Portia: ‘Lotto’ reasons to smile
There is certain clip in her speech when she declares “I am Portia”. The aplomb with which Barbados Lottery presenter Portia Blackman delivers the draws for the local lottery endears her to some and provokes the ire of others.
Either way, her response is the same: “For too long I have been comfortable enough in my skin not to bother much about what people say or think. If they are telling me [the criticism], I would hear and I would listen. I would spend a little time wondering if there was any merit about what was said, and if in my heart and soul there wasn’t any, then, okay.”
As an only child growing up in a house with three adults – a mother and two grandparents – Portia asserted herself from early. While her grandmother took some time to understand this feisty grandchild, Duncan Burke was working at becoming his granddaughter’s best friend.
“He was my first experience with being able to tell anyone anything without being judged and I think that is why we were close. With other people as a child I always felt I had to be careful what I said, how I said it, but with granddaddy it was okay.
“My grandmother did not understand me at first, so we locked horns. This business of being seen and not heard, I was not born in that era so I had an opinion and I let you know it. But when she realized that she and I were very much alike, that changed.”
Childhood for her was an “enjoyable experience” despite the rigidly imposed discipline. It explains why as an adult she is so organized.
“I had my things to do around the house . . . I believe the modern term is chores” – a term she abhors “because it gives one the impression that anything to be done in the home or outside the home is difficult or unpleasant and I don’t think that should be the first impression you get. After all, it is where you live.”
Again, she credits her grandfather with teaching her certain skills that would help her to survive if need be, for example how to cut coconuts (“in case one day I had to do this for a living”) and how to do vegetable gardening.
She hated it then but now Portia delights in her vegetable garden. She is also a cleaning “freak”
“Over time I have tried to improve the way my grandmother and mother did cleaning. I would see my grandfather hide behind the newspaper on a Saturday morning when my mother and grandmother started to clean. Everything came out of the house, all rooms were cleaned and then everything was put back in the house. My grandfather knew innately that there was something wrong with this system and while he tried to hide behind the newspaper I tried to duck under his arm and hide too.
“People say it is lonely growing up as an only child. But I never had that and I certainly was not spoilt.”
Watching her conduct the lottery draws on television, one notices the erect posture, the fine enunciation and Portia explains it did not come from Grace Hill Primary, Hill Top Primary or the St Michael’s Girls School, though these education steps before the Barbados Community College did have their influence.
Instead, she pointed to other childhood activities that shaped her, in particular the influence of one Mrs Seale from “a little mission church” who held Sunday School in her home, to which Portia was sent.
“Mrs Seale gave us a slip of paper and she told us go home and have our parents sign it. I understood later that’s what was done when she wanted us to get involved in activities. I started practicing two poems for a church programme.”
That programme landed her on stage, a toddler needing to stand on three benches to be seen.
“I have been on stage ever since then” she said.
As for the discipline and poise, she explained that it derived from having to be on time for Sunday School; always having to sit erect at home. During the interview, she was erectly perched on a chair, back straight, chin back, and she said, “This is why I sit like this because if I sat in any other fashion I would get a look. I can’t remember sitting, walking or standing any other way. If I walked in any other fashion, my grandmother would let me know.”
Portia has been a Barbados Lottery presenter since 1993 after friends in her modelling group forwarded her name to an advertising company seeking presenters. The advertiser was looking for people “who were comfortable standing and being looked at, for something to do with television.”
She was among the first set of presenters on CBC-TV when the Barbados Lottery first did its broadcast and was fortunate to have encountered a mentor in veteran broadcaster Vic Brewster, who offered to teach her the ropes. She took it all in, even offering herself for voluntary training as a weather presenter, a wise move that would eventually land her a job as a freelance weather presenter.
It was quite a diversion from her first job as an audio visual aids library assistant at the Barbados Language Centre Library at the Barbados Community College, where she had studied Spanish and French.
Now she says, “I am an old goat at it.” The two minutes the public sees her before the camera give no idea of the “extremely precise” procedure that precedes her every appearance. What the viewer sees is in fact a brief part of a one-hour production which Portia says is the forte of the draw manager and the auditing firm’s representative.
“The security in that room is extremely tight . . . . The procedure is extremely precise. But if you look at it from the point of view that at any one hour you have the possibility of bestowing upon some individual four, five or six million dollars one way – Mega Six can get up there; Double Draw $25 000 or $35 000 . . . . If you just add up that, maybe it would make more sense why the security and the procedures are extremely tight.”
The whole procedure she described as “a cross between a show (the last two minutes which the viewer sees) – and an election procedure.”
Portia laughed continually throughout the interview.
“You laugh a lot. Why?” she was asked.
With a chuckle, she responded: “I have a good life and there is a lot to laugh about” seemingly dismissing the opinion of those critics who label her as “stuck up” and “a recluse”.
“Nothing could be farther from the truth” she said, adding “I don’t have a shy bone in my body.”
In the hours away from the glare of the camera, she prefers to laze at the beach, her head buried in a book, or to lose herself away in the kitchen engaged in cooking, another one of her pastimes.
It is a lifestyle driven by this belief: “There is this rumour that you only pass this way once. I don’t know, but just in case it is true, live it.”