The secret life of Morning Report's Susie Ferguson

MONIQUE FORD/STUFF
RNZ's Morning Report host Susie Ferguson will show a different side when she hosts the final Menagerie Variety show on Saturday night.

Just hours before, Susie Ferguson had been behind a microphone, interviewing politicians, lawmakers and industry experts with her trademark mix of cool-headedness, abrasion, and caustic wit on RNZ’s Morning Report.

But now she was twirling around the foyer of Wellington’s Opera House in a floaty purple dress with a plunging neckline, kicking up her heeled feet for a Stuff photographer.

She paused.

“People are complex.” Susie Ferguson is more than just an uncompromising interviewer.
MONIQUE FORD/Stuff
“People are complex.” Susie Ferguson is more than just an uncompromising interviewer.

“What is happening with my left boob?” she wondered aloud, adjusting a strap.

This is a surprising side of Ferguson for those of us familiar only with her professional CV: A native of Scotland, she has reported for outlets including the BBC and ITN, was a correspondent from multiple war zones and covered stories including the Boxing Day Tsunami before moving to New Zealand and RNZ, where she has been Morning Report’s Wellington presenter since 2014.

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But before she was a fear-inducing interviewer, Ferguson was a performer.

Now she’s going back to her roots – and blowing a few assumptions about her out of the water – as MC of the last ever Menagerie Variety Show, to be held at the Opera House on Saturday night.

Ferguson studied drama for four years before moving into journalism.
MONIQUE FORD/Stuff
Ferguson studied drama for four years before moving into journalism.

“My storytelling comes from somewhere a bit different,” she said later, changed into casual clothes and tucked onto a gold chaise longue on the first floor of the venue.

“It’s really exciting to get onto the stage, because this is really one of my first loves.”

Ferguson left school in 1995 having “done really badly” on her A-levels, or British university entrance.

She wanted to study drama or theatre, but her high-school results precluded her from the kinds of courses she had her sights set on.

Instead, she found a programme in Stratford-Upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s birthplace, a bridging course between high school and university.

“That was amazing. It was a practical drama course, so we put on loads of plays and lots of scenes and were taught by some amazing people.”

The course gave Ferguson another A-level, which was enough to allow her to audition for the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

Ferguson will MC the last ever Menagerie Variety Show on Saturday night.
SUPPLIED
Ferguson will MC the last ever Menagerie Variety Show on Saturday night.

She got in, and undertook a double honours BA in drama and education.

“I didn't want to be a teacher,” Ferguson said. “But it was a way to go to drama school, to do lots of performance, to do lots of practical stuff, and also to do kind of a bit of a serious degree as well, I suppose. People think drama’s too frivolous.”

The three years Ferguson spent at Central were “knock-out”, but then, reality bit.

“I got to the end of the degree, and it literally had never occurred to me it would be difficult to get work,” she recalled.

Rehearsing Mary and Lizzie by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, at Stratford-Upon-Avon
Susie Ferguson
Rehearsing Mary and Lizzie by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, at Stratford-Upon-Avon

The prospect of a life in the theatre hit home when she met a director who was exactly 10 years older, 31 to Ferguson’s 21.

“She was still doing shows just for expenses, and was a waitress, and I was just like oh... I don’t want to do that.”

Ferguson thought she was heading for a career as a director herself, being better, she said, at performing than character acting, but a “very serendipitous” meeting with a career advisor not long after she graduated led her to a post-graduate programme in broadcast journalism in London.

It brought together all the things she had enjoyed about drama – voice work, producing stories, story-telling – and Ferguson planned to be an arts correspondent.

When Ferguson moved into journalism, she thought she would cover the arts, but wound up reporting from war zones.
MONIQUE FORD/Stuff
When Ferguson moved into journalism, she thought she would cover the arts, but wound up reporting from war zones.

In fact when, on the first day of journalism school, the lecturer asked the class who wanted to be a war reporter, Ferguson was decidedly not among the half who raised a hand.

But she was freelancing in London in late 2002, as post-9/11 tensions rumbled more and more loudly between the US and Iraq, when a job came up as a Middle East reporter at an outlet where she’d been doing some news reading.

It wasn’t part of any plan, Ferguson said; it was an opportunity that came along, and she went for it.

That was the start of six years reporting from conflict zones including Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Mozambique and the Balkans.

With Morning Report co-host Corin Dann.
Liz Brown/RNZ
With Morning Report co-host Corin Dann.

The experience was “life-changing”.

“It is horrific and it is fantastic. It is the full gamut of emotions.”

She once told her then-partner, now husband, Lee, that she could probably talk to him about it for the rest of her life, and he would never understand it.

“The foot never comes off your neck. The whole time it is what you see and you never know what’s going to happen next.”

The Menagerie Variety Show will feature over 60 performers in an array of genres.
SUPPLIED
The Menagerie Variety Show will feature over 60 performers in an array of genres.

It was after that experience that Ferguson moved to New Zealand (her father’s side of the family hails from the Deep South, and he was born in Dunedin), bringing with her a reputation as a hard-nosed, fearless, tenacious war correspondent.

She presented Summer Report and filled in on Checkpoint at RNZ before moving to Morning Report.

What impression do listeners have of her? Well, she has some idea; they’re not shy about texting the show to tell her exactly what they think.

“I’m uncompromising. I’m probably not very nice... They probably think I’m argumentative, I suppose, and annoying.”

That assessment was “completely fair”, laughed Ferguson, whose Twitter bio includes the quote “gingery b....”.

“I am all of those things. But people are complex beings that have all sorts of different facets to them.”

And she's excited to present some more of her own to Saturday night’s audience; with over 60 performances taking in circus, burlesque, stand-up, and just about everything in between, the Menagerie couldn’t be further from Morning Report (even if Ferguson likes to take opportunities to tease co-host Corin Dann about his “dreadful dad jokes”).

Despite her long-standing love of the theatre, Ferguson didn’t get to either watch or perform as much as she would like. It’s difficult to go out at night when your alarm is set for 4am.

But when the opportunity came up to MC the final ever Menagerie, following a personal invitation from retiring producer Rachel Rouge, Ferguson jumped at it.

It’s right up her alley, even if people used to hearing her take politicians to task on the radio aren’t aware of that.

“I might not have been the first choice that people would have thought of for this,” she said. “It probably won’t be the side of me that people think they know... It is fun to continually surprise people and to evolve and do more of this kind of thing or be involved with the culture or a different part of the culture in a different kind of way.”

And she really does look fabulous in that purple dress.