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Imagine this scenario: a top ranking woman at ABC America invites an on-air contributor to breakfast to tell her to lose weight. Only she doesn't say that. Instead, after much deliberation (you’d imagine) and a good hour of chit chat, she tells the talent she doesn't look “as good as she could” and proceeds to recommend a stylist. Then, apropos of nothing, she casually throws in how much she likes to “work out”.  

Should the on-air contributor sue? 

She could, in theory. But for Tory Johnson, it was apparently "just the wake up call she needed". She went on to shed unsaid weight and wrote a book about it which she dedicated, without irony, to her boss. No hard feelings.

Tory Johnson with her book, 'The Shift'.

Tory Johnson with her book, 'The Shift'.

I admire Barbara Fedida -- the ABC exec in question -- for pulling it off. It can’t have been easy. No doubt it was decided the go-between should be a woman instead of a clunky bloke who might actually say what he means, and so she was sent in to deliver the blow. It’s a bothersome job hazard TV executives face the world over: how to tell talent that they’ve let themselves slip without getting into hot water. This is one of the most ingenious attempts I’ve seen.

The problem in TV-land is women don’t look like real women. There’s a disproportionate amount of pretty, thin and, in this country at least, blonde. In such an artificial environment it’s easy to lose sight of normal and there’s a tendency to pull deviants into line. Stylist-as-emissary is a classic tactic, an independent third person who can whip out a fashion euphemism without raising suspicion of ulterior motives. One former TV stylist tells me she’s been asked to take female presenters “under your wing so we can bring out the best in her.” Her way around it was to suggest they dress “for their look” or join a gym.

News Presenter, Tracey Spicer, hasn’t had the pleasure of such subtleties. The news that her then size 12 frame was causing offense in her first newsreading gig at 24, was delivered via a co-worker (another common tactic) who passed on excitedly that management had paid for gym membership. “At the time I was guileless”, Spicer says. “I thought ‘I guess it’s a requirement of my job’. I didn’t shrink but I understand that was the intention.” When, years later, Spicer was recruited to tell another colleague she was “porking up a bit”, she refused. 

Hair and makeup artists are also envoys, doing the bidding for wimpy bosses: One presenter friend is under a “curls embargo”. Publicists, also, are known to have a quiet word with presenters about their “image”.

This has never happened to me. Aside from the odd quip about my hair - ordered to wear a bob because of the chroma key (wayward hairs blur the shot), and once missing out on a job because I was blonde (yes, it happens to us too) - in more than 20 years on TV, I have never received a missive (indirectly or otherwise) to shape up. This is nothing to do with my dress size (which, like most women, has fluctuated) but that I have spent most of my career at the ABC and Sky News where skill and experience bear greater weight than weight. As they should. If TV is a microcosm of real life (which it’s not really but is more appealing to viewers when it is) then this is how it should be.

And it is starting to be. Perhaps by virtue of job scarcity where reporters must be able to cut the mustard, our screens appear to be dominated by authentic looking people. Women over 40. With curves. Who look like they might be your friend. (I’m talking news, people, not The Bachelor). Not that good looks should be a hindrance either. That would be just as dispiriting. A former ABC colleague, beautiful and blonde, was pulled aside by a senior female and asked, “Do you want to know why women don’t like you? Because of the way you dress.” She was wearing slacks and a button up shirt. “With eyelashes like that you belong in commercial TV”, I was told. This was not a compliment.

TV news decision makers have a great opportunity to shift things. To retaliate against what feminist author, Stephanie Coontz, calls the “hottie mystique”, the overwhelming pressure women feel to “look gorgeous every step of the way” (or not, in the case of my ABC friend). TV News Legend Peter Meakin might just be on that bandwagon indicating a move away from TV being a “cosmetic industry about how people appeared, rather than what they had to say.” In a win for normal people, Meakin recently told Cleo Magazine, “You don’t want reporters who look like they have just fallen off the cat walk.”

Which is a turnaround. I recall the frustration at news directors fast-forwarding through my showreel to get to the piece-to-camera. “You look alright”, one said. And what if I didn’t?

Tory Johnson may have a new lease on life after her “difficult workplace chat”. But most of us are happy as we are.

Jacinta Tynan is an author and a presenter with Sky News www.jacintatynan.com

Twitter @jacintatynan