“If she can, then I can”: why on-screen role models matter

Diverse visual representation in the media sector can inspire others

People often ask me, “when did you know that you wanted to be a journalist / TV reporter?” The answer is, “I didn’t know. Not for a really long time.” 

Role models in the media industry – my early experience

I grew up in Sydney, Australia, during the 1990s in a pretty traditional Indian household. 

When you’re a South Asian immigrant kid growing up in the predominantly white suburbs of Sydney, you don’t dream about being a journalist or having any semblance of a TV career — you just dream about fitting in and definitely not standing out! 

Furthermore, there were very few people on Australian mainstream television who looked or sounded like me, so how could I possibly have a dream so big, so out of reach and beyond the realm of possibility? 

Even if somewhere deep down inside my psyche I’d wished for it, I certainly would never have had the courage to utter the words aloud, as I was mortified at the thought of being laughed at or, even worse, dismissed. 

As I cast my mind back now, the only role model I can think of, whom we deeply admired in our Indian Australian household and watched with great pride growing up, was Indira Naidoo. She is an award-winning Australian journalist of South African descent who anchored prime-time news shows on ABC and SBS News in Australia during the late 1990s. 

She was the first person and woman of colour who made me believe that maybe, just maybe, “anything is possible.” 

Overcoming career challenges 

Fast forward 20+ years and my path to becoming an international TV anchor/presenter/journalist who’s worked for BBC World News, ABC News in Australia and currently NHK World-Japan has been an unconventional one, to say the least. 

There have been so many times throughout my career when realising my dreams of becoming a TV journalist felt impossible — absolutely, completely out of reach. I say this not because of some mental defeatist barrier in my head, but because I was told in no uncertain terms by senior news editors sitting directly opposite me that I would never make it. 

For example, when I tried to break into the media industry in India in 2006 and had an interview with a leading 24-hour English TV news channel editor, I was told I was too “Australian.” My Westernised accent wouldn’t work in the market and they were sceptical about whether I’d survive even a day in the cut-throat, highly competitive Indian TV industry. 

Conversely, when I interviewed with an Australian TV news channel, a senior producer told me, and I quote, because I will never forget this statement, that “audiences want to see people who look and sound like them on TV,” pointing out in no uncertain terms that I didn’t look or sound “Australian” enough to ever have a successful TV career in the country. 

Those moments drove a dagger through my heart. I remember being completely, utterly crestfallen, doubting myself, my dreams, abilities and just about ready to quit my pursuit of becoming a journalist. 

Today, I recall them with a badge of honour. The writer Truman Capote said, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour.” 

Those setbacks or “failures” certainly made the successes that would follow all the more sweet. 

Landing my dream job as Mumbai correspondent for BBC World News in 2009, becoming finance anchor on Australia’s national morning show, ABC News Breakfast, in 2015 and then a host on ABC TV’s lifestyle programme “Escape from the city” (based on the popular BBC show “Escape to the Country” in the UK) in 2018, were absolute “pinch me” moments in my career.  

That little Indian Australian girl who grew up watching Indira Naidoo had suddenly realised her own totally outrageous dreams. 

Why representation matters

What didn’t occur to me, however, is that just as I was thrust into the national Australian media spotlight, I too would become a role model for the next generation.

A few years into my role as finance anchor on ABC News Breakfast, I received a photo from a viewer of two young Australian girls of Indian/South African ethnicity who saw me on TV and were pointing and smiling at their mother, super excited to see someone who looks like them.

It’s amazing how life comes full circle, isn’t it? I’d grown up watching my own South African/Australian icon on Australian TV in the early 1990s and now these two young women were looking at me thinking, “If she can, then I can!”

I didn’t start out on my career journey envisioning or believing that I would be a role model for the next generation. But now that I’m here, it’s a role and responsibility that I take very seriously.

I have experienced first-hand the power of diversity, and how representation and inclusion can inspire, shape and ultimately change lives.

So if by doing my job, I can empower just one other young person to follow their dreams, no matter how impossible or out of reach it seems, that will be my greatest achievement of all.  

There’s never been a better time to inspire the next generation and feel empowered through role models who have achieved the extraordinary. Any way I can contribute by helping give voice to new perspectives is meaningful to me.

Del Irani recently spoke at the SafetyCulture Made Extraordinary Summit. Find out more here.


Del Irani is a US-based, award-winning journalist and TV anchor who’s hosted shows on BBC World News, ABC News (Australia) and NHK World-Japan. She serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for World Vision Australia.

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