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Careers Female TV personalities pushing back against expectations for women’s workplace style

MSNBC political analyst Zerlina Maxwell attends a SiriusXM election special in New York City.

Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

One day in January, Sunny Hostin, an ABC News senior legal correspondent and a host of “The View,” was sitting behind a desk on the “Nightline” sound stage talking to ABC News correspondent Linsey Davis about a Purdue University “rape by fraud” case. She was wearing a tropical print wrap dress with blouson sleeves, a small gold “S” pendant necklace and a flowing mane of honey-coloured, stadium-concert-ready curls.

“People think if you’re too glamorous, you must not be smart,” she had said in an interview in her office a few weeks earlier. A lawyer and former federal prosecutor who has won three Emmys – two for her work as a “Good Morning America” correspondent and a third for “The President and the People,” an ABC News special on Barack Obama – Hostin is doing her best to change all that.

Along with two other former lawyers, Zerlina Maxwell, 37, who is an MSNBC political analyst, and Maya Wiley, 55, an NBC News and MSNBC legal analyst, Hostin, 50, represents the new face of political news punditry.

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Traditionally defined by news media personalities like Megyn Kelly and Kimberly Guilfoyle in bright-and-tight sleeveless sheaths, or besuited broadcast journalists like Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric, the image is ripe for reinvention, and women like Hostin, Maxwell and Wiley are challenging the antiquated aesthetics of the television workplace.

And they’re ready to air their views. “For people with the access, you have to share the information,” Hostin said. “I’m just trying to kick open the doors.”

These are edited excerpts from individual conversations with the three women.

Q: Is there a network “look?”

Wiley: TV news is very risk-averse in terms of pushing any boundaries. I would describe my style as “boho meets BAP” I have both of those aspects going.

I was the young lawyer who refused to look like a lawyer, so I would go to sample sales all the time. I had a pink outfit – a soft, petal pink – that was jammin’! It was a boat-neck knit dress and matching blazer, bought separately. The hem was a little short, so I’d wear it with chocolate tights and a funky shoe.

Hostin: “The View” is about being unique. Whatever you’re comfortable in, that’s what works. Sometimes, in the business of hard news or as a legal authority, your looks can work against you: You’re a woman of colour, you look young. Now, because I’ve been working for so long, people know my pedigree. I can wear the leopard shoes. I don’t think it’s a distraction from what I’m saying. I think it adds to it.

And over the three seasons or so that I’ve been at “The View,” I’ve become pretty fearless in my style, with a range of designers that includes Altuzarra, Balmain, Erdem and Proenza Schouler. But I make style mistakes. That’s the fun of it.

Q: Do viewers really care?

Hostin: We get hundreds of requests on social media every day. People want to know everything, even nail polish colours. I use Kerry Washington’s manicurist. We’re thinking about doing a style shot every day and posting credits because we can’t answer them all individually. But it’s wonderful that people want to know.

Wiley: The attention is flattering, but for me, it’s about drawing the viewer’s eye, and there’s positive and negative attention. Even if they like your outfit, or hairstyle, or accessories, when I hear, “I love your earrings,” that’s a bad metric for me. I love big earrings, but I don’t wear them on air. I don’t wear necklaces on air. It draws people’s attention away, and they stop listening to the message.

Maxwell: If you’re walking around in this body, as a black woman, as a woman of colour, people respond to how they think you are, even if you haven’t opened your mouth. When I interviewed Hillary Clinton for a SiriusXM town hall in 2017, I wore the pleated metallic green skirt I’m wearing today. Instead of today’s “We Out!– Harriet Tubman” T-shirt, I wore “Phenomenal Woman – Maya Angelou.” Huma Abedin said, “I like your outfit,” and it was the best compliment ever.

It’s supercool when I get emails or messages from people who say, “I showed your hair to my child because I want her to see somebody in media who has her hair so she can be proud of having big, curly hair.” No matter the texture, too.

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Hostin says that 'as a woman of colour, I have to fit into this box of what success looks like or smarts looks like.'

Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Q: Is there a double standard for women?

Maxwell: I have to sit in the makeup chair for one hour before every segment to be “presentable” for TV, while the man sits in the chair for 4 minutes for powder. I don’t have an official stylist, but a stylist/interior designer friend sends me Pinterest boards of things I should buy. Samhita Mukhopadhyay, the Teen Vogue executive editor, is a good friend, and I pick up inspiration from her, too. And I keep a rotation of Rent the Runway Unlimited in my office, just in case.

Hostin: As a woman, as a woman of colour, I have to fit into this box of what success looks like or smarts look like. They used to say, “Dress for the job you want,” but I see a lot of people get those jobs, and they weren’t dressing for them. It really bothers me because I feel I’ve had to work twice as hard to get half as far. I can’t get past it. Joy (Behar) says, “That really gets to you, doesn’t it?” And it does. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to reconcile that.

Q: Is hair an issue?

Hostin: Once I became comfortable at CNN, and once my contract was renewed, I was off to the races: curly hair, hair back, whatever I wanted to do. Anderson Cooper was always very good about letting me do that. I was wearing my hair curly, then one day I straightened it, and right after my segment, I got a call from an executive. They said, “This is your look!” This was 2012 or so. It was a not-so-subtle way of saying, “Don’t do the other thing any more.” I wondered, “Why is this ‘my look’?”

Maxwell: When you work in predominantly white spaces, especially in news, and you change your hair, it’s a thing. People touch you, and they ask crazy questions. I started out in television with the 18-inch Indian Remi hair that everyone has. For me, it was an evolution, personally. I had to get to the point where I was comfortable enough to take my hair out: “This is how my hair looks, and it’s this big, and I’m letting it be bigger.” It’s been a cool experience.

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Once, on “Today,” a hairstylist, a black woman, saw me backstage and said: “Come over here. Do you mind if I make your Afro a little bigger?” She took that expensive Dyson dryer and in 2 seconds blows the roots out, and it’s big. Then I went out on “Megyn Kelly,” and I was like, “Yes, I wish I could do it myself!” I want my Afro to be as big as possible.

Wiley: My daughters and I have this joke. Ever since Solange Knowles came out with “Don’t Touch My Hair,” I feel like I should carry that around with me and just hit play. I still get people asking to touch my hair – on the street, absolutely. Or they say, “Those are nice braids.” They’re not braids.

Maxwell: I never received pushback from anyone about my hair. I like my face better this way, but everyone has their own journey. I don’t necessary look at it like it’s a political statement. I’m just as radical as I was when I had the weave. I think it’s amazing when I see women of colour wearing curly hair – natural or wigs – because after so long being told otherwise, black women see coarser texture as an aspirational.

Q: Did you have a role model?

Hostin: I check in with Robin Roberts – she is fearless, she’s a sage. She has been in this business a long time, and I ask her a lot of questions. Tamron Hall, we met through Don Lemon. Don is not one of the girls, but he’s so interesting. We used to fight all the time, but he watches the show every day and will text me during the show about anything from my hair to my clothing to something I said, or something someone else said. Soledad (O’Brien), Joy Reid. It’s almost like Black Girl Magic News Mafia. We check in with each other.

Maxwell: I definitely looked up to Melissa Harris-Perry, Joy Reid and Karen Finney. And I wouldn’t be here unless Donna Brazile existed. She was the first black woman I saw on TV doing political commentary. I would sit on my couch and practice how I might respond to questions.

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I have a lot of J. Crew because of Michelle Obama. I saw her speak in Harlem in July 2008, and it was a galvanizing moment that led to me becoming a field organizer for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign. And I definitely watch what Meghan Markle is wearing. I bought the Everlane leather tote I’m carrying today because of her.

Wiley: The truth is, you always take cues, but how conscious are you of them? It was always a conscious decision not to colour my hair. Elaine Jones, the first woman to be director of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, became a mentor, really took me under her wing and taught me how to lobby. Brilliant brain, and when I caught up with her years later, she had a beautiful head of silver hair.

My hair started getting really grey maybe three years ago. My daughters, 15 and 18, both jumped on it. “Mom, it’s time.” Time for what? “It’s time to dye your hair!” Then I started saying, “I earned every last one of these.” I turned it into an attitude! For anyone who doesn’t fit into traditional categories, when you see people showing up on big traditional platforms, it all seems possible.

This content appears as provided to The Globe by the originating wire service. It has not been edited by Globe staff.

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