Speaking in front of the camera or to a live audience may appear to be a glamorous job. But cut through the dollops of glitz, and you know what presenters face on a daily basis — judgements. On the way they talk, on the way they walk, on the way they look. With glamour comes vulnerability. And nowhere is it as pronounced as in the world of sports presentation, particularly cricket.
When Indian television actress Mandira Bedi began to co-host the ICC World Cup in 2003, the conversation around her presence largely revolved around her wardrobe. But Bedi persisted and over the years, came to be known as much for her involvement in cricket broadcasting as for her acting. Her popularity went on to carve a path for other female presenters like Mayanti Langer and Zainab Abbas who have become household names now. Today, while it may not be uncommon to spot a woman dissecting the gentleman’s game, judgements still pour in. Which is why the story of women in sports — whether players or presenters — continues to fascinate.
In the UAE, Priya Jethani has carved a niche as one of the few women cricket presenters. She is, arguably, the most recognisable face on the ground when an important match takes place. Sitting at her Bur Dubai home, Priya reflects on the journey she has had only to say that she never looked at being a cricket presenter purposefully. She didn’t have to. Because when she graduated with a prestigious marketing degree from S.P. Jain School of Management in Dubai, the sky was the limit. It meant that life would take a logical course and land her in a corporate job, which it did. That was until the world of glamour beckoned.
“I was always fascinated by it and had got my portfolio shot. But the initial disappointments often made me rethink my decision,” she says. With no one to guide her in the world of showbiz, her parents decided to support her dream. That support led them to accompany Priya to a shoot for a Bollywood film at Ras Al Khaimah. “The production house actually organised a bus from Dubai for us to travel all the way. My mother was there with me. There was no information on what we were supposed to do, except there would be a party scene for which they needed a lot of actors. When we landed there, one of the actors got a sense that the scene to be shot was not quite appropriate and threw a fit. We wanted to see the big actors but couldn’t. We simply left the shoot.”
This is only a glimpse of what foraying into showbiz entails for the ‘outsiders’. Even though the world remembers you for the big breaks, the spate of disappointments that precede it are often PhotoShopped. In Priya’s case, that break came in terms of Zee Connect, a hugely popular show catering to the South Asian community in the UAE. By then, she had already been married and had been a runner-up in a local beauty pageant.
Marriage, success, ambition are not always compatible. As the career graph went up, problems took root in domestic life. “It would suffice to say that I was taking refuge in my work, thinking that maybe I am overthinking the problems in my personal life. Eventually, I had to exit that relationship.”
The year 2018 was a life-changer. Moving on personally, Priya also lost her mother to a long-term illness a few days before she was to be a host at a wedding. “I informed the family that my mother had passed away and asked if it was okay to host the wedding. They agreed,” she recalls. How do you wear a smile and bring one on people’s faces four days after you have lost the most important person in your life? How do you ensure that a family and its several hundred guests have the most memorable time when you are secretly grieving?
This is where the job of a host — or a presenter — becomes challenging. The show must go on, so must the host. As for the grief, Priya says, “Someone had once told me that the grief never really goes away. In fact, it keeps coming back in different ways. I remember just before the sangeet (an Indian pre-wedding ritual), we went to get dressed and then were sitting together. That’s when my eyes welled up. But I knew I had to snap out of it quickly. Because no one had forced me to take up the assignment, I did so knowingly. And I had to be professional. But that’s exactly why the job of a presenter — be it on radio or an event — is so tough. You can have a fight, you can be facing a tragedy, but you still have to show up in the best spirits.”
A few days after the wedding ceremony, Priya went on to host a 10-day cricket league, a big leap in terms of her hosting assignments. “It was not something that I was looking at doing consciously. I had a lot of events and cricket seemed like a lot of work. But my brother, who had been with me through what was a very challenging time in my life, is a cricket fanatic. He used to tell me, ‘Some day, you will be hosting the Indian Premier League (IPL).’” That moment came true in 2022 when Priya hosted her first IPL right after she hosted ICC Men’s T20 World Cup in 2021 as a stage emcee. “Live television is a whole different ballgame,” says Priya.
“A broadcast interview typically happens during an ongoing game on the field. The director and team take a call on who I will be interviewing whenever we have an opportunity in between the match. The prep needed for me in such cases is to have hands-on information about the key players of both teams, important stats about their past performances in the same cricket format, or past games of the same tournament, and current match situation and accordingly put together my questions for a quick live interview.”
At other times, the job is pure fun. For example, that time when she got Chris Gayle to dance to a Shah Rukh Khan song in a reel that went viral on social media. “It was 10.30 at night and I had to interview Chris Gayle. While he is a sport, it did not seem like he would sit through the interview that night. But thankfully, he enjoyed the conversation. At the end of the interview, I asked him if he would dance a little with me. He said he was too tired and the room was full of people who wanted to take a selfie with him. I asked him to do just three steps with me and gave my phone to my cameraman to record. He did that. I added music on it later. The video actually became so popular on social media.”
With the frenzy revolving around cricket in the South Asian community here, there is another aspect to the job that makes it challenging for women. Priya does not mince her words when she admits to feeling the pressure to look a certain way, even if she doesn’t associate it solely with sports broadcasting.
“I have seen anchors like myself who have become a little older. I have also overheard voices from the crowd calling them ‘Auntie’. That makes me think that some day, people will probably say something like this about me because I, too, will grow old. Maybe the crowd I cater to will change. Maybe I won’t appeal to the Gen Z anymore because they won’t get what I am saying. Today, it’s easier for people to enter this profession because you can be on social media and your one post can go viral. You begin to think you’re a celebrity but you have actually not put that kind of hard work. Today, I know I am hired for certain hosting assignments because of the way I look. But I often wonder if I don’t look like this tomorrow, will I really get these jobs anymore?”
Priya’s candour is refreshing in its refusal to sugarcoat truths about women in media. When one of the caveats of success is also how you look, it impacts larger life decisions, including the one on motherhood. “My career picked up at a time when my personal life was going through a low. Today, I might have married again and my husband is super supportive, but I cannot deny that I am scared of taking a break to raise a child because the world is moving so fast. If you are out of sight, you are out of mind. I have been a freelancer, which means I have a new employer every day. And I have to actively look for work. For me, having a family would mean taking a break from my work because people are not ready to see a pregnant woman with a big belly hosting a show.”
Ageing is not as easy for women in public life as it is for men. In the past, Priya has endorsed many aesthetic centres and has admitted to getting injectables, something not many people find comfortable talking about publicly because we all like to think of ideal beauty as being natural. “I did not enter this without doing my fair share of research. A friend pointed out that I had some lines on my forehead and some laugh lines. But then when you are in front of the camera, these features get pronounced. So, yes, I did get botox done. It was not as though my face was going to change or I wouldn’t look like how I naturally do. I feel to each her own — if you are comfortable with lines, then don’t get it done. But if you are uncomfortable with it, you should not be judged for getting aesthetic treatments,” she says.
“Cosmetic centres that are promoting these services want people like us to talk about them when we get a service done because that’s how people on social media will get to know who’s doing a good job of these treatments. Also, people are not dumb these days. If you have got something done, others will figure it out. Then why lie about it?”
These are not easy answers, but they come from a lack of apology for what a woman in the business of hosting and presenting has to go through. Like Priya said, we are yet to get used to seeing a pregnant woman hosting a show on stage or on live broadcast. Till that happens, we can take heart in how local figures like Priya have carved a space for themselves in a profession that has little room for imperfections, in them trying to move forward — not in spite of everyone else, but despite everyone else.
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