From the tragedy of a stillbirth to her own brush with death, Amanda Holden has had more than her fair share of heartache. She tells Chris Harvey how she stays strong – in the good times and bad.
Amanda Holden loves to get up early. ‘I’m a bit like Margaret Thatcher – I can survive on five hours’ sleep,’ she says. That’s lucky, as the Britain’s Got Talent judge will need to tap into her inner lark as the glossy new queen of breakfast radio. Tomorrow on the dot of 6.30am, just hours after the BGT live final, she’ll be joining Jamie Theakston at the helm of Heart’s breakfast show when it goes national for the first time.
It’s a big deal for Heart: they’re reportedly paying their hot new signing £3 million over two years, making her Britain’s highest-paid female radio presenter. It’s a lucrative contract, but I wonder if her male radio peers out-earn her? ‘The pay gap is complicated. It doesn’t take into account the different paths men and women take, on average obviously! I’d like to think that we’ve taken big steps in the past couple of years to correct any misbalance.’
Certainly she’s ‘thrilled’ about this new gig: ‘It’s fantastic that it’s national, because it means my mum will hear me in Cornwall. All my relatives everywhere will be able to wake up with me in the morning!’
Amanda and Jamie have known each other for 20 years. So will they have more chemistry than he did with her predecessor, Spice Girl Emma Bunton? ‘No…’ she says, then with a laugh, ‘Well, yes. Jamie will probably notice that I’m a gobshite, and I will interrupt him constantly. He’s affable and sweet, and will probably think, “Oh, here she goes.” Hopefully I’ll be on MailOnline’s sidebar of shame every day because of something outrageous I’ve said.’
She’s certainly no stranger to going viral. Only two years ago, Amanda, now 48, dared to bare on BGT in a plunging Julien Macdonald dress that had 663 outraged viewers contacting Ofcom to complain. ‘I love it that people are still talking about my tired old breasts and I’m nearly 50! No one talks about [BGT co-host] Alesha Dixon’s – she’s got great boobs, by the way – and she’s eight years younger than me.’
Perhaps it’s this front – figuratively and literally – that pushes Amanda from triumph to triumph. Her role at Heart (where she will be competing for listeners against Zoe Ball on BBC Radio 2 and Chris Evans at Virgin) is another chapter in the remarkable story of a woman who has overcome unpromising beginnings, personal tragedy and terrifying health scares.
But then Amanda has a get-on-with-it attitude that she learned from her beloved grandmother. She was devastated when Ethel died at the age of 97 last year. ‘She was my biggest inspiration,’ says Amanda, who has described her nan, a former ice-cream factory worker, as ‘feisty and fabulous’. Stubbornness and determination are traits shared by all the women in Amanda’s family, including her mum Judith and younger sister Debbie. Amanda has previously revealed that their family mantra is: ‘Speak up, speak out and be strong.’ But growing up, she could never have imagined how much that backbone would be tested.
In 2016, Debbie survived a serious car crash. ‘She went to hell and back, but she’s carried on like nothing happened,’ Amanda says. ‘Like we all do [in our family], because we’re not victims of our own circumstance.’
Amanda, too, faced her own near-death experience when her heart stopped beating for 40 seconds. She’d just given birth to Hollie, now seven, her second daughter with husband Chris Hughes. Hollie was delivered safely, but the placenta was attached to an artery, which ruptured. Amanda lost several pints of blood and flatlined. ‘Chris watched the entire bloodbath. It was definitely worse for him,’ she says. They were both later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and although Amanda says ‘little things still trigger it’, creating feelings of intense anxiety, they got through it with the help of humour. ‘We’re jokey, light-hearted people,’ she says, ‘so we don’t linger on things too much. I try to move on with some dark, horrific joke that no one else will laugh at.’
Her brush with death came just 11 months after her son Theo was stillborn, 28 weeks into her pregnancy. She described in her 2013 memoir No Holding Back how she had got up and had a bath on the morning of 1 February 2011, when she noticed that she hadn’t felt him kicking in a while. She drove to hospital for a scan to reassure herself, but was told, ‘The baby’s heart is not beating. He’s gone’. She wrote about hearing her own screams as though they were someone else’s.
I ask if she has found any way to process her feelings of loss. ‘It’s always there,’ she says. ‘Theo will always be part of our family. He would have been a year older than Hollie. I often look at the children in the year above her and think, “Oh yes, today Theo would have been doing this”. It’s not something to get over, but I’ve got my head round it, and I’ve got my amazing hubby, and our love for each other and our family got us through.’
She ran a half-marathon recently in support of Theo’s Hope, an appeal she set up to fund two bereavement counsellors at Tommy’s Stillbirth Research Centre at St Mary’s Hospital in Manchester. Her half-marathon clocked in under two hours, as her natural competitiveness kicked in. ‘My friend [actress] Angela Griffin dropped into conversation that she’d done a half-marathon in just over two hours. I said to Chris, “I’ve got to beat Angela, otherwise it’s game over for me.” He’s, like, “You don’t, you’re running for charity, it’s all fine,” but I told him I compete against myself.’
Evidently, Amanda has inherited her family’s strength and resilience genes. They weren’t well off. Her biological father Frank Holden was a petty officer in the Navy, a heavy drinker and rarely home. He left the family when Amanda was four and Debbie was three. For a short time, they got by as a single-parent household, then her mother began dating mechanic Les Collister. They married when Amanda was 11. She cannot speak highly enough of her stepfather. ‘I’m so grateful that I’ve been brought up by a man who truly loved me and selflessly didn’t have his own children so he could afford the two he had taken on when he married my mum. Having someone choose you is almost better than being biologically theirs, because you’re wanted so much more. He’s an amazing grandad; he’s got all the good stuff and the other guy – Frank – missed out. I feel nothing but sadness for him.’ Does she feel her relationship with Frank can’t be fixed? ‘I don’t have any relationship with him. It’s like telling me that somebody over there’s my dad – there’s nothing there because I have all the love that I need already.
Amanda’s own daughters – Hollie and Lexi, 13 – have enjoyed a secure start in life. She’s been happily married since 2008 to Chris, director of a talent management company, whom she met in Los Angeles in 2003, the same year she finalised her divorce from comedian Les Dennis. (They married in 1995, when she was 24 and he was 41, but split in 2002.)
Refreshingly, Amanda has no qualms about leaving the morning routine to Chris. ‘To me, that’s the worst part of the day. Every time I brush Hollie’s hair, she screams, “Mummy, you’re so rough!”’ But Amanda’s not totally hands-off: ‘I will be there for school pick-up. And I will make sure spellings are done and uniforms are laid out.’ But what a relief to head out before the girls are up: ‘I’ll be like, “Good luck!”’ Amanda’s alarm will be set for 5.15am every weekday. She concedes that wine and gin will be out during the week. ‘I’ve told my girlfriends, “Friday – that’s the night.” I love a glass of wine. I pray for sunshine so I can crack open the rosé.’
She’s tremendous fun. Today she’s wearing a leather jacket and checked trousers, perfect for clambering on the back of the Limobikes (motorbike taxis) she’s been using to zip around town for the past 20 years. She even took one this morning ‘in the p***ing rain… anything is better than wasting my life in the back of a car’.
On this series of BGT, Amanda seems to have gone couture. ‘I go through different phases,’ she says. ‘I have a different stylist – a bloke. It’s a different eye.’ The man in question is Karl Willett, who has also worked with singer Paloma Faith and actress Gemma Chan. The glamorous Alexis Mabille yellow gown Amanda wore for this year’s BGT auditions, she insists, ‘wasn’t more expensive than anything I’d worn on last year’s shows’. Day to day, she prefers to be accessible: ‘If someone asks me, I like to say, “This is from Zara.” If I admire someone’s outfit, I hate it when they say to me, “It’s Dolce!” because even I go, “I’m not buying that – that’s the school fees!”’
Price tags may influence Amanda’s fashion choices, but she doesn’t give her age a second thought. ‘Age is totally irrelevant,’ she says, ‘thanks to people like J-Lo, who is 49 and just a sexy, hot woman who dresses for how she feels.’
Amanda has said in the past that she’s ‘sick of answering questions about bloody Botox’, so I ask about the comedian who dressed up as the Queen on this series of BGT and gave a speech about how ‘plastic is the modern scourge’ and how ‘no greater innovation has been made than by our judging panel who have stored a great amount of plastic in their faces’. Did she think the gag was aimed at her? ‘No! It was Simon [Cowell], 100 per cent,’ she laughs.
‘Simon has gone soft,’ she adds. ‘He gives contestants second chances now and I’m, like, “That’s just not you.” People enjoy him being the pantomime villain.’ This series also saw the return of Ant McPartlin – the missing half of hosts Ant and Dec – after a period in rehab to deal with drink and painkiller addiction. ‘We missed him,’ says Amanda. ‘Everybody’s gone through different things on the show. Simon wouldn’t encourage what Ant did, but he’s good at saying, “We all make mistakes, welcome back.”’
Amanda first came to prominence as an actress in dramas such as Cutting It and Wild at Heart. She is still offered parts and turns them down, she says, because her daughters are too young: ‘Do I want to stand in a field for 16 weeks to be part of some drama? No, I do not.’
She can, however, be heard performing at Marks & Spencer, where the self-service tills currently feature perky instructions recorded by Amanda and her BGT colleagues. Always in demand when it comes to British institutions, she has also been a royal correspondent for US news show Inside Edition. She’s met Prince Harry – ‘he’s got very rough hands’ – as well as Prince William, the Queen, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall: ‘They’re seen as formal people, but they’re actually a very funny bunch.
Radio presenter, TV judge, actress, royal reporter, voice of ‘Please scan your first item’, Amanda has redefined the concept of versatility. So it comes as a surprise to discover that she occasionally suffers from imposter syndrome. ‘I’m still in the mindset of “Do everything I can while I can because one day I’ll get found out.” I trained as an actress, but I’ve been a waitress, a cleaner… I’ve had a job since I was 13, so I will always find a way to earn money, to make sure my family is supported, always make the most of every opportunity.’
It’s tempting to describe Amanda as a survivor, but thriver seems more apt. ‘I’m grateful and excited by it all, still,’ she grins.
The new Heart Breakfast Show with Jamie and Amanda starts tomorrow, weekdays from 6.30am-10am. The Britain’s Got Talent final takes place tonight on ITV