Risky, personal style-setter Profile: Jana Shortal challenges perceptions of what a newswoman looks like - and succeeds
I tried to be that woman that everybody else was. I'm sure it was painful for most people to watch, including myself. - Jana Shortal
by Sheila Regan
In the world of television and media, the image of what a woman is supposed to look like ends up being pretty narrow. While there are a few exceptions, with people like Rachel Maddow and Ellen DeGeneres breaking the mold, for the most part, women ascribe to a glossy, hetero-normative look.
Locally, news personality Jana Shortal, who co-hosts the show "Breaking the News" on KARE 11, has done her part to break open expectations of what women in TV are expected to wear. A queer woman, she took the risk of adopting her own unique style for the camera, and the choice has paid off.
It wasn't always easy. As a young TV journalist, Shortal worked at a CBS station in Jefferson City, Missouri, and then with a Fox affiliate in Kansas City before moving to Minnesota in 2003. "I was not subtly reminded by male management members that it was a visual medium," she says. "They thought that would get the hint across."
Shortal would spend hours in front of the mirror. She'd tease and coax her naturally curly hair into a straight "helmet hair" bob, the favored style of female news reporters everywhere.
"I tried to be that woman that everybody else was. I'm sure it was painful for most people to watch, including myself," Shortal recalls. The more she took pains to look like the ultra-feminine ideal, the more she made herself look worse, and completely unlike her "real" self. "It was so uncomfortable to me," she says. "It felt like being in costume."
After work, she'd get out of her work clothes and into her "me" clothes. She had two different closets, with virtually no overlap between the two. "If I had plans with friends after a shift, I would definitely bring a change of clothes," she says.
Breaking the mold
Gradually, especially in the past few years, Shortal has started to present as herself. "It's a whole journey," she says. "It's the same with my sexual orientation. It wasn't an aha' moment, like on Oprah. It was a slow progression."
As Shortal got more comfortable with the job she was doing, she started to introduce little details of her appearance that were more genuine. She'd ditch her pointy shoes, instead wearing her "fun" shoes to work. "I noticed no one cared, and I thought, 'Oh, wait. Maybe I'm allowed to wear these shoes.'" She gradually introduced fashion choices that spoke to who she was as a person rather than who she thought she was supposed to be.
Though she doesn't consider her style of dress to be "a typical lesbian," she doesn't dress as a heterosexual woman either. "I dress as me and how I feel comfortable," she says.
The fight for marriage equality in Minnesota and across the country played an enormous part in helping Shortal feel comfortable being herself. "In a period of two years, everything changed," she says.
Things went into high gear in January 2016, when an opportunity came up for Shortal to do a different kind of newscast at KARE 11, called "Breaking the News." She was in rehearsals for the show when a female producer said to her: "It's important for you to present as you are," Shortal recalls. "It was so odd for me to hear that. I thought, 'Are you hinting at what I think you are hinting at?'" The producer suggested Shortal wear the shoes and clothes she was wearing, and to keep her hair short and curly. Shortal was shocked.
The night before their first airing, David Bowie died. He had significantly "issued permission slips to all the misfits to continue to be misfits," Shortal says. The next morning, Shortal messaged the producer who had told her to be herself. She said she decided to wear a David Bowie shirt for the first day of the show, she wouldn't straighten her hair and she'd wear a blazer.
What happened? No one said anything about the way she was dressed. "I was like 'OK, I guess the handcuffs are off.'"
Shortal credits her bosses at KARE 11 for being so supportive of her, which helped a lot in getting her to be open as herself. Still, commenters on social media have attacked her. Last year, Shortal found herself the subject of a gossip column that criticized her casual appearance as she reported on the Jacob Wetterling case. "People can say some pretty mean things, and they have," she says. "You get used to it."
She's taken it all in stride. "Now I'm completely confident in how I present, because that's part of the show I do," she says. "It's supposed to be different."
The profile appears in every issue of the Minnesota Women's Press. It reflects our founding principle and guiding philosophy that every woman has a story. Readers are welcome to submit suggestions for profile subjects. Email your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.