'I'm here on a very fair deal - I don't go around asking everybody what they earn' - TV presenter Anna Daly on a work-life balance
As the face of weekend TV, a mother to three boys, and a lifestyle blogger, Anna Daly is juggling a lot of balls. And the key to keeping them all in the air? Time out for herself, she tells Meadhbh McGrath
Most of us know Anna Daly as the bright and bubbly face of Weekend AM, the Virgin Media morning show she co-hosts with Simon Delaney.
So when she arrived for our shoot to discover her usual beachy waves would be swapped for super-straight hair, accompanied by bold make-up and designer clothes, she found herself in unfamiliar territory. "It was very sleek and chic," she laughs, "I would never do luminous orange lips, but it's fun, and it's nice to be pushed out of your comfort zone."
Anna (42) isn't afraid to step outside of her comfort zone - she just needs a little nudge sometimes. It was her husband of 10 years, businessman Ben Ward, who prodded her to reconsider screen work after she initially shot down the idea. She started at TV3 (now Virgin Media) in the sales department, and was promoted to marketing manager two years later, at which point a producer suggested she take a screen test. "I was like, 'God, not a hope'. I told my boyfriend that evening and he said, 'Why would you be so black and white about that?' I was afraid of making a fool of myself, and he said, 'If you don't take a chance, you'll never know. You could be 20 years down the line and go, 'Why did I not do that?' Sometimes you need a bit of a kick up the arse to tell you to do it," she says.
Anna didn't run straight back to the producers, however. Instead, she signed up for a night course in television producing, directing and presenting at the Bill Keating Centre in Milltown. "That's a real me thing to do: I'll go and research it properly and then go back to them. It was in my own time with my own money, and I'd be driving to it after work and be really excited by it. About halfway through, I was like, 'This is for me, I really want to do this now'," she recalls.
Following a string of screen tests, Anna was offered a reporting role on Ireland AM, where she worked her way up from weather reports to covering the stories of the day, as well as filling in for co-anchor Sinéad Desmond. "It was around the time I was covering for her that I thought, I want to do this, I want to do more," says Anna. "Sinéad was very much the anchor and that was it, so I knew I needed to create something else. I pitched the idea of a Saturday morning show, and they liked the idea, but they said it's too expensive.
"A year later, they came back and said, 'We will do that show, but we're going to do it on Sundays as well.' I always say, it's a case of be careful what you wish for! But any ambitious person isn't going to say, 'I'll just have one of them', of course you're going to do both."
She adds: "It was a gamble, because there was nothing in the schedule to give us any kind of an audience inheritance, so you were starting from scratch. Now it's three years old, and we're thrilled."
Anna's working week at Virgin Media runs from Thursday to Sunday. We speak on a Friday, when she's between meetings and filming items that will be slotted into the live shows. She's wearing what she calls her "mum on the run uniform": an oversized jumper, skinny jeans, ankle boots and a ponytail. "When you do a job like mine, you spend a lot of time in heels and you're in 'wardrobe', with your hair and make-up done, so when you're not, it's really nice to just be a bit slouchy and not worry too much about that," she explains.
Anna has become a bit of a style sensation - so many people were emailing the show asking for details about her on-screen outfits that she decided to start posting them on Instagram. "That really surprised me, to be honest. There was a big response to what I was wearing, and I thought it was a very efficient way to tell people what you're wearing, but also I enjoy it," says Anna, who now has over 24,000 Instagram followers. Why do people like what she wears so much? "I think my style is relatable, it's real and it's affordable. I think people know that I have three little children and my life is busy," says Anna, referring to James (7), Euan (5) and Rhys (2). "I don't have a ton of time to be trawling shops and I don't have my own personal stylist. I'm running in and out of Topshop, Zara or River Island, or going online to Littlewoods and picking stuff myself. It won't work every time, but hopefully nine times out of 10 it all comes together and looks OK."
On Saturdays and Sundays, Anna leaves her home in Delgany, Co Wicklow, at 6.45am to get to work for a 7.30am start. "It sounds early, but I spent five years on the weekday show. That goes to air at 7am, so you're in for about 5.30am - that's early. This is way more feasible from my point of view," she explains. "I get home at lunchtime, and that's when the real work starts. My husband works all week and then he has the kids on Saturday and Sunday morning. We're like a tag-team, as so many parents of young children are - I come home and let him go clear his head for a while and I take over with the kids. That's proper work, that's why I really take my hat off to women who are with the kids all week, because I think it's the hardest gig in the world."
Anna, who grew up in Terenure, says her own mother left work when she and her younger brother David were born, and returned when they were old enough to walk to school. "She was a working mother, but I would also describe her as someone who was around a lot when we were young. She got the balance right," Anna recalls.
"I'm around Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to do all the school runs and the homework, and it's lovely because when I go to work, I feel like I've a handle on things at home. By Thursday, I'm ready for adult company and a workplace where you can finish a cup of coffee."
Supporting working mothers is an issue Anna is particularly passionate about, and last month, she hosted a Women in Business networking event. "We have females that go through the education system in the same way that men do, and then they go out for maternity leave. It could be their first child or their third, but at some point, the sums don't add up, and they realise that it doesn't make sense for both to go back to work," she says.
"I'm not saying I want everybody to go out to work, but if you want to stay in the workplace, I think there needs to be more encouragement. It shouldn't be a straightforward, 'mum's going to have to give up her career she spent 10-20 years building'. That's why we don't have women at the director level, women are falling out of the workplace because of the childcare costs."
Anna took six months maternity leave with all of her children, and says she was eager to get back to work each time. "I've got friends who dread the thought of their leave ending. I've never felt like that; I was really looking forward to going back to work. I think I'm really lucky to feel like that, to go back to a team that you enjoy and a show that you love."
Of course, three hours of live television must be stressful, but Anna is at pains to reiterate, several times, how happy and lucky she is to have the job she does. She mentions that she is often asked about gender discrimination at work, specifically with respect to equal pay, but she has no complaints. "I'm here on a very fair deal, as far as I'm concerned. I don't go around asking everybody what they earn or shouting what's on my contract, but I've been treated very well, and I've been granted amazing opportunities while I've been working here. I don't even know where the HR department is. But I can only speak for myself," she adds hastily.
Anna is wary of saying anything that could be construed as arrogant, controversial or ungrateful - her answers are often prefaced with what she's not saying, a cautious introduction to the point she wants to make. It's understandable, given so much of her appeal lies in being relatable.
"With three hours of live telly, there's no putting on an act. You have to be yourself. The producers tell us that the parts that rate the highest are when we chat off the cuff about some talking point that's in the papers, and hopefully that's the part the audience will relate to, because that's what they'll be talking about themselves, so you're part of the conversation in their kitchen," she says.
The most difficult elements of the job tend to be the real-life stories of people dealing with illness and loss, and Anna admits that she occasionally finds herself welling up during interviews. "It's harder than ever now. When I started, we did loads of stuff with Temple Street and sick children, and I would be sad of course, but I'd bounce back very quickly. Now, I'm literally a mess for days. Weeks later, I'm thinking of one particular child. I keep seeing that little face," she says. "I'm not saying you can't have empathy when you don't have children, but I do think something changes when you have children and you start to personalise it.
"Simon and I will have a little chat before anything that's serious, and we'll agree that one of us is driving the bus on that item. He knows that if I have a quiet lull halfway through a very emotional interview, he will just start driving the bus - he knows I've got a lump in my throat and I'm trying to move past it. Usually I do get to the end of it, but as soon as we go to the break, I'm kind of cut up by it. And then the producer will go, 'Over to fashion!' and you're like, 'Oh god, I want to have a proper cry'."
Weekend AM might cover domestic violence or a child with severe disabilities in one segment, before moving on to eveningwear or 'lust-after properties' in the next. But Anna believes that mixture of moods is vital to the success of the show. "You can't bring people down and not have some lightness. There needs to be light and shade," she says.
She cites a recent interview with Graham Norton as one of her highlights, and names the Obamas as her dream guests. Donald Trump, however, doesn't make the list. "There wouldn't be that level of excitement if he was to come on the couch. I know it would be interesting to ask him the questions that everyone wants to ask, but it wouldn't inspire me."
While Anna is happy to cover current affairs on the show, it's not what drives her. Her real passion is for talking to people and hearing their stories. "I am looking to develop other ideas. I'd love to do a 'Saturday PM' where you might have a little more licence to be a bit cheekier and push boundaries a bit more," she says.
Earlier this year, Anna launched her website, annadaly.com, to give herself a platform outside of Virgin Media to talk about the things she loves - namely, fashion, travel, interiors and wine. But in an increasingly crowded blogosphere, what makes her site stand out? "You need to be true to yourself. You could have digital companies say that there's a gap in that market and to talk about this, this and this, but there's no point if you're not interested," she says.
"If you want an escape from the madness of parenting or work, that's when I would like people to look at my wine recommendation or outfit of the week. That's the way I would like people to see it, as their escape. Hopefully that's what makes it different."
Her 'wine of the week' posts certainly set her apart, making her something of an outlier among the clean-living enthusiasts. "I'm no expert on wine but I do a lot of research," she jokes. "There are #FitFam people that I follow on Instagram, and I take lots of inspiration from them, but I'm all about balance. I'm not telling people to get pissed every night of the week, I'm saying drink responsibly. It's nothing reckless, it's just a nice hobby."
Anna studied marketing in college, and started out in marketing at TV3, something I'm reminded of each time she points out that she's not "driving an agenda": she's not gunning to be the next Miriam O'Callaghan or Claire Byrne, she's not trying to use her blog to voice political opinions, she doesn't want to host a property series during a homeless crisis. In spite of this, she's not entirely clear on what her personal brand is, a concept so vital to today's bloggers. "Even having a marketing background, I don't really know what the answer to that question is. I just want to work, to try to get the balance right," she explains.
Balance, for Anna, means days with her kids, a weekend away with Ben, a satisfying work life, lunches with her girlfriends and, crucially, some time on her own doing yoga, not having to worry about anything or anyone else.
"I joined the gym the other day," she says, genuinely excited. "With three children, it is tricky to find time for stuff like that, but I just thought, for my own sense of wellbeing, it's good to have that hour for yourself. You need to have that time for you."
Photography by Daniel Holfeld