CNN's star still breaking glass ceiling

By Celia Walden

"Can I tell you something that really p***** me off?" asks Christiane Amanpour, the curse sounding oddly elegant in that rich, globalised accent.

"It's that a lot of guys are still uncomfortable with the notion of female equality and the fact that many women have now risen up or become the chief breadwinners in their families.

"There's more equality in our society and that's hard for a lot of men, after millennia of being the big chiefs. I understand that these things take time. But unfortunately some men look at a successful woman who behaves with the confidence of a man in a boardroom and say: 'Oh, she just wishes ... chicks with ..."'

Rather than complete the sentence the 55-year-old flashes her exotic eyes at me. "You know what I mean. When actually I would hate nothing more than to be a man."

This isn't hard to believe. Everything about the London-born host of CNN International's eponymous nightly programme - from her black designer trouser suit, resolutely unchanging hairstyle and sparsely decorated New York office - screams certainty.

Certainty about what she wants; certainty about who she is. Women like Amanpour - if there are many like her; she is, after all, one of the most famous war correspondents and allegedly the world's highest-paid reporter - don't waste time on "what ifs".

And despite a career that has taken her to war-torn Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Rwanda, she insists she has never wished she were a man.

"Never," she insists, her face - with its full lips and brows - an appealing blend of sensuality and severity. "I am delighted to be a woman. In my job it's just like being a man but better."

For one thing, Amanpour says, "with wars becoming more like civil wars, it's women and children who are the principal victims, so it's much easier to get in. In some societies they won't let a male journalist or cameraman in - but they will let in a woman.

"Being a woman has also helped because of the particular dynamic between men and women.

"When a man sees a woman coming, often the first thing they'll do is pull out a chair or open a door. So you put your foot in that door and get in. Then you stay in."

Whether as a reporter for CNN - where she was first hired in 1983 and went on to cover the Iran-Iraq war, the Persian Gulf war, the Bosnian war and the siege of Sarajevo - or as an anchor woman, Amanpour has consistently "stayed in". She has interviewed almost every world leader. She secured the only interview with Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi during the Arab Spring, caused controversy last month when she got President Hassan Rouhani of Iran to acknowledge the Holocaust, and made headlines when she interviewed 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai, whose advocacy of education made her a target for the Taliban.

Has anyone ever succeeded in making her nervous?

"I'm always nervous," she admits.

"I was nervous interviewing Malala and her father. It's an adrenaline thing, until the interview starts. Then you think: 'Okay, I'm in the zone.' But I'm only nervous because I want to do my best. I never feel that I have nothing to prove any more."

It's impossible to know whether the 11-year-old daughter of an Iranian travel agent and a Catholic Englishwoman, who left Tehran during the 1979 revolution and was educated in Buckinghamshire, was as earnest and uncompromising as Amanpour now.

Certainly, she says, experiencing the chaos of revolution in her own country at such a young age had a profound effect. "Events change you. It made me want to tell those stories and make them understandable."

Having completed a course in Fleet St and studied journalism at the University of Rhode Island in the US, Amanpour spent the following three decades ricocheting between both countries. In May this year, she and her husband of 15 years, former Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin, announced that they would be moving to London.

"Right now ... London is my home," she asserts. "My family are in England, and my husband and I are loving reacquainting ourselves with all the friends we left behind."

Then there's her 13-year-old son, Darius - the only reason Amanpour has ever developed "the notion of fear and self-preservation, because I was so afraid of being killed or wounded and not being there for him." Darius is in a new school in England "and enjoying it very much". She insists that Britain is still "a power house" and says she never fails to be impressed by its "warrior spirit".

She may have lived through hard times in England in the 70s, but back then the multicultural problem was, she believes, less acute. "I find that tricky because I believe in freedom," she sighs when we move on to the subject of Muslim women and veils.

"If women choose to do it, they can; but if there is any aspect of coercion it is not okay. Do I like to see people walking around with their faces covered? No. Malala never covered her face but she always covered her head. There are ways of being respectful."

Not that modesty is simply a religious construct, she says. "Personally I prefer to be modest than not. I don't like to wear plunging necklines when I'm working." She adds, with a glance: "It's different when I'm not."

But as someone who is worlds away from the blondes in figure-hugging outfits who dominate the US networks, was Amanpour ever encouraged to dress more seductively?

"No," she says tersely. "I would have reacted pretty poorly if anybody had tried to tell me what to do with my clothes. I say to some colleagues: 'Why are you wearing your skirt so short on air? Why is your neckline so low?' They say: 'We feel we're forced to ...' Some, in other organisations, say 'That's what's expected of us'.

"Before I achieved success, I was very clear about who I was. I wasn't a militant, but I knew that I wasn't comfortable [dressing] like that.

"It's not professional. If you want to be serious you have to act that way. It's easy to lose your reputation and your credibility."

Easier for a woman than a man? "Yes," she nods. "Many men do worse things. But women are held to a different standard - an unfairly higher standard. Still, we have to uphold that standard and keep pushing to break the glass ceiling."

It's not about gender domination, she says, but parity and equality. "Because in every company, school, hospital, government, an equal representation of women makes the entire community healthier."

We're getting there, aren't we? "We are but it's too slow," she laments. "In Britain we had the first female Prime Minister and in Pakistan and India and South America - so why not ... in the US?" Is America ready? "I think it is, and next time there will be an even more serious female candidate," she adds wryly. "Just don't ask me who it'll be."

- Daily Telegraph UK

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