She has transformed herself into a geisha, an LA size 0 and a lesbian all in the name of journalism. Emma Knock sits down with journalist, author and presenter Dawn Porter to discuss the fast-paced world of broadcast journalism and her upcoming projects.
You studied acting at The Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts, was that what you originally wanted to do?
In my third year at drama school I decided I did not want to do it anymore. We had to do a project where we did a play, but [instead] I went down to London and did work experience on Baddiel And Skinner Unplanned. When I left drama school I did a bit more work experience and then got a job behind the scenes in TV quite easily as a runner. It is one of those things you have to do.
What was it from the work experience that made you want to go into that field?
Well, it is just quite an exciting world. If you are lucky they will pay your expenses for you to get to work everyday. I did a lot of work where you sit at reception, make tea and you are a total dogsbody. I remember thinking; ‘I want her job and his job and whatever they are doing I want to do that next. ‘
With work experience, you should not do it for more than a month, otherwise people are taking the p*ss out of you. But, I think it is justified if you are in an environment that you can tell is exciting. Everybody rushing about, it is fast-paced, creating shows and creating ideas. It all seems really exciting when it’s so busy that you have no idea what anyone else is doing.
What do you consider your ‘big break?’
I got a job as an audience researcher, so I booked the audience in for Ruby Wax’s chat show. It is the worst job in TV- you are trying to get people in off the street to sit in an audience for three hours. But you have to make yourself available and do all of these really awful jobs and just get them done, because everyone you work with you have to prove yourself to. You will find if you work hard in one show, when that producer moves to a different show, they will call on you as someone who they know works really hard.
You just have to be totally prideless and go for it. I did that for about a year- low paid, rubbish jobs in TV, moving up and up as you go.
You shot to recognition with Super Slim Me – your attempt to get down to a size 0. Would you consider that to be what got you noticed?
Yes definitely. You know, it was the big, loud, topical documentary about something that was written about everyday. If you are working on TV, even if you are really far down the pile, come up with ideas and submit them, because the industry is desperate for new ideas. Super Slim Me hit the nail on the head, you need to be willing to put yourself in that position, research it all and be the person that submits it.
I submitted the idea and was originally making the show for Channel 5, but then they ran out of money. The BBC said that they were already doing that show, and I ended up doing it with a completely different company and completely differently. It just goes to show that if you have an idea, voice it. That was what made me well known, after that I just kept pitching ideas. You cannot get complacent.
What was the personal journey like for you?
It was horrible- I was starving myself and being filmed at the same time. If there was no camera crew following me I would have stopped after the first two days. But I was being paid to make a TV show, so I had to keep going even though I was thinking ‘I don’t want to do this anymore!’
Forcing yourself to have an eating disorder is an awful, horrible thing to do. I did suffer quite badly after the show. Four months later I was back to normal again, but before I had a really horrible involuntary vomit reflex.
I hadn’t stopped feeling really hungry so I was just eating as much as I wanted to eat, and my body could not handle it. I had that for about a month. I would make up in the middle of the night and have really, really violent sweats and would be soaking wet- it was February and I had the window in my room wide open. Also I was just very unhappy, after three or four months I was back to my normal weight again, I’m glad I did it, and I now feel like I never want to lose weight again!
Where do you find the inspiration for your series’?
I think the [first] series was about all the things that affected me as a person and other people- sexuality, childbirth and all that stuff. The other ideas come about from what is interesting out there, the ideas I want to know more about. Take the show about polygamy- you read about it in the newspapers and hear all of these terrible things about this community of people, but then you think; ‘Can they be that bad?’
It comes from just wanting to know more. The breast cancer show I did was a really personal subject obviously because of my mum dying of it, so I thought, ‘Why don’t I know everything about breast cancer?’ I always think if I am finding out something new, then the people watching are finding out too.
There is a bit of a snobbery around all sorts of subjects, the feeling that you should know everything when a lot of people are quite confused. I don’t know everything about everything, I do not mind admitting to that. Really wanting to know about a subject is where you can do really well- do not have an ego about something you do not know all about.
How do you take an idea and make it into something?
First of all if I have not already I need to get a production company attached. Come up with an idea and research production companies to find out who makes TV shows in that area. Always look out for the identity at the end of a TV show you like and make a note of it. Once you have come up with an idea that you think is along those lines then contact that production company and contact the development department to set up a meeting.
You only need one page so write up your idea really well; what the beginning is, what you hope the end to be, what you think the journey will be, why you think it should be on TV. Know your subject well and tell the development people, they are always desperate to hear new ideas so you will get the meeting, and they will want to hear what you have to say. Just be confident.
Then you will work with that production company, get the idea established and then will go to a network and to pitch it to them. It is a long, long process, but definitely worth sticking at. I have done some that have taken a week and I have done some that have taken seven months, and I have done some that I am still waiting after a year. If it is a topical subject however, it will happen quite quickly.
Which out of your programmes did you enjoy the most?
Super Slim Me is my favourite of all time because I got to go on this massive journey that touched on a huge issue, and that is really strong journalism- I had to do quite uncomfortable interviews and get to the bottom of how these problems start. To be honest I do not think I have nailed that since, where I have had a really clever B plot (like me starving myself), but really the most important thing is that we are taking on an industry.
Where they any programmes you hated doing?
Well there was one, Dawn Gets Her Man, which was really pointless, half way through making it we realized we did not really have a point so we decided to just have fun with it. It did not get any complaints, but it wasn’t poignant. It just wasn’t. It was fun though.
Some of the stuff you do is pretty funny- how do you keep a straight face? (Like the Balls Of Steel ‘Man Tester’ thing)
I don’t either. I do not know how I do it. I think it is something at the heat of the moment where you just manage to pull it off. I look at those clips and I go ‘My God, I don’t know how I didn’t laugh at that”. Also, it is really awkward. When you are actually doing it, it is awkward and uncomfortable.
When you are filming a show are you yourself or do you put on a character?
The journeys are so personal that it would feel really weird to act. It is around 90% me on camera, the real me is probably a bit ruder. I think who I am on paper is 100% me, the camera does not faze me at all, but on TV I am a toned down version of myself. I wish I could be a bit ruder and saucier, though there is no point in my f*cking up a scene by being too full on.
My sense of humour is a bit feistier in real life but I still try to push the envelope on camera. When I watch myself on TV I find myself to be … a bit like ‘OhmyGod!’ when in real life I am actually like ‘yeah, I get that’. Maybe it’s the presence of the camera that makes me act a little more shocked?
In 2006 you wrote your book Diaries Of An Internet Lover. Was writing a book always something you want to do?
That was all I wanted to do, the TV stuff was actually a bit of an accident. I love writing, and that is all I am concentrating on right now, making sure that I get more writing set up for next year. I love doing TV and hopefully I will always get to do it, but having this medium where you can be truly 100% yourself is really liberating, so that is why I love it. I deviated for a while because of TV stuff, but I am trying to get that back on track now.
Can we expect more books from you?
Well hopefully yes, I cannot tell you what they are at the moment as I am waiting on answers. I am working on an adult book, and also working on a teen fiction novel at the moment. So a mix really, and loads more journalism in magazines and newspapers.
A great piece of advice- TV is really cutthroat and you can go for a year without working, which is totally out of your control. If you want to be in broadcasting and in the public eye, try to improve your writing skills. Getting good writing gigs is really the way forward.
Do you have a preference between print and broadcasting?
If I had to choice between the two I would choose writing, I do not doubt that, but hopefully I do not have to choose. There is more longevity in writing; there is more honesty in it. I think there is more opportunity in it. One thing people do not take enough advantage of is the internet.
You can put your ideas and your stuff out there- I think blogging is just amazing to anyone that wants to be in broadcasting; being able to get your ideas out there and seen is so important. Also making little videos, films and programmes. You can make them on a really low budget, people should not underestimate how powerful that can be on the internet.
You have your own production company. How did that come about?
I have Hot Patootie, which means that when I have an idea (I do not have an office full of people) I own it. For my first series I came up with all the ideas, but I did not get my fee. It is just a ridiculous system. So about two or three years ago I came up with Hot Patootie TV.
A lot of the time I work on things that have not come from my own ideas and then Hot Patootie does not exist, but, like with the breast cancer show, it was my idea and otherwise I would have had to join up with a production company, I do not want to do that. Then it means I get a cut of the back end of the profits, and my credit at the end saying that I created the show. It just means a lot for me to know that I am not just a presenter for hire.
I can imagine people try to change your journey during the process. Does it help you stay true to your idea?
They do, but this is the point of you being a strong individual and having an opinion. I know a lot of people that have made documentaries, people who have been hired to make documentaries as presenters, they have nothing to do with it at all and when it comes out of TV is the first time they see it. The thought of that fills me with dread. If someone is going to use my opinion then it has to be my opinion, someone cannot write that for me. But that comes with experience and people believing that you can do that.
At the beginning it is quite hard. Networks are difficult too, they do not want to give you as a producer credit. I have never had a producers credit even though I should have, but I managed to persuade them to let me have the Hot Patootie logo at the end of the programme. Hopefully on my next series I will be able to have the credit, because I will be worthy of it. It is a tough world. It takes a long time to establish your profile within the industry, but you just have to be really defiant, push for your place and not give up. But also not lose opportunities because you are waiting for the perfect deal. You have to get to a certain point before you get to call the shots.
What is next for you?
I am concentrating on writing. I have a few ideas for TV, I am looking to keep doing documentaries but moving more towards entertainment and comedy as well because I sometimes feel that I want to be funny and stupid.
What advice would you give to young people looking to get into broadcast journalism?
Just be willing to sell yourself out at the beginning. Be willing to do what I did. Most of the people I know that work in TV were willing to make the tea, work long hours and just shut up and do the job. Make a lot of friends in the industry and be prepared to work up slowly. Every idea you have, write it down, and do work experience. If you are doing work experience and you have an idea do not be afraid to knock on the bosses door and say “I’ve got an idea” then put it on their desk. Do not be bolshie and arrogant, and do not be the one who works on reception for a week and then disappears.
Make the most of it and expect the first couple of years to be a slog, but it will be worth it.