Tara Dennis might be best known as the interior design guru on Channel 7’s Better Homes and Gardens but, as Rebecca Spicer finds out, there’s even more to this successful stylist than meets the eye
Not only is Tara Dennis a well-known television presenter, she’s also a successful interior design and style consultant, guest speaker, business owner and author, and if you try to pin her down and ask what a typical day is like for her, the answer is a jovial, "They’re all different".
"I never wanted to work in an office, I like being out and about doing things," she admits. "I guess a typical day for me is a bit of computer work, a bit of prop shopping or buying, some photography, or I could be filming."
When I caught up with Sydney-based Tara she was about to finish off a laundry makeover she started the day before, then she was off to pick up a prop she designed from a sheet metal factory, before flying to Canberra that night. "It’s a bit like scrambled eggs but it’s good," she laughs. Oh, and there’s juggling a family life too, but more on that later.
Many GHA members would also recognise Tara from her guest appearance at the most recent GHA February Trade Fair where she presented seminars on the latest retail and new season trends for 2007.
Tara believes giving talks on trends at industry events has a number of benefits. "For me, doing events like that make me get down and do my research. And I think the upshot of talking about trends and saying what’s the latest and greatest really helped buyers to go into the hall and target out products that they should include in their ranges.
"And funnily enough, I had a lot of suppliers who came along as well and said it would be helpful when they go on overseas trips to know which way the market is actually going. So I’m the link between what consumers are wanting and which way the trends are going, and hopefully I can deliver it back to the suppliers as well."
Tara even joined GHA as an associate member last year, mainly to stay in touch with the industry. "Because I have so much going on, if you don’t make yourself stay in touch by going to industry events or trends talks or workshops, you can lose touch quickly. Even if it’s just receiving your magazine, it keeps your finger on the pulse."
From the Beginning
Strange as it may seem, Tara had no deep, burning desire to create and design from an early age, nor has she ever had any formal decorating or interior design training (other than a little inspiration from her English parents who loved to decorate). But a string of events in her late teens started Tara on the creative journey to where she is today.
She left school in year 11, admitting she was a little disruptive and couldn’t sit still long enough. "I wanted to get out and work". So at 17 she went against her parents’ wishes and went to live and work in London. Like many travellers, Tara worked her way through "about 100 jobs" and enrolled in a three-month night course in paint finishes, because it sounded like a fun thing to do. "That really got me hooked," she says.
Then, at 19, Tara set up her own painting and decorating business in London, doing specialist paint finishes in the "posh" areas of London. After a few years on the job she decided to return home to Australia, landing a job with one of the artists paint companies whose products she’d been using. "I loved their products, so it was one of those things that seemed a natural progression."
Working as their product manager, Tara travelled all over the world to teach people how to use these paints properly and, through product awareness, was able to boost the company’s sales enormously.
While never aspiring to work on television, admitting she could barely stand collecting a certificate on stage as a child, it was Tara’s job at the paint company that prompted her first brush with television fame. In order to build even more awareness about her company’s paints, Tara would come up with story ideas for shows like Our House, which would incorporate the company’s products. "I used to knock on the door at Channel 9 and go and see all the researchers, sit down with them and show them all these different story ideas, and if they liked the idea they would include it as part of the story.
"I’d turn up on the day with the before, middle and the after examples, standing in as a stunt double for the likes of Rebecca Gilling, Tracey Dale and Suzie Wilks, using all the product of course." And she’d make sure the company’s brand was visible on camera, so they’d get good mention on the show.
In 1998, to her surprise, the network asked Tara to try out for a new show, Changing Rooms. Although she felt totally unsuited and unqualified, she realised this was exactly what they wanted. "It was the beginning of the reality TV genre where they went from having presenters or actors, to having real people who could actually do the job," she says.
Admitting she was red-faced and full of nerves during her first screenings (hard to imagine given her confidence now), Tara’s role as one of the first designers on Changing Rooms kick-started her on-screen career. "I was so nervous but what I loved was the actual changing of the rooms. So as long as I was busy doing what I was doing, I was happy."
Tara continued working with the paint company while working on the show for around two years until she was offered a full time decorators role on Our House when Suzie Wilks left. This meant, Tara says, making the choice to leave the real world and plunge into the very "unreal" world of television. Luckily, thanks to the growing popularity of reality television shows, her on-screen career took off.
Tara believes the popularity of this TV genre was an incredible milestone for Australians in general as well as the homewares industry. "I think the beauty of what these shows have done is they’ve given people the confidence to do it themselves. And it was incredible for a lot of manufacturers and wholesalers in Australia because we were actually bringing design and doing-it-yourself back to the people, which hadn’t really happened before. So if we said a product was good, a lot of people would rush out the next day and buy it. It was pretty phenomenal, so I guess my education with the paint company put me in good standing for working with suppliers, and I still do that now."
In 2002, Tara began reporting for the local travel show Postcards as well as presenting design segments for Mornings With Kerri-Anne and The Today Show. During this time, she was also a major part of the successful renovating specials Renovation Rescue, which went on to become a regular show, and which Tara continued to be a part of until 2005.
In 2003, after joining the Burkes Backyard team as interior style and design presenter, Tara was also signed on as part of the DIY Rescue team.
Last year Tara moved to Channel 7 to be part of the new Better Homes and Gardens television and magazine team to present a weekly design segment featuring style trends and makeovers for the home.
Building a Business
In order to manage her many varied roles for television, as well as fulfilling private and corporate design commissions, consulting as a colour and photographic stylist, and conducting public demonstrations and stage talks, Tara started her own self-named business in 1999.
While she’s contracted to Channel 9, she works as a freelancer. "So I’m still a business in my own right, and that allows me to do other work and it’s a good freedom to have. It’s also taught me a lot of discipline about being a business owner."
Surprised at how far she’s come, Tara doesn’t apologise for her lack of formal training. "I actually
look at it now as being a bonus. Anyone can go to school and learn a textbook, but I actually do it. I’ve been painting and decorating for about 19 years now, so I just teach myself and have a go and try it, and I think that’s what most people are afraid of. They don’t bother to try, they just tell themselves they can’t do it—whereas I tell myself I can do it, and if it doesn’t work I try again."
While Tara started her first business at 19, she admits to just "playing then", so didn’t take business ownership seriously until she launched Tara Dennis Pty Ltd.
Her schedule is kept quite full, but admits her three-person team continually needs to work on marketing the business more. "So we need to keep the business fresh and current, with new ideas and lines of communication." Which is one of the reasons she wrote a book, Home. Released in late 2005, it helps educate Australians to become informed shoppers and teach them about common decorating problems Tara recognised over the years.
She also hoped to gain some credibility through the book. "It was very important for me to get a book out there to say, look I really do this and I believe in what I’m talking about."
The taradennis.com website is another vehicle she uses to achieve this. "I think it’s important to be aware that it’s a technology we need to embrace," she says. "A lot of manufacturers and suppliers are still not embracing the technology of the web, but I think the audience are demanding it. They want that instantaneous information and they want to see catalogues online, they want to view products easily."
Expanding the business further, Tara launched an online shop on her website about a year ago, and considering they haven’t invested a huge amount of resources into this arm of the business, Tara’s surprised at the response so far. "It was more like, let’s see how it goes, let’s see if people are willing to buy online and see what’s happening. So I guess we’ve just established it in a small way," she says. "We haven’t invested very much time into the product range but the actual model is working very well for us."
Like any business owner, Tara admits to meeting challenges every day, but says learning what works and what doesn’t is all part of running a business. And while it would seem a tall order for just three people (and one is just part-time) to make a success of the business, Tara says they’re a multi-skilled team, so can afford to run a tight ship. "I’m terrible at computers, Martyn’s brilliant at computers, he can do Photoshop, he does photography, I do styling and Louise is much better at the bookwork than us, so we’ve all got our strengths. I think the value of that is if you keep it as tight as you can for as long as you can, you can keep investing in the business. Sure, we could hire a few more people and it’ll make life a bit easier for us, but I think it’s better to really focus on what you’re good at and just keep going.
"You just have to learn to be disciplined, I think that’s the hardest thing in every respect—disciplined with your time, where you spend a lot of your time, and also your systems. So we need to make sure our systems are ticking really well because I’m all over the place. If I’m not super organised, the wheels will fall off and fortunately I’ve got Martyn and Louise who back me up, so it works really well—it’s a good team."
It also helps that Martyn is Tara’s life partner as well as business partner, so they work well together, but Tara also has a 15-year-old daughter, and managing work–life balance can be hard at times. "Ideally it would be nice to stop and have holidays, or even have weekends—we’re lucky if we can sit down for an hour or two on the weekend—but I think when you’re developing a business, that’s the trade off. You have to say, look we’re committed to our business and we have to put everything into this at the moment, or else it’s just not going to work.
"I used to really suffer from the guilts of a mother—trying to run a small business and trying to be a good parent. You try to be superwoman, and be everywhere at once, but I think she’s a better person for me working as I do because she’s very confident, she’s self-assured, and she’s also very proud of what we’re all doing because we’re a team. She has come along for the ride with me since she was two years old, and she’s just a really great kid who enjoys it, so I think at the end of the day it’s been beneficial for the family."
And it doesn’t sound like Tara will get those weekends to herself any time soon. She’s currently designing her own homewares range, which is something she’s been longing to do, and hopes some products will be released within the year.
Her role on Better Homes & Gardens will continue, with ratings going well, as will some corporate endorsements she’s working on. There could be more books in the pipeline, as well as more invested in the e-store, so while ‘busy’ might be an understatement to describe Tara’s life, she says loving what she does keeps her going.
Tara’s Top Tips
Be curious. Always be open to new ideas and think outside the square, otherwise your business will just stagnate.
Service sells. I’m so big on service, but I think in Australia we’ve still got a long way to go.
Look at branding and packaging. You can upgrade a product very easily by changing your colours or changing your look, or even the font you choose. You can actually add more value to your products just by the colours of your logos and packaging.
Be eco-friendly. People these days are very environmentally aware and very health conscious, so try to incorporate some well-being products into your ranges. That could be down to the process of manufacture, the actual product itself or the way it’s been packaged.
Affordable luxury. Include some luxury brands or items into a range. People don’t have a lot of time these days, so what they tend to do is spoil themselves more. I think the perception of luxury brands is changing. A lot of people used to think it was just Versace or Gucci, but it’s now things that are packaged well and done well that make people feel like they’re buying themselves a little bit of luxury they can afford.