ABC personality DEL IRANI stands for diversity on our television screens
It’s been a hectic few weeks for Del Irani. The shock Brexit vote and its financial aftermath has had journalists like her racing to report the latest developments and produce news stories. Despite her busy schedule, Del made time to talk with us.
The ABC’s Southbank office in Melbourne has two spiral staircases connecting the floors. During my stint there in 2014, right next to both these staircases, were floor to ceiling posters of Waleed Aly and Del Irani. Every morning I’d see their larger-than-life faces, wondering if I’d ever meet them in person. It was to happen two years later, near that same building, when I meet Del Irani straight after she finished work.
The first thing that strikes you when you meet Del, short for Delnaaz, is her energy. Her warm and ready smile and expressive face convey an immediate interest. With her shoulder length hair styled from the morning shoot she’s just completed, Del speaks in an unmistakable Australian accent. Accents make a big difference, she tells me, and hers has been both helpful and a hindrance. “My Australian accent helped me here, but worked against me in India. I didn’t get a job for a long time because of my accent.”
It’s a crisp, cold morning and we’re sitting in a café with a cup of hot coffee each. For the Finance Presenter on ABC News Breakfast, the ABC News flagship breakfast show, which airs from 6-9am nationally on weekdays, early morning starts, waking up at 3 or 4am, are part of the job.
“It’s not easy, but I’m having the time of my life,” she laughs. “I’ve never been so content with the way my work is going.”
Del admits this is unchartered territory for her: being the subject of an interview. It hardly feels that way. In the time we’ve spent looking for a café, she already knows more about me than I do about her. The questions have come thick and fast. It’s the journalist in her. She has a friendly air which makes you want to talk. Perhaps this is why people opened up to her so easily on her award-winning talk show #TalkAboutIt. Like Shah Rukh Khan, who taught her his lungi dance moves at the end of an interview when in he was last in Australia.
I’m eager to find out how she felt when she landed the role as Finance Presenter.
“I was so star-struck when I first knew I’d be working with Michael [Rowland] and Virginia [Trioli]. I could barely get out two words,” she says. “One of the make-up artists said to me, ‘How are you going to co-anchor with them?’ I said, ‘I’ll just fake it till I make it!’”
The camaraderie between the hosts is obvious. She’s quite at home with finance and brings both her intelligence and ebullient laugh to the show. Perhaps this is what attracts her very engaged audience who, like her, are up in the mornings following her content and actively engaging with it via social media.
For Del, working with the Breakfast team is a normal, everyday experience.
“What do you mean normal?” I ask her.
She says, “Well, I know I look different to the rest of the team, but that’s something that never comes up. What you look like, the colour of your skin really shouldn’t matter and it hasn’t – it has made no difference. What matters is what’s inside.”
At a time when people have been calling for greater diversity in Australia’s media landscape, Del Irani has already made headway, even filling in on occasion for Virginia Trioli as main co-anchor with Michael Rowland.
The only time she has been made conscious of her appearance was when a viewer reached out to her and said, ‘It’s so nice to see a person with an Indian background on TV.’
“I was so touched. Women come up to me and say, ‘It’s like seeing my daughter on screen.’ To me that’s the cherry on the top,” she says.
Del was born in Mumbai and is a part of its proud Parsi community. She was eight years old when her parents and two sisters immigrated to Australia and set up home in a North Shore suburb of Sydney.
“I grew up in an affluent, predominantly white, not very multicultural area of Sydney. There were no Indians around, but my parents’ connection with the Parsi community was a big part of their survival here.”
Growing up, Del says she had very few friends from the community. “Most of my friends were white and, for a long time, as a child, I aspired to be blonde and blue-eyed too. You kind of wanted to fit in.”
She hated going to the functions her parents took her to because, “Who would I talk to? I had no friends there, but I loved food so I’d be sitting there in the corner eating by myself.”
She says that her connection to India was strengthened by an upbringing which, despite being set in an Australian home, had Indian values at its core.
Like any other Australian teenager, Del wanted to work while studying at school. But her parents wouldn’t have any of it, lest it disrupt her studies.
“I had to fight to be able to work. My parents were like, ‘Why do you need to work? We’ll give you money.’ I didn’t even recognise it as a cultural difference. I just thought mum and dad were being unfair.” But she had her way.
“I started my first job when I was 15 or 16, at a newsagency and then I worked as a bank teller. It was hard work and the stuff that I learnt is amazing. I actually think kids should do it now,” she says.
Of the many things she learned, the ability to manage different aspects of her life at the same time was the most valuable.
“Parents want you to focus on your studies, but the fact that I was able to study and I had to be disciplined with my time and multitask, has served me well in my life.”
Del was always aware that going to school, then university and getting a job were important. Being a TV host was not on the radar.
“To grow up and think I was going to have this career in television was like a pipedream. I studied Business and Psychology, solid degrees that give you proper jobs.”
But destiny had other plans.
India has been a constant presence for Del. Most school holidays, four years working in Mumbai and family weddings in December of late have scored her lots of frequent flyer miles. Both her parents have also spent a considerable amount of time travelling back to Mumbai to take care of family businesses. On one such visit to her father, in Mumbai in 2006, Del, straight out of her first journalism job, began to consider being a journalist in India.
“The media industry there was starting to take off. I thought being Indian and Australian, this would be so easy for me,” she says. “How wrong I was! The struggle, the rejections, the fact that I wasn’t Indian enough, and I had an accent – it was hard.”
In hindsight, it made her work even harder and she learned a lot in the process. Her first job in India was through a Thomson Reuters partnership with Times Now.
“In 2006, I started as an intern business journalist, doing vox pop, behind the scenes work. My first time facing the camera came as a result of a report I did on the property industry, which gave me a job with Times Now, since Thomson Reuters were pulling out of the partnership.” Things were not simple: the job took her all over India, but she was still in some senses behind the scenes. “I was writing a lot of regional stories, but I couldn’t voice them – I didn’t get a byline for a year because of my foreign accent.”
Landing a presenter’s role for the Reuters World Report changed all that. And then came 2008 with the US Presidential elections and Barack Obama’s election, Pervez Musharraf’s impeachment in Pakistan, and the Mumbai terror attacks.
“I was in the newsroom at the time. I remember the very first phone call we got that shots had been fired [at the Taj Hotel]. We did not go home that whole night and stayed there for almost three days.”
It was a big year, but in early 2009 the BBC came calling.
“I became the Mumbai Correspondent for the BBC. That year 2009-10 has been a high point in my career, until now. Working here at the ABC is a very close second!”
Del has found that Mumbai and the Indian media industry was good training ground for her as a journalist and TV anchor.
“India is not an easy place to work in, but once you’ve done it you can appreciate what that does to your career. As hard as it was, I would never trade that time for anything else.”