Charlie Webster interview: ‘Believe only half of what you see’ – Sky Sports presenter breaking through the barriers
So much can lie beneath an image and shattering misconceptions is something that Sky Sports News presenter and multi-dimensional role model Charlie Webster does extremely well, so she was never going to stick to the script with her personal soundtrack!
There is no brief or convenient description that adequately sums up all of the efforts and areas of work that the Sheffield-born former Real Madrid TV host has to her name so it is important to take the time to find out. Of the many television viewers who watch her on Sky Sports News regularly throughout the week there may be a certain number who are not quite aware of the character and personality behind what they see. It is certainly true that not everything is always as it seems and this has been evident to Charlie through many of her experiences, including when discovering the surprise some people show when they find out about the various facets of her persona. Boxing and running are two areas of interest that are very dear to her and so too is music, and maybe her specific sound choices will raise a few eyebrows, as she explains.
“I think music-wise it isn’t what people would expect with me. I love music, it’s one of my other passions and I’m a big fan of garage, drum and bass, and hard house.
“I was brought up in Sheffield so I had places like Niche and Gatecrasher but I also like hip-hop. People might be surprised by this but 2Pac ‘Run Tha Streetz’ is one of my favourite songs, I used to listen to it all the time when I was about 14.
“I hate pop and cheesy music and when I was at uni in Newcastle that was what a lot of my mates were into so I’d hang around with the Geordies who went to dance clubs. I also love Lauryn Hill, Disclosure and Duke Dumont and I listen to a lot of old school garage in my car.’’
UK garage was a genre that managed to spread from the underground to hit a real high in mainstream popularity and exposure in the final years of the 90s and into the beginning of the new millennium. Although I am only 22 I remember how you could turn on Radio 1 or Top Of The Pops in 2000 and be guaranteed to come across a garage track from the likes of Artful Dodger, Oxide & Neutrino or DJ Luck & MC Neat, to name but three of the many acts circulating at that time. The Cypriot party destination of Ayia Napa was the place to be for garage music and all the main characters in this cultural explosion, from DJs, producers, singers and indeed many footballers, were there. Charlie was one of the revellers absorbing the atmosphere in places such as Nissi Beach and she describes her favourite garage tracks of the era, as well as the best gigs from performers of any genre she has seen.
“I went to Ayia Napa and places like Magaluf and Ibiza. MJ Cole is one of my favourite garage producers and ‘Sincere’ and ‘Crazy Love’ are two of my favourite garage tunes, as well as The Streets ‘Has It Come To This?’ and Wookie (featuring Lain) ‘Battle’.
“One of the best gigs I’ve seen was Faithless, and Goldfish (a duo from Cape Town) are the most amazing DJ group. They play live instruments and I’ve seen them in South Africa, Amsterdam and London.’’
Charlie hosted ESPN Star Sports in Asia and was the first female to present live football in the continent but in her early years before her worldwide travels she was just like any other young music fan!
“The first album I had was, don’t laugh, Madonna ‘The Immaculate Collection’!’’
Singing in public is a challenge that has become mandatory for new players at many football clubs and I often ask them to recall these stories in the interviews on here. A select few relish the opportunity to sing while many more seem to dread the prospect and Charlie is certainly no stranger to picking up the microphone in a different manner to that her career has often demanded. She was once an entertainment reporter for MTV and a presenter at music festivals in Germany and Los Angeles and the aforementioned ‘Material Girl’ features again as this time she describes her karaoke speciality. Charlie also reveals for the first time how far she has taken her liking for a vocal rendition!
“At uni when I was about 19/20 I had a friend in a band and we did a bit of songwriting and recorded a song together. I do like singing and I’m partial to a bit of karaoke but when I’m on there I’m one of these annoying people who’s hard to stop.
“I usually do ‘Frozen’ by Madonna but I tried to do a rap song in Magaluf and fell flat on my face with it.’’
Keeping track of all the areas of work Charlie gets involved in is not easy but she is heavily dedicated to a number of meaningful initiatives. A fully qualified personal trainer, she is set to run her fifth London Marathon in a row this year and she set up ‘Running For A Life’ with the objective of bringing focus and belief into young people’s lives. This is done by such activities as taking on the Royal Parks Half Marathon last October and a 48-hour endurance challenge created by Charlie specifically for the youngsters. Running is a big part of who Charlie is and whether she is helping others or putting herself through her paces she is never far from her training gear and a route or hill run to negotiate. Motivation is simply crucial with any kind of fitness and I asked Charlie which music she looks to for that extra spark and that tinge of magic that can make reaching the next level of a run feel even more achievable. She even got her iPod out during the conversation to go through some of the specific choices and there was a place in the discussion for the short-lived Dutch dance act Alice Deejay, much to my delight!
“My iPod when I’m running has anything with a fast beat – dance, garage, or the harder r&b. I hate rock and I don’t really like indie, which people are probably gonna hate me for!
“Let’s see what I’ve got on here…a lot of Ministry of Sound, trance anthems, Artful Dodger, Tiesto, ATB ‘9pm (Till I Come)’, ‘Sandstorm’ (Darude), Alice Deejay. I really like Basement Jaxx, and Jay-Z, I’ve got loads of his stuff.’’
Charlie, who has worked with the BBC (including for Football Focus), ITV and Channel 4, made reference to her childhood music taste with Madonna’s ‘The Immaculate Collection’ and a few years after this there was a male UK r&b group she was listening to. Damage made an impact in the industry in the mid-to-late 90s and one of Charlie’s tweets that stuck in my mind was her mentioning their 2000 single ‘Ghetto Romance’, so I had to mention it.
“That is an amazing song and I actually saw them when they came to Sheffield when I was still at school. I was probably only 16 and I remember getting some V.I.P. access from Hallam FM so we got to meet the guys.’’
Aside from presenting, Charlie has appeared in adverts and short films, leading to her upcoming role as an agent in ‘Spy Girls’ where her physical prowess has certainly proved a huge advantage. A German and Spanish speaker, she also hosted from inside the Olympic Park at London 2012 as well as presenting reports on Wimbledon for Sky Sports News. The on-screen segment of her CV also includes ringside presenting at the Prizefighter boxing event, Sky Sports’ Speedway coverage, beach volleyball, basketball and golf to name but a few. It is fair to say that a considerable amount of people immediately associate her with Sky Sports News and last November on here, fellow presenter Olivia Godfrey gave an insight into the day-to-day schedule that comes with working for the channel. Charlie discusses what it is like for her being live on screen when a story breaks and she happens to be one of the two presenters at that time tasked with delivering the details to the TV audience.
“Well my background is in live presenting and reporting and I’ve experienced a lot of live environments like the 2008 F1 Grand Prix stuff. With a live outside broadcast you don’t have anything to rely on, you don’t know how long you have to talk for and there’s no autocue so you have to keep your cool and use the stuff you know even more.
“I enjoy it when there’s a big story and I think ‘yeah, let’s have some breaking news!’. When you have something like a manager being sacked it’s obviously bad for them but for us to report on it’s exciting.’’
As with many of her Sky Sports colleagues, Charlie is known for her affiliation with a specific football club and she went to her first Sheffield United game at four years old. She has also written a column for the Sheffield Star on the Bramall Lane side and is an FA Level 2-qualified coach. This was the point in the interview when I told Charlie about the team I support – Sheffield Wednesday! Most football supporters are aware that the rivalry between the two clubs is particularly fierce but if you have the experience of being part of it then you will understand just how strong it can be. Charlie is of course a recognisable figure to so many people who follow the game and in a sense there is a degree of pressure that comes with being well-known and identifying yourself as a supporter of one side in such a huge city rivalry.
As an active Twitter user, Charlie knows more than most how football supporters’ opinions can differ from well-reasoned and interesting to losing all sense of perspective and sometimes decency. I love the furore that surrounds Wednesday and United and I get as caught up in the emotion as anyone on match day but there is a line that can be overstepped in some cases with levels of vitriol. It is easy to forget that the person, whether a player, manager or even a reporter, is essentially just doing their job, and some counts of abuse are indefensible. Charlie gives her opinion on this, as well as how she tends to be received by fans of the two Sheffield clubs and her experience of being at a separate club’s stadium on one occasion.
“I agree, some people do go too far and I was at a ground once and had some really horrible stick. I thought ‘hold on a minute, I’m a person and I’m coming to your stadium, I want to feel welcome, I don’t want to be abused’.
“I think I’ve been quite lucky though, I haven’t had too much stick. I used to write a Sheffield Star column and sometimes I’d get people asking ‘why do you only write about United?’ and I’d say ‘because I’ve been asked to and if I wrote anything about Wednesday I’d just get slated for it’.
“It’s different this season because we’re in different divisions but last year I got a lot of stick if United had won and I wrote something about us. I do get a lot of support though and I like the banter from some Wednesday fans, but whether they support United or Wednesday hopefully they’re pleased I’m from Sheffield and doing what I’m doing.’’
There are a lot of occasions when friendships and family ties are placed on the backburner for a meeting of two teams on the field and Charlie knows this all too well!
“The majority of my family are Blades but you always get the odd Wednesday fan in there, or vice versa. My Grandma is an avid United fan and would always be at the games but my Grandad is a Wednesday fan and they’re always arguing over it.
“I can remember phone calls with one of them and they’d be sitting and ranting about the other because Wednesday or United had lost and they weren’t talking! On one of my birthdays I got a card from them and my Grandma had written ‘up the Blades’ on it.
“Then my Grandad had crossed it out and wrote ‘up the Owls’ and in the end I just had a card with a load of red and blue scribbles over it! I love the passion of football though and how it brings people together.’’
I always ask the players on here to select a 5-a-side team of the best teammates they have had in their career so regardless of my blue and white allegiance it is only fair to hand Charlie the opportunity to put forward her line-up of the best Blades players she has seen in her lifetime. It starts with her building from the front with the scorer of the Premier League’s first goal and the current manager of Sarpsborg 08 in Norwegian football’s top division, the Tippeligaen.
“Brian Deane – my favourite player from a young age and someone I met a couple of years ago, which I was really excited about. Michael Tonge, because…well…you lot hate him!
“Phil Jagielka – I think he was brilliant for us and he’s gone on to do really well for himself. For a keeper, Simon Tracey – he’s quite probably one of the best we’ve had.’’
Paddy Kenny was close to making the choice as goalkeeper (despite my suggestion of Steve Simonsen!) before Charlie went for his immediate predecessor in Tracey. Also in her original line-up was the entertaining attack-minded midfielder Tony Currie but as he was a United player before Charlie was born we needed a replacement.
“Kyle Walker – Sheffield-born, a product of the Blades youth system, pace and agility. Obvious talents as a defender.’’
Through her staggering amount of work and numerous worthy initiatives Charlie has met and collaborated with many people from all walks of life, and she feels strongly about the misconceptions that some often have on the basis of appearance or gender. She has a background in modelling but in addition to her broadcasting career she has made tireless efforts to support and establish causes including her work as an ambassador for Nike Women which has seen her holding training sessions and organising football tournaments. Charlie also volunteered to work with people at a young offenders’ institute during her time at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and is an ambassador for Women’s Aid who aim to eradicate domestic violence. She has spoken in the past about some of the judgements that are made on people in society and how she believes they have to change. There is always an inspirational message or objective behind her projects and we discussed the issue of women in sport with regard to the positive aspects and what still has to be done to move forward.
“There are a lot of positives and more support than there used to be but there is still a lot of negativity towards women in sport. That attitude has to change in society and the media because I think it’s a lot deeper rooted than sport.’’
Boxing is another of the admirably numerous strings to Charlie’s bow and as well as reporting ringside for Sky she has been involved in the sport at amateur level, training with Lynn AC Boxing Club in Camberwell, South East London. The club’s former members include Danny Williams who famously knocked former heavyweight champion of the world Mike Tyson out in 2004, and Charlie takes the sport very seriously. She has taken part in her first amateur bouts in recent times and her brothers are also involved in boxing, with 21-year-old Joe winning his first amateur fight in January. She spoke with passion on the subject of female participation in sport and she explains how her dedication and love for boxing, running and football can take some individuals by surprise.
“I do a lot of boxing training and I’ve had a couple of fights but sometimes it is as if I have to justify myself. I think some people just think I’m going to the gym and doing a few punches in the air!
“Women’s boxing is a lot more tactical, skilful and craftier than that and they bring their own element to the sport which people should appreciate. I also get some who can’t believe I run marathons, or when I’m at a match and someone asks ‘so do you actually like football?’.
“I feel like I’ve had to fight my way to get through things like that to where I am today and there are a lot of barriers for females in the industry.’’
Self-esteem and empowerment are central to the way Charlie lives, works and influences others and as much as it is difficult to find a ‘tag’ that encompasses all she has done and who she is I think ‘role model’ is a label that does fit. It is therefore apt to end the interview by focusing on what she wants to achieve in the future, as well as the advice she would give to others trying to make their way in the media and its respective sub-industries. She is a wholly interesting and inspirational woman to talk to and Sheffield can certainly be proud of her.
“Well I’d like to think I’m quite ambitious and determined, and my career means a hell of a lot to me. I’ve got quite a lot of ideas and I did a small documentary for Sky Sports called ‘Sport – Changing Lives’ so I’d like to do a big documentary in the future.
“I’d like to do more live sport, more live boxing and with the team at Ringside for example, and my big goal is to help more females to do broadcasting in the UK. Carrying on mentoring young people and getting kids into sport is important for me as well.
“My bit of advice would be that the media is really hard to get into and it has to be something you love or you won’t stick with it. You might look at those on TV and think it’s easy but it’s not and those people you see have worked for years to get to where they are.
“Persistence and grit are big things because you might get ten knockbacks out of ten, but it might be on the 11th try that you get somewhere. It’s a hard industry and people see the glamorous side, and there is that, but there are people trying to put you down so you have to believe in yourself and keep on going.
“I didn’t have any contacts and I didn’t come from a family who were connected to the media in any way, other than watching the telly! I’d never been to London and I worked in a gym to keep going so hopefully I show that you can come from a place like Sheffield and a very working-class background and get to where you want to be.
“I work super, super hard and if someone puts me down I want to prove them wrong. Remember who you are and show people what you can do.’’