Stage & Screen

Jelisa Shanjana: "I want to be remembered for my work, not anything else"

TV Host Jelisa Shanjana has crafted a successful career in TV and broadcasting despite a degree in law suggesting she might go down a different path. She tells Yin Ting Lau about a life in the public eye, championing women's voices and the importance of stepping back from social media.
Jelisa Shanjana. Photo courtesy of Kubrina Dass.
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Jelisa Shanjana: "I want to be remembered for my work, not anything else"

Your career trajectory has been an unconventional one, with a law degree from the University of London leading to becoming a public media figure in Malaysia. What made you decide to pursue a law degree all those years ago, and can you tell us more about how you decided to make the career pivot?

I decided to do my degree in law because I was very much into debates and reading. But along the way, I decided that the media may be my true calling, and a lot of times people would ask me: “Why that change? And why did you get yourself into law in the very first place?” 

But here's what my take has always been: your formal education and what you basically learn in university, in school, is always secondary. The first question always comes down to what exactly do you bring to the table – and with media broadcasting, it's definitely that joy, that passion that I have. At the same time, the idea of meeting people from different walks of life has always been my biggest drive, as opposed to being stuck in a law firm from nine to five. 

Photo courtesy of Kubrina Dass.

Given your experience in both fields, what do you think our media needs to do better at, especially in bridging its portrayal of systems compared to how they actually work in shows such as CSI, for example?

I think with this question, it comes back to the power of the pen. As for me, I'm still on that path of learning despite having experience in both the fields, but really it all comes back to content and curiosity. Content works really well in terms of making sure that you feed the person's mind the right information, because people are curious. So as much as sometimes certain topics may be foreign to a certain person - in terms of publication, or even viewership - it all comes back to that flair of storytelling, as well as the power of the pen. And if there are things that I really wish to see changes in, I would really hope that (and this includes me as well) we stopped stating the obvious, because these days, people have got a very different mindset as well. 

It's not going to be about picking up an article or watching a certain show just to hear things that would be stating the obvious. The viewers have all the different comparisons being made from different media portals, different research, be it on Google or even social media: content is still king. But it's the curiosity here that we're trying to feed. It's so important to bring forward content that has a proper understanding, which simultaneously educates society. But in having the experience in both fields, what I can also take note of is that having formal education: sometimes it does help, but not all the time, especially when it comes to media – it's a completely different ballgame. So to say that I come from a background in law and therefore I'll be an excellent broadcast journalist... I think it has to come from a lot of understanding, come from a lot of practice, and most importantly for me, to understand exactly what viewers want to watch.

You often credit Aznil Nawawi, an industry pillar in Malaysia, with mentoring you to sustain a high standard of “homework” - of adequately researching and familiarizing oneself with the topic at hand - for every project you cover. Have you had any projects where the research really surprised you, whether through the results showing you something you didn’t expect, or perhaps surprising you with the lack of media coverage it’s experienced?

Under Aznil Haji Nawawi, of course, I've learned a lot of things; having the right amount of research, as well as discipline: these are the vital things a person must possess. But the one project which was a complete eye-opener for me, it had to be the local Malaysian football on TV9 (Malaysian television network) where I was a broadcast journalist on the pitch site. And here, you know, talking about research and talking about all the homework that I have to put forward– it was always nitpicking that I constantly saw in media publications, how people would criticise [the players] but at the same time, they could not manage their expectations because they always compare to foreign media, especially to football matches such as the English Premier League’s. So being there, you know, right on the pitch side as a broadcast journalist. That was definitely a true eye opener for me because it wasn't so much about my homework, or my script or even my questions that I had to put forward for the players. Here we are talking about the struggles, the challenges, and how much effort one has to put in in order to bring back a particular goal for the team. 

So these were the things where, as much as I enjoy my role as a broadcast journalist, the job comes with a lot of different things that I learn from as well. It comes with compassion. It comes with learning different sides of players, and not just about your ninety minutes of gameplay.

Photo courtesy of Kubrina Dass.

You also run a podcast now called Wonder Women with Jelisa Shanjana: what made you decide to start this podcast? Can you tell us a bit about the wonderful women you’ve interviewed so far?

[I'm] very excited about the Wonder Women podcast, which started under a division of (Malaysian radio network company) Astro Radio called Shotcast. This time around, it’s interesting because I don't have a script, and I didn't want to do the norm of how everything has to go back to a team, to producers and things like that, so it's very free flow. What I truly truly appreciate is that the women that I bring onto the show, they all come from different walks of life; they all have different things that they’ve been up to. One of them, Madiha Fuad, started an app for mental health; we had Kokila Vaani Vadiveloo, the president of Selangor Bar Council; we also had [Malaysian Olympian] Farah Ann Abdul Hadi joining us on the show… So they were all from very diverse, different backgrounds. One of the ideas for this podcast was that it's not going to be about the overselling on social media; it's not going to be about social media marketing, or “for the likes” or “for the gram.”

I really wanted to have conversations with women who were coming up with all sorts of different hustles and bringing different things to the table. So that was basically the whole idea of Wonder Women and so far, so good.

You are frequently so generous in sharing your life with your fans and in acknowledging how it should be as honest as it can be. When combined with the work you put into the Wonder Women podcast, do you believe that the success of women in particular is more harmfully mythologized than it is for men?

I've always been a firm believer that for men and women, we're not here to compete against each other and we're here on planet earth to complement each other. So for me, as far as my work is concerned, I've always been very honest and straightforward about it as well. On one hand, it's about making sure that women are able to execute and do their jobs excellently, as their male counterparts are able to. On the other hand, I've always been very against this idea of women having to justify their success, because oftentimes, you hear women being put in a spot to answer questions like this but we don't get men having to answer questions like this to justify their success. So for me, I'm always against that idea. It also reflects on my work as how I've always tried to make sure that the women I sit down and have conversations with, it's not going to be them justifying the success, or to make sure that they have to pacify society to say that “I am a woman but I can still do this.” And that has never been something that I believed in. So for me, as far as my work is concerned, and even for those who follow my social media and whatnot, it's never this whole idea of putting men down, or even trying to compete against men, or even competing for tragedy. 

For me, it's always been about: “let's just keep things very straightforward here.” Women being successful, being able to handle all sorts of different tasks, whether it’s getting the first investor, whether they hit their first million, whether they turned things around, or even like when we had Farah Ann going for the Olympics. It's all the different things and the challenges that women face; it's not going to be them trying to justify their success. Rather, it's a celebration and I just want it to be as natural as possible, just like how any other men out there would be getting a task done, and getting enough attention for it the same way: women deserve the same thing.

Following on from that, you have been very candid in sharing your advice for your own success which highlights the need for self-discipline and sustaining a high standard for ourselves. Do you ever have off-days? What is your advice for the days when we feel like we failed more than we succeeded, or days when we feel pressured for not being productive enough?

I’ve always been a workaholic, so working seven days a week has always seemed like a very natural thing to do. I'm still in my 20s at this point, but it's not a healthy thing nor is it something I should be proud of. At this point, for me, the reason why I've always strived to work and work and work - even if it's a Sunday, even if it's the weekend, even if there are times when I'm on holiday, and then I'm on the next flight out, back again, doing my next task - I think it’s always about the battle of “if I don't put in enough effort, if I'm not the hardest worker in the room, I'm not going to get myself the next opportunity.” So that has always been at the back of my mind. 

But of course, I think as I get older, I’m beginning to understand things in a very different context and maturity starts to kick in as well. Now that I'm in my late 20s, I’m slowly now starting to embrace it. There is this one very famous line in Italian: “la dolce far niente”– the sweetness of doing nothing. That would probably be my best advice to anyone who thinks that you have to work 24/7, you have to constantly ensure that you're putting in the most amount of effort: just remember, there are lots of things around us that really matter as well; the sweetness of doing nothing, and that it's completely okay to do that.

Photo courtesy of Kubrina Dass.

Your public persona is tied to many qualities of yourself: your strict work ethic, your fashion style, your focus on having important conversations. What are some other aspects of you that we don’t see so publicly?

Aspects of me which I don't put publicly would be that I'm hypersensitive and I cry a lot. As far as my personal life or where my family or my boyfriend is concerned, I have always been the kind of person that would draw a line, such as if you’re going out on a date, or if it's alone time, I would ensure that my phone is switched off. There's no such thing as posting stuff on social media... even for that matter I've never posted a picture of my partner to this day. So the aspects that I don't like to show publicly outside is of me being hypersensitive, I cry a lot, and also because I’m so close to my family - my mom and my sisters are like my best friends - so anything they say anything that really matters to me, I'm not ready to put that out there on social media. I feel that these are things I want to guard, these are things which are very close to my heart. So yeah, those are probably the little things which I guard with lots of care, and I’m not really ready to put it out there on social media yet.

A common fact easily forgotten with public figures is that they are human too: with real lives, real privacy and very real vulnerabilities. What are some of the difficulties or challenges that come with the high visibility of working as a broadcaster?

Like I said, privacy is very important: the things that are very close to my heart, in terms of my family, my partner, these are the things which I guard very closely. I've always been very firm in drawing the line, even if people would perceive it as: “Okay, you're not really giving as much information about yourself." But for me, I want to be remembered for my work, not who I marry or for my background or anything else. I've always been very firm about that all along: I want to be remembered for my work, not anything else.

Photo courtesy of Kubrina Dass.

Being self-aware of a public persona that’s separate from a private one must be important to maintaining a healthy balance when your job makes you a public figure... has this separation ever been difficult to maintain? Do you ever feel a disconnect to who you are onscreen to who you are alone at home?

To be very honest, I think my younger self would definitely struggle to answer this because at one point, it was a bit harsh in terms of me not getting opportunities. I used to think that, “Okay, I need to put in more effort.” So when we talk about effort, there is no such thing as “trying to be a TV host.” Just as you wake up, without any effort: it comes with a lot of practice, it's how you do things, it's how your mannerisms are, it's how you address things... all the little things would matter. So my younger self had a slight issue with that, because every single time, if I got turned down from an audition, I would start questioning all the different things around me as well. But as I get older, I've come to understand that just like how some people try to really excel in a certain thing, whether that be as a lawyer or as a broadcaster or anything, it has to come by in the most natural way. You have to be very honest with yourself as well; if you are going to think, breathe, sleep the same way you’re doing things - that is how you attract the same energy. That's how you become that person. So for me, I think I've slowly tried to understand that I should take it as it comes. 

But on trying to disconnect from work, or on me being myself, I've always been the same person onscreen and off-screen. A lot of people in terms of broadcasting or in terms of TV hosting, it's always about: “Let's try to look good, let's just take out our cameras and take a selfie.” But if I walk onto my set, I would make sure that I greet my cameraman, I would make sure that I greet everyone on set. I completely forget to even take pictures at times because I've always believed that if you shut your apps off, such as your Instagram or your Facebook – what do you bring to the table? Success is not going to be measured based on what I post; it has to be something that comes from a very honest place as well. 

So for me, that balance of trying to make sure that I am that same person, even off-camera, even on set, that's very important. I would say I'm still on that path of trying to learn and understand that, so it comes together with maturity as well. It has to come from a very honest place. So yeah, that has been something that I have been practising, I'm still learning and hopefully I get to embrace it at the end of it and, and be at a place where I'm truly genuinely happy as well.

Lastly: if you weren’t a broadcaster, what do you think you would be doing instead?

If I wasn't a broadcaster, I would perhaps be an entrepreneur. I think it's the flair of talking, it's always been along the lines of me talking and communicating, the whole art of persuading people just as much as I try to do it with my broadcasting and storytelling... I think, yeah, maybe an entrepreneur.

Jelisa Shanjana can be found on Instagram. Wonder Women with Jelisa Shanjana can be found on Spotify.
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