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TV

Rebecca Wright on Trump, terrorism & tragedy

The TV journalist is in the hot seat once again and loving it

By Fleur Guthrie
She might have taken a less traditional path into journalism, but Rebecca Wright hasn't wasted time packing in a plethora of "dream jobs" and becoming a well-known face on our television screens.
With stints as a political reporter, US correspondent and most recently as a current affairs journalist for Sunday, her can-do attitude has seen her career trajectory rise. Yet stepping into the spotlight for her latest role has come somewhat out of the blue, she tells the Weekly.
Rebecca has begun presenting Newshub Live at 8pm – a nightly 30-minute news bulletin on Discovery's new free-to-air channel eden, which launched three weeks ago.
"I was feeling like I wanted to do something different," says the 41-year-old. "I've been a reporter for a long time and going through lockdowns, you take a closer look at your life and start to question what's next.
"Whenever I had the opportunity to do it, I've always loved presenting, such as The US Election Special. That got me thinking maybe I should head in that direction. And here I am! Now I'm excited to blend the news with interviews that do more of a deep dive and give people what they need to know and a little bit more."
Rebecca with Toni, leader of the Trumpettes.
Imbued with a sunny charisma, the mother-of-one points out that her daughter Scarlett, six, is used to mum's jobs requiring her to work unusual hours. The flexibility of them, though, means Rebecca can still help out in the school library on Tuesdays and do 3pm pick-ups in what will be her "new lunch hour".
"Our schedule has always been pretty fluid," she explains. "We took Scarlett to New York to live for three years when she was 18 months old and had to make it work. We got there just as her language exploded, so she picked up an American accent. It's definitely softened now, but hasn't disappeared completely."
Rebecca took up the coveted role of TVNZ's US correspondent in 2017, arriving as Donald Trump was sworn in as President and leaving as the pandemic took hold.
During that time, she covered everything from "the maddest three years in politics anywhere" to Hurricane Harvey and the Oscars, all while inevitably falling in love with the Big Apple. Home was a small apartment in an old brownstone on the Upper West Side, not far from Central Park. Rebecca's mum Annie also spent those crucial first few months helping to look after Scarlett.
Outside the gates of the former president, Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago home in Florida.
"The whole thing was like living in a movie," she beams, recalling those "pinch me" moments. "Yoko Ono lived a few blocks away. I saw Jerry Seinfeld at the local supermarket and got such a kick out of that. Or I'd take the dog for a walk and end up outside Barneys department store, an iconic place for fashion and film. It never got normal… well, it didn't for me anyway."
But it was those little everyday moments with Scarlett that invoke the most special memories.
"Like the walk home from pre-school most days, where we'd stop and get an ice cream, or going to Central Park to play in the sprinklers on hot days."
One of the more fascinating stories that stands out for Rebecca was that of the "Trumpettes", a group of wealthy US socialites, all women, who had one mission – to see Donald Trump re-elected. The Kiwi was granted rare access inside President Trump's luxurious "Winter White House" Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, and shadowed larger-than-life Trumpette leader Toni Holt Kramer for three days.
Reporting from the red carpet at the Oscars in 2017.
"They were characters 10 times as big as real life," she laughs. "It was like I was in a reality TV show. Toni welcomed me into her mansion with her butler and her poodle, who she was teaching French.
"I assumed she was in her early eighties. She teetered around wearing nine-inch Louboutin heels and was going up and down stairs. I kept worrying all the time that she was going to fall over!
"Toni truly believed in the President and their fan club, and I respect that. She's a woman who's doing what's important to her, and was really upfront and happy to chat about it. There's probably something about that whole enterprise that is misguided, but I try never to judge anybody or any situation.
"That's what I love about my job, getting to walk in all these different worlds. I wanted an insight into the world that the [former] President inhabits – where he comes from, who the people are that surround him when he's at Mar-a-Lago. It helped me understand Donald Trump a little more and I hope it did the same for Kiwis watching."
Understandably, the hardest story to tell was covering the Las Vegas concert shooting in which 58 people died.
It was those little everyday moments with Scarlett that invoke the most special memories
"Spending a week at the crime scene was one of the most chilling experiences of my whole life," tells Rebecca. "Seeing it on TV is one thing. But physically looking at where he smashed out that window of the Mandalay Bay hotel to open fire on the concert, you never get your head around that stuff.
"That was the first mass shooting that I had reported on and I was really aware of the language that is used around these things like 'victims' or 'death toll'. But these people were murdered and that's not something you hear often with a mass shooting.
"So I used the words "53 people were murdered here today" and I remember it being really important to me to make that point."
"Covering those devastating stories like mass shootings, or Hurricane Harvey – which was another really emotional one for me – the feeling that stays with me when I look back is how humans respond in those moments. "It doesn't make what happened any less senseless, but seeing people's strength and the outpouring of support that happens is what truly defines us.
"That feeling of connection to each other in the aftermath is something I feel privileged to have witnessed first-hand and it's immensely comforting even in the most confronting circumstances."
At her new Newshub Live desk on eden.
Rebecca entered journalism in her mid-twenties and admits it wasn't something she ever considered while growing up in the Wellington suburb of Johnsonville.
Her father Barry was an engineer, while mum Annie worked as an electoral secretary for politician Peter Dunne ("someone I still call on from time to time", she says).
She left Wellington Girls' College at 17 and unsure of what direction to take, Rebecca went travelling. First to Sydney, where she got a job as a waitress, followed by London the week she turned 18.
"I did a bit of everything. I worked at design house Yves Saint Laurent which was amazing for me," says the self-confessed lover of fashion. "People used to come in and pick up their outfits for shows, so I was like a helper. Those jobs all bring experience to what I do now."
While dating a musician at this time, Rebecca got talking to some journalists at her partner's gigs.
Rebecca and daughter Scarlett at their local subway.
"I liked the fact they were out there, not in an office," she admits. "I was 22 and ready to focus on a career. So that's how the seed was planted."
She came home and rather than enrolling in a journalism course, went to university to study politics, film and television.
After graduating, Rebecca found out Argentina was offering one-year working holiday visas, so she went there and scored a job on an English language newspaper in Buenos Aires.
"Then I emailed [Head of News] Mark Jennings at what was then TV3 asking if he had any room in his newsroom for a very keen but mostly inexperienced young journo. He told me I had a very unconventional CV, and then he offered me a job on the Foreign Desk and I've never looked back," she enthuses.
"I have always loved people and their stories, and life's intricacies. The things that ordinary people go through, and how they survive them, and what we can learn about that, is what really does it
for me. Figuring out the world is the main reason I do what I do."
Scarlett's fourth birthday in Central Park.
Quickfire questions
Given your love of fashion, describe your greatest finds in New York?
I got into sample shopping when I was there and have two pieces I treasure. The first is a pair of silver Manolo Blahniks that I got for $100 – they're divine and are in my on-air wardrobe for the 8pm show. The second is a Givenchy dress – beautiful, bright red, snapped up at the Barneys closing down sale for a song.
What's something your daughter hasn't inherited from you?
She's musical! I'm not musical at all, so I love watching her sing, learn the guitar and play piano, which she's naturally drawn to.
How do you cope with the often stressful nature of your job?
Reporting on big stories that involve fatalities can be really gruelling. Taking care of myself and being aware of what my limits are has taken a while to learn! Over the years, I worked too long or too hard and didn't take any time out after those big stories, and that impacted me. Self-care, for me, means doing things like switching off my phone and going away with Scarlett for the weekend. It's usually about connecting with my friends and family.
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