Wellbeing: Steph McGovern on the joy of connection and being yourself
Steph McGovern is reflecting on words of wisdom she’s heard over the years which have stuck with her.
“The thing that’s stuck the most for me – and what I think about most for my little girl – is just about authenticity,” says the presenter, who has a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter with her partner.
“You are you for a reason: the environment you’ve grown up in, the family, the background, the geographical location, the community. All those things have a part in making you, you – and you don’t need to change that, no matter what you want, what career or friendships, because that’s what makes you authentically you. The right people will love and respect you and value you for that.”
McGovern – currently known for hosting Channel 4’s Steph’s Packed Lunch – was born in Newcastle and raised in Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire. She was awarded an Arkwright Engineering Scholarship at sixth-form, due to her potential in the field – but work experience on BBC’s Tomorrow’s World set the wheels in motion for a career in broadcasting, with McGovern working her way up from researcher to producer and presenting roles, including stints covering economic and business news for BBC One and BBC Breakfast.
“When I started out, to be a girl with a regional accent going into mainstream media was really unusual,” recalls McGovern, who’ll turn 40 in May. “I remember one boss saying to me, ‘Well you’ve got to where you are because you’re you and that’s the great thing, because you’re really normal – for want of a better word’. That’s been something I’ve really kept telling myself. There have been times when I’ve felt really out of place in certain situations and I’ve thought, ‘God, I need to behave a bit posh here’, or ‘I need to sound different’. But I’ve really tried to say, ‘No – be yourself, be yourself, be yourself’. Just be you and then you’ll stand out for the right reasons.”
It’s a message she’s keen to highlight when giving talks at schools. Although, not everyone she’s worked with has been so supportive: “I’ve had bosses who said, ‘You’re never going to end up on telly with a voice like that’. But I’ve listened to the ones that were inspiring. That’s another thing I tell kids – you might hit barriers, you might come up against people who don’t value you. But they’re just one voice, and you don’t have to listen to that one voice. Try and find the ones that are positive – they’re the ones to take with you.”
Recently, McGovern has been revisiting roots in a different way, teaming up with her dad Eamonn, 68, on the #GenerationWOW (which stands for ‘wonderful older wisdom’) campaign in partnership with Specsavers Home Visits and u3a, the ‘positive ageing’ movement University of the Third Age, highlighting skills older people can share with younger generations. They’ve created a series of skill-sharing tutorials – and McGovern’s done one with her dad, a professional artist. It sees Eamonn lead his daughter through a one-to-one masterclass to produce a painting of a local landscape.
“Growing up, I’ll be honest, I was a bit like, ‘Oh God, why does my dad have to have a weird job?’” she laughs. “It was all art in our house, and I thought our house was really weird, it was all paintings and sculptures. But as I’ve got older, I’ve thought, ‘My dad’s an artist, that’s amazing!’”
Although they’d painted together on the odd occasion in the past, they’d never done it as properly as this – and while McGovern’s chuffed with the painting she produced thanks to her dad’s guidance, the chance to connect is what she really cherished. “Because you don’t really make time like that, do you? I’ve got a little girl and a lot of the time with my mum and dad is spent talking about her, things like that. This time, we were just having a good conversation – even asking him about all his different paint brushes, I’d never really asked what they’re all for. When it’s something you’ve grown up with, you don’t ever stop and ask.
“It was a real privilege to have that time, and hear my dad talk about how he feels about things and his life,” she adds. “I’ve learned so much more about [him] as a young man and being an artist in the 70s, and thinking, ‘Wow, what was your life like then?’ It made me think about how weird it was for him being an artist in an Irish family, where no one had ever gone to uni before him… You just don’t really stop and have those conversations, really.”
It inspired her to start “documenting” more conversations. “I’ve started recording conversations with people in my family and asking them about stuff. I’ve got family in Northern Ireland, so asking them about The Troubles and all of that. All of that is knowledge and history, and capturing their voice, capturing the skills and stories of other people, it’s really important.”
McGovern says she’s been thinking more about documenting things for her daughter too – especially considering she was born at the beginning of the pandemic, such an unusual time in history. “In the world we live in now, we don’t stop and go, ‘Oh, tell me about this then’, and just listen, and then ask, ‘How did you deal with that?’”
Storytelling is clearly a big passion for McGovern – yet she’s very clear on her boundaries with social media. “My rule is, I never put my family on there – and when I say family, I mean my partner and my daughter, obviously I’m doing this campaign with my dad. But I haven’t even shared my little girl’s name or any pictures of her, because I want it to be her choice when she’s older, whether she wants to put herself out there or not,” McGovern explains. “And the same with my partner, she’s not in the public eye and we just keep that separate and that’s really healthy for us, because no one’s then making an opinion about our family life. If they have an opinion, it’s about me – and that’s fine because I’ve chosen to put myself out there.”
Parenthood has “really changed” her approach to taking care of her health too, she admits.
“It’s always been career, career, career, and survival mode when it comes to health. I did dancing for a long time growing up [she’s a former Irish dancing champion] and I like to run, but I never really did anything seriously thinking ‘is it going to make me live longer?’ Now, since having our little girl, I am having more work-life balance, which means I’ve also got a really good relationship with my partner, and I focus on my spiritual wellbeing,” adds McGovern.
“Not in a cheesy kind of way, more in the sense of what makes me happy.”