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Stylists? I don’t have the time for any of that, says BBC presenter Tara Mills

BBC presenter Tara Mills remains as passionate as ever about her work. She talks gender pay gap, stylists and making time for family

By Una Brankin

Tara Mills didn't have a minute to luxuriate in Nice when the BBC sent her to set the scene for the Euros a fortnight ago. There she was, pretty in a pale pink tailored top, palm trees and the glistening Mediterranean behind her - the envy of all us perk-free hacks back home.

However, in reality it was just another working day for the experienced broadcaster.

"I was staying in a serviced apartment, which was fine, but it was a flying visit and I'd definitely no time to relax and enjoy the French cuisine," she laughs. "Plus, the rain was absolutely torrential for about four hours when I arrived.

"The atmosphere was great, though. It was lovely to see the Northern Ireland fans out and about, taking selfies with the Polish fans. With us having a Polish community here, the rivalry has been very good-natured in Nice."

The camaraderie and high spirits were marred, however, by the death of Northern Ireland fan Darren Rodgers (24), from Ballymena, who fell approximately 26ft from a promenade on to a rocky beach, not far from where Tara was reporting in Nice. Having interviewed countless bereaved parents throughout the two decades of her career, her heart went out to the amateur footballer's loved ones.

"Darren's death was an awful tragedy for his family and friends. I'm very aware of the ethics and morality that comes with my job - so many people have lost someone in the decades of the Troubles and I'm very mindful of the state they're in," she says.

"I studied political philosophy at university and I think it's a degree that makes you analytical, thinking about the theories behind politics. This whole debate about doing away with the humanities and arts degrees, I don't agree with that at all. I think the study of those subjects is very important.

"It makes you question things. I never want to leave a question unasked and having people shouting at the TV, 'why didn't you ask such and such?' I saw an interview with Jeremy Paxman recently and he was talking about kicking himself on the way home after interviews for forgetting to ask some question or other. I get that."

Although always immaculately groomed on screen, a glamorous image is of less importance to the working mother-of two.

"You have to look polished and smart, and not wear something to distract from whatever you're reporting, but I do get asked on Twitter about what I'm wearing a lot," she says, amused by the idea of it.

"Off screen, I'm usually in jeans and trainers. I was at the hairdressers the other day and this young guy didn't know who I was and when it came up, he looked me up and down and said, 'I hope you're going to change before you read the news!'

"We don't have stylists at the BBC - God, no! I choose my own clothes for work and I'm running about so much with the kids, I just don't get the time to think about what to put on the rest of the time."

In a similar vein, she goes off into peals of laughter when the topic of skincare and facials comes up. A youthful looking 44, her fresh complexion cannot be put down to regular pampering at the beauty salon.

"Ha! I have a fringe and that covers a multitude of sins," she scoffs. "I just do the basics - no facials. I'm dreadful for stuff like that. I've no time, but mum has fabulous skin. She's in her 70s, but very young looking. I hope I'll take after her."

The youngest of three, Tara grew up in south Belfast watching the BBC's political correspondent WD Flackes on the news with her politically-aware parents, Richard, a former maths teacher, and Patricia, who helped her husband run his very successful Belvoir Players drama group.

Tragically, Tara's brother, Richard, an acclaimed war photographer for The Times, took his own life at 42, while working undercover in Zimbabwe in 2008, on the day before he was due to leave the corrupt African country.

A father-of-one, he and Tara were very close.

"Richard was four years older than me and I remember one time, when I was in a push-chair, we were coming up to this bridge with wooden slats and he was afraid to cross it," she recalls. "So he made me get out of the push-chair so he could get in. Bizarrely, I decided to write about this in a letter to the comic, Twinkle, and I won £2 for it!

"Richard wasn't best pleased."

A seasoned political correspondent, Tara won high praise for her flawless coverage of the recent elections, for her unerring ability under pressure on live television to remember names and titles while firing questions and making her way through a packed studio. And it looks like daughter Aimee (8) is following in her mother's footsteps.

"She was obsessed by the elections - it was hilarious. She pretended to be the reporter interviewing me, pretending I was a politician, asking for my views on the Euros and Brexit, and she's only eight!

"I don't want my kids to grow up too quickly. We can't wrap them in cotton wool but I don't allow them on the internet - gosh, no. Some of those music videos are shocking. We're not a very gadgety family, anyway."

Tara and her husband, Daniel, also have a 10-year-old son, named after his father. At just eight weeks old, little Daniel had to have emergency brain surgery.

"It's 10 years ago this month. Our GP saved his life by sending him to hospital - as did the neuro surgeon - and we'll be forever grateful, to say the least. Daniel's now at Tor Bank School. He's an amazing boy and has achieved so much more than we ever dared hope, and that's really down to the amazing staff at Tor Bank and the other health professionals we've had so much contact with over the years."

Her experience with her son's health problems and the loss of her brother to suicide have helped make Tara one of the most empathetic reporters on the local circuit.

After studying politics at the University of Ulster and getting a post-graduate degree in journalism, Tara worked for Citybeat and The Spectator newspaper in Bangor. A move across the Irish Sea followed, with a three-year stint at Radio Clyde in Glasgow, before she moved back home to Belfast to the BBC in 1998. She has been working across radio and television ever since, becoming one of BBC Newsline's reporters seven years ago.

With a special interest in politics and social affairs, Tara now divides her week as anchor on BBC Newsline at 6.30pm daily and on Radio Ulster's drive time programme Evening Extra. She has also presented The Sunday Politics and The View programmes and spent a year working on BBC Spotlight.

Now in her mid-forties, she has yet to encounter the ageist and sexist attitudes in broadcasting that Selina Scott and Anna Ford put down to the decline in their careers after 40.

"Not explicitly, although we grew up in a different era, not the most politically correct, I suppose, and there was the whole glass ceiling thing - now it's sticky floors," she remarks.

"I've girl friends from university who found they couldn't do it all, career and motherhood, and had to make sacrifices, and others who have gone on and got even busier when they're older.

"But there are jobs for everyone. The media is an area full of women - if they're not on screen, there are equal numbers behind the scenes, in production and so on. Women are central to the ideas and presentation process, and that's being reflected in Stormont now. But it's not just about gender - voters want representatives who are the best at the job.

"And in journalism, the longer you're around, the more wisdom you have and the more you bring to the table. In this job, you're always developing; you never stand still. That's the joy of the job - it's different and stimulating every day. It really is my dream job. I'm very lucky, no doubt about it. It's what I've always wanted to do.

"I was always focused on going into journalism. Lots of people I know couldn't figure out what they wanted to do and have changed their careers, but I'm as passionate about mine now as ever."

Counting RTE broadcaster Miriam O'Callaghan among her role models, Tara admits she's still "in mourning" for the absence of Martina Purdy, now a nun, from BBC NI, describing her as a huge loss. She's happy to stay with the station, and feels she is treated equally to her male colleagues by her bosses.

"I've no idea what any of my colleagues earn - it's not something I give much thought to," she says of the equal pay debate highlighted recently by actresses Jennifer Lawrence and Patricia Arquette. "I think in Northern Ireland we're quite private about our salaries. I did admire actress Robin Wright for fighting for equal pay to Kevin Spacey for The House of Cards.

"That series is as much about her as it is about his character, Frank Underwood. Fair play to her. I love that show, and The Good Wife. I'm sorry to see that coming to an end, not that I get much time to watch TV. I'll catch up with all these box sets when I retire."

Tara met her husband Danny through her father's Belvoir Players group when she was only 16.

"It's embarrassing! I was so young, although we did have a five-year split when I went to university and worked in Scotland for a while. I have to be careful what I say about that!

"We've been together for a long time through everything - school, university, kids - together. We work together the odd time and I see him in the newsroom, but I think it's best to keep our work and personal lives separate.

"We're not flowers and chocolates types at all, but we're a good team, and we have great support from our families on both sides. I'm so proud of my mum and dad!

"They really have been inspirational parents who've supported us through thick and thin. My children absolutely adore them."

The couple lives in east Belfast, but are hoping to move out of the city in the near future.

"Danny's a good gardener - he grew enough lettuce to feed the entire population of Belfast last year. I'm not - I even kill whatever's in the window-box. So I leave that to him.

"We do intend to move out of Belfast, but we're happy to stay in Northern Ireland. I did like working in Scotland and I toyed with moving to London once, but we have a good quality of life here and I'm so close to my family, I couldn't think of living anywhere else.

"We're blessed with my sister Pamela, too, and Danny's family, who we're also very close to. He comes from a big family and lots of his nephews and nieces are having children now, and it's lovely to see another generation coming through."

Highlights from the front line...

Best: For me, it’s very important to hear voices on our airwaves that aren’t normally heard. A few weeks ago I interviewed a man who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease five years ago. He spoke so eloquently about his condition and his fears about waking up one day and not knowing his loved ones. But the fact that he was able to articulate that and is doing so well five years on, I think gives great comfort to others who are diagnosed.

Worst: I interviewed a singer once — I won’t name her! She was clearly not having a good day and I was disappointed on a professional and personal level. I was a big fan of her music, but she wasn’t going to play ball that day.

Awkward: I’ve had lots of awkward interviews with politicians and others in authority, but at the end of the day, that has to be set aside. My aim is to ask the questions the viewer wants to ask and to do my best to get an answer.

Important: Personally I think families who’ve been bereaved through suicide and those who’ve lost loved ones, who took legal highs, are such important voices in our society. They’re both major challenges for so many families and I think it shows remarkable bravery to fight on and deal with loss at the same time.

Poignant: I’ve talked to people from all walks of life who’ve lost loved ones in awful circumstances, and how they’ve had the courage to move on or campaign on behalf of others, never ceases to impress me. There are two that stand out. One was a victim of La Mon and the other the sister of one of the victims of the Shankill Butchers. They’d both been through such awful tragedy and could remember with alarming detail the events of what had happened 30 years ago.

Inspiring: Mary Hornsey, who lost her teenage son Paul in the explosion that killed Lord Mountbatten, spoke to me on BBC Newsline last year, after Prince Charles visited Mullaghmore. She was so quietly dignified in her grief and talked about a healing balm coming over her that day. It’s impossible not to be inspired by all of those who’ve lost someone in the Troubles or other tragedies, and can talk about forgiveness.

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