Career

TVNZ's Rebecca Wright on uprooting her family for the gig of a lifetime in New York

The timing of Rebecca Wright’s move to New York to report for TVNZ wasn’t ideal – but she couldn’t be happier.

By: Nicky Pellegrino

A talent for logistics, an open mind and a can-do attitude are what it takes for a woman to 'have it all' in the 21st century – if TV news reporter Rebecca Wright is any example. Right now, she's doing her dream job, making a home in one of the world's most fast-paced cities, plus raising a toddler. And although things do tend to get crazy, she's still loving this time in her life.

When Rebecca was offered the much-coveted two-year contract as TVNZ's US correspondent, the timing was hardly ideal. Daughter Scarlett was only one-and-a-half, the family had just moved house and was still unpacking boxes and, besides, what would they do with the dog?

"It was a decision I really wrestled with," admits Rebecca, 37. But she wanted that job, and having reported on politics and breaking news, was sure she could do it.

"I felt like I had the perfect set of skills to step into the role and make it mine straight away. But I thought long and hard because I didn't want to do anything that would be detrimental to Scarlett. In the end, I couldn't say no, so I only had one choice – to do everything I could to make it a wonderful experience."

It helped that her partner Cameron Williams is a camera operator and was able to go to the US, where he works alongside Rebecca some of the time. "Once we'd made the decision, I was determined it was going to be beneficial for all of us," she says.

So the family rented out their Auckland home, got busy packing up again, then headed to their new life in New York, without any real idea how it would pan out. Oh, and the dog – a three-year-old wheaten terrier – went too.

"People think we're crazy, but he's part of the family, so we couldn't leave him behind."

A mix of naïvety and ignorance probably helped at that point. The couple had no idea how difficult it was going to be to get Scarlett into a nursery school, for instance.

"Because spaces are limited, New Yorkers often enrol their children in childcare before they're born," says Rebecca, who had a panicked few months thinking they'd never find a place for their daughter, before getting lucky when a spot came up in a small school nearby.

Neither did they expect to hit the ground running. Covering Donald Trump's presidential inauguration was followed by a series of full-on news days when there was barely time to pause for breath. If it hadn't been for Rebecca's mum, Annie, spending those crucial first few months with them, they probably couldn't have done it.

"Knowing Scarlett was with her grandmother meant we could focus on getting up to speed and getting the job done. It gave us flexibility and mental freedom."

Rebecca is now well into her second year in the city. Home is a small apartment in an old brownstone on the Upper West Side, not far from Central Park.

"We've lucked into a gorgeous little family-friendly neighbourhood – people call it Stroller City because everyone's out there with their strollers and dogs. It's full of old New Yorkers, some of whom have lived here for 30 years. They're intrigued by who we are and what we're doing here, which isn't what I expected from New York, which has a reputation as a tough, busy town where everyone is very driven. We've found people are friendly; they all want to know if we like New York – and we love it, so that's great."

It'd be easy to let the demands of her job use up all her energy, but Rebecca knows she has a limited time in the city and she isn't going to waste it.

"I'm trying to soak it all up. If I have a couple of free hours, I'll do something I've heard about, like go to Katz's Deli for a pastrami sandwich. We take Scarlett to the Children's Museum, which is in our neigbourhood, go to Central Park Zoo, get cupcakes from Magnolia Bakery and ride the subway to Brooklyn to go on the carousel. We went ice-skating, which was a disaster. I didn't realise until I stepped onto the ice that I'd never done it before and I had to try to help Scarlett stand up!"

That experience seems like a metaphor for Rebecca's life. She's not one for worrying whether she'll be able to do things. Instead, she launches in and gives it her best shot. And that's essential in a job like hers, when you never know where a big news story will break, or what it will take to cover it. Reaching Houston to report on Hurricane Harvey, for example, involved eight hours of travel before she was able to start working. Due to the time difference, Rebecca has to keep at it until 1am or 2am, so she can report on TVNZ 1's 6pm news.

"But the adrenaline starts going, it's exciting and interesting," she says.

"It's not always fun; the Las Vegas shooting was incredibly moving, chilling and dark, and it took me a while to absorb the impact that had. But I always want to get there and find out what the story is. I feel it's a privilege to be part of that. And I think it's a good time to be doing this job. It's brilliantly challenging. The scope and breadth of it is what I needed."

Sometimes Rebecca does get to take Scarlett with her. Spending three weeks as a family in Bermuda last year, reporting on the America's Cup, was a phenomenal experience. But she also has to handle absences from her little girl.

"When I say Mummy is going away on a plane for a few days, she understands. I talk to her every day on Facetime and bring her back a toy. So I make it a positive not a negative thing – although there's no time for shopping on the job, so I always end up rushing round the airport before I leave."

After the intensity of several days spent reporting on a story and nights when there isn't much sleep, Rebecca has learned it's important to slow down.

"The aftermath is very draining," she says. "After doing 20-hour days for five or six days in a row, I'm exhausted and need to lie in my bed. I have a good masseuse, so I go to see her rather than worrying about unpacking or cleaning the apartment."

With such an unpredictable schedule, things can get chaotic.

"It all over the place," says Rebecca cheerfully, "but that's the way I've always worked and all I've known. My work is so fascinating and varied that it doesn't feel like a job where I'm punching the clock or making sacrifices. I just have to fit my family around it."

If she's not away on assignment, she takes a break for Scarlett's dinner, bath time and bedtime, then once her daughter has gone to sleep, she's right back into it.

The childhood that shaped Cromwell-born Rebecca into such a dogged news-hound was normal enough. She grew up in the Wellington suburb of Johnsonville; her father Barry was an engineer, while her mother spent time working for politician Peter Dunne. She had early exposure to politics and current affairs, but at school she was never the girl most likely to succeed.

"I went to Wellington Girls College and didn't excel particularly," she recalls.

"I didn't enjoy secondary school – I didn't like being told what to do."

Unsure of what direction she wanted to take, instead of following her friends to university, Rebecca went travelling.

"First I went to Sydney and got a job in a bar; I was a hopeless waitress! Then the week I turned 18, I arrived in London. I worked in more bars, temped, did admin, learned about the work world and figured out what I wanted to do. I had four years there and I'm glad I did it."

She was dating a musician at the time and at his gigs got talking to some journalists. "I liked the fact they were out there, not in an office. It seemed exciting and they looked like cool people. And I was 22 and sick of doing boring jobs. So that's how the seed was planted."

She came home, and rather than taking a journalism course, went to university, first in Wellington then Auckland, to study politics, film and television. At the same time, she hosted a radio show on bFM.

"Politics gave me a framework to start making sense of the world," she says. "The technical skills of being a journalist you can learn on the job, if you've got good colleagues who help and guide you. And a lot of that stuff came naturally to me."

After graduating, Rebecca travelled to Argentina to get her start working on an English-language newspaper. Her career since then has included a role as a reporter in the press gallery at parliament, and stints on TV3's Campbell Live and The Paul Henry Show. Along the way, she has gained a reputation for being hard-nosed – an adjective that would probably not be applied to a man doing the same job.

"That's a good point," she says.

"I don't think of myself as hard-nosed; I think I'm tough, fair and determined. It's a descriptor that's attached itself to me, but I don't think it's necessarily reflective of who I am. I like to think I have a warmth as well. I hope anyone who knows me would say I'm easygoing and have a sense of humour. And I have great relationships with the people I do stories on; I'm still in touch with some of them."

This year she's looking forward to getting her teeth into Trump. She wants to visit the Rust Belt states and find out what the people who voted for him are thinking and feeling.

"It's easy to write him off as crazy and out of control. I'm really interested in how what he's doing is reshaping America," she says. "And I want to get out there and take the temperature of how people think his presidency is going."

It's not all serious stories, of course, and Rebecca enjoys the lighter moments. Covering the Oscars twice has been a particular treat. For this year's ceremony, she wore a gown by Maggie Marilyn, the label of hot young Kiwi designer Maggie Hewitt.

"I love being on the red carpet, seeing the stars arrive and what they're wearing," says Rebecca. "It's a party atmosphere. On TV it comes across as very polished, but in real life it's madness with thousands of people thronging around in their sequins and gowns. You stand around waiting for a long time and then it all happens at once and everything goes in a blur – eight hours in the snap of your fingers."

With every event or incident she covers, what Rebecca likes most is making it relevant to New Zealanders. "For the audience, I'm their eyes and ears, and they trust me to tell the story through Kiwi eyes."

She returned home for a summer holiday and thoroughly enjoyed hanging out in damp togs, spending hours at children's playgrounds with her girlfriends and their kids, and having a complete news black-out. She reckons that's necessary, even when you're a current-affairs junkie whose idea of fun is watching long-form interviews with politicians on YouTube.

"I wake to news alerts about Donald Trump's tweets, so I'm literally in it from the moment I get up to when I go to bed."

At the end of this year when Rebecca's contract ends, the plan is to head back to New Zealand and settle down. "It's where I'm from and where I want to be long-term."

Aside from that, she doesn't know what the future holds. Although she seems an obvious choice to front a current affairs show like Seven Sharp, Rebecca won't be drawn on whether that's an ambition of hers.

"It's a conversation I need to be having with my bosses. There are lots of great programmes and exciting changes, and where I fit into that will depend on the opportunities that are around when I get back. Right now, I'm not thinking about what's next for me because I'm so focused on what I'm doing."

As for whether she'll be having more babies: "The answer is I don't know. That's it in a nutshell. But I don't think I'm in an either-or situation. It's not as if I can have either my career or a family. We've proven we can do both."

There are single mothers who juggle family and work, points out Rebecca. "I'm lucky to have a fantastic partner who's a hands-on father, and works in the same industry and understands my job."

Clearly, he also understands her drive and determination. This is a woman who was five months pregnant when she began a new job at TVNZ while also renovating her house. Whatever she ends up doing, it's not likely to involve sitting still for long.

"I always need to have a project," she says.

"I'm not someone who can coast and see what happens. I like to make things happen, that's what keeps me going. It's innate. I need to keep moving forward – what's the next thing; what are we building towards? Sometimes it's chaos and I look back and wonder how we made it work. Coming back to New Zealand? Surely that can't be any more chaotic than when we moved over here!"

Things I have learned while living in the US