By Louise Gannon
She may be well known for her Saturday-night TV credentials and tabloid-fodder flings, but CAROLINE FLACK has only recently had the confidence to pursue her dream.
As she prepares for her theatre debut, Caroline tells Louise Gannon how she has ditched her party-girl lifestyle but has no regrets about her past – and opens up about the death threats she received from obsessive One Direction fans when she dated heart-throb singer Harry Styles.
For a woman who has survived a decade at the sharp end of show business, Caroline Flack has learnt that it pays to surprise people. The 37-year-old presenter of shows such as The X Factor and Love Island – who is, let’s face it, probably best known for her controversial choice of partners (One Direction’s Harry Styles and that friendship with Prince Harry) – has turned her party-girl image on its head and is about to star in a musical.
In August she will take to the stage alongside Holby City actor Tom Chambers (who, like Caroline, won Strictly Come Dancing) as Irene in a UK tour of the Gershwin classic Crazy For You, which tells the story of a rich playboy who falls for a poor theatre-owner’s daughter and wins her hand by putting on a show to save her father’s business.
And in February Caroline set the rumour mill churning by attending the What’s On Stage Awards with Paul Taylor-Mills, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s right-hand man and artistic director at the musical megastar’s West End premises, The Other Palace theatre. Word is she may well be collaborating with him on a London production later this year.
Famed for presenting featherweight television shows and being part of the new generation of social-media-savvy celebrities such as Olly Murs (‘We are great mates, he’s one of the most confident people I know and he also gives very sound advice’), for Caroline this new move is as old-school and left-field as it gets.
Her hair is shorter, her lifestyle is healthier and her nights are longer (she is in bed most evenings by 10pm). For the first time in her life Caroline is on her own and loving her single status. ‘Work is all-consuming. I’m training to keep my fitness levels up, eating properly for the first time and working with a vocal coach [Mary Hammond] and acting coaches so my voice and my performance will be as good as possible. I’m exhausted. If I do go out, I’ll be more likely to see a play than party,’ she says.
Caroline pauses, then says more seriously: ‘I know this isn’t something anyone would expect of me – people have only seen me presenting TV shows – but musical theatre is what I always wanted to do. And I want to show that I can do it well.’
Caroline left home at 16 to study performing arts (at the Bodywork Dance Studio in Cambridge) and when she first moved to London she auditioned for a slew of musicals including Starlight Express. ‘It just happened that I got my first break in television [in 2002 Caroline got a part as Michael Jackson’s fictional girlfriend Bubbles on the sketch show Bo’ Selecta!] and that took over. Life happens and you go with it. I thought I’d lost my chance of doing theatre. Five or ten years ago I wouldn’t have had the confidence for it. But over the past couple of years I’ve changed. Being on Strictly was a huge part of that.
‘I loved that show. Tess [Daly] and Claudia [Winkleman] were unbelievably kind to me. I was surrounded by women because so many people who work on that show are female and I felt completely supported and protected.
‘I remember Pasha [Kovalev, Caroline’s partner in the 2014 series] telling me I should carry on. It was an amazing feeling to think that a professional dancer believed in me as a performer. I knew this was what I’d wanted to do all along. I’d like to say I’m terrified but I’m not. I’m actually more excited than I’ve been in ages.’
She is not, as one might expect, playing the lead in Crazy For You. Despite auditioning for the part (feisty theatre owner’s daughter Polly Baker) as well as the supporting role (as Irene Roth, playboy Bobby Child’s domineering fiancée, who is ditched in favour of Polly), she opted for the smaller part. ‘There was no way I was going to take on the main part because this is my first musical. It’s a huge deal to me but I’m conscious that I’m still learning my craft. It wouldn’t be right for me to take the lead; I’ve got to earn my stripes.
‘After leaving Strictly I was offered a lead role in a musical without an audition, which I turned down on the principle that I needed to be put through my paces. It would be wrong to think you can waltz into the lead just because you are on TV.’
There is definitely a sea change in Caroline Louise Flack. We meet in a bright, airy loft in Shoreditch, not far from the East London flat she shares with her much-Instagrammed rescue cat Waffle. The first thing I notice is that she’s smiling. She looks relaxed and self-assured, casual in a pair of oversized dungarees with straps that keep popping open (‘Classic Flack’) as we speak.
In the past when we’ve met, Caroline has been either overly nervous or defensive, apologising for bursting into tears mid-conversation (over the reaction – which included death threats – to her three-month relationship with the then teenage Harry Styles) and generally worrying about being misunderstood. For all her success as a TV presenter and her position as a bona-fide sex symbol (she was named the fifth sexiest woman in the world by the men’s magazine FHM in 2015), confident was never a word I would have used to describe her.
She first hit the headlines in 2009 when she was linked to Prince Harry after being snapped on a night out with him. The idea that this ‘very definitely working-class’ small-time TV presenter had snared a prince, whom she met at a poker night through friends, gave her an immediate profile – but not one she wanted at the time.
She told me then: ‘It got completely out of control. I’d just come out of a three-year relationship [with the musician Dave Danger] and Harry had recently split from Chelsy Davy. All Harry and I did was talk about how upset we were. It didn’t seem weird that he was a prince because we were just two people going through break-ups who could talk to each other about it. Then it turned into a huge drama in the gossip pages and the whole thing was pretty terrible.’
But Prince-gate was nothing compared to what happened two years later. Caroline began dating Harry Styles – after being chased by him for months – pressing the button on a scandal that went nuclear. At the time she was 32 and he was 17, a Molotov cocktail of a coupling that gave rise to death threats from his fans and calls for her to be tarred and feathered.
It was a romance that could have jack-knifed her budding TV career (she had progressed from Bo’ Selecta! to presenting on Gladiators, Big Brother’s Big Mouth, ITV2’s behind-the-scenes show on I’m a Celebrity… and The Xtra Factor alongside singer Olly Murs) or made her a small fortune (she was offered £1 million for a kiss-and-tell) as a cougar queen. I tell her I remember her shaking and crying as she told me, soon after they split, that she had become a national joke and punchbag (‘I became a caricature that anyone could have a jab at’) and how terrified she’d been at having to walk out on stage at The X Factor after the reaction. ‘But I did it and I just smiled and smiled some more. I didn’t want anyone to know how hurt I was.’
She shakes her head when I remind her of this. ‘I’ve got older and wiser,’ she says. ‘And I’ve learnt that the only way of dealing with being judged is not to listen to what anyone says. That way madness lies. I used to get upset, but if you want to move on you have to get over yourself and not take yourself so seriously.
‘I work in a business that is brutal for anyone, but it’s particularly brutal if you are single and female. You are judged all the time and you have to accept that double standards [after all, fewer eyebrows are raised when older male celebrities date younger women] are part of life. There are people who like me and people who can’t stand me. I’m never going to be able to change that. But if you want to be happy, you have to learn to block all that out and focus on what you want to do.’
Caroline is, she says, now glad that she dated Harry Styles, became the most talked-about woman on television and endured months of gossip about her involvement with Prince Harry. Neither does she care that various subsequent relationships (including an 18-month relationship with singer Sam Smith’s manager Jack Street – which tanked as her Strictly run triumphed – and a three-month relationship with artist Blue Logan, which ended in January) have given rise to her being dubbed a real-life Bridget Jones. ‘I wouldn’t change a single thing I’ve done,’ she says. ‘And I don’t regret any relationship because I’ve learnt from everything that’s happened to me.
‘I’m not a glossy, glamorous person who never puts a foot wrong and I think that’s what the people who like me see in me. I don’t see myself as a brand who only does certain things or hangs out with certain people. I’m a normal woman who makes mistakes and isn’t perfect – I don’t believe in anyone who seems to be perfect.’ She pauses. ‘I definitely used to be dependent on men, but that has changed as I’ve got older. I’m a single woman and I think that’s a very powerful thing.’
So what advice would she give to young girls? ‘Never to worry about what people think; don’t fret if you don’t hit those marks, such as marriage or motherhood, just because that is what is expected of you. You can be fulfilled in many other ways. I have a great life. It’s not conventional but it works for me. I don’t care if people call me Bridget Jones. I’m happy.’
To prove a point she pulls out her phone and plays me a song from the Jerry Herman musical Miss Spectacular. It’s a tongue-in-cheek lament about a showgirl who never finds Mr Right called ‘Where In The World is My Prince?’ ‘Perfect for me, right?’ she says, happily sending herself up. ‘It’s my absolute favourite song.’
This marks a definite departure from the overly sensitive Caroline of old. As for the part of Irene Roth, who is ditched by her long-term fiancé, Caroline laughs again: ‘Ah, but she gets a man in the end [bar owner Lank Hawkins, who had been in love with her rival Polly]. She just goes for him. She’s a naughty, saucy girl but she gets her happy ever after. There’s definitely a bit of me there. I love her.’
It is not just age that has changed Caroline’s outlook, it is also family. As a non-identical twin, she has always been close to her sister Jody (who is a country-living mother-of-three), but in the past year Caroline has become the family gatherer, organising get-togethers with her elder siblings Liz, 47, and Paul, 45, and her parents, Coca-Cola worker dad Ian and office manager mum Christine.
Caroline grew up in a small rural village in Norfolk called Great Hockham and throughout her childhood it was Jody who was deemed the natural star of the twins. ‘We had an incredible bond,’ she says. ‘We had our own language and spent all our time together, but she was the talented one. When we did ballet my mum would tell me not to be upset if Jody got better exam grades than me – which she always did. She could sing really well and dance so naturally.
‘When we left primary school we were all given dictionaries by the headmaster. In Jody’s he’d written: “We are going to see your name in lights,” and in mine he just put, “Good luck.”’
I wonder if this sparked a little jealousy? Caroline shakes her head: ‘It made me determined to be better. We were in the village panto every year as the horse – we would alternate being the back or the front. It was the big event in my calendar, but Jody was never that bothered. She could do everything so utterly easily, but she didn’t get the same kick out of it as I did. I just wanted to be as good as her.’
When Caroline left home for dance school, Jody went to college in Norfolk (she recently returned to university to study social work). ‘I remember calling her in tears after two weeks saying I missed home and I didn’t have any money. She sent me £20 the following day with a note saying: “Stay strong.” The day she passed her driving test at 17, I made her visit me. She was so terrified she drove in the slow lane all the way doing 20 miles an hour, but she came. Not everyone has that relationship with someone. We still speak every day on the phone. I couldn’t live without her.’
Caroline and Jody’s lives could not be more different. Jody lives with her long-term partner Jason, who is the father of her three children, and Caroline lives the distinctly more glamorous life of a single TV presenter who has been on a date (‘nothing more’) with Russell Brand, spent weekends at Simon Cowell’s home in Los Angeles and had her feet massaged by Red Hot Chili Pepper singer Anthony Kiedis during an interview she did with him for the children’s TV show TMi (‘That’s just the sort of thing that happens to me’).
It is, Caroline admits, a Sliding Doors situation with Jody, ‘but we both love our lives and we rescue each other by sharing them’. The toughest point for Caroline came 11 years ago when Jody told her she was pregnant with her eldest daughter Willow. ‘For a moment I felt this awful pang that she would have someone she would be closer to than me,’ she admits. ‘But then I just became completely obsessed with her pregnancy. I was there at the birth and I feel as though her kids are mine. I speak to them all the time, I worry about them all the time. But I also get to be a friend to them, which is the biggest privilege of all. I get to have them in my life.’
Caroline does not, she says, worry about whether she will marry or have children – ‘If it happens it happens,’ she says – and no longer cares what other people think. This summer she will return to host the third season of the guilty-pleasure TV show Love Island, on which men and women are thrown together on an island to make and break romances. It is one of the most controversial shows on television due to the near-the-knuckle sexual antics of the contestants.
I ask her whether she would ever consider appearing on the show and she laughs: ‘Not now, but I would have done when I was younger.’ Last year Zara Holland was stripped of her Miss Great Britain title by the pageant organisers due to her steamy escapades with fellow contestant Alex Bowen. Caroline shakes her head: ‘That made me so angry,’ she says. ‘I felt so protective of her. I took her to one side after the show and told her not to worry about anything anyone said and to hold her head up high because that’s what you have to do. I keep in touch with her because we all need friends in life.’
It is clear that Caroline’s own experiences have made her wiser and ultimately more of a woman’s woman, proud to be a shoulder to cry on and an agony aunt for many of her younger friends. She nods her head: ‘I will always look out for my friends and be there if someone like Zara is going through a tough time.
‘It makes me cross when everyone expects women to conform to being a certain way and to feel bad about themselves if they don’t. You can’t live your life worrying about making mistakes; you have to go for what makes you happy and enjoy life.’
Certainly, she who dares wins. The Strictly glitterball trophy has pride of place on Caroline’s mantelpiece and now, with the prospect of a new – and completely unexpected – career as a musical star ahead of her, she is being talked about for all the right reasons. Life could not be better. ‘I think I’ve surprised people,’ she says. ‘I’ve surprised myself. And that’s what I want to keep doing.’
Styling: Nisha Grewal. Hair: Ben Cooke at Frank agency for Lockonego using Aussie. Make-up: Karin Darnell at Frank Agency using NARS cosmetics
The Crazy For You national tour will begin in August; crazyforyoutour.com. Caroline is ambassador for no-added-sugar soft drink Zeo. Follow the conversation on social media #CheatOnWater; drinkzeo.com