One of the last video pieces ManWomanMyth created before his fall – and my personal favourite from his prodigious body of work, even though I appear in it (a piece recorded by MWM at my home in 2013) – was On White Sprinters & Female CEOs (22:51), in which he argues that if we “need” more female CEOs, then we “need” more white sprinters in the Olympic 100 metres sprint finals, which for decades have been all-black events. I was reminded of the video when I learned that a blithering idiot by the name of Natalie Pinkham (no, I’ve never heard of her either) deems herself fit to pontificate on the gender and race balances in Formula One. Perhaps women and non-whites should be given a lap’s start in races, non-white women therefore two laps? And if that’s insufficient, just keep extending their start advantage until they “win”? Women like Pinkham will never understand why, in competitions – not only sports – where merit can be objectively judged, women are absent, or almost absent, at the top level. In the immortal words of Toyah Wilcox, “It’s a mystery, oh, it’s a mystery…”.
A piece on Pinkham in Saturday’s Telegraph:
A few years ago, Natalie Pinkham decided to strike the word “tomboy” from her vocabulary. “I used to use it with such affection, but there are certain terms that need to be consigned to the history books, and that’s one of them,” she says.
As a child, it was constantly applied to her. She liked to go to football and rugby matches with her father, but it was always assumed her brother would be the one who’d be interested in all that. “And why is that? He wasn’t. I’m just a girl that likes sport, and always has (sic) done.”
At school, in Northants, she was a keen runner. When she discovered there was no girls’ 4x100m relay team, she decided to cut her hair short and joined the boys’ squad instead. “I was flat-chested and quite muscly. For all they knew, I was a boy. And we were lightning fast, we reached the national finals. But when we got there, the judges found out I was a girl. So we were disqualified.” [J4MB: I would be amazed if this were not a fabrication. The absence of an age at which this allegedly happened makes me suspicious. The three boys in the team would have been aware she wasn’t a boy, and her parents and her school teachers would surely not have put her into such an invidious and potentially humiliating position. And even if it IS true, what in the name of all that is holy, does it have to do with the gender and race balances in Formula One?]
Pinkham, now 41, laughs at the memory. It’s the kind of experience that could have put her off sport for good, but the opposite happened: she kept on running, kept on attending football and rugby matches, kept on ignoring anyone who said she shouldn’t be there. When she began working in television in her twenties, she became intent on getting a job in Formula One – possibly the blokiest of all sports.
She achieved that dream almost a decade ago, initially with the BBC but now on Sky. And today she reaches a career pinnacle, quietly making history as the first ever female anchor of Sky’s F1 coverage.
“I am nervous and excited,” she says, on the phone from the track in Barcelona, “It’s something I’ve wanted to do ever since I started, and I’ve finally got my chance. I haven’t slept much the last few nights…”
Formula One resides at the cutting edge of technology – innovations made by teams regularly find their way into road cars – but its progress on diversity and inclusion has tended to be glacial. Pinkham, who has followed the likes of Louise Goodman and Suzi Perry in becoming one of the few women on screen at races, is all too aware of it.
“We are still a sport that’s 88 per cent male and 91 per cent white, and that is just not acceptable in 2020. When you look at our fanbase, it’s 40 per cent women who are watching, so they need more relatable role models, [J4MB: Why? Are those women stooooooooooooopid?] not just in terms of presenting but strategists, team principles, aerodynamicists – every element of the sport,” she says. [J4MB: What little girl doesn’t dream of one day becoming an aerodynamicist? I know my daughters did.]
It’s certainly better than it was. For decades, the most prominent women seen at F1 races were the grid girls – models employed to look beautiful and not much else. After much consternation, principally from the old guard, they were consigned to history in 2018.
“At the time there was massive backlash, including criticism of me for supporting it. But you want girls to watch the sport and not feel they have to look a certain way and stand as inanimate objects in order to get on,” Pinkham says.
She used to talk to the grid girls “all the time, I craved female company”, and didn’t want to do them out of a job, but instead “to show that there are so many elements women can succeed at. There’s nothing that precludes women from driving the cars, [J4MB: So what’s the problem, you dozy woman?] and I firmly believe there will be a female F1 champion in my lifetime.” [J4MB: I firmly believe I shall captain Scotland to a 5:0 victory over Brazil in a soccer World Cup final. The odds are similar.]
She is equally enthusiastic about Lewis Hamilton’s activism. The reigning champion has been criticised by some of the sport’s staid elder statesmen for his vocal support of Black Lives Matter.
“He’s doing a great job. I know he’s coming in for criticism, but what he’s doing is seismic. And we’ll look back on this as a watershed moment, and he’ll have been the leader in that. He’ll go down as the best driver ever, but to do that and be principled and make a change? That’s into the echelon of icons.” [J4MB: No, that’s into the echelon of politically ignorant celebrities making twats of themselves.]
Pinkham’s route into Formula One was steady: after a politics degree, she found a job researching on Ready Steady Cook, then worked her way in front of the camera, covering various sports – poker, tennis, motorcycling – before landing her dream job.
It hasn’t been a journey without sexism. Before we spoke, I scrolled through Pinkham’s fun and incredibly glamorous social media feeds (holidays with the Bransons, jetsetting for work, adorable kids), and you’re never far from a leery comment. Her colleague Simon Lazenby doesn’t get that.
“It is a tricky one”, she admits. “On the one hand, you don’t want to take yourself too seriously and have a bit of a laugh, but on the other hand you want to be taken seriously. So it’s a fine line to tread.”
Then there are the royals. For years, whenever Pinkham’s name appeared in the press it would be accompanied by an in-depth discussion of how she is an old friend (or “flame” as it’s usually written) of Prince Harry’s. It’s true, he is an old friend, as are Zara Phillips, Mike Tindall, and other royals. Pinkham even appeared on Storytime with Fergie and Friends – Sarah Ferguson’s unexpectedly popular lockdown YouTube series, in which she reads children’s stories aloud. Blenty [J4MB: Good to know the Telegraph have employed an ex-Guardian proofreader] of male figures in the sporting community are just as entwined with young royals, but don’t come under the same scrutiny…
“Ugh, yeah, I know,” signs Pinkham. “I don’t know if you can ever ignore it, but you kind of learn to not let it bother you too much. I think I’ve probably always cared a bit too much about what other people think, but I’m getting better, especially since becoming a mum.”
She has two children, five-year-old Wilfred and four-year-old Willow, with her husband of eight years, Owain Walbyoff.
“I remember being incredibly nervous about having kids, thinking, ‘Oh God, what’s going to happen to my career?’ When I told my boss at Sky that I was pregnant, I was so nervous, but he was really supportive. And I think once you become a mum you relax more and don’t sweat the small stuff,” she says.
“It’s actually made me better at my job. And I hope that going forward women realise that. You always feel guilty; always feel you should be with your kids more; always feel you should be doing more at work. But everyone has challenges and is spinning plates.”
There is “absolute parity” in her marriage, she insists. Plus, she says, it is a little easier now that Walbyoff, who works at a neurotechnology company, is working from home.
Both exercise addicts, during lockdown the couple got their money’s worth from their garden gym, created assault courses for the children, and were “terrible” at home-schooling. But the hardest part was being unable to see Walbyoff’s mother, who has advanced ovarian cancer and had her chemotherapy paused. Having both experienced mild Covid symptoms and had antibody tests come back positive, Pinkham and Walbyoff had to shield her.
“That has been tough for her. So many cancer sufferers got forgotten. I understand why, but it’s a tragedy of the virus that a lot of cancer patients will die prematurely. But she’s such a fighter,” Pinkham says.
Now, though, Pinkham is back at work, and back on the track. There’ll be no fans at the Spanish grand prix later, and masks and social distancing will be in play, but her life is getting up to speed again. It is a fast one. At the risk of retiring her just as she’s made it, I wonder how long she plans to do it.
“I don’t know. My mum trained as a barrister when she was 40, so you can always have a change…” she says. There’s that degree. Her dad always wanted her to go into politics.
“He still does,” she laughs. “He goes, ‘There’s still time, Natalie, there’s still time!’”
There is. I wouldn’t count her out.
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