As he slides into a beautiful Ralph Lauren suit in readiness for the next shot, Waleed Aly and I are talking about Zoolander 2. The previous night on Network Ten’s news-with-comedy show The Project, his co-hosts Peter Helliar and Carrie Bickmore got a lot of laughs by teasing him about this very Men’s Style shoot – and they did so in front of international guest and Zoolander 2 star Ben Stiller. Now, here Aly is, at the sharp end as the subject of a fashion shoot, being a good sport all over again as we press him to reprise his very best ‘Blue Steel’.
“The best thing about Zoolander 2 was the underlying commentary on social media…” the 37-year-old muses in between shots. “How things like Instagram have become our lives rather than reflecting our lives.”
It’s a very Aly thing to say. On meeting him, it becomes very clear very quickly that this is a man who takes an issue, any issue, and repeatedly turns it over in his head, examining it from every side, before offering an opinion via his newspaper op-eds, on radio, or through one of his “editorials” on The Project. The result is that it feels like he has lifted the collective IQ of Australia’s news media and pop culture.
But here’s a confession: I was as surprised as I’ve ever been during many years publishing magazines that Waleed Aly agreed to this story and shoot. Why?
Because from the moment you meet him, and even while he’s hosting The Project, it’s clear this man loathes the idea of being “a celebrity”. Aly, as he mentions more than once during our chats, is in love with “ideas”, not himself, and so this whole PR process of dressing in fine threads, subjecting himself to the direction of a photographer and stylist, and then discussing himself and his motivations at length, is constantly undercut by self-deprecating lines and deflection of the idea that he is the medium. The medium is the message (yes, we’re stretching Mr McLuhan’s meaning here).
But like it or not, Waleed Aly – big-brained ideas and all – has “arrived”. His now famous editorial “ISIS is weak” on The Project, which screened on November 16 last year a day or two after the Paris terrorist attacks, has now been viewed just shy of 30 million times around the world. Nearly any opinion Aly utters on the nightly show now “goes viral” and becomes part of “the conversation”. He’d bristle at the thought but, like it or not, Waleed Aly is now a household name.
“I’m not struggling with it [celebrity] so much as… well, ‘bemused’ is probably a better word,” Aly tells me after his cover shoot. “I still don’t regard myself as a celebrity and I find the whole notion laughable, really. I come from a world where the thing that’s mattered most is the content or the issue, not the personality, and I still approach it that way.”
‘I still don’t regard myself as a celebrity and I find the whole notion laughable, really.’
Aly became a permanent co-host of The Project in January 2015, following an apprenticeship on the show as one of its ‘floating’ fourth hosts. Before that he’d had a bits-and-pieces media career which consisted of a regular ABC radio drive slot, appearances on Q&A, hosting ABC TV’s Big Ideas and producing and appearing on SBS’s Salam Café.
All the while he has maintained parallel careers, first as a lawyer with Melbourne firm Maddocks and later as an academic at Monash, where he still lectures in politics and works with the Global Terrorism Research Centre. Oh yeah, he’s also an accomplished lead guitarist with Melbourne band Robot Child. Check out the YouTube video of him absolutely nailing Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” at last year’s Walkley Awards. It’s not a conventional background for a commercial TV host, which is what makes Aly so interesting. But he’s a compelling presence for more than the fact he appears to be, well, bloody good at everything. There’s also the fact that Melbourne-born Aly is a Sunni Muslim, the son of Egyptian parents, who loves cricket, rock ‘n’ roll and the Richmond Tigers. Has there ever been a broadcaster on Australian TV with so many strings to his bow?
It’s because he is so multi-faceted, and because of the incisiveness of his views, that this issue’s coverline is wholly justified: “The Most Important Man On TV”. For what he says, but also who he is. In 2014, after Aly delivered a Project editorial on Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram, who’d recently kidnapped 200 schoolgirls, he was attacked by conservative columnist Andrew Bolt as “the model moderate Muslim, used by the media to persuade us we have little to fear from Islam but our own bigotry”.
Put the idea to Aly that in his current high-profile television role he is somehow a “representative” – of Islam, of the Left (or Right – Aly says he finds both terms close to meaningless), of contemporary, multicultural Australia – and his response is firm.
“I don’t walk out on air feeling the burden of representation,” he says. “I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of being representative… of anything! I have no authority to claim I’m representative. I haven’t won an election or anything.
“If there’s one perception of me I relate least to it’s the perception that I’m advocating for something in particular. And I’m just not. There are certain issues where I have a position and I will, when the moment calls for it, argue that position, but I don’t expect people to just flatly believe in it. It’s more an offer. This is my analysis, do with it what you will.”
‘I don’t expect people to just believe my analysis – do with it what you will.’
Always smart, The Project has nevertheless been revitalised by Aly’s fresh ideas and his ability to communicate them to a commercial audience without diluting his passion or dumbing down his arguments. “We’ll be talking about an issue of the day and he’ll come from left-field and say, ‘What if we look at it like this?’ and we all lean forward and say, ‘Yeah, what if we did do it like that?’” says the show’s executive producer Craig Campbell when asked about the evolution of Aly’s on-air editorials. “We’re also very aware we only have so much time to keep an audience’s attention – we’re not on the ABC, we’re not long form – so to actually pack in the content [he does] and have the impact he has in four or five minutes is extraordinary.”
At the heart of most people who live life in the public eye, I’ve discovered over the years, is deep and abiding insecurity. Aly is not immune, though with him it comes across less as self-doubt and more an unrelenting self-examination by his frighteningly analytical, rigorously methodical brain. He worries, for instance, about the viral thing, and the lack of nuance involved in discussing big weighty issues within the confines of commercial TV. “I’m not going to sit here and pretend that when I do a four-minute piece to camera that it’s the most nuanced rendering of the topic that could possibly be done,” he reflects. “But I am happy to say we’ve done okay within that medium.”
He worries also – at my prodding – about ego, and the effect of “performing” day in day out. “I’m very concerned about what being a performer does to character,” he says. “I think daily performance is a dangerous thing for humans to do, and an unhealthy mode for people to be in regularly. One of my philosophical objections to social media is that it transforms our entire existences into one-off performances. I think that’s a really unhealthy development.”
‘I think daily performance is a dangerous thing for humans to do.’
Aly says his wife Susan Carland, also an academic, is “not remotely impressed by the fact I have a media job” while he says he has the sense his pre-teen children, Aisha and Zayd, “don’t watch me very often”. He finds it hard to relax, he admits, eschewing beach holidays for ones that “enrich” him and finds it hard to read fiction because “I’m too busy looking at the argument they’re making”.
You can imagine. That restless brain and natural curiosity, which creates such cut-through whether he’s talking terrorism, refugee policy or Australian cricket team selection, is also the reason he wears so many hats and will be a fascinating figure to watch for many years to come.
‘”The way it works is, I’m doing something,” he explains of his multiple roles, “and I found doing something begets more things to do. If someone opens the door and says, ‘Hey, do you want to come in here?’ I tend to go, ‘Sure’. I don’t say sure because I necessarily know I want to go live in that room, but I do want to go in there and see what’s going on.”