by Azeezat Fadekemi Sulaiman
With a career spanning over 20 years in the media, BBC London News’ Art, Culture and Entertainment Correspondent Brenda Emmanus needs no introduction.
I’m preparing for my chat with her at a restaurant in west London and I find myself poring through my notes, nervous about making a complete idiot of myself. You may not understand the reason for my fidgeting, but when I came to the UK years ago, Brenda was one of the first black women I saw on mainstream TV and I’ve since looked up to her as an inspiration. Her spot is usually one of the last during the news hour, but it’s by no means the least as she always has something hot and engaging to serve in arts and entertainment, so well worth staying up for.
Brenda is a permanent fixture on London’s red carpets often reporting live as some of the biggest names strut their stuff around Leicester Square. I tell her I think she’s arguably the only black woman constantly on the red carpet to which she replies that it’s not such a big deal now as she’s done it for so many years and now, all the PR’s and organisers know her. It probably doesn’t hurt that you’ve got the BBC on your name badge too I suppose.
Seeing how confident she is on screen and the longevity she’s enjoyed in her career, you’d think she was one of those who always knew they were made to be in front of the camera, but pursuing a career in journalism wasn’t actually her first choice. After a brief stab at a career in the arts which that didn’t fly, she turned her attention to broadcasting to see if she could make a go of it.
“I’m quite shy by nature and I felt that I was too sensitive to be a great actress. It was fun and everything but it wasn’t like I was that motivated about it, so I explored a few options. You know, pilot, teaching, the army etc. It just so happened that at the time, media studies were in vogue and this allowed me to explore which part I wanted to be in. I went on and registered for a course, found out that I had a voice; I could write and it didn’t take long for me to know that TV broadcasting was the direction I wanted to go”.
Her first foray into Journalism came when she landed a job at The Voice while studying at the University of Westminster. A job she continued even after her graduation working on the fashion magazine arm of the Newspaper. Her big break came, however after she tentatively applied for a job with the BBC Clothes show. She never expected to actually get the role.
“I’ve always liked fashion, so when I heard the BBC clothes show were looking for somebody and that they were trying to make it more ethnically diverse, I thought, ‘hang on’, this could be my chance. Like a lot of people, I had this assumption that the BBC was more like white Oxbridge and for years, I didn’t apply because I felt I couldn’t possibly fit in. I applied discreetly for the job without telling anybody and I was surprised when I actually got it.”
It was in this role where the 25 year old Brenda cut her teeth in the media as part of the Clothes Show family. You can tell she’s still passionate about the show even decades on as she chats animatedly about her fascination for the fashion industry and muses about ‘the good old days’ being gone.
But her career has evolved since then, presenting shows for the BBC covering travel, entertainment and more recently the arts. So how did a self-professed fashion lover like her end up trawling through countless art galleries in London and interviewing Hollywood royalty? She tells me having such a rich and varied career is actually what makes her a well-rounded broadcaster. “I started in news and current affairs, lifestyle and magazine programmes so I’ve had a real wonderful range of experience within the industry, but now I think I’ve found my niche. I love arts and culture, entertainment, music and theatre, so it’s working out really well for me in that I get to fill my passion. I love creative minds and nothing gets me riled up more than people who are clever and bright and artistic and to spend my whole life meeting and talking to them can only be a blessing.”
In the ever evolving media landscape, it’s a tough gig for women as we have a shorter shelf span than men. Add to that being an ethnic minority and the challenge becomes even greater. She tells me the reason she and a handful of other black women in the industry have managed what seemed impossible years ago is because they’re willing to adapt to the industry as it evolves. “I and the other girls Lukwesa, Gillian and Ronke get on very well and go for drinks. Charlene and I have mutual friends and I think the reason is because we’ve all been through the same struggles and value and respect each other. I feel very fortunate to have been one of the few black women to have remained consistent in this field, despite the tough times, this is something I’m really proud of.”
Read Brenda’s full interview in our Spring/Summer issue, available for download now.