In 2016, the Dutch Public Broadcasting System expressed its desire for diversity to start playing a more significant role in its programming. In that same year, the Netherlands Film Fund did also advocate the importance of the production of films that are representative of Dutch society. Initially, the plans of both organisations were no novelties – sixteen years earlier, the then Dutch State Secretary of Art, Culture and Media Policy called for more diversity, particularly in public broadcasting companies. In 1965, however, a woman born on the Caribbean island of Curaçao had already broken through several colour and gender biases in the Dutch media scene. This is the story of Eugènie Herlaar.
At the time of this interview, Eugènie had just returned from the 4th World Art Games in Croatia, where she received a gold medal for best poet. “I’ve been engaged in numerous cultural organisations in my hometown of Heerhugowaard since 1979”, she says. “I was president of the municipal cultural council and initiated the local amateur cultural manifestation”.
Her appetite for the arts was nurtured on her native island of Curaçao. “As a child, I was mesmerised by fine art and visual art”. Nonetheless, Curaçao did also pave the way of what once would become her profession. “As a toddler, I started participating in children programmes on the local radio – I must have been approximately four”.
Born Eugènie Hendrika Cornelia Herlaar on 10 November 1939 to a Curaçaoan father and a Dutch mother, she spent the first eight years of her life in this Dutch overseas territory. As she happened to have been born out of wedlock, one would logically assume that she had a bumpy start – this is something she categorically denies. “I was born out of love and thereafter always accepted by my non-biological father in the most loveable way”. Though her biological father was killed in a car accident on the island in the late 1960s, Eugènie still keeps in contact with her half-siblings.
Three years after World War II, she moved with her mother and two siblings to the Netherlands, pending her father’s retirement from Royal Dutch Shell – he would eventually rejoin the family in the early 1950s. The Herlaar’s eventually ended up in an area in the city of Ede where they owned five hectares of forest and meadow. “My years in Ede were simple but immensely happy’’, Eugènie emphasises. “I certainly experienced discrimination at school, but the social safety net I had at home provided me with moral strength”. It is in her new residential city that Eugènie finished primary school and later on completed Higher Civic School.
On completion of the latter, she got herself a job as a seismic arithmetician at the then Dutch Batavian Oil Company. “Would I have loved to attend university? Absolutely, I wanted to study geology, but there were simply no financial means – my parents had already taken out a loan for me to attend Higher Civic School”. The only woman in her department, Eugènie was at first rather happy, but after a while there lied the rub – she missed the level of creativity that has always characterised her.
“If you applied for a job in the 60s, chances were great that you would actually get it”, Eugènie explains. Nevertheless, she was rejected in 1963 by the Dutch Christian Radio Association – at 23 she was deemed too young. Not intended to give in, she applied for a post at the Radio Netherlands Worldwide – here she was more fortunate. “I was commissioned for a most delightful task: dubbing the news for Dutchman all over the world”.
Yet, her major career change, later interpreted by many as an outset of social change in the Dutch media scene, occurred three years later. Next to her actual job, Eugènie was also employed on a part-time basis by the Netherlands Television Foundation. One day this organisation granted her the opportunity to present the news off-camera. This led to an outburst of consternation and media attention. “You see, back then societal tensions revolved much more around gender – the fact that I was a woman stirred a great more deal of interest than the colour of my skin”. In consequence, Eugènie was reprimanded by the board of directors of Radio Netherlands Worldwide.
This last occurrence made her realise that the moment had, once again, come to move on. After a while, she made a permanent switch to the Netherlands Television Foundation and became the first black and, simultaneously, the first female editor, reporter and news anchor in the Netherlands. Nonetheless, her new employer pointed quite clearly that the longevity of her on-camera duties would depend on audience responses. “The viewers were thrilled, all right. For a long time I was inundated with flowers, chocolate and marriage proposals – as it so happens, once I announced my engagement the presents diminished”, she laughs.
After her second husband’s passing in 1999, Eugènie decided to discontinue the successful PR and audiovisual firm they had set up in the early 1990s. Years earlier, she had already disbanded her prosperous speech therapy practice and had carried out her last television chore in 1983. Instead, she took up drawing and painting and started exhibiting regularly. Besides this, she has gradually turned into a celebrated poet having co-established the Schrijverswaard Foundation.
Short of her 78th birthday, Eugènie endorses the criticism that there are not many women of colour on Dutch television, but has doubts as to whether the broadcasting companies are solely to be blamed for this. “I was raised in a ‘no-nonsense’ and ‘can-do’ environment. This has taught me that nothing comes out of thin air. From a young age it’s important for people, regardless of their ethnicity, to be given insights in resilience and persistence”.
As an example, she refers to a most unpleasant experience she went through during the 1975 Dutch train hostage crisis. At some point, her editorial office got anxious when she received a threatening letter from an unknown man, demanding her to go back to her ‘monkey country’. “He assumed that I was from the Moluccas, as was the case of the attackers. Distressing? Yes. Reason for me to have thrown in the towel? Not in the least! Life is an interplay of ups and downs. Enjoy the good things to the fullest, examine the challenges by allowing yourself to grieve and then move on”.