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In the television news industry, you toil in small towns for your first few years on the job, making so little that most reporters I know also held side gigs waitressing or babysitting when first starting.
After putting in a few years in far-flung corners of South Dakota or Alabama, you cross your fingers that you can make it to a larger city. The real dream, though, the one that every local news reporter secretly aspires to but only a handful ever achieve, is the national stage – working at a major broadcast network and having the chance to bring in a sizable paycheck, earn some amount of notoriety, and make all your local news friends green with envy.
That happened for me. I moved to New York City without a job, armed with not nearly enough savings and the name of a recruiter at a major network given to me by a friend of a friend.
I knew it was a long shot, and that despite having worked in some fairly large markets, I probably had no chance of even getting a response. So two hours after sending an email to the recruiter, I was amazed to receive a perky message back, asking if I could come in the next week for a series of interviews, followed by a camera test.
I was elated — and panicked. I woke up the morning of my interview sick to my stomach with nerves, carefully painting myself up with the concealer, foundation, powder, eyeliner, eye shadow, lipstick, blush, and mascara that’s the standard uniform of any female working in front of the camera. I looked good for me, but as soon as I walked into the glass skyscraper the network was housed in, I realized I was painfully out of place among the perfectly put together women teetering across the marble lobby in their five-inch heels, the red soles seemingly flashing me a code that said “get out of here, you don’t belong.”
Despite my trepidation, I wore on. My sensible J.Crew pumps with the regular brown bottoms marched me through interview after interview. I finally made it to hair and makeup, where I was lacquered up with about a pound of makeup on top of what I had put on a few hours before, and the hairdresser frowned as he sprayed what seemed like an entire can of Aquanet in my hair. He was adamant that I wear it parted the opposite way, since “You need all the volume you can get, honey.”
Into the studio I went, putting in my earpiece and adjusting my eyes to the insanely bright lights. I struggled to read the teleprompter, and my hair refused to cooperate with its new search for volume, and instead it fell in sticky pieces over my face. I left the glass tower thinking I’d totally blown it. Just as I had been to receive the first message, I was shocked when I was called back with a job offer that afternoon. It was more money than I’d ever made, although the exact role sounded suspiciously different than what I thought I was interviewing for.
Instead of the “morning” shift that had been referenced, I was told my start time would be at 2 a.m. every night. And instead of being a full-time reporter, I’d be on-air sometimes and writing and producing the rest of the time. Regardless of the grueling schedule and unclear job description, I took it.
For months, I paid my dues. I dutifully came in to work when the rest of my friends were just coming home from the bars, writing mind-numbing scripts and trying to figure out how I could move myself up and finally get my shot in front of the camera.
While I would sit in the control room trying to identify what made the great reporters so effortless and engaging in such a high-pressure situation, I was disgusted at what the directors were paying attention to — it certainly wasn’t the delivery or the content of the reports. This network was known for having stunning female reporters and anchors, and seeing them each day in real life only reinforced that — the camera really does add 10 pounds, and these women who were already so very slender on-air were alarmingly thin in real life, their low-cut DVF wrap dresses accentuating the bones of their hips.
The pressure they faced to embody perfection was intense — one of the network’s most high-profile anchors had reportedly come back to work a week after giving birth, desperately scared that her spot as the star would be filled should she care for her newborn any longer than a few days. “She marched in here with a double pair of Spanx on, but her ass was still fat,” laughed one particularly chauvinistic director.
These kinds of comments toward the female talent were constant in the male-dominated control room, ranging from “She’s on the wrong side of 40 for sure” to “She’s pretty hot, except for that bump in her nose. I’d still do her though.”
Each day it was the same routine, with plenty of fodder — each control room held a wall of monitors showing the network’s feeds from all over the world, as well as the multiple different shots housed within its Manhattan headquarters.
Generally not someone who is afraid to speak out when an especially offensive comment was made — usually coming from an overweight, balding, and disheveled director — I would say “Don’t you think that’s unfair? Would you want someone tearing apart every part of the way you look?”
“That’s what you sign up for in this job — you want to be on TV, there will be people at home saying way worse.”
“Okay, well why don’t you ever say anything about the way the men look?”
That logic was just met with a disinterested shrug. The double standard was immense — one of the network’s biggest male stars was a paunchy man in his 60s with a prominent hooked nose and a receding hairline — and what was left of his hair was streaked with gray. When was the last time you saw a female anchor with gray hair? Even at 85, Barbara Walters is magically still blonde. This older man was flanked at the anchor desk each morning by two beautiful, size 2, Ivy League–educated women who didn’t look a day over 30.
By the time my chance in front of the camera finally came when one of the female reporters was out on medical leave, I was doubly nervous — on top of the anxiety I already had of not wanting to make a fool of myself in such a public arena, I couldn’t quiet the voices of the directors in my head, knowing that my size 6 and non-supermodel self (no seriously, one of the directors — someone I had considered a friend — told me, “You’re not a supermodel, but you’re attractive”) would provide excellent material for their critiques of everything from my choice in wardrobe to whether my breasts were real.
In the end, I was surprised to find I was more hurt by the things my female colleagues said to me. After one of my first live reports, a male director shared with me that one of the female producers had remarked that I needed to get my smile “fixed.” Another female manager pulled me aside and said, “There’s something weird with your eyebrows. They’re just . . . I don’t know, they’re just not good.”
These oddly specific yet vague criticisms over things I really couldn’t understand how to alter put a bitter edge on my excitement to finally be reporting, and made me insecure in a way I never had been before. Having worked in television for several years prior, I had no illusions that my looks weren’t a part of my job, but I just never imagined they would trump absolutely everything else.
A generally low-maintenance woman, I had always done just fine at previous stations making sure my manicure wasn’t chipped, my hair was in place and my face was powdered. I spent more time concerning myself with reading up on the politician or author I was about to interview, or catching up on the latest news I had missed while out in the field. I thought focusing on the substance of my work instead of making sure the package was bedazzled would help me excel in my career, and was disheartened to find that here — at what was arguably the highest I could expect to go — the only thing that really mattered was how good I looked in my fast-growing collection of candy-colored sheath dresses.
After several months, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Despite the fact that my paycheck was covering the majority of our bills, my husband and I made a plan to cut our expenses and dip into savings so that I could leave.
While I’m still figuring out exactly what my professional journey is, I at least have a clearer idea of what I don’t want for myself, which I’ve come to realize is sometimes more important than getting what you think you may want.