Just don’t talk about my hair

Women are under endless scrutiny about their appearances- even more so when you’re in the public eye. Here’s my experiences of dealing with the shallow side of television! This piece first appeared in thehoopla.com.au

“You’re very different off the television.” It’s a comment I hear frequently from people as I do my weekly supermarket shop, or wait in line at the butchers.

I’m not sure how to take this comment. Usually I smile and say thank you. But I am left wondering whether such a statement is a compliment or a thinly veiled criticism? I decide to take it as a compliment, as perhaps naively, I like to believe in people’s better nature.

And as a woman on television you get used to having your appearance remarked on a lot.

Early on in my career, one of my news bosses suggested I might like to grow my hair past my ears. I’m a stubborn soul and don’t like to be told what to do. In an act of rebellion I cut my hair even shorter. He didn’t ask again.

And I’ve never had long hair. I’ve always refused to have that ‘broadcast bob’. For a while there, plenty of women on telly had that fringy, layered Jennifer Aniston bob. Even she has now moved on from that hairstyle. It is astonishing the amount of time that is devoted to how a woman’s hair looks on the telly.

And it’s extraordinary the amount of correspondence, emails and phone messages television networks also receive about the clothes and make-up of female presenters.

One TV station where I worked (and there’s been a few!) used to have a phone log distributed via internal email to all the bosses which listed viewer comments. The receptionist would write down all the different personal opinions of the callers.

There would be comments about that evening’s line-up of programs and various news stories but most frequent of all were the comments about the ‘look’ of the women on the telly. I used to get so upset reading that people didn’t like my hair, the colour of my jacket or the fact that I wore a necklace that looked like an upside down cross!

As a young news presenter such opinions would shake my confidence. Like that guy in the movie Broadcast News, I used to sweat profusely through my 90s power jackets during each evening bulletin. My mum even suggested putting sanitary pads under my armpits to absorb the sweat. It didn’t work. And who said television was glamorous!!!

Believe me, it’s all smoke and mirrors with the odd pad thrown in…

There’s nothing quite like the support of family to bolster how you feel about yourself. My darling father used to ring up the network, put on an Indian accent, and tell the receptionist, “That news reader with the short hair is just fabulous”. However, his ruse was quickly uncovered when he was asked to leave his name, and without missing a beat, he would answer, “John Rowe”. Those lovely women on the front desk would tell me after the news, “Your Dad has been ringing again”.

Over time I grew a thicker skin, and I was determined not to let negative comments get to me. It always amuses me that people are far more likely to say something unpleasant about someone, rather than praising the person. It also used to frustrate me enormously (and still does) that my male colleagues missed out on the scrutiny of their female counterparts.

How many ageing, overweight and not-oil-painting blokes do we see our on TV screens? Too many. But we don’t see any women like that.

Interestingly though, some of the men I’ve worked with have also been anxious about their appearance. One used to make sure the knot in his tie was tiny as he thought it made him look thinner. Perhaps losing a couple of kilos would have been a better idea.

Another colleague was very open about the fact he had his eyes done as well as having a neck lift.

It was pretty hard to hide the plastic surgery anyway, especially since the weather presenter explained our colleague’s absence to the viewers like this, “we’re thinking of you mate. Keep your chin up”. And I applaud such honesty. Plenty of television types get a bit of help to look refreshed below their years but only fess up to drinking plenty of water and wearing sun block to keeping their complexions wrinkle free.

Despite growing a tougher hide there are still times when the comments hurt a lot.

During my year of living dangerously, while hosting the Today Show (left, with Karl Stefanovic) , I had no idea how vitriolic and vile some of the opinions about me would become. On just my second day in the job I was greeted by a really nasty piece in one of the papers – the ‘journalist’ had a go at my weight, my laugh and my hairstyle. It was so personal and hurtful.

At the time I thought it can’t get much worse, just get on with it. But it did – and the criticism, jibes and remarks continued in certain sections of the media for days, weeks and then months on end.

The advice my mum had given me, “At least they’re talking about you, darling”, wasn’t cutting it anymore. And neither was my dad’s voice impersonation when he would ring up the network receptionists.

I remember opening up a letter that was the most hideous piece of correspondence I had ever received.

The person had filled the envelope with press cuttings, highlighting all that was ‘wrong’ with me. I was shocked that someone who didn’t know me could be so mean spirited and cruel.

But what got me through was the extraordinary support I got from total strangers as well as colleagues in the media. I experienced a real sense of solidarity from a number of women in the media including Tracey Grimshaw, Liz Hayes, Jana Wendt, Kerri Anne Kennerley, Melissa Doyle and the heavenly Wendy Harmer.

A producer would leave a manila folder for me each morning that contained emails, notes and cards from viewers.

This all bolstered my inner strength and resolve not to be beaten down. One particular piece of advice I received during that time, I still use, “To avoid criticism is to do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing”. And who wants to be nothing? I’m sticking with the short blonde hair and loud laugh. Take it or leave it.