International Women’s Day: A tête-à-tête with Paula Nagel

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Interview by Ava Viscariello

In celebration of International Women’s Day, I am warmly welcomed into the beautiful home of local legend, Paula Nagel. With a prolific career behind her, Paula is famously known as South Australia’s first female presenter on ABC’s This Day Tonight.


Although I arrived at the interview sans my morning coffee to help compensate for my often tired, wildly unreliable and nonsensical brain, I was immediately put at ease by Paula’s infectious energy and her adorable dog Luca. Walking inside the home, I am embraced with an eclectic and immaculately coordinated curation of art, photographs, books, and maps all telling the story of Paula’s colourful and well-experienced life.

To my delight, Paula is already preparing us coffee. Before we get the interview started Paula and I already find ourselves chatting; it is almost impossible not to be all ears. With coffee in hand, I follow Paula around her home as she shows me photographs from her early days at the ABC and tells me fascinating stories. We eventually make our way to a couch and sit together to have this following chat.


Tell us about your career in Broadcast media and how you got started Paula?

Well, it’s quite hard to go that far back but I was very lucky. I had always watched television and I thought I’d like to be on camera asking questions. It was more about wanting to be an interviewer [than the glamour of television]. There was an advertisement for an audition for Channel 7, so I went along.

There were about 40 women in the crowd, and I thought this is a bit of a waste of my time. But you know I was very lucky, because they took a photograph of the 40 women, and somebody at Channel 7 put a ring around my head and talked to somebody at the ABC and the ABC called me up!

I went to see the ABC and there were two of us. They got us to do To Market To Market, which was this show which happened on a Thursday night on the ABC before the news. It was a filler where someone would go out to the market and find the fruit and vegetables and say, ‘this is the best buy this week’. So that’s what we had to do as our pilots. And for some reason or another I won that. And then I got taken over by the ABC.

So, after the news each night I would be sitting on a stool talking to the camera to say, ‘don’t forget to watch Lassie Come Home tonight at 9pm’ or whatever [laughs]. In retrospect I can now see that they were setting things up to do this new current affairs show, which was a copy of the Twenty Four Hours and shows like that on the BBC. That’s how I fell on my feet. It’s much harder these days for people in the media today.

How challenging was it for you being a female in a male dominated industry?

The show we were doing, This Day Tonight, was essentially the hard stories. Every night we had stories on Vietnam. So, if they wanted a really light story, me being the only female, I’d be sent down to interview the wharfies in the middle of winter. It was a bit mean, frankly. But there were also fun times.

I am obliged to say that one night in the studio all the lights went off after we had finished and I was about to come out of the studio. I had just been on camera talking — probably about Lassie Come Home [laughs] — and the next thing I knew there was somebody moving in on me. I thought this is really not very sensible. So, I just told him he was an idiot and went out into the light and walked away. So yes, there were some interesting times working with a male-dominated work environment. But I don’t think we considered it unpleasant, or difficult, frankly.

It is good that you stood your ground.

Yes, I did if I had to. I still can be very bossy as everybody knows. [laughs]

So, Paula it is an absolute honour to be here talking with you. You are a wealth of knowledge: you’ve done so much in the media industry and in so many other industries. I myself am studying media at the moment and I am still figuring out my future and where I am going. So, do you have any advice for young females starting out in the media industry?

I am so flattered, thank you, you are far too kind! Going back — because I am only 64 as I keep telling everyone… I am actually in my 70s, but I am 64 [laughs] — going back to those early years, we worked extremely hard.

I’ve already given away my first secret, which is always work with your team. In my early days for example, we had a camera man who would say ‘have you thought of this question?’, and I probably hadn’t. So be very open to people’s suggestions [and] advice. And in the end always remember you are part of a huge team.

But the other thing I would say is, if I was going off doing interviews — which I was [laughs] — I would work really hard. It was like an exam the night before. I would really study the papers as much as I could, and I probably overdid all that. But that is not necessarily a bad thing because when you sit down with somebody you have got to make them feel comfortable. Like you have made me feel comfortable, and then it is just two people talking, like we are just talking!

The other advice I would have, when people who have come to me and said ‘how do we get into current affairs’ or whatever, my advice has always been: go and get a job with somebody, even if it is on a small newspaper, even if is in a small television studio in the country. Just learn the fundamentals in the real jobs, in the real locations and make the tea if you have to.

International Women’s Day is an important day and I’d like to ask you Paula, what does International Women’s Day mean to you?

I think it is a wonderful recognition of the role of women. If you go across history you have had the Indira Gandhis, Hillary Clintons, Margaret Thatchers; all those high-profile women who have led whole countries. It is the role of women in society. There is a lot more respect for what women contribute and whether it be the mother in a family of little kids, or whether it is ruling a country.

My own mother was a great influence on me, she was a dressmaker. My mother worked hard; she was a professional in her own little way. I think the role of women has changed radically since then.

The recognition of women and the women’s role is very, very important and it’s great to be invited to the breakfast here in Adelaide at the Convention Centre. We have 2,000 women plus a few schoolgirls who are gorgeous and are all part of that.

So yes, it is respect and love.

That is a beautiful takeaway, respect and love. Also, what do you think International Women’s Day means or should mean for men?

Respect and Love. What we just said. And recognition that women are intellectually men’s equals. I care about the intellectual level, that we all have this capacity to think and then to act.

And at the end of the day we are all humans first, so of course we would have the same emotional or mental abilities.

And we have all grown up together from little kids, where we were equal. I reckon it should stay like that. I like that word respect, because most things should be based on that, I think.

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