Posing on the wooden rungs of a dramatic spiraling staircase within the industrial-chic environs of the Williamsburg Hotel, journalist and host/co-producer of The Barneys Podcast Season 3 (which debuts June 26 with a trailer out today) Noor Tagouri is at home in front of the camera. Sheathed in Loewe, the 25-year-old knows when to turn, when to smile, and when to stare boldly down the barrel of the lens. Which is no surprise: It’s been her sweet spot for nearly ten years now, ever since the whiz-kid reporter launched her newsroom and field reporting career, cutting her teeth at the local news and radio stations in her native Maryland. This foundational work would propel her to later produce an array of ceiling-shattering work, including podcast and documentary Sold in America about the sex trade in the U.S. and Newsy docuseries A Woman’s Job, which debunks archaic stereotypes.
And while tackling the weighty subjects of sex trafficking and mental disabilities in America would eventually come to mark Tagouri as a journalist to watch, it was the Libyan-American Muslim reporter’s decision at 15 to wear hijab that truly informed her body of work. As she tells me, without having first experienced the shock of misrepresentation and marginalization within the context of American culture and its increasing xenophobia, Tagouri believes she couldn’t have gotten the stories right. There’s no better example than when Vogue mistakenly identified her as Pakistani actress Noor Bukhari in a print feature on the journalist earlier this year. The clip of her discovering the misnomer went viral and reified her mission to authentically highlight the stories of her subjects in her work.
That’s because, as Tagouri explains, she’s not in the business of speaking for others. Instead, she’s here to provide a platform for underrepresented voices to finally speak for themselves—like the many she’s culled for the latest season of The Barneys Podcast. “I want to be able to do something different this season. I want to celebrate people who are on the forefront of pushing our culture forward—and many of those people happen to be people of color,” Tagouri says earnestly. “I wanted to basically curate this season and amplify voices of people who are almost typically tokenized. I just want to make sure that we are highlighting the leaders who need and deserve to be seen as leaders and as people who are about ‘it.’ I think it’s really cool to use a fashion platform to elevate those voices.”
Handing the mic over to the likes of Project Runway’s Elaine Welteroth and Queer Eye’s Tan France, this season reveals how fashion becomes a conduit to corrective conversations around identity politics and culture. The lifelong fashion aficionado knows this all too well, having been famously profiled (fully clothed) in Playboy; Tagouri has seen how her decision to cover and dress modestly while working in the field as the first hijabi American news anchor evokes a myriad of reactions. “It’s so funny because people think about fashion at such a surface level. And it’s not, if you don’t let it be,” she explains. “For some people, the way you dress, and your style, is a part of your identity. It’s how you’re seen in the world, perceived in the world, how you carry yourself. It’s something you fight for. You have to fight for that right.”
Here, Tagouri tells us about a brush with Ted Koppel as a young journalist-to-be, how and why she got her start, and why storytelling is an act of service.
YOUNG JOURNALIST ROOTS
“My parents would put me in writing and reading camps when I was little. My dad would sit me down to watch the news and break the news down. Ted Koppel opened up a hospital wing at my dad’s hospital in Maryland, and my dad took me. I was the only one who got to talk [to Ted Koppel]. He didn’t talk to the press. I found notes that my mom wrote me in my lunch box when I was a kid that read, ‘One day you’ll do all these things!’ That’s why I always credit my parents and tell them, ‘You guys are the reason.’ I was saying this to Elaine [Welteroth] yesterday—it’s so powerful, the affirmation that a parent or a parent figure can give a person. If my parents told me I was going to be great, and they’re the only people who don’t lie to me in my life, then why would I believe otherwise?”
A CAREER JOURNALIST
“I put on the hijab when I was 15, turning 16 years old. As soon as I turned 16, I got an internship-slash-job offer at a local newspaper, so I’ve had a job in journalism for about a decade. I also started writing for my school paper, and then I got offered an internship in radio. I worked in radio for a long time. It was at the D.C. urban station, and while I was there they had opened up the news station in the building where I eventually got a job as an associate journalist. I’d work overnight shifts and intern at the local CBS TV station. I was in school full time, on tour, working, and interning at the TV station. I literally didn’t sleep—to a point where I had to stop because I could not remember chunks of time. And then I got offered a job as a reporter at a local TV station. From there I went on to do the documentary [around mental disabilities] The Trouble They’ve Seen: The Forest Haven Story [in 2015], and afterwards was at Newsy for a bit. I left, and now here we are: freelance, working on selling a couple of shows, consulting, speaking, and podcasting.”
THE VALUE OF STORYTELLING
“The way my family taught me was that you have the ability to be of service to other people, and this is an honor. I think storytelling is such an incredible way of being of service, when you meet people and think the world needs to know their story. I think a mutual exchange happens when you tell someone’s story because you learn about yourself, and that’s the selfish part that nobody talks about—and it’s not selfish in a bad way, it’s selfish in a good way. I get to learn about myself through so many people. My friend made a joke the other day. She said, ‘You’re so lucky because you internalize and learn life lessons through the lives of other people. You don’t have to go through it yourself.’ It’s so true.”
LAUNCHING OUT ON HER OWN
“I found a story about this abandoned mental institution, Forest Haven, that had once housed people with intellectual disabilities. What I knew was that people would go to the institution and tag it up [with graffiti]. My cousin was the one who would go there with their friends, and she told me, ‘Dude, there were medical records on the floor.’ I’m like, ‘There are medical records? Open?’ So, we went and found probably thousands of pages [of medical records] because they didn’t clean out the buildings. I decided to make a documentary, The Trouble They’ve Seen. I taught my cousin how to shoot, and I spent four months investigating and not sleeping, reading everything about the case. The case was still open and one of the top 10 worst cases of medical abuse in U.S. history. It was 40 years later and there were people who’d been in that facility that were still around. There was no justice served to these people, and I wanted the story to be a form of justice.”
REPORTING ON HER OWN TERMS—WITH HER OWN STYLE
“After the release of The Trouble They’ve Seen, someone reached out to me from Newsy and was like, ‘Hey, we’d love to interview you for this political reporting job. We saw the Forest Haven documentary.’ And I was like, ‘No, that’s not for me. I’m not trying to be a political reporter. These are the stories that I want to cover.’ Finally, I caved in and said I’d take the interview. I heard him out, and he was like, ‘I just want you to come in dressed the way that you’re dressed, talking the way that you talk, and covering the stories that I know that you know need to be told.’ So then I went to Newsy, and I ended up pursuing all the stories that I felt needed to be told. I had access because I knew how to build trust with communities that hadn’t trusted the media before; I knew what it was like to be misrepresented. It wasn’t something I learned in journalism school—it was something that I learned myself. I just realized there are so many people who were covering the same stories over and over again, and there weren’t enough people covering stories that could elevate voices of people who hadn’t been elevated before.”
HOW THE HIJAB MAKES HER A BETTER JOURNALIST
“One of the women I interviewed for the Sold in America podcast was a trans Latina woman who engaged in survival sex for quite a while. Now she’s a sex worker advocate, and she’s hard as a rock, super tough. She was almost murdered several times, and I got her to open up about her experience. She broke down, and we cried together and talked. Afterward, we hopped in the cab with my producer and videographer. My producer looked at me and said, ‘How is it that people just open up to you like that? There really needs to be more hijabi journalists.’ And I laughed and was like, ‘It’s not that there aren’t more, it’s just that we don’t get hired despite the value that we bring. It’s not because I’m a hijabi journalist, it’s because I know how to navigate those conversations because I can come to people and say, ‘I know what it’s like for somebody to take your story. I know what it’s like to be misrepresented, and I’m not going to do that to you. I’m not here to tell your story. I’m here to give you a platform to tell others.’ I don’t believe that people are voiceless. I think that we just don’t pass the mic enough, and I think we have to be able to elevate the right people on the platforms that deserve to.”
DRESSING MODESTLY HAS LAYERS
“I’ve always been into fashion. I used to take fashion classes. I learned how to sew. Both of my grandmothers made clothes. Even when I wasn’t wearing a hijab, I would always dress more modestly, and so I had to figure out ways to layer. I had that typical, stay up with my best friend on the phone for an hour and a half the night before school deciding what we were going to wear. We’d pull from each other’s closets because we were the first two bus stops, and we’d sit in the back of the bus and change and style each other just for fun, like for kicks, and so it’s always been something so natural. When I decided to start wearing the hijab, I was maybe 15 turning 16, and I realized I had never seen people on TV who look like me and dress like me, and I had to try to navigate that.”
GETTING CAMERA-READY FOR HERSELF
“When I first started out in my career, I curated my style to tailor what I saw in the media—y’know, blazers, slacks—what you see reporters wearing. Then when I worked at a hip-hop radio station and could wear whatever, I still dressed stylishly, and I made it a point that people were going to say something about my outfit. Not because I wanted the compliment, but because I wanted to prove that this isn’t conventional, but you still like it. It was very authentic to me, but then I got a job in local television. I thought I should probably dress like the people around me—but it wasn’t me. And then finally I quit my job in April 2015 after covering this story around Freddie Gray, and I realized that these stories I had been chasing were not the stories that I was meant to tell. My videographer was a young black woman with dreads, and any time we would go into a space we’d call ourselves the ‘best-worst team’ because people would look at us and be like, ‘Are you in the right place? You girls don’t look like you belong here.’ It was so hard for us, and we’d always be talked about in that way, and we had to always work harder to be treated on the same level as everybody else. But it made us really good at what we did. What I’m getting at is that my style and my identity got me where I needed to be. I was not [dressing] for other people anymore, but rather dressing for myself and using it as a form of self-expression and empowerment—solidifying my own identity. Because when I wasn’t hijabi, I was still trying to dress like other people. When I became hijabi, I was still trying to dress like what I thought I needed to in order to fit in. And then finally I got to the point where I was like, ‘What am I doing this for? That’s not what makes me happy.’”