Things we’ll do for a story . . .

By Kirstin Buick
20 September 2013

In our behind-the-scenes feature, journalist Alet van Zyl talks about some of the interesting experiences she and her colleagues have had to get a story, from ice-cold baths in winters to taking urine samples to an interview.

When I meet new people and tell them I work at YOU, I am generally asked two questions: “Who is the most famous celeb you’ve ever met?” and “What is your favourite story?”

The problem with this is that, to answer the first question, it depends on personal opinion. Someone who I consider to be a big celeb might be a nobody to someone else. In answer to the second question: my favourite type of story is one that allows me to travel to faraway countries. That is, however, not usually something that interests other people.

If people want interesting answers, the question they should ask YOU journalists is what is the strangest thing they have done for the sake of a story. This I can promise you: we’ve all done something we don’t like to tell others. In the moment when you make the decision, your gut reaction is to scream “Noooo!”, while your journalistic instinct yells the opposite. It’s for a good story, you tell yourself. I’m doing it for the readers, you say.

I recently visited the “clinic” of Joost van der Westhuizen’s “therapist”, Anton Neethling for an article in the latest issue (26 September 2013). When he asked me for a urine sample so he could use his machine to test whether my body is “in balance”, my first thought was to scream “no”. Then the journalistic voice intervened and the next thing I knew I was saying (out loud), “Yes, of course.”

Now it’s one thing when a doctor asks you for a sample that is neatly enclosed in a little bottle and is sent away to be tested. It’s a different story when someone stands in front of you and starts analysing it drop by drop – and all this while a YOU photographer captures it on camera. Let me put it this way: a visit to the gynaecologist will never be intimidating again.

Journalist Alet van Zyl and Anton Neethling. She was not wild about having her urine samples photographed.

A colleague of mine, Danél Blaauw, once lived on coconuts for two days and slept on the beach in wet clothes to experience what it’s like to be a Survivor contestant.

Danél Blaauw gets the full Survivor experience.

A colleague in Cape Town, Pieter van Zyl, once sat in a hole in the ground for an hour to get an idea of what it must have been like for a sex slave who had been kept in similar conditions. The teenage girl in question had been kept in a hole measuring 2 metres by 2 metres for 18 months in the Hemel en Aarde valley, between Caledon and Hermanus. Pieter will never really know what it was like for her, but he went all-out to try to understand it – and to give readers the most accurate picture he could paint.

Pieter van Zyl tries to understand the trauma sex slaves go through.

Pieter also once wrote a story about how to stop smoking. He was advised to replace his smoking with a hobby. The result: he started a new hobby and knitted blankets for all his colleagues’ kids in the next few weeks.

Pieter gets into his new hobby.

Another colleague also based in Cape Town, Petro-Anne Vlok, has had to test so many of these types of experiments that we often refer to her as the YOU in-house guinea pig. Last year there were news stories about children and dogs left in cars while the parents/owners went shopping. Petro-Anne locked herself in a car in on a hot day in the middle of summer. For almost an hour she sat in the car in the sun. “It was the worst thing ever,” she told me. “After 40 minutes it was more than 65 °C.” She was dizzy and covered in sweat when she emerged.

Petro-Anne Vlok before, during and after her time in a hot car in summer.

Almost equally as bad, Petro-Anne says, was the time she tested a near-starvation diet. She was permitted to eat very little, had to blow up 20 balloons every day to strengthen her stomach muscles and had to lie in an ice-cold bath every morning to speed up her metabolism – in the middle of winter. Worst of all, she didn’t lose even one kilogram.

Few things remain funny or strange to journalists. As fellow journalist Jaco Hough-Coetzee says, “Nothing can shock me anymore.” -       Alet van Zyl

 Read Alet’s interview with Anton Neethling in the latest issue of YOU (26 September 2013) on sale now.

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