Keeping her emotions in check on Good Morning Britain may pose a challenge for Charlotte Hawkins but, as Louise Gannon finds out, the Strictly star is no pushover…
Charlotte Hawkins is a very different breed of news presenter. Softly spoken, gentle and classically beautiful, she is as far removed from the traditional image of the hard-nosed television hack as it is possible to be.
Vicar’s daughter Charlotte – who is one of Good Morning Britain’s most popular stars – cannot help but get emotional. We saw her lips trembling as she interviewed victims of devastating floods around the country. Co-presenter Piers Morgan moved her to tears when he lambasted Strictly Come Dancing head judge Shirley Ballas for being mean about her performance on the show last year. And when theChristmas John Lewis TV advert was exclusively previewed on the show, the cameras cut back to Charlotte sobbing at her desk.
‘I am so embarrassing,’ she says. ‘I try to keep the tears back but sometimes things just get to me. It might be personal, it might be that I feel desperate empathy for someone I am talking to. When I was younger I consciously tried to be buttoned down but now I’m older, on television you can only really be yourself and that’s OK. News presenters do cry, too.’
On Good Morning Britain, Charlotte is an important part of the sparky chemistry between the rumbustious Piers Morgan and the steely, sexy Susannah Reid. Charlotte is the perfect foil to both extreme alphas, bringing out a softer side to Piers (he sent her flowers after upsetting her with his Strictly defence) and a sisterly warmth to Susannah.
‘The show works because we are all different and all respect each other. I love working with Piers because I never know what is going to come out of his mouth [she memorably tried to calm him down when he went into a rant about former government mental health tsar Natasha Devon who was insisting on children being referred to in ‘gender neutral’ terms], and that makes things exciting. Susannah is a real pro and a big support to me.
‘People assume that if two women work together on a show there must be rivalry. But Susannah is a friend. She knew what I went through on Strictly.’
Charlotte, partnered by Brendan Cole, was the third celebrity to be voted out of the show and Susannah was the runner-up in 2013. Charlotte is devastated by the BBC ’s decision to get rid of Brendan before the next series amid rumours that the reason for axeing him was down to his spats with judges Shirley Ballas and Bruno Tonioli, including his fallout with Shirley after her criticism of his tango with Charlotte, which he told her was unfair.
Charlotte says of her former partner, who has been a professional dancer on the show since it began 13 years ago: ‘It’s so sad Brendan will no longer be a part of Strictly, as he’s always been at the heart of it. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to work with him on what turned out to be his last series. He’s an incredible dancer, a talented choreographer and a very patient teacher! We had such a fun time together – he will be a friend for life. He was never afraid to speak his mind. I can’t imagine watching the show with him not in it – for me there will be less sparkle without him.’
As she talks about her time on Strictly, it is clear she struggled with being voted out so quickly. ‘It was a magical time and I was incredibly sad to go. Susannah totally got that. It was part of the reason I cried when Piers talked about it. Doing that show is a very emotional experience.’
She pauses. ‘But they both know I can be tough when needed. A lot of people look at me and think I’m going to be the easy touch. It works to my advantage because if I’m doing an interview I’ll ask the difficult questions and that will take people by surprise. I grew up with two elder brothers and I’m tougher than I look. I was at a charity ball recently when a guy leant over to me and said something inappropriate about another woman. I looked him in the eye and said firmly, “That is completely unacceptable.” It was more effective because I could see he didn’t expect me to be like that. I’ve never experienced any sexual harassment. I’m absolutely capable of handling myself.’
On the surface Charlotte, 42, has lived a charmed life. She grew up in Chichester; her late father Frank was a clergyman at Chichester Cathedral and her mother Gillian looked after her and her brothers, Richard, now 52, and David, 50, who both work in finance. Her childhood was all outdoor sports, Girl Guides, debating societies and church choirs.
‘I was a tomboy,’ she recalls. ‘I had a bit of a wild period when I was a teenager, but nothing out of the ordinary. I grew up watching women like Selina Scott and Anna Ford on television and wanted to be like them. I thought they knew everything that was happening in the world and I had always wanted to find out everything I could myself as well as stand up for what was right. I had a strong sense of injustice, whether it was over the way death row prisoners or animals were treated.
‘I grew up wanting to be a boy, wearing my brothers’ old clothes. When I went to university [she studied English literature at Manchester] I was asked to do modelling and I thought I’d do it for the money. I was horribly self-conscious and bad at anything involving looking sexy. I used to end up laughing or being embarrassed. I have never focused too much on what I look like.’
As a TV presenter, Charlotte must have been a gift to producers because of her passion for news and her work ethic. Within a year of leaving university she was working for ITN as a reporter for LBC radio. By 2000 she had moved to ITV news shows and in 2007 she joined Sky where she co-presented Sunrise with Eamonn Holmes. ‘I love Eamonn. In a way he’s quite like Piers in that he is an incredibly good journalist but also unpredictable, which keeps you on your toes. His wife Ruth Langsford was with me on Strictly so it was lovely seeing them both every week.’ In 2014 she was poached by ITV to front Good Morning Britain.
She has been married for ten years – to drinks company executive Mark Herbert. When I interviewed Charlotte for her GMB move a few years ago, I was asked not to bring up the subject of motherhood – because it was too painful a subject for her. Now she is mother to three-year-old daughter Ella Rose and admits, ‘When I started on GMB I was desperate to have a baby. I couldn’t talk about it because it was a difficult time. I spent four years trying to get pregnant and nothing was happening. I didn’t think I was going to be able to have children.
‘Mark and I got to a point where we went to see an IVF specialist. I remember leaving his office and him saying: “Book a holiday, relax and it will happen.” What he was saying was that we were both just stressed about trying to get pregnant, and stress can stop you conceiving.’ A few weeks later, she took a pregnancy test on the off-chance and found out she was expecting.
Her pregnancy was not without its complications – both emotional and physical. In 2010 her father told his children that he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and when she became pregnant in 2014 it coincided with a big deterioration in his condition.
‘We had all known something was wrong because Dad was having issues with balance and walking,’ she says. ‘We sat together as a family. My instinct was: “Right, let’s deal with this. Let’s look at cures. Let’s sort this out.” And then we discovered that there is no treatment and in this era of huge medical advancement, there is just one drug available, which may or may not slow the disease. He was trapped by his own body, which was slowly shutting down. It was a death sentence and the only question was: “How long?”’ She pauses with tears in her eyes.
Her father – who lost the ability to walk within a year of his diagnosis – continued to do Bible-study sessions with parishioners. ‘He was so dignified and he had a disease that is absolutely not dignified. I’d spend hours talking to him. We’d talk about everything, including whether his faith was helping him and he did make me laugh by telling me that he had originally wanted to work for the Forestry Commission. The most important thing for me was that I was able to tell him I was pregnant. It was so sad that he died a month before our daughter was born.’
You wonder how Charlotte coped with life and death crossing paths. ‘I did my grieving before Dad died and before Ella was born. It was tough,’ she says. Ella’s birth was traumatic. After a two-day labour and difficult natural birth, Charlotte required an emergency blood transfusion. It is a testament to her strength of character that she underplays the situation. ‘It took me a while to get back on my feet,’ she says.‘But I felt so blessed to have my baby I couldn’t be sad. You just have to get through these things.’
She returned to work after four months. ‘It was never going to be an option for me to give up work,’ she says. ‘I do a job I love and I’m incredibly lucky. The tough bit is finding balance. I don’t mind the early mornings [she gets up at 2.40am to host GMB] because after meetings I get home [to Surrey] any time from noon and I can be with my daughter.’
She admits that she learned through Strictly to be more relaxed about the way she lives her life. ‘I like to be able to control everything. Strictly changed that as I had to give myself over to it completely. Then you realise that you don’t have to rush here, there and everywhere. You can ask other people to help out [she has a nanny for Ella] and everyone manages to be perfectly happy.’
When she talks about Strictly, Charlotte focuses on the emotions it brought out in her. She did the show because she wanted to learn to dance and because her daughter loves to dance. But she was not a favourite with the judges – especially Shirley Ballas who called her Mollie (mixing up Charlotte with another of the contestants on the show, the singer Mollie King) and lambasted her for being ‘awkward’.
‘I tried so hard, which was why it was difficult to take the criticism,’ she says. ‘My daughter was desperate to dance with Brendan and we had arranged for her to dance as part of the behind-the-scenes filming for the following week – but I got voted out the Sunday before, so I felt as though I’d let her down. But underneath all that I felt myself changing as a person. I was spending hours dancing in a studio with Brendan. Ella was being looked after by our nanny and her grandparents. She was fine and I realised I could let go of my stress. I also found myself letting go of a lot of grief I hadn’t realised that I was carrying. It was a happy and liberating time for me. A lot of my inhibitions went. I saw my body looking better and better the more toned I became.
‘My husband and my friends noticed a change in me – I felt so much more carefree. I went on a red carpet in a short silver dress – something I would never have done before. I go out with friends and have a drink and throw myself into the moment. I never expected something like a dance show to do that for me. I’m so happy I did Strictly. I wish I could have done it for longer.’
This year, Charlotte – who is a patron of the Motor Neurone Disease Association – is doing more to honour her dad by presenting Classic FM’s new Sunday afternoon radio show. ‘I was brought up on classical music. My dad loved it. He would play it as he did chores around the house. I sang in the choir. I play classical music in my car. I’ve always preferred it to rock music because I find it so beautiful and moving. It’s my passion and on the show I play the music I love as well as introduce the audience to new classical musicians.’
Her life is as good as she has been able to make it. She describes her husband as her ‘best friend and greatest support’. They were first sent on a blind date by friends ‘but we really did not get on. I thought he was arrogant. He assumed that I would fall at his feet but I didn’t.’ A few months later they met again at a wedding where she was a bridesmaid and he was an usher. ‘I looked at him and felt something. We talked and got on immediately. I then went to my parents and said: “That’s the man I’m going to marry.” They wed in Chichester Cathedral.
Her daughter is being brought up close to the way she was. Faith is part of her life: ‘I buy presents for Ella from my dad – a toddler Bible, a nativity scene. I think in today’s world it is important to have some moral grounding and the sense of community that comes from being part of a faith.’ As a family the Hawkins/Herberts like to potter in their large garden and ‘do things together’ as her own family did.
Would another child complete her happiness? ‘If it happens, it happens, but I feel I have been blessed to have a child. I now know I wouldn’t go through IVF because I don’t want to put that emotional stress on myself or my family. I’ve learnt that I can’t control everything in life and that’s a good lesson. What I have I love.’
Good Morning Britain is on ITV on weekdays from 6am; Charlotte presents Sunday afternoons on Classic FM from 3pm