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Driving the Boys Crazy: Interview with Fox Sports host Paula Malai Ali

Born in Brunei to an English mother and Bruneian father, Paula Malai Ali started her life in front of the lens in Kuala Lumpur, first as FHM’s Best Babe in ’99 and then as a VJ for Channel V (KL). Having presented the F1 show for Fox Sports during racing season for the past eight years, Paula has settled comfortably into her job and motherhood (she has a three-year-old son) and she isn’t much up for clubbing these days – apart from boogieing the night away at Orchard Towers (but don’t tell anyone…)

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What do you like most about presenting?
I love television. When you get a show right, there’s nothing quite like it. You’re walking on air. It’s awesome because so many things can go wrong. Whenever they say “action”, you’re walking a tightrope. I’m prone to getting the giggles, so afterwards I’ll be thinking, “Great, that’s another show where I didn’t get the giggles.” My co-host Alex Yoong and I have been friends for about 17 years and he makes me feel very safe when we’re on air!

Did you do a lot of research before you started presenting F1?
A ton. I began about three months before the season started but before my first show I thought I was going to hyperventilate. I just couldn’t imagine the cameras rolling and going “live”. Before every race weekend I still put in a lot of comprehensive research. We do a one-hour pre-show and a 30-minute post show. That first hour is very easy to control because we know what’s coming up and we talk about what’s happened. But the post show is about stuff that literally just happened ten minutes ago and we have to collate information and make sense of it. Thankfully, I’ve got wonderful pundits and a great producer. There’s so much to remember though, and so many different teams. For the first three years I doubted that I could do the show. The one thing I know is, if I don’t do a good job once I go on air, it’s not for want of trying or lack of effort.

Did you get the job off the back of your VJing job in KL?
Yes, a few people who knew me in Malaysia were thinking, “How can she present sport? She knows nothing about it.” I was the first person to admit I knew nothing, but I knew I could learn. There weren’t that many female presenters on the circuit nine years ago but now it’s acceptable and even quite cool to have chicks doing it. I was coming up to three and a half years on Channel V and I knew I was getting old, so I decided it was time to get out. One of my best friends, Andrew Leci, a presenter on ESPN suggested that, if I was looking for change, I should come and screen test for ESPN. I told him he was mental!

Have you developed a love for F1 since?
I’ve definitely developed a keen interest. I read about it now, and not because I have to. The drivers mean something to me – they’re people in my life. I don’t love it but I do keep abreast of it. I’ve met most of the drivers too as I was in the paddock in Monaco, Bahrain twice, China twice – I did a whole bunch of races, although I find the paddock very difficult; I’m not comfortable there. I find it very intimidating and you’ve really got to think on your feet and know who the drivers are, because you might only have two seconds to identify them. I think I would be better now though as I know more about it.

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Do you get much hate mail for being a female sports presenter?
Not so much. These days it’s all about Twitter, isn’t it? Now they have direct access to you and they can be as offensive as they want and they know you’re going to read it. A lot of TV presenters think it’s just awful that people can control you – they say what they want and they think it has no affect. If Twitter had been as rampant as it is now when I started doing sport nine years ago, that would have been interesting. Now I think people are used to seeing me so it’s not bad at all, although after every race I’m thinking, “Right, what have they got to say this week?”

How do you deal with it?
I don’t think I really know yet. You can obsess about that one negative thing and forget that you’ve had maybe twenty other lovely Tweets and obviously that’s not me coping very well. I think you have to talk yourself out of it and say, “I can’t let this bother me”. I guess I’m more used to it now; I’m a lot stronger – and I’m glad I am because it’s a shit feeling. They’re so cowardly about it; so vitriolic and bitchy. I think sports fans are the hardest crowd to please because they’re so emotionally invested. If their team is having a bad night and I’ve said something wrong, it’s majorly terrible. People take it very personally. If I say Räikkönen had a bad race, someone will tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I’m not making this up, you saw what happened!

What do you love about Singapore?
Everything. I love it for all the reasons people don’t like it. It’s sterile (I had all my sexy groovy times in Malaysia) and it works. When you first move here it’s so easy to set up everything you need – bank account, StarHub and the rest.

Where do you like to eat?
I love North Indian food – I think it’s in our English blood. I used to love Ras but I can’t be dealing with Clarke Quay anymore. Cut is an obvious one for a sexy meal – it’s a treat. I went to Lucha Loco the other day, which was brilliant – I loved it and love the vibe there. Bacchanalia is a sexy place too, and I love The Banana Leaf on Racecourse Road. I’m a big comfort-food eater. I like my shepherd’s pies – big food like that.

And what’s this about partying in Orchard Towers?
I love the “four floors”. When we had the F1 wrap party at Boomarang, we left at the reasonable time of 2.30am and ended up at Crazy Horse – you can have such a great night there, a big old boogie – no one cares and no one’s watching; you can do whatever you want.