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Alumna Amber Brantsen: ‘Allow yourself to make mistakes’

A glowing first-time mother-to-be with an impressive CV for someone of her age, newsreader Amber Brantsen would seem to lead a charmed life. ‘But I began to resent that image,’ says the Leiden Public Administration alumna. This led her to write the impressive and personal Uit Beeld (Out of the Picture). For what few people know is that for a long time Amber battled a severe eating disorder.

Your book shows a very different Amber from the one that the general public has seen. Was it daunting to tell your story?

‘Definitely. For a long time I thought it was so long ago that it was no longer relevant. But I also thought: if I don’t talk about it, I’ll reinforce the taboo around eating disorders. And that would be wrong. Ultimately I realised that something stood to be gained from starting the conversation at all, even if it was only with one reader.’

‘If I don’t talk about it, I’ll reinforce the taboo around eating disorders.’

Can you tell us a bit about your story?

‘When I started my degree in Public Administration in Leiden, I had a number of really difficult years behind me. My first degree, Media and Culture in Amsterdam, wasn’t what I was hoping it would be. The programme, living away from home, the other students… nothing was as I had expected and I soon lost my way. I was lonely and felt like a failure. My biggest mistake? Not asking for help. That was how my eating disorder started, a disorder that I was even hospitalised for at one point. But even they couldn’t get me back on the right track. In the depths of my illness, I could no longer think clearly. The only thing I did know was that I wanted to be “normal” again. I’d always enjoyed learning and studying, but I didn’t have the energy anymore.’

Amber as a student in Leiden.

What was the turning point for you?

‘The breakthrough came when I took things into my own hands, with the help of a therapist. Against the wishes of my loved ones, I moved into my own place and registered for Public Administration in Leiden. What I hoped happened: I loved the programme and that’s really what saved me. The intervals between relapses increased and a new door opened for me: my voluntary work at Unity, the local broadcaster in Leiden. After that, things happened fast. I was spotted by Radio West, and became a freelance newsreader for them. Then I did an internship at NOS, where I spent around four months working in the home news team. While there, I tried to learn as much as possible about working at “Hilversum” [the home of Dutch TV, Ed.]. I took in all that was going on around me and worked with as many people as possible. It was worth it in the end. When my internship finished, I was asked to come and freelance for NOS.’

You’re someone who goes straight for her goal…

Amber laughs: ‘Yes, you’re right. Obviously I’ve been lucky, but I’m ambitious too and I’m not afraid to show it. One of my pet topics is how you should always tell people about your ambitions. I’d been saying for years that I wanted to go to Hilversum. Everyone would roll their eyes, but look where I am now. It’s thanks in part to my own determination. No job was too menial for me. I did assignments for little or no money if I thought they were interesting. I got up in the middle of the night or combined three voluntary jobs. But above all I told people what I wanted. During my internship at NOS I asked if I could go out spend a day with the broadcasting team, and whether I could watch the evening news from behind the scenes. And when I was working at the radio, I asked the chief editors if they thought TV would suit me. If they could imagine me doing that.’

‘Everything is a learning experience. Enjoy the process, even if the road is rocky at times.’ Photo: Jeanette Huisman

Apparently they could: you now present the NOS TV news. What do you like about the job?

‘As an NOS news presenter, it’s my job to present my colleagues’ hard work. I’m really conscious of this task that I’ve been entrusted with. My presentation can make a seemingly dry topic interesting to the viewer, but the opposite is also true. If I keep stumbling over my words, that can be really distracting. That means there’s a certain amount of pressure, but it also gives me focus.’

Who: Amber Brantsen (31)
Degree: Public Administration (2009-2014)
Favourite spot in Leiden: ‘Koornbrug. That’s where I stood as a newsreader for Unity FM during the Leiden Marathon in 2013. I could be heard on both Unity and Radio West, giving updates on the competition. That broadcast meant I was invited for coffee at Radio West, and it wasn’t much later that I started working there as a freelance radio newsreader.’
Personal life: ‘I live with my partner and am pregnant with my first child.’

Is there anything that you find difficult?

‘News is often intense. It’s regularly about famine, war, attacks and crises. In the editorial team, we mainly focus on texts, graphics and images. Which tools do we need to tell the news as clearly as possible? But on the way home all that I have seen and heard that day can suddenly hit me – and so should it. If the news no longer affects you, you need to find another job. That’s how I see it.’

What’s your dream for the future?

‘I’m often asked if my next step will be a talk show, but to be completely honest I haven’t got a clue. My motto is that you should be open to anything. If someone offers you a cup of coffee, always take the opportunity to have a chat. It’s never a waste of time. Having said that, I feel right at home at NOS. I have plenty of opportunities and in such a big journalistic organisation there are still plenty of options for me to discover. What is more, I’ve taken quite a lot of steps in a short amount of time in my career thus far. Now I’ve been presenting NOS news for over three years, I’m beginning to appreciate staying in one place for longer. You make it your own and grow in the role. And I’m still learning every day.’

‘If the news no longer affects you, you need to find another job.’

Do you sometimes think back to the Amber of then?

‘Yes, but I would go as far to say that it’s another Amber who is sitting in front of you now. An Amber who has become wiser from bitter experience and is much kinder to herself. What I would say to anyone is: allow yourself to make mistakes. That’s an important lesson from my book. It doesn’t all have to be perfect. I’ve had lots of reactions from people who feel that this speaks directly to them. There’s a lot of recognition, particularly when I write about loneliness and finding your place in the world. I’ve noticed that it happens to lots of people during a major transition, like the transition from secondary school to university or to your first job. It’s only logical that you are unsure of yourself to begin with and don’t know what you really want or what makes you happy. And that things don’t always go to plan. But at a certain point you have to take some kind of action, and if you can’t, you should seek help. Precisely what I didn’t do therefore.’

What role does Leiden have in your life?

‘Finishing my degree here and being able to sign my name on the wall of the Sweat Chamber feels like a victory. Leiden’s in my heart. I see it as the place where I got better, where the new Amber could emerge. I still like coming here – it’s where my in-laws live. It’s familiar, cosy, on a human scale. Leiden taught me to trust in myself again and to be open to whatever comes my way. That’s a lesson I like to tell others: everything is a learning experience. Enjoy the process, even if the road is rocky at times.’

Text: Nienke Ledegang
Banner photo: Jeanette Huisman

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