Debra Kelleher grew up in Wellington, and was educated at St Mary's College and later Wellington Polytechnic, where she studied media and communication. From age 15 she appeared in musical theatre productions, from Annie to Hair.
From 1986 to 1992 Kelleher worked in Australia at Grundy Television, working her way up through roles such as script coordinator, production assistant, production manager and associate producer. Over seven years she was a staffer on varied staples of Australian TV — Neighbours, Prisoner, Sale of the Century, Perfect Match — and worked alongside Neighbours creator Reg Watson and Grundy light entertainment chief Bill Mason.
Kelleher describes Grundy as “a hive of production — and the experience gained was invaluable for what lay ahead … bejesus they were tough clever bastards.”
After a brief stint on Channel 10 News she shifted back to NZ in the early 90s, where she spent four years as production coordinator on soap Shortland Street. The experience of working on a multi-camera fast turnaround drama proved invaluable. Her father’s death prompted a return home to Wellington in the mid-90s.
Kelleher joined production house Cloud 9 in 1997 as a production manager, working with producer/writer Raymond Thompson on several projects, including his biggest hit, The Tribe. Based at the National Film Unit facilities in Lower Hutt, Cloud 9 won offshore funding for many of its shows, which played on international networks, including William Shatner-narrated A Twist in the Tail, the history-spanning Revelations and Atlantis High. Kelleher would produce over 200 episodes of The Tribe (which was nominated for a daytime Emmy). The various Cloud 9 shows provided roles for a host of emerging Kiwi acting talent, including Tom Hern, Fleur Saville, Michelle Ang and Antonia Prebble.
In 2001 Kelleher was line producer under Vanessa Sheldrick on road movie Snakeskin, which starred Melanie Lynskey (Heavenly Creatures). She describes the film's writer/director Gillian Ashurst as a “very cool director-chick”.
When breakfast TV lifestyle show Good Morning moved south from Auckland in 2002, Kelleher joined TVNZ and set up the show's new base at Avalon's Studio 8. On the first day they went live, floods in Wellington meant none of the guests could get to the studio, cueing a desperate search for fill-ins who lived locally (some even biked to the studio). As the show's producer, Kelleher loved being able to develop talented cast and crew. "Our host Lisa Manning was an incredible offsider who had an eye for a good story". She was also delighted to lead the talk show which dropped desk mid-shots, an angle that that could be exploitative of buxom female presenters (later Kelleher did time on another daily magazine show, producing 75 episodes of Brunch).
Kelleher was then “reluctantly” moved to celebrities-on-the-dance-floor hit Dancing with the Stars. In 2004 she was sent to Melbourne to learn the format, and watch the show being put together by Granada and Channel 7. Kelleher would become the show’s 'Queen Bee' over five seasons, supervising all aspects of production, including the live band. In this 2016 ScreenTalk interview, she expressed “enormous respect” for host Jason Gunn's attention to detail — who was highly regarded by the crew of the show. Dancing with the Stars became a high-rating TVNZ flagship; it also won three awards for best show in its category, plus peoples’ choice awards.
Between DWTS series Kelleher worked on drama series, commercials, and a number of primetime arts docos (ranging in subject from the World of Wearable Arts Awards to a Cinderella ballet). In 2007 she achieved the feat of being nominated for three different shows in the same year — with NZ Screen Award noms for Best Drama (Karaoke High), Children's Programme (Killian's Curse) and a win for Best Entertainment Programme (Dancing with the Stars).
Short-lived talent show One Night Only (2009) taught Kelleher that “you can’t always be on the most favourite show in the whole wide world all the time”.
Kelleher wrangled the NZ episodes of BBC Brit expat series Wanted Down Under, and was a consulting producer on TV3’s short-lived version of Dancing with The Stars. Budget and scheduling pressures, and a difference of vision with management, meant Kelleher’s relationship with the TV3 edition was brief. Kelleher reflected: “sometimes experience is this country is resisted and frowned upon — especially if you are a woman too.”
She was then lured over to Seven Network in Australia to work on season 15 of their version of Dancing with the Stars. It was an experience she describes as “successful and satisfying”, where she was able to effect some of her concepts for the show’s style, eg integrating moving graphics into the dancers' routines (including Mary Poppins-style clouds and damsel-in-distress railroad tracks).
Kelleher has done two years as head of the New Zealand arm of WIFT (Women in Film and Television), and spent three years on the board. Earlier in her career, Kelleher experienced the shock of receiving a termination letter from a show, the same day her daughter was born. In her WIFT role she was proud to advocate for equal opportunity and pay scales. “The support of women in the industry is fantastic by most — I enjoyed sharing experiences and giving back a little.”
Kelleher is currently consulting on TV and film projects. She also sits on the board which runs NZ On Screen and sister website AudioCulture. In a 2016 interview for NZ On Screen she reflected on her more than three decades in the industry: “I’m a real meat and potatoes girl, and like getting in there and doing the work.” Currently working on the ground as an event sales manager in Wellington, Kelleher also tutors at Massey University in everything from events management to creative media production. She is sometimes credited as Debra Kelleher-Smith.
Profile updated on 19 June 2018
'Debra Kelleher: From Neighbours to Dancing with the Stars...' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Ian Pryor. Loaded 4 April 2016. Accessed 19 June 2018
'Debra Kelleher-Smith', Internet Movie Database website. Accessed 19 June 2018
'Debra Keller' WIFT NZ website. Accessed 19 June 2018
'Producer Debra Kelleher' (Interview) TVNZ website. Loaded 2009. Accessed 31 March 2016