Gemma Cairney is a stylist, TV presenter and has just become the latest recruit to Radio 1. Here the multi-talented madam tells IdeasMag how she got into broadcasting, how to get ahead in the creative industries and how she prepares to go on air…
I’ve always dabbled in different creative fields.
At 16 I wanted to be an actor because GCSE Drama was the only thing I really enjoyed. I studied theatre at the Brit School and completely soaked it up: I really learned loads from the people around me. After that I went to East 15 and did a year’s foundation. I wanted to be a serious thespian and change the world through community theatre.
I wanted to do my degree at RADA, Bristol Old Vic or Guildhall, but didn’t get in. So, I tried to get my own acting work by trawling through The Stage every week, applying for theatre education opportunities but it just wasn’t happening. All the while, I was keeping myself afloat by working as a tequila girl. It was commission-only, selling shots. Because it was such a social job I actually managed to earn enough to pay my rent.
My friend, who was a photographer, asked me if I wanted to come and be in a photoshoot. I didn’t really enjoy being in it, but I noticed the stylist was really rubbish. So I offered myself up as a stylist, on a whim, for the photographer’s next shoot. We did a lot of test shoots together to build up our portfolios.
I found fashion a really fun distraction. I applied to lots of stylists as an assistant, went to lots of talks at the Fashion Museum and then got taken under the wing of a great stylist who I assisted for a couple of years.
When I was about 23 I went back to Guildhall to audition, but after those years in fashion I wasn’t really sure if I wanted to get back into acting, and I think they saw that. So,I thought, maybe I should do presenting as a way of combining it all.
I went on a short, 12-week radio production course at Point Blank in Hoxton. They helped me find the funding to do it and from there I was like a hamster on a wheel, just churning out ideas. It hasn’t really stopped since.
I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that everything will be all right. You have so many dark moments when you just think, “What is even the point in doing something so ludicrously difficult, out of reach, hard and high pressure?” Even when it’s going well, it can be hard, emotionally, to handle all those things.
I’m ambitious but I never had a game plan. I just say yes to everything. Anything extra, anything out of my comfort zone – you just have to be open to it all.
Always keep your head up. If you feel like you’ve got something to say then feel proud of it. But that doesn’t mean screaming. You don’t have to knock every door down; don’t be too over-the-top. If you have a vision or idea of what you’ve got to offer, then the right people will probably find you eventually. You’ve got to have lots of ideas and be adaptable: people want to be around exciting people.
If you get turned down for something then it probably wouldn’t have been right for you anyway. Idon’t know what I would be doing now if I’d got into drama school. It might have been amazing or I might have been completely out of work and really miserable.
In Focus: How to prepare for a show
You’ve got to have constant communication with your team. Never underestimate how important everyone is to making that broadcast.
I have notes and there’s a basic clock structure to where things will go. We have weekly features and if we have a guest that will be at a specific time. All our music is loaded and ready before the show.
Nobody wants to hear someone on the radio who sounds terrified. Radio should be your friend, so it can be natural for that reason; it’s fine to stumble over a word like you would in a conversation. But you want to listen to someone who sounds like they’re having fun.
Rumble in the Jungle Get Together 6 by Oxfam International via Flickr under a (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license
Sign up to IdeasTap for advice, funding, opportunities and our weekly newsletter – with all the latest arts jobs.