The Entertainment Award

I was just like: ‘No, I can’t do it . . .’” As she talks, TV presenter Liz Bonnin looks relaxed in a cosy white polo-neck, her silver earrings glinting. But the memory she’s recounting is a peculiar one. It’s from the early 2000s when she was an entertainment TV presenter. It was a request certainly of its time: would she do a photoshoot for the controversial ‘lad mag’ FHM? Her answer – despite encouragement from others – was a firm no. But then, Bonnin has always ploughed her own furrow.

Today, we know the 47-year-old as a TV presenter explaining scientific discoveries and exploring the natural world in shows like Bang Goes the Theory (BBC) and Countrywise (ITV), and making thought-provoking documentaries like Meat: A Threat To Our Planet? But over two decades ago, Ireland knew her as the raven-haired, glamorous presenter on Telly Bingo and fashion show Off the Rails. Before that, she was in the short-lived girl band Chill. Years on, Bonnin retains her warm and engaging energy, which since the mid-2000s has helped her share urgent issues like climate change and conservation with audiences in an informed, empathic way.
Born to a Trinidadian mother and father from Martinique, Bonnin moved from the south of France to Dublin at age nine. Ireland was a culture shock. “I remember crying every morning for quite a long time because I couldn’t understand why it was so cold and grey and miserable, and why I had to eat food that I wasn’t used to,” she recalls. Frequent visits to family in Trinidad helped, as did the close friends (“beautiful humans”) she made in school.

She settled well into life in Ireland and was “cocooned away” from racism for years. But at 16, a shocking incident punctuated her reality. “Two boys called me the n-word when I was going home from school one day,” she says. “It made me think: why am I getting hate for the colour of my skin? It sounds so basic, but I was only 16 and I couldn’t fathom it. I can’t describe to you the feeling that is instilled in a person just because of this. And it’s so strange because this [she points at her skin] means nothing. We all came from Ethiopia back in the day, and some of us didn’t need as much melanin. That’s all.”

There’s still a lot of “absurd” ignorance about people of colour, says Bonnin, as well as unconscious biases. “Not only do women have to face that every day, I have the double whammy. I’m not saying this as a victim, it’s a reality that I’m trying to break the boundaries of,” she says. Because she had such positive experiences in Ireland overall, she sometimes feels like “a hypocrite” when trying to raise awareness of diversity and racism in the conservation community. But she discovered that recounting her positive experiences in Ireland showed how different communities treat others.

Bonnin says she’s never felt like she “belonged” to one country. On her mother’s side alone she has Chinese, Indian, Portuguese, Arawak Indian and Carib Indian heritage, and on her father’s side, she has European and French Caribbean heritage. In 2016, she appeared on the TV series Who Do You
Think You Are? and discovered that not only is she descended from slaves, she’s descended from slave owners too. Seven generations ago a relation (sent from France to run plantations in the Caribbean) fell in love with a slave. Their son also fell in love with and married a slave, whom he freed. He died young, and his wife ended up running the plantation. This woman’s story lingered with Bonnin.

“I remember brushing my teeth and looking in the mirror and seeing her eyes in me . . . seeing what strengths she must have had, what stubbornness,” she says. “I’d like to think that’s where I get my stubborn streak.”

Her heritage gives Bonnin a unique viewpoint on the world. “I see us as one big group of people, whereas for the most part in the West, we concentrate on separating ourselves,” she says. “So I think it’s been a strength for what I fell into as a career, to see life that way. And even though I’m passionate about wildlife, I’m passionate about all life.”

Back in her Top of the Pops or girl band days, it might not have been expected that Bonnin would end up being touted as the ‘next Sir David Attenborough’ (for the record, she finds that “embarrassing”, as Attenborough is such a legend) and the first female president of Britain’s Wildlife Trusts. As a teen, she wanted to attend a performing arts school in New York but then decided to study biochemistry at Trinity College Dublin.

Science remained her first love, but wanting “to play and to drift a bit”, she joined businesswoman Valerie Roe’s girl band Chill in 1996. She felt sad, but not devastated, when Chill was dropped by their label Polydor two years later, after failing to become the Irish Spice Girls. “It wasn’t meant to be,” she says. But the band led to work in RTÉ, and by 2002 she was headhunted to London to co-present Channel 4’s morning show RI:SE. Disappointment ended up leading to success.
By 2002, Bonnin was a presenter on the legendary Top of the Pops. This coincided with the objectifying ‘lad mag’ days, where skimpy photoshoots of female celebrities were all the rage. (In 1999, FHM even projected a nude photo of another TV presenter, Gail Porter, onto Britain’s Houses of Parliament). Today, we’re reassessing how the culture of the noughties treated women, and Bonnin’s experiences speak to what a time it was. When FHM offered her and some co-presenters a photoshoot in Morocco, it was so normalised that people told her it would be “good fun”.

“It was a difficult thing to navigate,” she reflects. “A lot of colleagues, peers, were perhaps more sexually free about these things. I can’t comment on anybody else’s decision to do that. You could argue I’m just a bit of a prude, and I just need to lighten up a little bit.” But it didn’t feel right to her. She also kept her private life private: “I knew instinctively not to divulge that part of me.” This helped when she faced the British press, which is “way worse when it comes to intrusion” than the Irish media.

Entertainment TV was fun and glamorous, but by the end of her 20s, Bonnin was fed up. “I didn’t know what I was doing and my agent at the time was offering me all these weird programmes,” she says. More lad mags offers were coming in, too. “I sat there going, is this what I need to do to up my profile, to continue in entertainment TV?”.

To clear her head, she went travelling, which led to an epiphany: she would do a Master’s in wild animal biology and conservation. “I had to go to Argentina and trek for six hours up a mountain to come to that conclusion,” she says, laughing. “Nature always guides you.”

That 2008 MA allowed her to return to TV presenting on the BBC 1 popular science show, Bang Goes the Theory. She has since presented shows from around the world, and her latest “dream project” Wild Caribbean premiered this month on BBC Two. Part of the show, which explores the region’s natural wonders and conservation efforts, was filmed in Trinidad. “We lost my dear mum two years ago. But I know she would be so incredibly proud, and I felt proud to be able to showcase her country and its people,” she says.
Bonnin has long had a first-hand view of the troubles facing the planet due to humans’ behaviour. Unsurprisingly, she is fiercely energised about the global response to climate change, decrying “broken” political systems, patriarchal culture and leaders making decisions “based on greed and power” after “being lobbied by fossil fuels, big agri, big industry”.

“I am concerned about why it is that even though people are waking up more than ever to the issues that are going on, the sad fact of the matter is it’s business as usual,” says Bonnin. “I know people don’t want to hear this, but it’s terrifying what’s coming down the road in our lifetime . . . I don’t even know how to describe what’s going to happen.”

To deal with this, she says we have to “lean into the discomfort of what we ultimately have all created as a society”. For solutions, she turns to experts in the areas of economics and environmental law. As a regular speaker at events, she now gives over half the time in her talks to discussing how to transform the way we live. But despite her positive outlook, Bonnin experiences climate anxiety.
Therapy has helped: “It made me a stronger, more grounded person who understands herself better.” She maintains climate anxiety isn’t a negative thing. “It’s a healthy part of your system to tell you something is wrong.”

Her career might come with its challenges (even on a small scale: a clip went viral of a seagull snatching a baby turtle Bonnin was helping release into the wild) but it’s clearly hugely rewarding. Given all she has achieved so far, does she consider herself a role model? She’s bashful, saying that if she does inspire somebody “it’s lovely”, but she doesn’t want to overthink things either.” she jokingly adds. Yet what Liz Bonnin might think is gobby, the rest of us read as passionate, outspoken and determined: and when it comes to the future of our planet, that’s exactly what we need in trailblazing women like her.

Liz Bonnin’s Wild Caribbean continues Sundays at 9pm on BBC Two and on iPlayer.

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