She’s one of TV’s highest earners, so why is Strictly’s Claudia Winkleman still convinced she’ll never make the ‘big league’? She tells Francesca Babb how imposter syndrome keeps her on her toes – and why her family always comes first.
Claudia Winkleman is deeply unpopular. Not with her bosses at the BBC, whose decision to put her on the ranks of their highest-paid earners – with an annual salary of more than £370,000 – would imply they probably think she is OK at her job. Not with the public, nearly 8 million of whom tune in to her Strictly adventures alongside Tess Daly week after week. And not with her book publishers, who gave her free rein over lockdown to spill her musings on life into a 243-page tome, which they will release imminently. But, a little closer to home, Claudia, it would seem, is the absolute worst.
‘My children are unbelievably irritated by me,’ she says of her brood, Jake, 17, Matilda, 14, and Arthur, nine. ‘I am very strict, and very unpopular.’ For someone to whom popularity is paramount (‘I hate confrontation, I hate people being grumpy with me’ she tells me) and to whom children are everything, you’d think this would be a little crushing. But for Claudia, a bit of eye-rolling and the odd slammed bedroom door mean things are exactly as they should be. ‘I don’t want to be their friend,’ she says, a look of vague amusement at the prospect crossing her face. ‘I want them to fully understand the importance of folding towels and unloading the dishwasher. We sit down together for mealtimes with no phones at the table. I sound horrible, but it is how it is.’
It was her own parents, newspaper editor Eve Pollard OBE and newspaper publisher Barry Winkleman, who separated when she was three, who taught her the benefits of a little parent/child friction. ‘Oh, I thought my parents were idiots when I was my children’s age,’ she laughs. ‘But now I talk to my mum and my dad all the time and we’re very close.’ Her mother’s pioneering career – she was only the second woman to be an editor of a British paper when she took the helm at the Sunday Mirror in 1987 – also taught her how to make the precarious career/life balance work.
‘Ultimately, I always knew I came first with my parents,’ she says, ‘and I try to do that with my kids. When my son was really little, I was going to work, and he asked why. I couldn’t explain to him the mortgage and all of that, so I just said, “Mummy’s going to work to buy bananas,” because he loved bananas then. He must have been six when he came up to me, holding bananas, going, “Mummy, you don’t need to go, we have bananas!” I had to explain that I actually like going to work, and that’s a lesson my mum taught me, too. Of course, I feel guilty sometimes. I feel guilty now because I’m not with them, but I’ll race home when we’re done.’
The reason for Claudia’s absence from her kids today is to talk about her new book, Quite, which is named after her favourite word: it’s ‘firm, restrained and manages your expectations’, she says in the introduction. ‘It’s just a stream of nonsense I wrote in lockdown,’ she starts, before getting eye-rolled by her publicist, whose primary job today is to try to stop the endlessly self-deprecating Claudia from convincing us all not to read said book.
‘Apparently, I slag it off too much, but we all know deep down I’ve actually got nothing interesting to say. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’ve got nothing to teach anyone, but I can talk about the power of a great pair of boots, or how anything with hot cheese is better than anything without hot cheese. I just want people to have a bit of a laugh.’
I’ve never known anyone who can fire as many insults at themselves as Claudia. But this relentless self-deprecation is, I think, her secret weapon. We’ll never get to the real Claudia Winkleman – there are too many half-finished sentences and going off at random tangents for that. She refuses to be earnest, or ever take herself seriously, and viewers clearly love her for it.
She’s wrong about the book’s usefulness, though. While she will claim in the introduction that ‘if you want to learn something practical, this isn’t the book for you’, I disagree. What Claudia does well is self-acceptance. Her writing is funny, real and caring. She will help you negotiate the ups and downs of relationships with a witty anecdote about a friend’s disastrous date. She’ll make you feel better about having an afternoon nap with a quote from someone clever her mum once sat next to at lunch. She will encourage you to dress exactly how you want. She has even made me feel less bleak about my moth infestation thanks to a throwaway comment about moth-eaten jumpers looking better than box-fresh ones. She is as adept, courtesy of her history of art degree from Cambridge University, at talking about Caravaggio as she is the art of a great T-shirt.
‘I’m not interested in perfect,’ she says of her approach to life. ‘I’ve always known going for that is a bad idea, and I’ve doubled down on it as I’ve got older. My friend Tanya [clinical psychologist Professor Tanya Byron, with whom Claudia co-hosts a podcast, How Did We Get Here?) is very interesting on the pursuit of happiness. She says, “I don’t think we should be happy all the time. I think we should be happy lots of the time.” We should look after each other and not worry about the self – worry about everyone else. I’m truly happy when I’ve made something inedible for the family, had a tidy and beaten the nine-year-old at Connect 4.’
Her disinterest in perfection stretches to her philosophy on ageing, too. For the record, she looks great, even on a fuzzy FaceTime screen: black Topshop T-shirt and jeans (‘the same thing I’ve worn every day for the past 20 years’), huge glossy fringe hanging over her heavy black-lined eyes, and, yes, she is quite tanned, but that’s because ‘nobody wants to see my natural blue skin tone’. Her celebration of a tan that is a shade too deep, eyeliner that is a millimetre too thick are what make her feel more like one of us.
‘I like getting older,’ she says, nodding vigorously, her fringe bouncing along for the ride. ‘If anybody reads the book and goes, “she’s a crumpled, orange slump of a woman with two dicky knees”, it’s fine, because I feel better than I used to. My 20s were full of me worrying that I wasn’t doing the right thing. In my 30s I was just pregnant and working. But in my 40s? I smashed it. The great thing about your 40s is that your face is falling off, you’re craggy as s**t, your arse wobbles and that is deeply freeing. I don’t want to look good in a bikini. That ship has sailed. I don’t want to be fashion forward or to try the new restaurant an hour away from my house, I’m not interested.’
I suspect this unstarry attitude is part of her appeal with both TV producers and the public alike, and encouraged the BBC to pair her with Tess Daly to present Strictly back in 2014. This move made them the first all-female presenting team on primetime Saturday night television.
As we speak, Claudia is waiting to start filming a Covid-safe Strictly, and has just begun Britain’s Best Home Cook, which she has done alongside Mary Berry for the past two years. It must be very satisfying to be the master of a career that only seems to get better with age. ‘I genuinely think it’s my fringe that’s given me this career,’ she says, leaning in to the camera to show it off in its full glory. ‘In work meetings, people would go, “What’s her name? Weird, ditsy little d***head, oh yeah, the one with the fringe” and that would help me get the job. Other than that, I don’t have an appeal. I’ve been very lucky and – don’t argue with me on this – I don’t think of myself as “big league’” at all. I don’t want to be the boss of anything other than my offspring. I’m not interested in that kind of winning.’
It was Strictly, really, that propelled Claudia to the TV big league. She had hosted its sister show, It Takes Two, since the programme’s inception in 2004, being promoted to primetime co-hosting duties when the late Sir Bruce Forsyth retired. Having such a prominent position at the BBC, you would think, would be quite the confidence boost. ‘I’m just waiting to be fired,’ she deadpans. ‘I’m waiting for somebody to tap me on the shoulder and go, “Oh, sorry, we’ve got this all wrong, you are not allowed to go in again, we’ve got Rylan instead”, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Imposter syndrome is incredibly useful. We’ve both met people who are like, “I was born to do this, get out of my way.” I don’t want to be that person. Feeling – don’t throw up – grateful and slightly surprised I think is a good thing. It keeps you on your toes.’
Her co-host and friend Tess, Claudia says, is the reason she can stand up on the main Strictly stage week after week, when crippling nerves threaten to throw her off cue. ‘I love her,’ she says. ‘She is warm, funny, so beautiful but such a strong creature. I get really, properly vomit-inducing nervous before each show – it’s the responsibility, the idea that I could mess it up that scares me. Tess is the person who looks after me and helps me. I don’t like doing things by myself, I like sharing. I love standing next to Tess, I love standing next to Mary Berry, I love the podcast with Tanya. I don’t want to do anything by myself, it makes me deeply uncomfortable.’
If you think this love-bombing is reserved for celebrity alone, it’s not. I can imagine Claudia walking into the butcher’s and asking for a pound of mince with the same shower of compliments. You can hear it in the way she talks about her non-showbiz friends. I ask her about therapy, and if she’s tried it. She has once, she replies, but actually ‘my girlfriends are my lifeline, my everything’. I ask if she has a mantra for when things get tricky in life: ‘phone a girlfriend’. What is she proud of? ‘I’m happy with so many aspects of my life, but me and my girls – I’m grateful for that every day.’
While he might not get as much airtime as her girls, Claudia’s husband, film producer Kris Thykier, is key to her happiness. too. The two have been married 20 years this year. I ask her how she celebrated it. ‘I’m not very romantic, so I usually forget,’ she says. ‘He’s more romantic than me, but if we were both romantic, it would be disgusting, we’d just be licking each other’s chins all the time.’ What’s the secret to a lasting marriage? ‘Somebody kind, somebody who laughs at themselves,’ she says. ‘When you’re younger, kind? Ugh, what a loser! I’d always fancy the bloke who didn’t text me back for two weeks. But Kris is kind. I don’t need a trip to Paris, I don’t need anything fancy. I need, “I’ve run you a hot bath”, or, “I know you love this boxset, so let’s watch it”.’
Did she always know she wanted kids with Kris? ‘Yes. I was just waiting to have a baby. I think it was on our second date, I told him I was ovulating, which was probably quite terrifying for him.’ And on that note, it’s time for her to go, back home and back into mum mode. As we are wrapping up, I ask her what she’s excited for in her future, what she thinks her 50s might bring her. ‘If you think I did my 40s right, you know when I’m really going to come into my own? My 70s. I’m going to wear a kaftan and start collecting baby animals. I’m going to stand around saying no to everything, eating hot cheese with a tiny kitten in my bra… if I’m still wearing a bra, which I doubt.’ The kids may not like it, but hey, when did that ever matter?
Strictly for Claudia
Most used emoji? 😍
Last thing you put on your credit card? Lip salve. I love Blistex and Dr Lipp.
What always gets you on the dancefloor? ‘Uptown Funk’. When you’re dreaming of your bed, if this comes on, then no chance.
Your favourite tipple? A margarita – all I’m interested in is salt.
Your go-to takeaway order? Five Guys cheeseburger with fried onions and more fried onions. Don’t judge me.
The last time you cried? Toy Story 3 always makes me cry. Yes, my kids think I’m weird.
Last great book you read? Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is particularly excellent.
What superpower do you wish you had? Flying. I’ve no interest in other people’s thoughts – there would just be a lot of ‘Wow, she really is orange.’
Finish the sentence: Love is… Fantastic, powerful, all encompassing, the best thing on earth.
Your house is on fire – what do you grab? Photos, the kids’ drawings, the tortoise.
Who’d play you in a film of your life? Alice Cooper or Ozzy Osbourne.
What are you having for dinner tonight? Mary Berry’s chicken curry – it’s utterly magical. If I can do it, anyone can.
Earliest memory? Meeting a chicken. I think I was in a red shiny coat. I must have been two or three.
Have you ever been starstruck? Harold Bishop from Neighbours blew my mind. I’d watched it twice a day at university, and there he was, in front of me in Tesco. I could barely breathe.
Career plan B? Baker. But to be honest I’d be a bad one.
Top of your bucket list? I’d love to go on a proper walking holiday around the Cornish coast. My friend did it and the photos were extraordinary. They camped, ate, walked and laughed. Once I’ve persuaded my 17- and 14 year-olds it’s a good idea, we’re off.