. I wanted them to understand that Mummy can have a career, too," she says.
A keen advocate for supporting women in the workplace, she also wants to encourage them to pursue more executive roles, which was another reason she undertook her MBA. "I get a lot out of being around women who don't want to confine themselves," she explains.
"I love that something that starts as a really great working relationship also has these other extensions - and we can support each other in other ways, not just in the studio or at work. Working with strong women, I've always approached it like, 'What can I learn from you - and then how can I help you in return?'"