It's been a tough 18 months for Australia's music industry and two-time Golden Guitar winner Kirsty Lee Akers and her videographer husband Jesse Anderson are no exception.
Kirsty's gigs dried up due to Covid restrictions and, with clients hamstrung by border closures and lockdowns, Jesse, too, was unable to work.
Frustrated, the couple threw their energy into gutting and renovating their house at Wangi Wangi, near Newcastle. But with JobKeeper ending and money becoming tight, they had no choice but to down tools.
Then the universe stepped in and worked in one of its mysterious ways.
Jesse and Kirsty found out they were competing in reality renovating show The Block. Episode one premieres on Sunday night.
"It came at the perfect time for us. JobKeeper was ending in March and we started filming in February," Kirsty says.
Jesse and Kirsty are one of five couples going head to head in season 17 of The Block: Fans v Faves. Joining them will be previous contestants Ronnie and Georgia (2017 Elsternwick series) and Mitch and Mark (2019 Oslo series), as well as newcomers Tanya and Vito (parents from Melbourne) and twins Josh and Luke (Love Island Australia, 2019). The location for this year's build is a traditional Australian cul-de-sac: Bronte Court in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Hampton.
It's the opportunity of a lifetime for the childhood sweethearts who married in 2014.
"We first applied for The Block back in 2012. This was our fourth time applying," Kirsty explains.
"Last year we made the shortlist and went through the whole interview process and met with the casting director however didn't make the final cut.
"As it turned out, it wasn't the right time for us last year. Our dog Millie - we had her for 13 years, she was like our child - got really sick unexpectedly and passed away. It would have happened while we were filming and that would have been devastating."
Another bonus was Melbourne's lengthy lockdown-free run earlier this year.
"We were very lucky that we got to film this series the whole way through. The week that we finished is when Melbourne went into lockdown. The timing was just perfect, really."
Pint-sized Kirsty is a born entertainer. She loves a chat and a good laugh. Jesse is content to sit back and let her do the talking, adding his dry wit to the mix when the occasion arises. They are both down-to-earth, friendly and very "real", and this no doubt ticked boxes for The Block's producers.
When asked if they will be portrayed as the "country bumpkins" on the show, given Kirsty's country music background, the couple laugh.
"It will be interesting to find out," Kirsty replies. "But hell yes, we are hillbillies from way back."
Kirsty and Jesse were 18 when they bought their first house together at Weston, near Cessnock.
"We've been together since we were 16," Kirsty says. "We both come from very humble beginnings. I was the very first person in my family to buy a house. It was always a goal of ours."
The couple renovated the "old shack" in Weston over three years, making a $60,000 profit when they sold it. They have since bought, renovated and sold a further five, all while juggling a three-year stint in Nashville where Kirsty wrote and recorded her fourth album Burn Baby Burn.
The talented singer and songwriter recorded her first EP at 16, funding it with money made busking on the streets of Tamworth. She studied at the CMAA Academy of Country Music and won Telstra Road To Discovery (2006), Toyota Star Maker (2007) and a Golden Guitar (2008).
The nominations and awards kept coming, year after year. In January Kirsty won a Golden Guitar for "vocal collaboration of the year" with Aleyce Simmonds, Amber Lawrence and Dianna Corcoran for their rendition of John Williamson's True Blue, dedicated to Australia's frontline medical workers.
"It was starting to look hopeful for the music industry over summer but it seems like we've gone back to how it was," she says. "Maybe we should hold a music festival at a football game [laughs]."
Competing on The Block means Jesse and Kirsty have effectively moved from one construction site to another and back again, but that's where the similarities end.
"We usually renovate by getting things off the side of the road or Gumtree for free. This time we had a budget to work with," Jesse says. "I did the building, cleaning and demolition work but there was a lot of pressure on Kirsty when it came to the design side of things and I'm really proud of how she handled it."
Adjusting to the cameras on set wasn't a problem. They were too busy to be nervous.
"When we watched the show from home we'd always say 'It can't be that hard, they've got all these tradies there to help' but it's so much harder than it looks," Kirsty says. "You're running on minimal sleep every single day for three months' straight."
Jesse and Kirsty were up and working before the camera crew or tradies arrived each morning and were still working long after they left at the end of the day.
"Nothing like this has ever happened to us before so we wanted to make the most of every minute of every day," Jesse says.
The life-changing potential of being on the show was not lost on either of them. This year's winner takes home $100,000 plus whatever profits their home makes on auction day. "We just knew there were so many people who would want to be in our shoes. So we just gave it all we had," Jesse says.
No matter the outcome, Jesse and Kirsty reckon they're already winners due to the friendships they have made on The Block.
"We all worked together really well and we became really close to Mitch and Mark, and Ronnie and Georgia," Kirsty says.
"Our favourite part of the show, what we will take away with us, is the people we met and the friendships we made. Hopefully they will last a lifetime."
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