Does anything bug Wendy Austin? This experienced broadcaster always seems to steer a calm course through the testing stories on BBC Radio Ulster’s Talkback programme as well as presenting the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards with impressive insouciance.
Yet, there is another side to this glamorous OAP (“I turned 60 two weeks ago, 35 years after I started my career at the BBC.”) sitting opposite me in Deane’s Deli, wearing a dark blue and white leopard print cardi and sipping an Americano.
She famously took umbrage when interviewing UUP leader John Taylor for Good Morning Ulster in the 1980s and said, after one patronising remark too many: “I am not your dear girl.”
She thinks about her trigger points before revealing that she gets quite cross about things like litter and “free range children in the back of cars”, then “stomps about the kitchen and shouts at the radio”.
Journalistic ethics are the topic of the moment, with hacking stories piling up like guilty secrets around the tabloid press and celebrities from Steve Coogan to Hugh Grant complaining about their privacy being invaded.
Wendy says she was “very shocked” to learn that newspapers like the News of the World had apparently routinely used private eyes to gain information on celebrities and ordinary people caught in the news through no fault of their own.
“Yes, I was shocked but not really surprised. The celebrity cases are different from the situation of Milly Dowler’s family, for example. I heard about the Dowlers when I was driving home and nearly stopped the car.
“I thought, ‘How could anyone do that — hack into the murdered girl’s phone — knowing it would give false reassurance to the family’. It was heartless.”
As the doyenne of Northern Irish female reporters, who has been on the front line for over three decades, Wendy admits that she has sometimes found the hard business of questioning bereaved families tough.
“Fairly recently, I had to interview Catriona Davidson, mother of Aaron, the 18-year-old who died with his friend from carbon monoxide poisoning in a holiday flat in Castlerock. As a mother (of Niall, 28, Kerry, 26 and Clare, 23) I could put myself in her situation. She was more composed than I was.”
Another emotional interview Wendy remembers was with Ann Travers, the sister of Mary Travers who was killed in a terrorist attack outside Derryvolgie church in 1984.
“Ann was talking about Mary’s murder and it was still very raw although it happened in the ‘80s. I’m fairly lucky, I didn’t lose anyone close to me in the Troubles, but for her, you sensed it was unresolved. The veneer of normality I got from her was very thin.”
She adds that the justification journalists make — “We say perhaps they need to talk.” — is probably just an excuse.
One of the reasons Wendy enjoys presenting the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Arts awards is that they underline the staunch and stoical qualities of Northern Irish women.
“Baroness May Blood once said to me that it was the women here who kept things going during the Troubles, and I agree. Our women are formidable. We’re doing a special edition of Talkback after Christmas and will feature Gillian Boyd, the woman who lost her baby because of the BStrep infection.
“She won’t mind my saying she’s an ordinary young woman in an extraordinarily horrible situation. My heart goes out to her and the way she’s coped is amazing.”
Wendy goes on to name-check some of the impressive winners she’s encountered in the five years since the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year awards began.
“Kate Carroll, who was so self-possessed after her husband Steve was killed. She’s become quite a good friend. Then there was Penny Holloway, overall winner last year, whose “fight with her husband Jim to get justice for their son was enormously impressive. I’ve worked with Jim for 30 years and we all felt deeply for him, but for them to have to take on this fight against the legal establishment was incredible.
“I remember thinking, when I heard her story and some of the other emotional stories, that I needed a hanky up my sleeve — as my mum would have said.”
This empathy, plus the glamour and of course, the spectacles, make Wendy one of Ulster’s best loved broadcasters and something of an institution. Back in the 1980s, a young mid-Ulster band called IQ32 even wrote a tribute song with the refrain, ‘I am Wendy Austin and I work for the BBC.’
She smiles at this information, remarking that she hoped it reached Number One.
In her salad days, Wendy had legions of fans — “Oh yes, I had loads of fan mail, the problem is when it stops! But I get red roses and a card on Valentine’s day from my husband Frank, so I do ok.”
She adds with a cat-who’s-got- the-cream expression that shows she’s telling the truth: “The best thing that’s ever happened to me was meeting Frank, and I’m honestly happier now than I’ve ever been.”
Although Wendy has fortunately never been stalked, when she married her first husband Peter in the ‘80s, there was an uninvited guest in all the photos. “We were married in Fisherwick Presbyterian Church in Belfast, and you can see this strange guy in an anorak beside us.”
In terms of image, Wendy and her trusty frames are inseparable. There was a period of time in the ‘80s when she went over to contact lenses. “I wore those large soft lenses that are being laughed at now on Those Were The Days.
“I’ve worn glasses since I was eight and am very short-sighted. One day somebody said to me ‘But glasses are your trademark, can you imagine Alan Whicker appearing without his glasses?’ so I immediately switched back.
“These glasses are my interviewing glasses, according to my optician, as they allow me to see the script, the mike and the person I’m interviewing. But I can’t wear them to drive home.”
Away from the camera and the radio mike, Wendy often relaxes by listening to music and has catholic tastes. “Yes, I like the Beatles, but my kids introduce me to different bands. A while ago, they were into the Thrills and I downloaded some on my iPod. Later on, we were driving through France and this music came on and I got a look from the driver beside me, saying ‘Why on earth have you got this on?’”
Although Wendy believes in maintaining a fairly private personal life, she admits that when she got divorced, her celebrity was tough. “Nobody was blameless, but the children were great and it’s pretty civilised now.” Wendy says she feels that the celebrity culture has led to our fixation with the real person behind the famous face.
She adds: “I do have sympathy with people like Steve Coogan, who say they should be able to have a private life. After all, the people reading all about them in The Daily Star would be shocked if their own lives featured there.
“But you can’t have it both ways. If you use the media as PR, to further or create a career, it’s difficult to then want a private life.”
Then she adds that she thinks Hugh Grant, giving evidence about phone hacking in a smart suit, “played a blinder!”.
Refreshingly, Wendy has quite a moral streak. Asked for the most unpleasant interview in her career, she doesn’t hesitate before saying that top candidate would be the London ‘madam’ Cynthia Payne,
Payne became famous — or rather notorious — in the 1980s after her Streatham house, where establishment figures liked to indulge fetishes relating to the contents of Hoovers, was written about and turned into a movie, Personal Services.
Wendy says: “I interviewed Cynthia Payne for Woman’s Hour and wished I’d been wearing my Marigold rubber gloves. Afterwards, I just wanted to go and have a shower.”
She’s also inherited a strong work ethic — “I was surrounded as a child by these old men with white hair. Grandpa Austin worked at the family store in Derry well into his eighties”.
As the interview draws to a close, Wendy smiles, donates to the Simon Community via the Streetsmart scheme and with a renewal of her lippy, marches back to the BBC to put together Wednesday’s programme.
“We’re covering the strike and the lunchtime protest, plus we’ll be talking to people about how it affects them, mums who’ve had to stay at home with their children and so on.
She adds: “And we’re also returning to the story about the comic Keith Lemon who shouts ‘Potato, potato, potato!’ as a man has complained that it’s offensive to Irish people because of the Famine.”
With that, she’s off.
May the best woman win
Inspirational Woman of the Year - sponsor Unislim
The Belfast Telegraph Inspirational Woman of the Year award always |attracts most impressive candidates like last year’s winner, Amanda |Binnie, who lost her husband, sergeant Sean Binnie, just seven months after their marriage but attended the annual Festival of Remembrance and a British Legion event in Wootton Bassett.
Agnes McCourt, Founder of Unislim says: “Unislim are delighted to be involved with the Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year awards 2011. It is very important that we recognise women in society who support and inspire others.
“Sponsoring the ‘Inspirational Woman of the Year’ award is a great fit with Unislim as the category really reflects the Unislim ethos.
“Every day in Unislim we meet women who inspire one another to lose weight, so |sponsoring this important award is a way for Unislim to pay tribute to inspirational women across Northern Ireland.”
Belfast Telegraph Sportswoman of the Year — sponsor, Enliten
Bert Jukes, director of Enliten, the company |responsible for bringing Lyprinol to Northern Ireland, is |delighted to sponsor the sportswoman of the year category.
He says: “We rarely get the chance to recognise the sporting talent and achievements of local woman.
“The Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Awards provide a forum to celebrate these individuals and really champion the talent we have on our doorstep.
“The fact that Lyprinol is endorsed by one of Northern Ireland’s most recognised female sporting achievers, Dame Mary Peters DBE, Olympic gold medallist, makes our sponsorship even more fitting.”
Bert adds: “I look forward to the awards night and seeing who walks away with top accolades.”
and the nominees for the awards are:
Woman of the Year in Education
sponsored by Queen’s University Management School
Sportswoman of the Year
sponsored by Lyprinol
Woman of the Year in Health
sponsored by NeoStrata
Mum of the Year
sponsored by Irwin's Bakery
sponsored by Unislim
Woman of the Year in the Voluntary sector
sponsored by the Irish League of Credit Unions
Ellen (Nel) Pagels
Businesswoman of the Year
sponsored by Translink
Woman of the Year in Fashion
sponsored by Menarys
Woman of the Year in Arts
sponsored by Belleek Living