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Wednesday, October 13, 2010

BN Exclusive: Up Close and Personal With CNN’s Isha Sesay!

In a world where many black role models in front of the camera seemingly choose to portray an exorbitant lifestyle and the trappings of a successful career, you will need to look closer to find the less obvious role models who project themselves with eloquence, grace and unquestionable intelligence. Isha Sesay is one of such role models. The only black female CNN International news anchor, who graced our international screens first as a sports reporter for SKY and now as a news anchor for CNN International and Inside Africa is in every way a woman of intellectual depth and deep seated African (Sierra Leonean) roots but is above all an African the continent can be proud of.

In preparation for my interview with Isha I was nervous. It’s different interviewing someone whose occupation involves asking Presidents and top government officials tough questions. I looked through my list of questions desperately trying to rephrase them using the most intelligible words my brain could muster. But as soon as Isha sat in front of me, every inch of nervousness disappeared. She was incredibly charming and her smile immediately settled my unsteady hand. My father had made me promise that I would tell Isha, how much he enjoyed her coverage of the World Cup. And I used that as my introductory line to break the ice, not that there was any ice to break. She accepted my delivery of my father’s praise graciously and delightfully. It became apparent why this tall, intelligent and extremely beautiful African woman is where she is today.

With all the interviews I’ve ever done, I have always taken away a few lessons from the interviewee. With Banky W, it was the need to rise above life’s challenges; with Dr Doyin Abiola, it was that my hunger for knowledge must be deepened if I am to succeed and with Darey Art Alade it was to remain grounded regardless of the good favour God may bless me with. With Isha the lessons were numerous, but above all she taught me that hard work, determination and prayers are the necessary requirements for success.

Interview with Isha Sesay

The Making of Sesay!

“…..competitiveness is in my DNA because that’s what I grew up with”

Born in the UK to esteemed Sierra Leonean parents, Isha’s mother was a lecturer at the Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and her father a prominent lawyer who sadly passed when Isha was only 12 years old. She studied English at Trinity College, Cambridge and got her first career break as a researcher for the BBC where she also went on to become a TV presenter. After leaving the BBC ,Isha joined SKY Sports News and then went on to become a CNN international News anchor in 2005.

BN: Away from the lights and camera who is Isha?

Isha Sesay: She is talkative, my friends say ‘will you shut up’. She is a little quieter sometimes. I do like my quiet time and some space. I can be quite intense and quite serious at times. When I go to parties you wont find me in the middle of things, I will be with my friends in the corner chatting. I am not one of those that go and stand in the middle of the room. I am fairly private. I am one of those people who if people are having a crisis they can call me anytime. I am a mix of people. When I am not made up…I wander around in jeans in a baseball cap and sneakers. You will find me doing that, “shleping” as I call it. And I say to people do I have to get dressed up? And they say ‘yes’ and I go ‘I am not coming’. I am notorious for that. And that’s why the circle of friends that I have, they are called ‘the family’, we all ‘shlep’, T-Shirts, jeans, flip flops and we ‘shelp’ around quite happily. It takes a lot to put your face on and I do that 5 days a week.

BN: What memories do you have of Sierra Leone?

Isha Sesay: I was home a couple of weeks ago. The beach. The spirit of the people, people are quite optimistic and quite resilient in Freetown. That spirit of the people lingers with me. Growing up at home with family, being taught about the importance of family, the importance of responsibility and hard work. I associate those qualities with home. My mother is a very big part of my life and a big influence on my life. My memories are of that and of working hard at school, of summer holidays, getting excited because I used to spend my summer holidays in the UK, working through school to get on the plane and going to see friends that you hadn’t seen for months at a time. Lots of laughter, I grew up on an academic campus because my mother taught at the university. So quite idyllic in that sense, lots of little bungalow homes with the academics and their kids. School was competitive for everyone and there was kind of mild competitiveness because everyone’s parent was an academic. So that kind of competitiveness is in my DNA because that’s what I grew up with. Kind of idyllic and hardworking.

BN: How did the loss of your father affect you?

Isha Sesay: It made me grow up very quickly. My mother was a widow at 39, my dad died at 40 and I was 12. It’s just her, so you don’t want to be a problem child, you want to be a source of support. So with that you grow up, you tell yourself that you are going to act in a way that is less traumatic, not that I was a traumatic child, but you are just aware of that. My older sister is disabled and my younger brother is 5 years younger, so just a feeling of “I should look after him and be there for him. You just don’t want to make a big deal out of stuff”. And because of my sister, I am a defacto eldest child, so I think it really gave me that sense of growing up and trying to be responsible. I became aware of the need to be responsible at a young age because I felt it would help my mother. And I wanted to do things that would make her proud because you think that would lessen the pain. You want to do well at school, you want to make her proud and make my father proud. It made me more determined to try and be a success because he was such a success. You don’t want to let down his memory, I am very aware of that. I am reminded of that all the time because he was such a huge success. He was a lawyer and a very prominent lawyer. So you have that because you want to live up to the family name.

BN: I read somewhere that you always wanted to be an actress, what led you to that and why didn’t you pursue it?

Isha Sesay: I wanted to be an actress when I was in my late teens. I really wanted to be an actress because I stumbled upon drama when I was about nine or ten so. It was a school play and I had a role which in rehearsals I never paid much attention to and I wasn’t very good. But when it came to the night of the performance and there was the crowd, there was something of it that lit a spark and I was like ‘oh wow’. So I carried on doing that and when I went to England, I would go to summer camp and I would do some more acting and then I kind of became convinced that that was something I wanted to do. Unfortunately or fortunately for me, when I was doing my A levels my teacher said ‘look if you really focus you could go to Oxford or Cambridge’ and that’s when acting kind of fell away because I had to focus on school. And once I told my mother I could get into Cambridge that was it! By the time I got to Cambridge there were too many other issues and other things that I kind of became taken with. Cambridge has about 31 colleges and I didn’t go to one that was strong with drama, rather I went to one that was strong with social activism and I kind of became involved with those issues so the acting fell away.

BN: Is that something you regret?

Isha Sesay: That’s a good question. Sometimes I think it would be fun, do I regret it, no. When I do things like I cover the UN General Assembly or I am on the campaign trail for Obama I don’t regret it. NO, because film and TV as a culture has a part to play. But I feel like asking tough questions and covering history, I believe long term, is more satisfying for me.

BN: How hard or easy was it for you to make the transition from sports anchor to hardcore politics?

Isha Sesay: It wasn’t easy, there’s no doubt about it. When you spend your days talking about David Beckham or Michael Owen and you transition to talking about Middle East peace or unemployment in Spain; it’s not a straight forward switch. It takes a lot of work but it’s one of those things that I felt passionate enough about to want to make that transition that I could convince any editor or any managing director of a news network to give me a shot to prove to them that it wasn’t just a passing whim. It was something I was interested in and focused on being good at. So no, it wasn’t easy. I had a meeting with a Managing Director of a network in the UK and he gave me this ‘on the spot screen test’ like a general knowledge quiz. He was like; ‘What would you do if the Pope died? What is the process of getting a new Pope? Because he is thinking ‘well how much do you know’ and I think that’s a very fair test. It’s just proof that if you want something you have to be ready, prepared and willing to fight for it. And that’s really what I set out to do to put myself in a situation where I was prepared to meet people to convince them to give me a shot. And once I got the opportunity to move to ITN and then to CNN I just worked really really had. There is no doubt about it I was in sports for three and a half years, people like Jim Clancy who I work with who have been doing this for as long as I’ve been alive or Michael Holmes who has covered endless wars and had been doing it a lot longer. But you put the work in so that you can hold your own against them.

Sesay the Reporter

“I want to carry on hopefully in my small way showing people that they can reach for the stars and get there”.

Isha is the only Black female news anchor on CNN International. She is also the host of Inside Africa. While it is easy to get carried away by Isha’s striking good looks and obvious feminine charms, it is her depth of knowledge and her poignant way of delivering the story as it unfolds that makes Isha the success she is today.

BN: How does it feel to be the only black female news anchor on CNN International and how responsible do you feel?

Isha Sesay: Isn’t that crazy? It feels crazy.

BN: Do you feel any kind of responsibility for that position?

Isha Sesay: Yeah, I mean there is no point in lying. I want to make sure that I hold myself up to the highest standards. People see me so often and they tell me how proud they are and how important what I have done is to them and what it means to them. Recently I went to Uganda to host some awards, I was at the airport and I had a hat on and this woman said “I know its you” I was like ‘oh shucks’. And she said ‘I want you to know how much it means to me and how much you inspire me as a woman’. And even though personally, I try not to let that stuff affect me because it can be quite pressurizing. But when you hear it and you realize that you have a responsibility sometimes that’s just how it is and you just have to accept. It is a responsibility – one that I take seriously. I want to carry on hopefully in my small way showing people that they can reach for the stars and get there.

BN: What would you say is the reason behind your success?

Isha Sesay: I don’t know, I mean success is…. I think it’s for other people to judge how successful I am or I am not.

BN: In the wider scheme of things I think it’s safe to say you do have a successful career?

Isha Sesay: I won’t be disingenuous to say that I’m not, but there are people more successful and that’s life, it’s a question of relativity. Hard work, absolute determination. I am very like Uchenna (BN Chief Editor), I make a plan and I am like that’s where I am going and I am going to get there. You try and push here and there till you find a soft spot. Hard work, determination and luck. There’s always luck there’s no doubt about it…it takes hard work and determination, plus as a lot of prayers. That’s always helpful… mother spends nights praying.

BN: With everything you’ve achieved so far, what would you say was the highest point of your career, so far?

Isha Sesay: I always say this and not to sound repetitive. I think for time to come we will still be analyzing the significance of the 2008 Presidential Elections. Just because of everything. That really was a huge moment for America and for the world. The most powerful nation on earth, elected a black man with Kenyan roots, who changed the landscape of politics. We had a woman running to be President of the United States and to be part of that coverage for CNN was momentous for us. To be there when he gave his acceptance speech in Denver, to see him there, to see the kids come out, all of that. I still get goose bumps now because it was huge and it’s inspirational. It’s inspirational to young people round the world yet alone to young people of colour. And it really reaffirmed my faith in the United States in terms of what can be achieved, the potential it holds and for other places as well. I think that a young person with hard work, a little bit of luck and everything else that needs to come together for a perfect storm can achieve anything. I think that’s still my moment and I don’t know what’s going to beat it, other than sitting down with Obama himself. It was truly special. I was there on the floor when Hilary Clinton passed on her delegates to him and the roll call was taken and Obama was officially the nominee and there where people crying and that stays with me now. There were people of all colours crying that he got the nomination, he hadn’t won yet, he had just got the nomination and I was there when it was happening. That was amazing and CNN gave me that opportunity.

BN: You’ve covered many stories from the killing of Benazir Bhutto to the death of Slobadan Milosevic but is there anything that gave you goose bumps while you where reporting, apart from the 2008 Presidential Elections?

Isha Sesay: We do a lot of breaking news at CNN there’s a lot that happens. There was an earthquake in Chile recently and I ended up going in to do live coverage, breaking news 3hrs live with Jonathan Mann – we had bare bone scripts, we had guests just coming out like government ministers, state department. I think it was something like 7.8 in magnitude and Haiti was a 7, so the potential for what it could be …and we were sitting live. And we were like ‘we do not know what is happening in Chile’ ‘we do not know what exists’, ‘we do not know what’s left’. ‘We want to show you these pictures that are just coming to us, there is this bridge with huge cracks in it there are parts of the country we can’t get to’. I remember sitting there live thinking, anything we say now has implications because its real time unfolding. I do a lot of breaking news which sometimes is after the fact. I covered Bhutto when she was assassinated, the State of Emergency in India. I have done that kind of breaking news but there was something about Chile in itself because it was a disaster and we didn’t know what really was going on but CNN was the place to tune in to. As it turns out in terms of infrastructure it was bad but thankfully no where near Haiti. And there was a tsunami warning for 5 O’ Clock and we were watching the clock counting down. Thankfully it never happened. That was a wild day, plus I had a personal wedding to go to the next day but anyway!

I was there in Iraq the day there was a massive car bombing. There where 3-4 bombs simultaneously and I was live, again another situation where you don’t know what’s happening. I was like ‘oh my God I can’t believe I am in Iraq and there has been massive simultaneous bombings and I am reporting the story’.

BN: But then isn’t there an element of fear and how do you manage that?

Isha Sesay: Yes there is fear, I mean I am not immune to that, of course not. But I am a great believer in ‘when it’s your time it’s your time’. I have that kind of fatalism about life but also at the same time with CNN they don’t cut corners when it comes to personal security. They do everything that they possibly can. With the operation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, there is a huge security operation that goes on there. So yes, I got there and there were bullet proof vests and there was security training on what you should do if you get an IED (Improvised Explosive Device)- the ones they plant in roads and have killed lots of people particularly in Afghanistan. But you know you have the training, you take the precautions and you say your prayers and tell the story because the story has got to be told.

BN: What is the greatest thing about working for CNN?

Isha Sesay: What isn’t? Don’t get me wrong, there are bad days like in any other Network. The passion of the majority of the people that I work with is breathtaking. The depth of knowledge in one newsroom from writers, to copy editors to your fellow anchors. I mean that is pretty amazing; how much people know, how much people care about the world. They are just so informed. Also I’ll be honest we’ve resources that very few other Networks have and I always say to people that Haiti was proof of that. How we could pull it out of the bag and get a team on the ground. With the World Cup, CNN’s World Cup coverage was outstanding. If you have resources and you have talent and you have passion, you can create something very special. And I think that’s what’s special about CNN and I am humbled and proud everyday to be proud of the Network. And I say it and people are always like would you cut it out with the cheerleading.

The Woman in Sesay

“At the end of the day what I will say is, you have to find some level of happiness in yourself first and foremost because I don’t think you can be good to anyone. I don’t see how you can make a marriage work long term if you are fundamentally dissatisfied. You have got to find a level of equilibrium and fulfillment in yourself”

Behind the image of almost every successful single woman is the absent shadow of her husband. Many aspects of our society and culture teaches or requires that a woman’s completeness rests in the bossom of her husband. Isha’s candid thoughts on this issue not only shatter these notions but also reaffirm the need for wholeness of self regardless of marriage.

BN: How do you balance a love life around your career? Do you find men are intimidated by your success?

Isha Sesay: No guy has ever told me that so I can’t say that. But people tell me that and read that. But no guy has ever said “oh by the way, we are all intimidated by you” so I can’t speak to that. It’s not easy to balance though. You make a plan and say ‘I will meet you and we’ll do this over the weekend’ and then something happens and you are somewhere else. It takes a very understanding person. It also takes a person that’s very self assured and isn’t troubled by you being stopped or being interrupted. It takes a very special guy and I’ll let you know when I find him.

BN: How would you define your sense of style?

When there are events and I have to get dressed up for, I like clean lines. Old glamour Carolina Herrera, daytime Stella McCartney kind of paired down tailored clean lines. If I am not doing any of that, some sneakers and flat shoes. My mother is always like ‘you need to wear heels’. ‘You’ll never get married if you go wondering around like that with a baseball cap’. She said to me a couple of weeks ago ‘are you going out with that baseball cap, please I am begging you don’t go out looking like that’.

BN: Do you feel any pressure to get married?

Isha Sesay: No, because my brother just got married so there is no pressure at all. Now, everyone has just given up. I say that and it doesn’t trouble me but I do think that him getting married has been extremely beneficial for me. Because he just got married and he had a baby and I am so grateful. Before that family was saying ‘if you can’t find one for yourself we’ll find you one’. But now they don’t say that because I say ‘look at my nephew, play with him’. And that’s sort of calming them. Its funny how I think in society, and I don’t think it’s just an African thing, but I think in African society people are more vocal about it. Despite what I do and whatever level of success you want to attribute to it, the fact that I am not married somehow its still incomplete. They are like ‘oh you are successful but you are not married’ but I think that’s across the board I don’t think it’s just an African thing. It’s just that my relatives will say to me. ‘Aha what’s wrong with you, why are you not married’.

BN: But do you feel any sort of personal pressure?

Isha Sesay: No, other than the fact that I am hoping, in fact I know I will meet the right person, I have a certainty about meeting the right person at the right time. And I am very open about it, I would like to start a family at some point when the time is right with the right person. So only the pressure of hopefulness, of sustaining that hopefulness. No, it’s not something that I lie awake worrying about. I do have some friends who are freaking out! We are on the phone and she is like ‘I don’t think I am ever going to meet him’. ‘I just think it’s ever going to happen’. I am like ‘chill out already you will meet someone’. And that’s how I get a sense of balance. That’s how I know where I am at because when I listen to my females friends, who are feeling something that I think is very natural, I go no I am not there yet, I am not panicking.

BN: What is the right person for you?

Isha Sesay: What would he look like ..he would be FINE! He would have to be interested in what is happening in the world, he would have to be engaged on some level. He doesn’t have to be as engaged as I am because I am at an abnormal level. He would have to be interested in news and current affairs because I’d come home and say ‘can you believe what happened today?’ and I’d hate someone to just say, ‘can we talk about American Idol instead’. That would be a big problem. He’d have to appreciate the importance of family because my family is never going to go anywhere. It’s a big family in terms of an extended family. I come from a large family that’s always making their opinion known. So he’d have to be family oriented. He’ll have to be strong because sometimes I am difficult to deal with, I’ll be like ‘I am doing this and nothing is going to stop me’. So you know, fine, smart, accomplished in his own way, whatever that is but I want him to have a level of success where he is comfortable in himself so that whatever I do doesn’t trouble him. He has his own self assurance that “you can go off and do that, I ain’t that impressed!” and kind. Kindness is important, kindness is more important than money. So you want someone who is kind who cares about you and your emotions and what you’ve been through that day. Someone who is kind, that’s important to me and funny. I will take away a little bit of fineness for funny and God fearing.

BN: What would you say to women who are trying to balance the need for a career with the desire for marriage?

Isha Sesay: I’m worried to give people advice especially as I am not married. At the end of the day what I will say is, you have to find some level of happiness in yourself first and foremost because I don’t think you can be good to anyone. I don’t see how you can make a marriage work long term if you are fundamentally dissatisfied. You have got to find a level of equilibrium and fulfillment in yourself. I can only speak for that. I will say it’s important to put in as much focus in finding your own happiness as your marriage. Don’t make the marriage dominate. Because you can’t build something on a weak foundation. Your foundation is your sense of self and his sense of self and how that comes together. And if you’re unhappy it’s going to be difficult. I’m still working on myself till I find that ‘fine’ guy and then we’ll connect our senses of self.

Meeting Isha is unquestionably one of my biggest highlights this year. Not only because I got to interview her but because in such a short time of speaking with her she managed to leave such indelible imprints on my way of thinking. Her ideals of family, hard work, responsibility and self fulfillment are fundamental character traits any woman in the 21st century would want to imbibe. I really hope you all enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed doing the interview.


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