Former RTE star Liz Bonnin on choosing science over celebrity: 'FHM offered me a spread but I said no'
Published 15/05/2016 | 02:30
It is 14 years since Liz Bonnin departed these shores to pursue a television career in one of the toughest markets in the world - the UK - but her accent hasn't changed one iota.
It's still that lovely strain of south Dublin without a hint of the dreaded Dort-inflection. "Yes!" she says, beaming, when her Hiberno tones are pointed out to her. "Good."
And yet, this exotic creature of Indian, French, Portuguese, Welsh, Chinese and South American descent has never had an Irish passport. "Is it too late?" she wonders. "I suppose I'd have to be living here for some time first. But with the way the world is going, I'd rather be Irish than anything else."
Bonnin says there isn't a drop of Irish in her - her parents emigrated to Dublin from France when she was nine. "When people ask what my nationality is, I say I'm French. I have a French passport, but I spent all my formative years in Ireland so I'm more Irish than French.
"So many of my friends here remind me of the sense of community, the sense of belonging that Irish people have, which is really special and many countries just don't have. They have that fire in their bellies, and it matches mine, but because of my background, I just don't feel that strong connection they do."
The remarkably youthful-looking Bonnin, who turns 40 later this year, has been in the public eye for most of the second half of her life. After completing a degree in biochemistry at Trinity, she joined a girl group, Chill, that was masterminded by nightclub impresario Valerie Roe. Yet despite signing to Polydor and earning the endorsement of Louis Walsh, then on a high with Boyzone, this Irish version of the Spice Girls failed to make an impact.
She got a second shot at fame shortly afterwards when working on young persons' programming on RTÉ - including stints with Zig and Zag and on fashion show Off The Rails - and while many of her peers were happy to stick with Montrose, Bonnin had her eye on a far juicier prize. Soon she found herself presenting Channel 4's short-lived breakfast show RI:SE and guesting on Top of the Pops during its ailing final years.
All that seems a very long way away from the sort of TV she makes today, she suggests, and she's not wrong. Bonnin has long moved away from lifestyle television and into the far more rewarding - for her - area of natural science broadcasting. She says she's living her dream.
"The experience of being able to present for [BBC's] Horizon is incredible because it's something that I used to watch as a kid," she says, speaking of a recently aired documentary, Is it Time to Close Our Zoos?
"But to be able to make something potentially very incendiary, potentially fraught with biases and heated arguments - it's a massive honour. I still feel like a kid - I don't feel like a grown-up. I don't want to let my ego run away with me, but I feel very proud of it and I never imagined I'd be doing it."
The programme attracted considerable attention, controversy and praise. There was sobering data about how some large mammals, including elephants, have half the life expectancy in zoos than what they would be expected to have in the wild - and this despite zoos' best intentions.
As Bonnin's film showed, different terrain, comparatively small open spaces and climactic conditions that are far removed from their natural environments, all play their parts in shortening their lives.
"In order to get people to listen to ideas that are contentious," she says, "it is important not to be biased. You've to provide information and let the public decide. I studied in zoos, I worked in zoos and for many years I had questions about the welfare of some animals and what the futures of zoos look like. We wanted to be fair to zoos and not look as though we were demonising them."
Tomorrow's perfect zoo will not 'carry' marquee species like giraffes, nor will they be housed in modest city parks. The day should come, she contends, where the closest the general public will get to certain large animals is through the lens of the binoculars. And there has to be acceptance, Bonnin believes, where it will not be possible for zoos to house certain species at all.
Making Nature's Epic Journeys, a new BBC series (the second episode will be broadcast next week), has galvanised that view. "We watched elephants moving into Samburu National Park in Kenya - science allows us to track them - and it shows us their interactions, how hyper-social they are with each other. There's mounting evidence from wild populations about what these animals need to be healthy.
"The most frustrating thing," she adds, "is we still don't rate the welfare of animals. Since when do we have the right or audacity not to think of animals as beings that have the right not only to be here but rights similar to ours?"
Her passion is deep-rooted. Bonnin is not just a TV presenter who has been shoehorned into natural science programming, but someone who left her broadcasting career in order to take a masters in Wild Animal Biology at the Zoological Society of London.
"When I was doing the masters, I met with the BBC's natural history unit and I said, 'So, I work in TV, but I've been doing this masters and I'd love to work with you' and they were all terribly lovely, but they were saying, 'This is all very nice, but we have thousands of people like you lining up to work with us'."
Yet, they clearly saw something in a lady once memorably described by a British newspaper as "David Attenborough meets Lara Croft", and her career has truly blossomed over the past five years, whether it's been on Discovery Science, ITV or, her true love, the Beeb.
"It's about passion and you have to have a pretty good CV, whether academic or experiential," she says. "We're all scientists first and programme-makers second."
Today, Bonnin has journeyed to Dublin from her London home to launch a sustainable energy initiative by Bord na Móna. "It's my first time working with them," she says, over tea at Trinity's Science Gallery. "They were talking to me about wind farms, phasing out peat extraction, really focusing on investment towards rehabilitating some of our landscapes and working with scientists to increase biodiversity… that's all music to my ears, because that's what I do for my job.
"We can't be naive and think energy companies are all bad. We have to look at the ones that lead by example and at the end of the day, we all use electricity, we all use power."
Being at Trinity again, albeit at an annex that didn't exist during her time here in the '90s, is bringing back happy memories.
"I spent the first year partying here," she says with a smile, "but I'm super-proud to have gone here. I remember when I'd come into town from school and I used to say, 'I'll go there'."
She says she was highly academic from an early age. "My friends in school used to find me annoying because we'd be talking all the time and we'd get detention every now and then but I'd still get As in chemistry. The science teacher would go, 'Look at Liz Bonnin's folder: this is how you should all be doing it.' That was incredibly embarrassing when you were 14 or 15 years old. But it's still true of me - I have the ability to save my bacon. I'm quite disciplined."
Bonnin says she has little interest in doing entertainment TV again. "I really had fun for a while. I got to go on junkets around the world and interview people like Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench and Michael Caine. But then I just got to the point where I wasn't really enjoying it any more," she says. "My agent was saying, 'You've got to go to the parties and you'll have to network'. But I wasn't passionate enough about what I was doing to want to network in that realm. I began to lose my motivation which meant I began not to get as much work because I wasn't playing the field. I wasn't out there, being seen."
She had no interest in playing other games either. "FHM offered me the chance to do a spread for them," she recalls, with a pained face, "and I was like, 'That's just not me' and my agent was saying, 'But you need it to be you' and I was saying, 'It's never going to happen'.
"Now, don't get me wrong - not everyone in entertainment has to go down that route - I want to make that very clear and I'm not criticising the whole entertainment industry, but for me it wasn't attractive enough or I wasn't passionate enough to want to stick to it."
Spend even a short time with Bonnin and one can see that a semi-naked shoot with a lads' mag really isn't who she is. Today, she's dressed demurely in a pretty knee-length dress and her make-up and glossy black hair are a study in understatement. She's very beautiful but, more than that, she looks super-healthy.
Would she accept that TV still expects its female presenters to be young and pretty, something it doesn't demand of men? She pauses, delicately trying to find the right words. "This is not something that's new," she says, finally. "We've still got inequality when it comes to pay - what is that about? They only gave women the right to vote in Switzerland in 1971. Look at the whole men's golf club thing. Let's not kid ourselves, we still have a long way to go.
"I'm asked questions that men are never asked - about girls in science and so on - and I find it all a bit tedious at times."
She says that if she is to be considered a role model for young girls, she hopes her work will show them that there are more worthy career paths than 'reality TV'. For her part, she has looked up to "those great communicators of science, Jane Goodall and Sylvia Earle" and, she admits to have been besotted with Saba Douglas-Hamilton when she presented Big Cat Diary. "I got to work with her on the elephant migration programme and I was a bit star-struck, but I'm proud to say she's a friend now."
She's also in awe of Sir David Attenborough. "I wish I knew him well," she says. "I'd love to meet him for a cup of tea. On the few occasions where I've met him, I find myself stuttering in his company because I'm so star-struck. He's without a doubt inspired all the science and natural history presenters that work at the BBC and beyond."
When it comes to her personal life, Bonnin likes to keep her guard up. "I learnt very early in my career to keep that side of my life precious - because I'm actually a very private person. You don't say anything. That's my haven. I mean, I don't have kids - I think that's pretty apparent… but it's not something I talk about. Another interviewer was saying to me: 'You've done a really good job. I've looked up all that stuff and I can find out nothing.' Well, good."
She doesn't get back to Ireland as often as she would like. "My parents divorced so there's no home to come back to," she says. "Maybe the closest home gets to me is the place my sister [Benni] has in New Zealand. Her daughter is a little nature child and I'm so happy that she's growing up like that. For me, being at the heart of nature is one of life's great pleasures - it's where I love to be."
The next episode of 'Nature's Epic Journeys' is on BBC One, 9pm on Wednesday, May 18. To find out more about Bord na Móna's Naturally Driven sustainable future initiative, visit bordnamona.ie.