Last week saw the ASEAN Tourism Forum descend on Phnom Penh and one of its most glamorous guest speakers was surely CNN International anchor and reporter, Anjali Rao.
In the lobby of the newly opened Sofitel hotel, men in dark suits linger in every corner, a hum of quiet chatter filling the breezy space, while the perfectly primped Rao sits daintily in the lush bar area. Neither a single hair nor an eyelash is out of place. Her smile, never fading from her flawlessly made-up face, is wide and bright.
Brought on board by ASEAN to give a short speech at the forum, Rao’s visit to Phnom Penh was a whirlwind one – only 24 hours – but she managed to squeeze in a chat with 7Days before returning to her home in Hong Kong, and says she’d love to come back to the Penh in the very near future to check out the city’s sights and landmarks.
“It’s my second time [to Cambodia]; the first was about two months ago. We went to Siem Reap. It was a surprise for my husband’s birthday,” she says, adding that Temple Town was “unlike anything my husband or I had ever seen before… I just imagined myself as the person who was wandering in the jungle one day and came across these incredible grown-over temples.”
Born in Hong Kong to an Indian father and Australian mother, Rao went on to study in the UK where she obtained a bachelors degree with honours in sociology and media studies from London’s City University.
She says that when it comes to pinpointing exactly when she knew she wanted to be a journo, her mother knew “way, way before I did”.
“This is going to sound really silly but when I was a kid I had two pets in Hong Kong – a baby chicken and a turtle. I would write stories about what they would do and leave them around the house and my mother would find them and say: ‘This kid’s going to be a journalist,’” she says.
“For me, I think it took a little longer. I went through a phase of wanting to be a roller-skating waitress … I was very upset when my mother told me there was no such thing as roller-skating waitresses any more,” Rao says with a giggle.
Following on from her eight-wheeled dream, Rao says she contemplated becoming a doctor, too. That was before she discovered she was “terrible at science. And maths”.
“My mother was a journalist and spoke of it as being a very noble profession. I think a lot of my influence came from her.”
After graduating, Rao had stints working for current affairs program Today Tonight in Australia then returned to Asia as the principal anchor for Star News Asia.
During this time she won the 2004 Amnesty International Human Rights Press Award for her story titled Toxic Trail.
The insightful piece of reporting centred on the plight of locals in Kasaragod, northern Kerala; an area which has been overwhelmed for 20 years with a highly poisonous pesticide to protect its profitable cashew crop.
Most residents in the area are now either physically deformed, mentally retarded or have cancer.
Rao then went on to gain national attention as an anchor on the UK’s Sky News and Five News.
Now, having been with CNN International since January 2006, Rao is the anchor for CNN’s morning news program World Report as well as the presenter for Talk Asia, the network’s weekly flagship program that sees the well-dressed brunette interview some of the world’s most interesting and influential people.
Among them has been Karl Lagerfeld, the seemingly icy head designer best known for heading up fashion labels Chanel and Fendi.
Rao says he was the first interview she did after returning to work following her maternity leave, which didn’t leave much time for her to ease back into the grind of daily news reporting.
“I don’t normally get nervous [doing interviews] any more,” Rao says, “but with him, I did,” she confesses with a grin.
“When you come back to work after something like [maternity leave] you kind of want to ease back into it. Karl Lagerfeld wasn’t like that.
“It’s a little off-putting when you’re trying to make a connection with someone who is always wearing dark glasses in which you can only see your own reflection.”
Nonetheless, Rao says the eternally suited and booted Lagerfeld was a surprisingly candid interviewee.
Another interview that stands out was Rao’s encounter with pop starlet Rihanna, whom the journo says was just as surprising as the steely Lagerfeld.
“She’s my favourite. Yeah, I own up to that,” she says, laughing.
“She was another surprise because she’s so famous. I expected her to act like it but she didn’t at all. It was like she walked into the room and we were friends. She’s just really laid-back.”
Bill Clinton, Usher, Roger Federer, Vivienne Westwood, Slash and Quincy Jones are just some of the other big names rounding out Rao’s resume.
So when it comes to that one, ultimate personality she’d just love to sit down with and ask the most pressing of questions, Rao says without hesitation: “Kim Jong-il, of course! But realistically, Barack Obama. I’d love to do the whole family, though.”
With a toddler about to turn two and plans to meet the world’s most powerful leader, if not the most mysterious one, 2011 looks set to be yet another year of achievement for Anjali Rao.