Category: Celebrity interviews

In conversation with Christy Turlington Burns

Published in Dhaka Live on 28 June 2011

Christy Turlington Burns with Monica, a mother featured in "No Woman, No Cry"

Dhaka Live’s Jessica Mudditt caught up with one of the world’s most beautiful women to discuss her directorial debut, “No Woman, No Cry,” a documentary about maternal health in Bangladesh, USA, Tanzania and Guatemala, as well as her campaign “Every Mother Counts.”

Q: Every Mother Counts has raised awareness about maternal health care on a massive scale. While deliberately being free of policy recommendations, are you satisfied that public health organizations have taken up the mantle to bring about concrete change, or do you feel that more still needs to be done?

A: I do think that much progress has been made due to a huge amount of political will generated globally, thanks to the advocacy of a number of individuals and organizations. This has helped to direct attention on research significantly. That said, there is so much more to be done to achieve lasting progress. Through information sharing from hard lessons learned and better coordination amongst the various organizations worldwide, I am hopeful that more progress can be made.

Q: How did you come to know about BRAC and end up in Bangladesh?

A panel discusses the film and takes questions from the audience

A: I came to Bangladesh to film, “No Woman, No Cry” in January of 2009. Prior to coming the first time, I researched a range of organizations providing services to poor women and children and then once in the country, was able to narrow them down based on the potential of their programs after making several field visits. BRAC’s Manoshi program was one of the first NGO’s we saw and because it was so impressive we kept returning. We met Monica Begum, our central “character,” through the program on our first day shooting in Korail. We met her through the BRAC community based skilled attendant, Yasmin, on a home visit and continued to track her pregnancy through delivery. Bangladesh is one of the eleven countries with the highest rate of maternal mortality but we decided to profile this country because of the potential for success in making great strides to meet the MDG targets.

Q: Have you noticed any visible changes in Bangladesh since your last visit two years ago?

Oh the beauty...

A: Yes. Since I was last here, just two years ago, there was a survey conducted which revealed that MMR has dropped considerably in the past ten years. (From 320,000 deaths per live births to 194,000). As well, I also revisited Manoshi this week and have seen further exciting developments there too. BRAC now has a midwife from New Zealand training the community birth attendants which has improved the level of skills they have had, they have 24 hour ambulance services and are piloting an M Health mobile technology diagnostic that will make home visits and patient monitoring much more efficient.

Q: Once your Masters in public health at Columbia University is completed, what would you like to do next?

Christy's multi-million dollar smile

A: I am not seeking a position in another organization or institution but rather hope to continue to build upon my knowledge base and understanding of the data so that I can be a more effective global maternal health advocate in the future. I established the Every Mother Counts campaign last year, which is an action and mobilization effort to engage American citizens on the issues of maternal health around the world. This campaign is linked to the MDG goals, so I aim to use the film and my voice to the best of my ability to make an impact on them.

Q: As a supermodel, activist and scholar, you have witnessed both sides of this world – the haves, the have-nots and the have-nothings. Have your experiences sometimes caused you to feel despondent about the gross inequality that exists in present times, or do you remain optimistic about the future?

Exchanging views

A: There are of course times when the inequities become so glaring that it is painful to confront but because I am able to travel to the field often, I am rewarded with seeing improvements in the lives of vulnerable people. However small they may be, they are meaningful changes and prove to me that there is much for which to be hopeful. I grew up with a Mother from a developing country and visited frequently throughout my childhood. The disparities I recognized then are the same as those I see in my travels around the world today. My career as a model allowed me to continue to travel the world and those disparities are what has driven me to work on this issue.

Q: Do you agree that being a mother is one of the greatest joys of life, as well as one of the toughest jobs?

A: Yes, completely. You have to become a mom to be able to understand this, however. It is a tremendous responsibility to become a mother which is one of the reasons it is so important to become one by choice. It was deeply empowering for me to deliver my children the way that I wanted with the support and care I received. My wish is for every mother to experience that empowerment.

Q: Do you have a message for Bangladeshi fathers?

A: To all fathers, I would tell them to love their daughters enough to ensure them the highest level of education available to them.

Q: How did you cope during distressing situations while filming, such as witnessing the treatment of a woman in a Guatemala hospital who had “miscarried” after being raped?

Christy Turlington Burns

A: Making a documentary film on the subject of maternal health is very concentrated work and you become such a part of the subjects’ lives that you don’t make judgments about what you are learning and witnessing in the moment, you just take it all in. Later, during the editing process as we were getting better quality translations and weaving the stories together, I felt a tremendous gratitude to those who allowed us in, despite the sometimes agonizing times and the subsequent responsibility to do them justice in sharing their stories as succinctly as humanly possible. At the end of it all, what I learned was that being a girl in the world makes you incredibly vulnerable but I also learned that girls and women are incredibly strong and that there are some extraordinary people out there working hard for change.

Q: What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of being a director? Would you like to make further films in the future?

A: I have always loved to travel but being through this particular project, as a filmmaker, I was able to spend more time with our subjects in a more intimate manner than any other opportunity I have had. I hope to make more films as there are countless stories of women that need to be shared.

Q: The four countries in No Woman, No Cry depict a variety of obstacles faced by women in accessing maternal care. Is there one aspect you feel each country has in common or do you believe each situation is unique?

A: There were both common and unique barriers to each segment. In every case there were challenges with accessing care in a timely manner, which can be the difference that saves a life. There were no husbands standing by with support of any kind – women are really alone. In all of our stories there were compassionate care providers but many were unable to provide all the care that was required.

Q: The documentary highlights how issues of maternal health care are not confined to developing nations — why did you choose to include the US in the story?

Christy and I - such a thrill for me!

A: Soon after I became aware of the global statistics, I learned that the US was doing extremely poorly amongst the developed nations and I was shocked. I live in the US and had my children there so it seemed only fair to include it in this film. Plus, it was a complication I suffered when I delivered my daughter 7 1/2 years ago that woke me up these tragic facts, that hundreds of thousands of women die each year in pregnancy or childbirth. And in the US we spend more per capita on healthcare than any other country, which makes the fact that our maternal mortality rate is so dismal simply unacceptable.

For more information, visit http://www.everymothercounts.org

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Bing the Comeback King: Australian cricketer Brett Lee talks exclusively to The Independent

Published in The Independent on 27 April 2011

Australian speedstar Brett Lee

“Eighteen months ago, the only person who thought there was a chance I would play in the World Cup was me,” says Australian cricketer Brett Lee with a satisfied grin.

The 34-year-old’s return to international cricket following a two year absence is remarkable, though less surprising considering his long history of resilience.  Since Lee’s debut in the Australian squad almost 15 years ago, “Bing” has conquered career-threatening injuries affecting his back, elbow, ankle, abdominal muscles and ribs.  In 2008, he bowled against South Africa with a broken foot.  Thankfully, he’s just played three ODI matches against Bangladesh without so much as a scratch.

“I think I’ve had 12 operations,” says the 1.82 metre blond, whose mere presence in the lobby of Dhaka’s Hotel Sonargaon creates enough excited whispering to drown out the piano.

Even when he’s in peak form, the comeback king concedes that pain is a constant companion.

“I’ve felt pain during every match for the last 17 years.  But if I was told to stop as soon as I felt pain, I would never have bowled.  You just have to block it out.”

In a former incarnation, Lee may have been a highly successful aerobics instructor.  At any rate, his updated status as the world’s fastest bowler (following the retirement of Pakistan’s Shoaib Akhtar during the World Cup), and a solid World Cup performance should be enough to silence the cynics, at least for the time being.  On the day before the interview, Lee played his 200th ODI match, the second milestone to be achieved in Bangladesh — in 2006 he made his 1,000th Test run.  He has scores of other accolades, some more unusual than others: a greyhound named after the speedster earned Tk 1,174,686,932 (AUD$15 million) in stud fees.

However despite retaining the top ranking for ODI matches, Lee’s national team has lost their gloss in recent times.  Australia lost the Ashes again, failed to win its fourth consecutive World Cup and has slipped to fifth place in Test match rankings.  How long does the Aussie stalwart believe it may take for his team to dominate international cricket once more?
“I don’t see it as being too long,” he says, “but I can’t put a figure on it.  I don’t have a crystal ball…”

Brett Lee in Dhaka, April 2011

Lee acknowledges that a “great era” in Australian cricket is over, with the retirement of many star players.  He and former captain Ricky Ponting are the only two lights still shining, and Lee has confirmed that he will not play in the next World Cup.  The current team, he insists with characteristic optimism, are going through a “transitional phase.”

“We have a new captain and a whole new, young side coming through.”  The team, he says, is made up of “a great bunch of guys who love playing cricket.”

Although Bangladesh was given a whipping by Australia during the ODIs, Lee had some kind words to say about his opponents.

“In general, Bangladesh has a very good squad and there were some very good performances during the World Cup.”

When asked who he considers to be Bangladesh’s strongest player, Lee says, “There are a few, obviously the captain Shakib Al Hasan and opener Tamim Iqbal.  There are some good bowlers too, but it would be unfair to single out any player, just as it would be for me to name an Australian player.”

Lee said the ODIs were “a lot of fun” and that the Australian team “always enjoys playing in front of crowds here.”  However he added, “It’s always tough for us guys to play in the subcontinent because we aren’t really used to the zapping heat and humidity.  The other day [in Dhaka] it was only 32 degrees, but as soon I walked outside I was perspiring a lot.  I lost five litres of fluids a day.”  The upside, possibly, is a suntan so golden it defies the hotel’s dimmed lighting.  He looks healthy and relaxed.

Whilst Lee has only visited Bangladesh a “handful” of times – as compared with 50 odd trips to India – he described its people as “friendly, lovely and caring, and very passionate about cricket.”

He added, “Bangladeshis are probably less fanatical about cricket than Indians, but that’s from a general point of view.  If you asked a kid here whether they love cricket as much [as in India] they will say ‘Definitely, yes.’”

Lee was once described by an Indian journalist as “the most famous Australian in India,” and when I cite Shah Rukh Khan as one of his fans, Brett laughs and quips, “Oh really?  I’m playing for his franchise, the Kolkata Knight Riders. I might ask for a few acting tips as well.”  Lee should be plucky enough to ask for a role, as he has already made a cameo appearance in a Bollywood film (funnily enough, it’s called ‘Victory’ and it’s about cricket) and recorded a duet with Asha Bhosle that topped the Indian and South African charts.  In November last year, his band “White Shoe Theory” performed six shows across India – “It’s always nice to break things up,” said Lee of the change in lifestyle.  Lee is currently writing new songs and, for the record (pardon the pun), he is “potentially interested” in other Bollywood opportunities.

Interviewing Brett Lee at Hotel Sonargaon, Dhaka

Although Lee is by no means the only foreigner playing in the Indian Premier League, I wondered whether he ever encounters language difficulties on the field.

“Most guys speak English, and do so very, very well.  And I try my Hindi occasionally,” he adds.

“You can speak Hindi?” I ask.

“Thora thora,” [“A little”] he shoots back with a grin.  “I can understand the gist of what’s going on.”

Lee said that the sporting culture in the Indian Premier League (IPL) differs from Australia, the latter of which has a strong association between beer and cricket (its national sponsor, Carlton and United Breweries, promised to give every Australian adult a free beer if its team won back the Ashes).  However Lee avoids making generalisations on the subject.

“Culture depends on the person,” he says.  “Some people don’t like drinking alcohol and some do.  It’s not frowned upon if one person wants to [have a drink] but another doesn’t, or vice versa. Everyone [in IPL] understands that every culture is different and that’s great.”

Lee’s first visit to India was back in 1994, when he toured with the Australian under-19s as a 17-year-old.  After turning 18, Lee spent two weeks at MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai – and it now appears that the coaching tables are beginning to turn.  Lee said he will be “heavily involved” in an upcoming programme combining education and cricket in India.  “It would be great if something could happen here in Dhaka also,” he said.

Indeed it would.

“If you think you never lie, you’re a liar:” In conversation with comedian Eddie Brill

Published in Dhaka Live on 21 December 2010

Eddie Brill and David Letterman

“I’m not giving sermons,” says comedian Eddie Brill as he leans into the back of a plush sofa in a Dhaka hotel lobby, “But lately, in the States, I’ve started my shows by talking about lying.”

Eddie then throws out a statement of epic rhetoric proportions: “If you think you never lie, you’re a liar.”  His pale eyes stare at me evenly.  To disagree is to assert perfection, but remaining silent is proof enough of occasional dishonesty.  And then suddenly, having opted to say nothing, it feels good to be honest about lying.  Eddie then changes the subject – sort of.

“In dating, we sometimes create a character we think the other person wants. It’s like advertising ourselves instead of being who we are.  I dated a girl who created a character, and it was very attractive to me.  But the more I knew her, the more I realised she wasn’t that person.  Then the wheels fell off the bus.  It was a waste of time.”

Eddie recounted the (hopefully) true story he often tells audiences about the time he lied to a friend.  “I felt I was being yelled at and that I was seven-years-old again.  I wanted him to like me, so I lied.”  Eddie tells this story in order to make it clear that he’s “not above anybody else” when it comes to lying.  It’s an approach he uses consistently in his shows, regardless of the subject matter.  His golden rule is, “Never tell an audience they suck. WE suck.”

But is it comforting to establish that we all lie at some point in our lives?  Or is it just plain sad?  Perhaps Eddie doesn’t care so much either way – his point is to foster greater candour through humour, and he does it exceedingly well.

Eddie’s role as warm-up comedian and talent coordinator on “The Late Show with David Letterman” affords him around 90 days a year to travel for stand-up performances.  However, having established that it was Eddie’s first trip to Asia outside of Hong Kong, I asked him how he prepared for what would surely prove to be an eclectic audience in Dhaka.

“I’m not prepared for it,” he said nonchalantly.  “I have ideas and material in my brain.  I pretty much know where I’m going to start and then I’ll see where to go from there.”

Eddie Brill performing at the Amazon Club in Dhaka, December 2010

Looking down guiltily at my list of pre-prepared questions, I asked, “Don’t you go blank on stage?”

“Not really, he said.  “Because I do it so often.”

And how does a comedian – or at least, this comedian– ignite his creativity to produce funny sketches?

Sometimes ideas come to him in dreams, as he explains, “Once I dreamed that I was on stage and I had a funny friend in the audience.  I started getting nervous and began making things up on the spot.  When I woke up, I wrote it down and now that’s in my act.”  Eddie also talks into a tape recorder or jots down his ideas, but he mostly tries them out live on stage.

Eddie shrugs his shoulders at my disbelief and says, “It works for me.  I’m very confident on stage, so if it doesn’t work, I just go onto the next thing.  The audience will forget about it.”

Along with an abundance of natural confidence, Eddie is very down-to-earth.  “I don’t look at myself and say, ‘I’m an entertainer.’  I’m having fun and I have a very short life and I am going to make the best of it.  And the best of it is to laugh.”

Eddie grew up in an Italian neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York.  His step-father died at the age of 37; Eddie’s sister died when she was 34 and his brother died when he was 35.  “I’ve lost a lot of people in my life,” he reflects.  “But I’m 52-years-old and I’ve learnt to live every moment, because life is too short.  Nothing else but now exists.  Yesterday is gone and tomorrow hasn’t happened.”  Although not religious, Eddie describes himself as a spiritual person.  He enjoys poking fun at biblical characters Adam and Eve during his shows.  For one, he doesn’t understand why the only two people on Earth needed names in the first place.  He also lampoons the notion that Jesus Christ was a white man, rather than being Middle Eastern in appearance.

As a performer with a heavy schedule, Eddie has discovered vast reserves of energy after losing weight.  He’s shed a staggering 45 kilogrammes since May.  The secret to his success, he confides, was converting to veganism, which means that he eats neither meat nor animal products, such as eggs or dairy foods.

“I can’t find wheat grass in Dhaka,” he says in a New York drawl.  “But I’ve been eating salads here and although I’ve been told to be careful of the water, so far so good.”  In any event, there’s no risk that Eddie will tire of Bangladesh’s seasonal vegetables – he’ll be in Ireland by the weekend.

FYI – Eddie Brill has met the vast majority of Hollywood A-List celebrities during his 13 year career on Letterman.  The following have made it into his personal hall of fame for being nice people: Julia Roberts, Whitney Houston, Lyle Lovett and Sophia Loren.  He describes the star of action cult movie series “Die Hard”, Bruce Willis, as a “fun, loving and caring guy.”  So there you go.