When seasoned presenter Leila Gurruwiwi began as a reporter on The Marngrook Footy Show, she was a just 19-years-old.
Then, in 2007, Leila describes herself as being painfully shy and reserved, and like many teenage girls, was struggling with her confidence. Cut to 10 years ahead, today, she is one of Australian media’s most recognisable faces. Since accepting a job from Marngrook creator Grant Hansen, Leila has presented the logie-nominated football program for a decade. It’s opened many doors for her list of other impressive achievements, from MC-ing a number of high-profile events and sitting on expert panels; to mentoring young girls through the Wirrpanda Foundation's Deadly Sista Girlz program and tutoring at the Pavillion School, a school for young people who have been disengaged or excluded from mainstream education; and even acting in theatre production and the award-winning television series’ The Secret River and Glitch, this Yolngu woman who grew up in Bendigo is an inspiration to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
A lifetime ago
Leila’s career kicked off just after just graduating her year 12, the very same year that NITV had started as a channel and approached fellow Marngrook presenter Grant Hansen about commissioning an Indigenous Australian Rules Football program – the channel’s first commissioned television show.
“I was 19, so I didn’t really have any idea of what I wanted to do. At the time I was extremely shy and I wasn’t very good at starting conversations and what not, so I ended up doing a radio training course at 3KNB (Melbourne’s Indigenous radio station chaired by Grant Hansen),” Leila told NITV.
“And while I was there doing that, then Grant came to me and said, ‘I think that you’d be a good fit on the show and I want you to be a presenter.’ And I told him, 'I can't do that!' I was only 6-months out of high school and had no idea about television, ‘I’ve only started talkin’ to people who I don’t know!’. He basically said, ‘Oh you’ll be right’, and just threw me in the deep end.
Grant came to me and said, ‘I think that you’d be a good fit on the show and I want you to be a presenter.’ And I told him, 'I can't do that!' I was only 6-months out of high school and had no idea about television, ‘I’ve only started talkin’ to people who I don’t know!’. He basically said, ‘Oh you’ll be right’, and just threw me in the deep end.
“It felt like it was an apprenticeship or a traineeship, because I learned everything on the job. I don’t have any formal qualifications to speak of, and now I’ve been doing it for the last 10 years – it’s been quite the adventure.”
After a decade’s worth of presenting a prime-time sports program, Leila has collected a bank of touching memories. Along with the all-women panel specials and the Indigenous round specials (which she says she still gets nervous about, as she’s so invested in the significance the round has for the Indigenous community), Leila fondly reflects on filming on location,
“When had an outside broadcast in Alice Springs, and it was lovely to be able to do go into community and do a show and see more of our fans who we don’t often get to see, because unfortunately they don’t have the opportunity to come to Melbourne for our live shows.”
She will also never forget facilitating boxing great Lionel Rose’s visit on set and having the privilege of meeting the sporting legend before his passing,
“I don’t tend to get star struck, but the one person that I did get quite enamored with when they came onto the show was Lionel Rose, the boxer,” she told NITV.
“The reason for that is because during a time when Indigenous people didn’t have rights or opportunity and he got a lot of respect out of his boxing career and is now a well-known person in the Indigenous community, particularly the Koorie community down here in Victoria.
So for him to come in and not only be on the show, but be a big supporter of the show was a wonderful, wonderful experience. And even though he had been really sick at the time, regardless of his health he still wanted to come in. Sadly only a few weeks of him coming on our show, was his last TV appearance.”
Who run the world? Girls.
Being young and female is not the typical criterion of an Australian sports journalists. However, challenging the mainstream, Marngrook has a long and proud history of women panelists and promotes a strong female voice in sports media. In its 10 years, it has brought 5 female sports hosts into the homes of Australia weekly, including, Emily Finn, Kylie Farmer, Sandy Greenwood and currently, Shelley Ware. And although Leila is still under-30 years old, the Western Bulldogs fan has pioneered as the veteran of this unique format.
“Not only do [women] make up 50 per cent of the AFL membership, but there are women out there who know just as much about football as - or depending on who you’re talking to, more than – men.
Not only do [women] make up 50 per cent of the AFL membership, but there are women out there who know just as much about football as - or depending on who you’re talking to, more than – men.
“Now to see the women’s league get to where it is and to see so many opportunities for women, hopefully we’ll see more women become leaders within the AFL; on boards, presidents and one day, maybe who knows, we’ll have a female AFL CEO!”
Leila says it’s wonderful to see the creation of the AFLW and the path it’s given for girls to be included in the country’s national sport.
“There’s a lot of young girls who enjoy playing football and then will end up taking up other sports because they didn’t have the ability to play football at this kind of league before. And now you not only have it being something that they can do, but the fact that there are women who are talking about the football too. I mean, it would be pretty weird to have only men talking about women’s football.”
Looking to the future
Reflecting on her 10 years in television, Leila says that not only does she feel like a more “polished” version of her former self, but the entire show is the same.
“Friends who I’ve had since my teens and will say, ‘you’re the same person you were ten years ago, but less shy and more polished’, which I think is a wonderful compliment because sometimes when you’re in a certain space in media, like television, people can get ‘big heads’ and whatnot. While I think me and the whole show has become ‘more polished’, it’s not in a way that isn’t authentic to who we are and how we began. I think it’s a really good thing that we’ve kept true to ourselves this entire time,” she said.
“I hope that in 10 years time, we’ll see more women in leadership spaces like on AFL boards or club presidents.
I’d like to see more Indigenous women in media and especially the sports arena. I know so many young women who love their football and can speak about the game as good as any other young man that I’ve come across, and who would be wonderful doing a job like mine. It’s definitely something I want to be a part of; mentoring them to come into the space, really strong and confident.
“I also hope to have given young Indigenous women the ability to believe in themselves, that they can be in the same space as myself. I’d like to see more Indigenous women in media and especially the sports arena. I know so many young women who love their football and can speak about the game as good as any other young man that I’ve come across, and who would be wonderful doing a job like mine. It’s definitely something I want to be a part of; mentoring them to come into the space, really strong and confident.”
And with the excitement of Australia’s first AFL Women’s League premiership grand final this weekend, the question is who this Aussie Rules-aficionado will be barracking…
“Probably the Lions,” she admits as though she’s still undecided. “I like what they’ve done, and I think they’ve got some great players.”
“I was barracking for Freo because I have close friend Alicia Jan who played for them before they got knocked out. It was great to watch her and watch her experience. Of course I also wanted to see Melbourne in there, but I think this weekend I’m gonna go with the Queenslanders.”
NITV's Marngrook Footy Show is back! Tune in every Thursday from 23 March @ 7.30pm AEDT to catch all the latest AFL news.
Fremante's Kirby Bentley and Western Bulldogs' Nicole Callinan will be guests on the Marngrook Footy Show tonight @ 7.30pm on NITV Ch. 34