Hillary Ferguson | Photos by Peter Lueders
Change your hair color. Change your name. Invest in a new wardrobe. These were only some of the comments Tamsen Fadal endured when she began her career in broadcast journalism.
“When I was younger, a producer said I needed to look more like the girl next door,” she says. “I’m Lebanese with dark hair and dark eyes, and this was a time when the business was very cookie-cutter.”
There was a mold for what female news anchors were “supposed to” look like and at the time, Fadal did not fit the prototype. She struggled with the thought for years, sometimes conforming and uncomfortably adjusting, fearing failure if she did not make those changes for everybody else. Valid concerns, but as the industry and the world changed over the years, Fadal’s confidence grew, as did her level of success. And while she’s not exactly the “girl next door,” she is now the anchor of PIX11 News and an eight-time Emmy award-winner. For young women looking to enter the field, Fadal stresses the importance of staying true to who you are.
“I didn’t do that for a very long time and I regret it,” she says. “I probably spent ten years trying to be somebody else.”
Before that, though, Fadal was driven by a passion for storytelling beginning at a young age. She knew who and what she wanted to be. “When I was a little kid, I would sit my parents down in the garage and make them listen to my newscast,” she says. “I always loved telling stories.”
Over time and after studying broadcast journalism in college, Fadal realized that storytelling was the way she could give voice to the voiceless. And in 2002, working out of a local Philadelphia CBS affiliate, Fadal crossed the Atlantic to embed with Air Force troops in Afghanistan during the height of Operation Enduring Freedom. What marked only two weeks in her career turned out to be the most influential in dictating what types of stories she wanted to share with the world. The experience left her with a different perspective on just about everything.
“We heard so many stories about how the Taliban had taken over [Kandahar] and was operating in the shadows, so we had a military escort with us the whole time,” says Fadal. “It was really a life-altering experience for me because I had never seen anything like that. I had obviously never seen war.”
Though her time in the Middle East was brief, Fadal points to the experiences that left a lasting impression on her: watching soldiers meet their newborns over video chat, discussions with women who had left children at home to go serve their country, and most notably, her trips in and around the streets of Kandahar and Kabul.
“I saw up close how the people of [Afghanistan] were living—could see how frightened the women were,” she says. “I wanted to empower those women and give a voice to the women who didn’t feel like they had one. It was just so hard to see: women who were afraid to live.”
Upon her return and a subsequent move to New York, women’s empowerment became a driving force behind her career. She wanted to see women standing up for what they believed in, especially in regards to education and major life decisions.
In the aftermath of an embarrassing and public divorce, Fadal became the same kind of woman she had long championed for. Blogging for the Huffington Post, she emerged from the heartbreak as a post-marriage icon for women struggling with similar and universally female experiences. She would later go on to publish her latest book, The New Single, a manifesto for all women going through a big life change.
I didn’t intend to write another book, but I found out I had a lot to say
“I didn’t intend to write another book, but I found out I had a lot to say,” say says. “I had a voice and I knew a lot of women who were going through the same thing.”
On air, her segment ChangeMakers highlights women in the community who are making a difference. “You don’t have to be famous to make a difference,” says Fadal. “What you need is a passion and the desire to stand up for what you believe in. That’s what I try to do, good or bad.”
One of those passions is advocating for breast cancer awareness. At the forefront of this advocacy is the memory of her mother, who passed away from breast cancer after a six-year battle when Fadal was twenty. It was a time when people did not publicly discuss women’s health care issues, and breast cancer awareness had nowhere near the support it has today.
“I was young and as soon as I realized I had a voice, [breast cancer awareness] became something I was very passionate about.”
Fadal spent years working with various organizations to help women gain access to affordable resources, mammograms, and check-ups. It was a passion with deep personal roots.
“My mother was my best friend and I watched her struggle through a horrifying disease,” she says. “While we wait for a cure, I feel like this is the one way I can make a difference.”
At the heart of journalism is the desire to tell the stories that matter—a desire to make a difference with words. Privileged with a platform and an audience, Fadal uses her public voice everyday to speak up for causes that are meaningful. Whether she is championing women’s rights, traipsing across Afghan deserts or New York concrete, or advocating for breast cancer awareness, one thing is certain: Tamsen Fadal is the definition of a warrior.
Tamsen at her appartement in NYC