Chatting with Peter Walsh is like sitting down with someone who has an insight into your mind - almost like a psychologist and friend and straight shooter - who speaks with tough love - all rolled into one.
I spoke with Peter Walsh earlier this week (after our first interview for 'Sunday' Magazine around 8 years ago), in line with his new show 'Space Invaders', currently screening on Australian TV on Channel 9, every Saturday at 7.30pm.
Below is our interview - a fantastic chat with the master of his field, a man who started on the organisational journey way before it was a thing on streaming services, and who operates from a genuine place of heart and accountability, where breakthroughs bring along life changing moments, with strategies to sustain people for life.
Josie: Huge congratulations on the show, Peter! I had seen announcements about it throughout last year and was completely intrigued, and I think it's something that is that everyone cane relate to. It could be a room, a boot (trunk), or a whole house - cluttering and 'stuff' is something people can relate to.
What have you found so far with people’s reaction to the show? How have people responded to it?
Peter: It’s always a bit of a risk making a show about clutter that really questions and challenges people about their stuff and how they use their possessions.
And I think particularly at the moment as we’re coming through a huge time in our lives when people are really looking at their homes and doing what I call a 'global reset'.
Because after 12 - 15 months of the pandemic, everyone is looking at how they use their homes and how they use their space.
Everyone is really questioning: "What is our home to us, and how do we use space in our homes?"
'Space Invaders' has been received in such an absolutely overwhelmingly positive way.
Also, on all of the social media - and I actually answer all my Facebook and social media platforms on my own, responding to every single social media post - there hasn't been one single negative comment. I was speaking to the supervising producer last night and you expect negative comments, you actually expect them.
And we haven't seen any at all; the comments are overwhelmingly positive, and the intention of all the comments is to be supportive and positive, and it’s a funny thing to be able to say in today's climate.
We had no intention of creating a villain - most of reality TV today is centred around creating a villain so they make the show more interesting.
It’s in every reality TV show at the moment - to build the villain in as one of the characters, and that was never our intention. And I think that's part of the show's success - the show is real, the show is honest, nothing is staged, not one single thing is staged at any time.
None of it is scripted. I don’t meet the family until the morning of filming. I've certainly seen their homes in terms of photos and video, but I have not stepped into their house until the very first day I meet the family, so it plays out in real time.
It’s an honest show, I think that’s the best way to put it, with real families in real life, exploring honest real issues, and we never know where it’s going to go.
It all just plays out where it plays out, and I think that’s what people are responding to.
Josie: When you find your people, have you found resistance from those appearing on the show while they’re in the thick of it, much more than we see on camera? And how you deal with that resistance when you’re in that process of eliminating things?
Peter: Number one: the people who are on the show have volunteered to be on the show.
I thinks it’s really important for people who watch the show to understand that.
When we called for casting for the show, nobody knew who the people involved were, be it me or Cherie or Lucas - everyone applied blind and that is amazing to me. And we had over 800 applications, so these are all people who knew they needed help, who already felt overwhelmed and paralysed. And so number 1, all these people had gotten to a point where they acknowledged that they needed some help, so that’s important to remember.
And number two, I go into this knowing that they want that want help, and so I never force people (to cull).
So if it gets to a point that they are adamant they don’t want to throw something away or let something go, I’m not going to force them, but I go into this against the backdrop of them having gotten to a point where they’re overwhelmed and (feeling) paralysed.
I definitely challenge these people strongly, sometimes very strongly but I never force them to let go of something they don’t want to - and I am working with them for two and a half to three days, and that is cut down to a total of maybe 18 minutes (on the show), so there is definitely a lot you will not see.
You’ll see that on this week’s episode (the garage makeover) and this was maybe one of the toughest episodes of the season, and the most challenging of all. One of the biggest things I say and I do is that I hold up a mirror to the couple, and I just reflect back to them what I see, and I think it’s a very good image, pardon the pun, of what exists. That’s the way I work.
I will say to people: whose side am I on here? I just remind them: I’m on your side.
I’m an advocate for you, I say to them, and sometimes in the process I’m the only one on their side.
Sometimes, they’re fighting against themselves, against their own best interest. When that happens I will stop them and say: why am I the only one fighting for what you want at the moment?
And this is what happens in the garage episode - and I will call them out on that. But the thing is people generally are very frightened in shows like this, in situations like this, or family members working with other family members are generally very frightened of conflict or of tears, in dealing with these kind of problems.
I am not.
Because I think conflict and tears tell you that you’re on the right path. Anger or tears tell you are very close to important issues. Conflict and tears don’t frighten me, and in fact it tells me we are close. And so when I get to that moment, instead of steering away from that I actually steer towards that.
And I say to people: the only way to get over this issue is to go through it. So in that moment without emotion and without judging, if you can help people to explore why they’re angry or what they’re emotional about you will help them to have a breakthrough about it.
It's like: I am angry about you for this because you are forcing me to face the fact and deal with the fact that I am holding onto all of this, because I am frightened about something, about letting my child grow up, or I am frightened about this because I am worried that if I let go of this, it will mean that I feel no longer valuable as a mother or as a woman.
Because it’s never about the stuff, it’s always about other issues
It’s funny that we are talking about this in this moment because all of it plays out in this week’s (garage clean out) episode.
In the very first episode with Julie and Peter with her clothes, when she said “I am a strong powerful woman”, getting her to that point took about 40 minutes.
And in the episode it was shown in about 45 seconds. She couldn’t even say those words. And I had to keep repeating to her and slowly building to that for 40 minutes. But you can’t show that in a TV show, because that would be the whole of the show.
And that’s the very difficult part for the people in post production, and the choices that they make, and that’s why the people in the field can have nothing to do with the edit. It’s still just as powerful, but it’s not exactly what happens on my side while filming.
What you see in the show is absolutely a refection of what happens in the field - it’s just much much compressed.
Josie: The show is a conversation starter. For me, it’s starting point to getting things done, especially when I have conversations about it with my husband.
I saw you respond to someone on Facebook who has various sizes of clothing, across all the different sizes. How do you separate that conversation people have with themselves about the money they have spent on clothes, with the whole “I must cull” conversation. And why are we so resistant in general to throwing out what we have?
Peter: There’s a few things in there: one is women and weight and clothes are all so entwined. It’s part of a much broader discussion too.
Women (in this scenario) - and men to a lesser extent - are part of that discussion around women holding on to clothes. You know, I wonder if, almost subconsciously, it’s giving someone permission to gain and lose weight. "I've gained and lost weight in the past so I will probably do it again". It’s a very weird interplay, that holding on to the clothes and to stuff.
I’ve worked with women who are heavier and are still holding onto to size 6. The fact is: nobody is ever going to be a size six again. Or even a size 8. It’s just not going to happen. Nor should it.
It’s ridiculous. It’s a fantasy model image that magazines perpetuate and it’s like $@#k that!
Women who are a size 12 - you are never going to be a size 8. And they’re offended, but it’s like: it’s never going to happen. Why should it! Why! Why should a woman have size 6 to a size 18 in the closet. For God's sake, why are you torturing yourself.
And then the (hanging onto clothes around) money thing is kind of a guilt thing.
It’s this whole aspirational thing - "if I buy it and I hold onto it" - that’s absolutely externally imposed.
It’s like Julie (in the first episode) and those running shoes, those $250 running shoes she owned - because her physical therapist told her she needed to exercise. And these are the shoes with the “if you buy them you’ll get fit” tag - she hated those shoes.
And every time she put them on she didn't feel good about herself. Why would you do that to yourself?
It’s the buying stuff and having stuff that some external force tells us that will somehow make you someone else, and then when you do put it on or look at it, it just slaps you with that label - it’s weird interplay.
And with the money thing - it’s money lost, and money lost you’re never getting back, no matter how you look at it.
It’s amazing; when people do let that stuff go - the clothes, and the clothes with labels on them - the money and the guilt about buying just goes wth them.
Josie: That is true. What we resist, persists. And it’s amazing how you can see people feel lighter when it’s gone.
How did you get into what you do on a deep level, and how did the Oprah relationship start?
Peter: I was shooting a show called 'Clean Sweep' and we'd shot 120 episodes of that, and I was a primary school teacher, and also taught in secondary school. I have a masters in education with a specialty in ed psych, and I worked in Australia in drug abuse prevention and around risk reduction, and around health promotion around health promoting behaviours, I’ve worked around different areas, that weirdly - and I don’t think anyone has ever grown up thinking I want to work to be a professional organiser - a whole lot of bits and pieces kind of found a whole new way to this job, and once I started working in this area it became obvious to me that all of the pieces came together to do what I do.
All of these elements and skills - decision making skills, performance assessment, and all the training from what I was originally doing - all of these different disciplines found their way into my role as a professional organiser.
I'd made 120 episodes of one of the first organising shows on American TV ‘Clean Sweep’, and Oprah’s own ethos and philosophy was around 'living your best life' for you, and one of her senior producers liked the show 'Clean Sweep' and they invited me to a guest spot on the Oprah show. It went really, really well and out of that they offered me a five year contract on the Oprah show, and it kind of took off from there. I just happened to have a philosophy which aligns very much with her philosophy, and I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time.
That was a number of years ago and it's all just grown from there, and you know I've been doing this now for nearly 20 years, and I have a great familiarity in this area and I've done hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these, and just have a sense for it now.
I've also written eight books in the area, and I have a huge amount of experience. If you drive your car to a mechanic who has been working on this kind of thing for years, and he can hear a knock under the bonnet he knows there's something wrong with the starter motor because he's heard it for 20 years and hundreds of times.
It's a little bit like that. People are much the same, you know we all struggle with the same things and we buy stuff for the same reasons, and we do things to make ourselves feel happy, or we avoid dealing with something in our lives - we are all much the same.
Inside we are all kind of wired by nature. I find that it’s not that hard to understand
Josie: When did you become more interested in the psychological reason we keep things?
It's never about the stuff, the stuff is not interesting. It's not about the stuff, and it never is. It's not about our clothes or our shoes because that's not interesting. It's about what's happened that makes a relationship with stuff more important than our relationships with others.
That's what's interesting: it's not until you unlock that question that you can make sense of why you have gone off the rails.
Josie: I imagine in the last past 20 plus years you've seen our relationship to things change where the acquisition of things, especially propelled by reality TV, where if you're not a celebrity or a Kardashian - who I've watched and I understand their business model - you'll see that designer bag and it's now something that you really want.
Now the acquisition of things and the relationship to things have certainly changed, acquiring more and more, where you want a lot of them but none of them keep satisfying you.
Peter: Well the huge problem is that nothing that you see on the internet is real, it's all illusion and virtually nothing that you see, starting with the internet, is real, and nothing that you see on social media is real. And the only stuff that people post on social media is the good side, and that creates an illusion for a generation of people. There are higher rates of depression and suicide and general disillusionment in people is so high and distorted.
Most reality TV is completely fabricated; and all of that is manipulated, constructed, fabricated reality TV, none of it is real. If you think otherwise, you are insane!
And so we need to look at the construction of social media, and to think reality TV has to do with anything relating to real life is just to have no connection with reality - and I think that's one of the reasons why our show is striking such a chord because people can see that it is real and honest
There is all this fabricated screaming and storming out and glasses of wine in people's faces, and it has created a complete false illusion, and a false sense of value, and of communication, and it has completely distorted what people think, absolutely.
Josie: How do you not fall into the trap of building up things all over again, and what kind of strategies do you recommend?
Peter: It's simple. There are two simple rules. They sound simple, but very difficult, and it's about our approach to stuff.
The first one is 'don't put it down, put it away'. And if you start saying that you'll be shocked at how difficult it is.
And the second one is 'no more later.'
Stop saying the word 'later'. I'll put it away later, I'll deal with it later, I'll wash it later, I'll iron it later, I'll deal with the mail later. Stop procrastinating. If you do those two things you're never going to have a problem with maintaining an ordered uncluttered tidy home.
Josie: I love the representation of people all walks of life on the show, particularly the family of Indian background. Do you feel - and I know what the answer is of course - we need more representation from different cultures on TV?
Peter: Oh, what kind of a stupid question is that! (laughs).
It's shocking and ridiculous and terrible how unrepresented people of colour and women and minorities are on TV, absolutely.
And it shocked me to come back to Australia - after over 20 years - and see it's still so populated with white faces, and I say this as an older white male, and why are there still so many white, old men on Australian TV, and I'm one of them.
Even though I'm an older white gay man, there are still so many white men on Australian TV, and it's shocking and this should not be so.
Josie: Will there be a season two of 'Space Invaders'?
Peter: We are waiting for news on season two of the show. We're asking people to check details on the Peter Walsh Facebook page, and the 'Space Invaders' Facebook page.
Josie: I love the idea of putting a value on how much people have donated, as Lucas has throughout each show.
Peter: Yes I think it's a really great idea, and I think it helps people to get a sense of exactly what was in the house, and the plan is to do that in much greater detail in future seasons. I think it really inspires people, and gives them a great sense of just how much is sitting in the house and is of value that can be passed on to people, and do good for other people.
Josie: Indeed, and I do recall from our last interview you said: if you have too many things you value nothing.
Peter: It's one of my favourite sayings: when everything is important, nothing is important.
Josie: Are you planning on doing something like workshops or a video series, even though you have so much out there already. like your books. Perhaps something where people are tapping into a virtual format of your offering and what you do, and in real time?
Peter: There is talk of doing a national range of seminars but to be honest I just don't have time at the moment, but I'd love to do that and I've done it before. So yes, later in the year I'm looking at seminars in every national city.
At the moment I'm just flat chat and there are so many things on my agenda, but I'm very much wanting to do that, yes.
Josie: What's next for you and when are you heading back to the USA?
Peter: My partner and I came here to Australia early in the pandemic because the infection rates were rising very rapidly, and the truth is it's just too dangerous for us to go back to the United States at the moment. My whole life has been in the states for over 26 years and our plan is to go back, and to shuttle back and forth between here and there.
We will probably end up spending seven or eight months here and the rest in the United States.
I don't think we can go back to United States until at least October this year, and it all depends on how the vaccination rates go, but I don't see that happening until at least October or November.
Most of the people we know who have Covid or already have had Covid are still suffering the after effects, and various post Covid health issues, which doesn't get as much press as it should; it's pretty horrendous.
'Space Invaders' is now screening on Channel 9 every Saturday, at 7.30pm.