Sunday 23 September 2018

Longford lady: The pain behind Anne-Marie Tomchak's success

 

Anne-Marie Tomchak wears: Swimsuit, Mona Swims, Brown Thomas. Trousers, Zara. Photo: Kip Carroll
Anne-Marie Tomchak wears: Swimsuit, Mona Swims, Brown Thomas. Trousers, Zara. Photo: Kip Carroll
Anne-Marie Tomchak wears: Top, Topshop. Skirt, Parosh, Samui. Photo: Kip Carroll

'Butt-ripped jeans!"

What?

"Butt. Ripped. Jeans."

I'm at that awkward stage where I've already asked Anne-Marie Tomchak to repeat herself twice - and I can't do it again. She might think I'm harbouring xenophobia towards Longford natives. I'm sure I've misheard her, this very groomed and shiny woman in a pink petticoated skirt and wedge sandals; 'butt-ripped jeans' is not what I expected to come out of her understated but perfectly made-up mouth when I asked her about work.

Anne-Marie Tomchak wears: Top, Topshop. Skirt, Parosh, Samui. Photo: Kip Carroll
Anne-Marie Tomchak wears: Top, Topshop. Skirt, Parosh, Samui. Photo: Kip Carroll

Tomchak is describing one of the latest stories on Mashable to have gone viral, under her editorship. "One-point-three-million unique visitors on Apple News! Record-breaking. In one day!"

However, butt-ripped jeans would not be a fair characterisation of Tomchak's journalistic skills. A veteran of both the RTE and BBC newsrooms, she's covered everything from the clerical sex-abuse scandal to the Arab Spring. She is as at home presenting as she is producing or writing or reporting, or, indeed, running Mashable in the UK - a website at the forefront of millennial tech and digital culture. You might recognise her from the documentaries she did for RTE last year on artificial intelligence and data privacy.

But it was far from artificial intelligence Anne-Marie was reared. Her description of her childhood in rural Longford, with its ceilis, potato-picking and walking miles uphill from school every day, belongs to a different era.

She'd help her father on the family farm - "Moving cattle from one field to the next, or helping if a cow was calving. Or we'd be going to the bog to do the turf, which is not politically correct these days, but back in the day, it was the done thing."

Her uncle is country-music legend Declan Nerney, whom she grew up near in Drumlish; his nieces and nephews idolised him, and travelled around the country with him for gigs - learning to waltz and jive.

Her cousin is Una Healy of The Saturdays. With only a year between them, Anne-Marie, her twin Sinead, and Una were often mistaken for triplets. I can see it: the same strikingly pale eyes, high cheekbones and Hollywood smiles. The girls would write songs and play instruments during the long summer holidays, in exchange for a pound note from their grandfather.

In short, it's hard to imagine that Anne-Marie's 'back in the day' was only the 1990s. Between the sewing of her own debs dress and music sessions after dinner, she could be some kind of Jane Austen heroine.

Hard graft

She doesn't hesitate when I ask her whether she ever resented having to graft, having to clean or cook the dinner before doing her homework, while her parents were at work. "Of course, yeah," she laughs. "Categorically yes!"

But she wouldn't change a thing; she credits her upbringing with instilling the kind of work ethic that meant when she left Longford for DIT in Dublin, she didn't stop grafting. When she was doing her degree, she was also taking musicianship night classes in DIT and playing in an orchestra. As a new graduate, she pitched and pitched - "to the point where I was just like a bad smell and wouldn't go away" - until she was rewarded with freelance graveyard shifts on RTE 2fm, learning her craft live on air.

It would turn out to be the beginning of five years at the broadcaster, which she speaks about with great warmth. She's full of stories about the people there who took time to teach her, or give her a leg up.

She remembers being a starry-eyed 21-year-old on placement when Sean O'Rourke told her to print off her news script and read it to him. She was utterly mortified and slightly dazzled.

"At the time, I don't think I was actually mature enough to realize what he had done for me - taking time out of his day to give me feedback on my delivery.

"I was being way too formal, and really trying to adopt this newsy persona, you know? And Sean is like the real deal; he's proper authentic.

"It took me years to really take on that constructive feedback. I spent the first four years of my career trying to fit some kind of a mould, like trying to sound less Longford or trying to be more authoritative."

But Anne-Marie doesn't fit the mould - she didn't fit it growing up, deeply shy, in Drumlish, where she and her identical twin struggled to form meaningful friendships; she didn't fit it in her black beret, blonde hair and heels in RTE; and as the oldest person in the office, an Irish country girl in London, I suspect she doesn't quite fit in at Mashable.

But at 35, she's stopped trying to dial herself down. Mashable has rubbed off on her; her personal philosophy is borrowed from a favourite internet acronym - DGAF, or 'Don't give a fuck'.

"I think I'm reaching peak DGAF - it's not that I don't care about people's opinions of me, or that I have a kind of recklessness. It's just that I feel more freedom to be myself. And I literally DGAF," she says.

And why not? It seems to be working for her. But in many ways, Tomchak does give a fuck: she's very considered and very careful ("Hmm, do I want to say this on the record?") It's not her first time at the rodeo. She shares exactly what she wants to share - no more, no less. But that's not to say she's cagey - she has a lot to say for herself.

Her conversation is warm, exuberant, and mile-a-minute. She jumps from violins to RTE, to weddings, to fine art, to her favourite news stories from Nigeria, at breakneck speed. She'll answer questions with stories, ("Let me give you an example") and mentions things to come back to ("I must tell you about them in a minute"). I get the impression that she is, perhaps, enjoying the opportunity to finally talk about herself, after years of interviewing other people.

In fact, she is exceptionally easy to interview because she essentially interviews herself. She knows what makes a human-interest story work, and she serves up these snippets for me, ready-made. Running Mashable and managing a load of millennials, she's well used to dealing with the 20-something likes of me. Her commitment to nurturing the skills and careers of her young workforce is a point of pride for her; once or twice she'll compliment me on asking a good question, and despite myself, I find I am glowing from the praise.

First date

In 2010, Anne-Marie set her sights on London and the BBC. "I just left. I packed a suitcase and I came over here and that was it." She left her car in her mother's driveway - to keep, or sell, whatever. Anne-Marie wouldn't be needing it. Cousin Una was on hand to help her settle, including her in what was going on with The Saturdays - number-one parties and big nights out.

"I basically had no idea how the hell you get a job in London media. So, I was like, 'OK, I'll basically just set up meetings with everyone I know in London and go for coffees with them, and then get them to recommend other people I can go for coffees with'. And I just went and took a week off… for coffee."

It worked. One of her coffee dates knew a Kerryman who'd been in the Beeb for decades - he agreed to have her in for a meeting.

After the meeting, an American producer in the BBC World Newsroom was asked to show the new girl around. She jokingly says his schedule for the morning miraculously cleared when he saw the new girl in her leather pencil skirt, white shirt and stilettos. The producer was David Tomchak, Anne-Marie's now-husband of five years.

After he'd shown her the BBC, he offered to show her London later in the week. "He picked me up in this navy-blue old Triumph Spitfire, and drove me all around London to different parts of the city... It was a really beautiful day. I'd met him at 11 in the morning, and I didn't think it was a date or anything. And then we ended up hanging out the whole day, which ended with margaritas in Notting Hill."

Then Anne-Marie panicked when she realised she was on a date, and worse, that she quite liked him; she balked at the idea of being romantically linked to someone in the place she was hoping to work. The night ended with a kiss on the cheek. The ball was in her court.

They started dating properly later, after meeting up again in Dublin, which he just happened to be visiting 'on his way' to Belfast.

"But I was very conscious of being a woman in a company and then also dating someone there.

"So actually, a lot of people [in the BBC] only knew that we were together by virtue of the fact that I changed my name after I got married. I was very discreet; my professionalism was so important to me."

David left the BBC to become head of digital for the UK prime minister's office and cabinet office from 2015 to 2017, dealing with the doomed Brexit referendum and David Cameron's subsequent resignation. Now, he's the editor-in-chief for all things digital at the Evening Standard: they are something of a very modern internet-media power couple.

But it hasn't been all plain sailing. Their lives were turned upside down when, in 2016, Anne-Marie became pregnant and miscarried after three months. When I ask her if it's something she's OK to talk about, she is emphatic. She is clear that miscarriage must be talked about - it is something that affects so many women and families, but is shrouded in secrecy.

She knows that so many women do not understand what is happening to them at the time, and feels darkly fortunate that her work meant she had a certain amount of insight into the experience.

Indeed, when she was only a few weeks along, Anne-Marie interviewed a woman, Amy, who had suffered three miscarriages in the space of a year. Anne-Marie didn't yet know that she herself was pregnant.

"She told me in painstaking detail about each experience she'd had. So, I knew a lot about the process of what happens to your body; how you go to the hospital, you get sent away and told to come back for a scan. And you get no explanation, no answers; you don't really feel you know what's happening."

That woman's experience of the process would closely, horribly, mirror her own. At around the three-month mark, Anne-Marie began bleeding.

Because of the interview a couple of months before,"I felt at least I wasn't in the dark. I kind of... " She pauses, considers. "I was hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst."

The bleeding continued, Anne-Marie was in pain. She went to hospital, was sent away, and waited the next day in a busy London A&E for an hour to get a scan. But she couldn't have been prepared for the words that eventually came from the sonographer, after what felt like a lifetime of searching on the ultrasound, "I'm really sorry - it's not good news".

"And then I just looked at her and the first question I asked her was, 'What did I do wrong?' Even though I know I didn't do anything wrong. And then I burst into tears."

Just that week, the couple had been out for a long walk, talking about their changing lives. She smiles ruefully at the innocence of it. "It was like this real smug conversation - counting our blessings, and feeling very fortunate and, 'Oh, I've been so lucky with this pregnancy so far; I haven't had any really bad morning sickness' - we were really excited about going for the first scan."

Workings of grief

"You just feel shocked because you've been mentally preparing for it. You've been putting your future in your head about what's going to happen down the line, and then, suddenly, you have to rewrite your story. And you still feel pregnant; you know, at that stage you've got a bit of a bump and your hormones are all still there."

After the scan, she had to pass the foetus - with no warning or painkillers; she says it was the most visceral and painful experience of her life. When it was all over, she wrote to Amy, whom she had interviewed at the beginning of her pregnancy; Amy had since had a fourth miscarriage. She told her that she now knew a quarter of her pain. Amy's note back told her that grief didn't work like that, in fractions and percentages; everyone's experience is legitimate and Anne-Marie's pain was just as significant. However, somehow I don't think she believed her.

"I actually think that because miscarriage is so common that people underestimate the impact it is going to have on you in the long term. And I think that, in retrospect, I wish I had gone for counselling afterwards, but I just didn't think I needed it.

"And I'd be all for going for counselling when you need it - I've gone to loads of counselling over the years! I've absolutely no qualms about going and talking to a professional. I think that that's the responsible thing to do, to look after your mental health. Any time I've needed help, I would seek it out. So, it just kind of shows that I didn't recognise or acknowledge that I needed help at that time."

When I ask her whether they had been trying for a family, she is weary. "I'm very career-driven, so I think it is very easy to make an assumption that my goals are not to be a mother, that my goals are not maternal. And it's just very sad. That's an overly simplistic point of view."

She's right. At that stage, she'd been married to David for three years and was 33 years old. If she wasn't so successful in her work, I probably wouldn't have even asked the question. Children are the obvious, almost inevitable next step for newlyweds - apart from, it seems, when the woman has a career.

"People think my ambition has overidden my goals to have a family, when that's not really the case. But that is just..." She tails off, then adds, "...the reality of what has happened."

Those aren't the only assumptions that Anne-Marie has found herself battling by virtue of her self-made career-woman status. Eyebrows were raised when she took her husband's name, ditching her maiden McNerney for Tomchak; how could she reconcile that with her feminist principles? Why would she even enter that patriarchal institute of marriage at all? But Anne-Marie has little time for that kind of black-and-white thinking.

"There's a tendency to feel nowadays that if you believe in the concept of marriage, or if you believe in religion, you are somehow backwards. No. You can have those things but still be a very outward-looking, open-minded individual.

"I think I haven't lost some of the things that make me who I am. Like, I still am a girl from Longford, you know, and hold on to traditional values. And I'm proud to have those values. But then, at the same time, I'm working in a company writing about the orgasm gap and sexual fluidity - it's a very different kind of world

"I don't just get sucked into this liberal lefty echo chamber - while I really value those things, I still try to maintain some of the more conservative values that I have as well."

She notes the very specific millennial mindset that rules a lot of online media, and that characterises the 20-somethings who work for her now at Mashable. "I was always very socially aware; as a journalist, I think it's our responsibility to be.

"But you need to keep yourself in check too, because I think the definition of a liberal is someone who is open-minded to - or at least can listen to - the other side. And I feel like there's this whole new generation of people who call themselves liberals, but they're not, actually. They're as closed off as someone on the alt-right."

So, her traditional background is standing to her in her decidedly non-traditional work environment. And in some ways, it makes sense. But undoubtedly it's difficult to reconcile the girl growing up in Drumlish with no landline, who went on long walks and played the violin to amuse herself, with the polished professional in front of me, talking passionately about tech and the rise of robots.

It's difficult to see the girl who stayed up until dawn painting and drawing "like a Netflix binge" in the woman who recently found out she sometimes spends up to 11 hours a day on her iPhone.

She says, living in the big city, she often feels the urge to escape to green spaces. But not for long - a move back to the green grass of home isn't on the cards.

"I very much pinned down roots here in the UK and London. I feel like, this sounds so strange, but I feel like I fully became myself - which is a very proud Longford woman - when I moved to London! Does that make sense?"

She's laughing at the absurdity, which much of the Irish diaspora could identify with. "I'm like a super proud Longford woman, and I'm so proud of being from Longford and of Longford itself... in the context of being in London!"

But that is the tension at the heart of Anne-Marie Tomchak - the conservative liberal, the urban country girl, the traditionalist technie, the self-described extroverted introvert.

"You know, that's interesting you picked up on that - like, I was thinking about this interview, and actually, as an editor, that's where I was thinking this would go. That's how I would characterise myself."

I somehow don't think that it's a coincidence. I think she's been, perhaps unconsciously, editing this interview since we started talking - but I'm OK with that. If anyone knows what they're doing with storytelling, it's her.

Anne-Marie has a favourite song of cousin Una's that she finds herself going back to -The Waiting Game. "It's the idea of being in the waiting game, and you need to be patient in life and things will happen. And it really spoke to me, because sometimes you want things to happen straight away for you, and you just need to let life kind of unfold day by day."

I'm not sure. Anne-Marie doesn't strike me as someone who's very good at waiting. She doesn't appear to have taken a moment to draw a breath since finishing her degree 15 years ago.

She didn't wait for RTE: she jammed her stiletto in the door on a work placement and wouldn't leave them alone until she got work. She didn't wait for the BBC to notice her, she upped sticks and moved to London and hunted for someone with an in.

She didn't then wait for them to discover her particular talents and interests, and took the philosophy that it's better to seek forgiveness than permission. She threw on a blazer to step in when anchors didn't show up.

When she started to feel the glass ceiling, the editorship of Mashable came up. And while she's been doing that, she made a couple of feature documentaries for RTE. Anne-Marie Tomchak doesn't wait.

And I reckon we won't be waiting too long before we see her again.

Photography by Kip Carroll

Styling by Liadan Hynes

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