Charisma is the “it” factor that separates “so-so” media personalities from their more colourful and endearing colleagues.
By Nyasha Themba Dhliwayo
Fortunately for Audrey Chimwanda, within a few appearances on national television, she was oozing bucket loads of the type of charisma that had viewers glued to their screens.
Her successful television debut eventually saw her morphing into a radio news presenter at Zi-FM radio station and subsequently into her current role as an anchor for Africa Tonight, a news magazine programme on African News Network 7 (ANN7).
Life for Chimwanda in between these professional moves has, however, been anything but idyll.
Chimwanda (AC) took time from her hectic schedule to talk to The Standard Style correspondent Nyasha Themba Dhliwayo (NTD) about her powerful move to South Africa’s newest 24-hour news channel.
The vivacious Chimwanda also talks about her passion to shift the world’s focus to Africa one story at a time, as well as letting us in on her heartbreaks and ongoing hustle to up her professional game.
NTD: When exactly did the broadcasting bug bite you?
AC: This is going to sound so cliché but… but it was by accident. I was studying Bsc in Information Systems when my then boyfriend told me about a presenter audition at ZTV for a show called Youth.Com. Of course I was convinced he must have been smoking something because of all the people, he knew how shy I was. He insisted and drove me to Pockets Hill where there were two buses full of hopefuls. I made it to the finals and was eventually chosen out of everyone. That is when the bug bit me and the rest is history.
NTD: What are some of the timeless lessons you learnt during your early years at ZBC?
AC: Resilience. My days at ZBC set a concrete foundation for me to withstand any pressure. I worked for next to nothing but the experience was priceless and timeless. Timeless in that when I started off in South Africa it wasn’t easy. I was broke but I had to find a way to make it to work everyday and I can honestly tell you that twice I had to walk to work and go straight to the bathroom when I arrived to freshen up. Priceless in that you can’t buy passion. I also realised what I wanted to do with my life at the national broadcaster and I had amazing mentors.
NTD: What were you up to during your hiatus from about mid 2013, when you abruptly disappeared from ZiFM, to mid August 2015 when you resurfaced at ANN7?
AC: I was playing house with my now ex-fiancé. We moved together to South Africa but it just didn’t work out. Our relationship became toxic and abusive, I attribute the challenges we faced to financial pressures as at his request, I had moved to South Africa reluctantly. I guess I had a lot of resentment built on that. When I left him that’s when I resuscitated my love for broadcasting and went job-hunting in South Africa.
NTD: What do you prefer between being behind the camera as a producer and being in front of the camera as an anchor?
AC: Oh, that’s a no brainer, I am happiest in front and at the centre of the camera! I always edit my scripts to suit my style before I go on air and I also write some of the stories for my bulletins. Being part of the whole production makes for a great anchor and that is what I aspire to be.
NTD: How did you land this plum position at ANN7?
AC: It was the weirdest thing… I had applied for a call centre job at Multichoice because I was not getting any luck with my applications to the main media houses. Multichoice called me back in a couple of days for an interview and I was over the moon. I went there prepared to slay the interview but it never happened. When I walked into the boardroom, the marketing manager informed me that after going through my CV he realised that my skills were better suited for a new news channel that was looking to hire news producers. He asked for my permission to forward my CV to ANN7 human resources. Again, I thought he had been smoking pot. How could such a prestigious media house want anything to do with some foreigner? I gave him the go ahead but still begged for the call centre job because I thought I stood no chance at ANN7. The ANN7 news editor called me for an interview a couple of days later. I left that room with a contract and no, I did not know these people prior to meeting them!
NTD: What are some of the toughest professional challenges you have faced to date?
AC: Racial and gender discrimination in the newsroom is alive and well, everyday I teach people how to treat me…it’s work in progress.
NTD: Can you briefly run us through your typical working day?
AC: I live literally seven minutes away from the studio. I get to work at 2pm and liaise with all our correspondents across Africa which takes around two hours. I then meet with my show producers and decide on the big stories of the day. A lot of quarrelling happens in the meeting and takes almost an hour. I then take my hour lunch break. I help my producers in packaging stories for the bulletin as well as liaising with the guest relations department in sourcing guests and analysts for the show. At 8pm I go for hair, make-up and wardrobe (favourite time of the day). I have an amazing glam squad that understands my body and style. At 8:30pm I quickly go through my scripts. At 9pm its lights, camera and action!
NTD: News anchors are expected to present stories in a cool almost emotionally detached manner, yet by virtue of being human beings certain stories haunt them long after the last studio light has been switched off. Which stories have left a permanent mark on you?
AC: The xenophobia stories were particularly difficult for me to present with a straight face for obvious reasons. Most of the victims were my brothers and sisters. I was so angry… some days I would literally cry in the bathroom at work, because no one could really relate to how this was hurting me as it was just another story to them. The emotions that some of the images evoked in me will stay with me forever.
NTD: What do you think it will take for media professionals such as yourself to help shine the light on positive African stories?
AC: We have an enormous task and responsibility to bring some light on to our continent. Of course we can not create the stories. However, I personally make it a point — if you have ever watched my bulletin which everyone reading this should — to include positive African stories.
NTD: Having good looks is generally regarded as being an advantage but it also carries the risk of being dismissed by some people as being just another “pretty face”? How do you ensure that your appearance doesn’t distract you from your skills as a professional?
AC: I am fearfully and wonderfully made and I make no apologies for it. I’m a beautiful thick African woman… and if viewers want to watch a show because of the presenter’s looks well, either way one is winning as far as I’m concerned. Ultimately one’s work speaks for itself.
NTD: Within the media profession, what are the things you believe differentiate average journalists from exceptional ones who make a difference in the world?
AC: Personality and tenacity…I may not be the best person for the job or the best news anchor to have come out of Zimbabwe, but I was brave enough to try something new. This was not because I was not afraid of failure as I was very afraid, but I knew if I wanted a different life then I had to try something different. I went banging on doors, got rejected more times than I care to count. You also have to be kind. People relate better to a warm bubbly character.
NTD: Ascending to the top of the food chain is one thing, staying there is another. How do you ensure that you remain relevant and competitive?
AC: I always get so upset when I fluff or if there is technical error on air because I know that in this industry you are only as good as your last show. Building a brand beyond ZBC and ANN7 is imperative to me. I want to be known as Audrey Chimwanda, the media personality regardless of where I have worked. That guarantees longevity.
NTD: What are some of the things about Zimbabwe that you have grown to appreciate now that you are a couple thousand miles away?
AC: Oh gosh, I hope I do not get into trouble with my South African friends for this but…I miss peace of mind [security]. I miss hunhu hwedu, our moral compasses do not always point in the same direction.
NTD: What do you believe Zimbabwean media professionals need to do to take their careers a notch up and become internationally competitive?
AC: Zimbabwean journalists are definitely competitive internationally as I was groomed by some of the best. I believe that resources may be the only impediment. Exposure is also important in journalism, it broadens your mind and horizons.
NTD: Every once in a while we read about personalities who for one reason or another have fallen on hard times financially. How are you managing your finances so that we never have to turn the page and read a similar story about you?
AC: Stories of that nature always make for a good read unfortunately, sad as they are. In a country where almost everyone has access to credit, I have no credit cards or accounts. I do not owe anyone anything. Everything I have I bought for cash. I live within my means. Zimbabwe taught me that.
NTD: What’s your current domestic setup like?
AC: Audrey is single, no kids….just me at home. I hope to meet a good man soon because I want a family just like the one I grew up in. My parents really set a good example of marriage and family for me. I look at how they have grown old together in spite of all the challenges and are now each other’s best friends in their golden years and I want that for myself.