WHETHER she is tending to her rose garden, taking a cooking class or decorating her home, Tonia Todman strives for perfection.
Before Nigella, the Jamies (Durie and Oliver), The Block mob, and all those other lifestyle gurus, there was Tonia Todman.
With her manicured bouffant, immaculate grooming and sing-song voice, Tonia was Australia’s original domestic goddess.
For 20-plus years she entertained and educated audiences – from Channel 10’s Healthy Wealthy and Wise, Good Morning Australia, to Vogue and Better Homes and Gardens magazines, as well as in 28 books and in her role as editor of Mode Made.
How to make a perfect souffle, the intricacies of upholstering a couch, the secret to knitting a bonnet. Tonia had the answers.
Then, about a decade ago, her reign diminished – TV shows were cut, magazines changed direction, fashions altered, viewing audiences demanded different reality TV.
Today, sitting on a cream couch in a peacefully decorated room of her bluestone mansion and rose farm, Highbank at Kyneton, Tonia says those skills so popular in the ’80s and ’90s are now more important than ever.
Together with third husband Michael Dowding the couple run cooking and interior design courses, as well as a B&B and rose farm.
"One of the things I say is please, please pass on your skills, make sure the next generation has a level of self-sufficiency," says Tonia, who has lived with Michael at Highbank for a decade.
"Feeding yourself, growing your own vegetables, making your own clothes, understanding how a house runs, they are life skills, not options. They are things you must know to be a human and to lead a good life.
"I think there has been a revival in growing vegies and sewing with some women. But largely these things are being taken away from us through computer screens. It really is a concern to me. We are becoming bland."
Tonia says her cooking school, for instance, teaches such classes as baking, chocolate, dinner parties, quick and easy meals.
"But I’ve had people here who don’t know how to separate an egg. Some don’t know what sieving means. One thought Nigella seeds were named after the celebrity chef," she says.
Equally, interior design classes offer students the Tonia touch. Often focused on an individual’s own renovation or restoration projects, classes also cover colour theory, fabrics and the basics of good design. "This room," she says, referring to the peaceful creams of her lounge, "has three colours", all beige.
"It’s peaceful because there’s harmony among the colours that work with the wooden floors. You could get the same serenity if you used all blues or greens."
Even the rose farm has that quintessential "Tonianess".
"When we moved here, we knew we had to do something with the (4ha) paddocks. We contacted the agriculture department and asked what would grow here and they said lentils.
"I thought, ‘Tonia Todman lentil grower, I don’t think so’. Not even those French black ones would work. I wanted to grow something I was passionate about and I’m passionate about roses."
There are 5000 fragrant rose bushes, including David Austin and French varieties Delbard and Guillot, which are sold as cut flowers and posies to weddings, high-end florists and restaurants such as Daylesford’s Lake House.
While many contemporary lifestyle gurus appear manufactured, constructed versions of themselves, Tonia is very much the real deal, a product of an era that has largely vanished from modern life.
She attributes her life skills to her early childhood – until the age of 11, she grew up on an idyllic New Guinean island, where her father worked in intelligence.
"From the age of five I made dolly clothes and started making my own clothes from 12. I did all the handicrafts," she says.
"I was brought up to be a good wife and mother."
In the mid-70s she moved to Sydney, where she wrote and made patterns for Vogue magazine. From this point on, Tonia hit her stride: she edited the now-defunct magazine Mode Made, and eventually starred in TV’s Creative Living with Tonia Todman.
These days, while Tonia still enjoys making and growing – and teaching others how to do so – she has left the glamour far behind. "I’d rather be in the garden, or cooking, or sharing a bottle of wine with friends."