From the break-up of her marriage and the death of her beloved sister to the slow loss of her father to Alzheimer’s, the past few years have been a cruel series of devastating blows for Davina McCall. She tells Louise Gannon why she refuses to be broken and how she has found happiness among the heartache.
Davina McCall wants to show me her knickers. She leaps to her feet and unzips her trousers to reveal a flash of claret-coloured lace. Next, her mohair jumper is hoisted up (exposing a flat, brown tummy) to uncover a perfectly matching bra. ‘You see,’ she says triumphantly, as she zips and tucks herself back into her clothes, ‘I am a woman in her 50s who still wants to wear gorgeous underwear.’
There is a point to this unexpected striptease. At 52, Davina wants to save middle-aged women from big pants, serviceable bras and desultory underwear drawers, and is launching her own lingerie range. ‘Most underwear models are in their 20s or 30s because women suddenly become invisible after 40. But why should we be? Who has decided you should no longer feel desirable? I own my sexuality and it’s about time a range of pretty, sexy underwear was made for older women.’
‘It’s OK for you, Davina,’ I say, pointing at her tummy, honed from dedicated exercise sessions, ‘but lots of women are not so body confident.’ She shakes her head. ‘No, no, no, that’s not the point. I’ve got cellulite. I have loose skin from having babies. But I’m still going to wear great underwear because I’m old enough not to care. What makes you attractive is to get to the point where you actually feel comfortable in your own skin, however old that skin is.’
In many ways, the lingerie line is a sign of the rebirth of Davina McCall. She has a fresh confidence which many have put down to her new relationship with hairdresser Michael Douglas, but those who know her understand it’s really because she is finally emerging – stronger and wiser – from the emotional trauma of the past few years.
In 2017, she and her husband of 17 years, the former Pet Rescue presenter Matthew Robertson, announced their divorce. At the time she was still dealing with the impact of her beloved father Andrew’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s. Then, in 2018, her grandmother Pippy – the woman she cited as her role model and rock – passed away. It was another blow; six years earlier, in 2012, Davina had lost her half-sister and closest confidante Caroline Baday, who died aged 50 from lung cancer. Davina was at her side, holding her hand. She says she still talks to her all the time.
This period has been, she acknowledges, far more difficult and traumatic than anything else she has had to deal with in her life, from her much-documented addiction to drugs and alcohol in her teens and early 20s, to her dysfunctional relationship with her late mother.
‘You learn most from pain,’ she says. ‘And if you don’t put yourself through feeling it, you will never grow. I deal with grief in a particular way; I don’t scream and cry – in fact, I find it very difficult to cry. I’ve had so much loss in my life, I try to deal with everything as practically and logically as I can.
‘With my dad it’s so hard because we are losing him in front of my eyes. I think Dad still knows who I am. He might not remember my name but he knows I mean something to him. He can’t really speak because words have gone but he still smiles and laughs. I sit with him reading an art book and he is completely entranced. When we finish we can look through it again and he’s so happy because it’s like the first time. I tell him good news and he covers his face with his hands and then pulls them away and his face is wreathed in a huge smile.
‘But I know we will run out of time. I know things will get harder. What I do is focus on what we have now. Focus on the happy things.’
Obviously, I have to ask whether one of the happy things is her new relationship with long-term friend Michael. After knowing each other for almost two decades, they became close last summer, two years after Davina’s marriage ended and a year after Michael had split from his ex-wife Tracey.
Davina sits up and looks serious because she wants to explain very clearly her stance on this. She has, she points out, yet to officially announce that she is in a relationship with Michael. There are reasons for this which involve the politics of dating post-divorce.
‘I will never sit here and go into great details,’ she says. ‘And the reason for that is all down to respect. I have a huge amount of respect for Matthew, I have respect for my children and the same goes for Michael’s family.
‘Going through a divorce is a traumatic experience and it is something that needs to be navigated as carefully as possible. Two years on, we have both grown as people, and we can now co-parent happily and acknowledge that it was the right thing for us to go through, even though it involved absolute emotional turmoil.
‘It would not be right in any way for me to talk about my relationship – it would not be fair at all on any party. No one else involved is in the public eye so it would be even worse for me to drag them in.
‘I am always conscious of being completely mindful. If I go to an event with Michael, we arrive separately to avoid any photos. This is just something that I try to keep as private as possible. It’s complicated.’
This year is promising to keep Davina very much in the public eye. In addition to thesoon-to-be-launched underwear range, she is now back on Saturday-night TV for the first time in almost a decade as a judge on ITV’s The Masked Singer, alongside Rita Ora, Jonathan Ross and US actor Ken Jeong (of The Hangover and Crazy Rich Asians fame). She and her fellow panellists have to guess the identity of disguised celebrities who perform songs for the audience (think The Voice meets Stars In Their Eyes).
Then there’s her digital health and fitness platform Own Your Goals, where members pay a monthly fee to access Davina’s workout tutorials and nutritionist-approved recipes. It’s the savvy next step in her wellness guru empire, building on the success of her 14 fitness DVDs (which remain among the biggest-selling celebrity exercise DVDs on the market).
As she settles herself on a sofa to talk to me, it’s clear that she’s in a good place – but she is different from the old Davina. The frenetic energy that used to emanate from her is now a gentle buzz. Her hugs are no longer overpoweringly intense (she had a reputation as a bit of a bone-crusher). Words don’t pour from her mouth. Instead her conversation is more considered.
She is, dare I say it, a much calmer version of the 31-year-old motormouth who made her name presenting Channel 4’s cult dating show Streetmate in the late 1990s, and then, of course, as the host of television phenomenon Big Brother – a show she presented for 11 series before lending her talents to everything from primetime game shows (The Million Pound Drop) to Bafta-winning factual series (Long Lost Family).
It’s easy to forget the impact she had on television two decades ago, but Davina was the game-changer for every female presenter that followed. She said exactly what she thought, she ran through streets red-faced and panting, she broke the wall between presenter and viewer, directly addressing the camera, laughing uncontrollably if she felt like it, sobbing or pulling faces, and always absolutely refusing to be anything other than 100 per cent herself. Davina placed humour and spontaneity above perfect outfits, and from day one was never seen as the female adornment to a more established male presenter.
From Emma Willis to Claudia Winkleman, there are few women in television today who don’t cite Davina as their greatest influence. ‘Davina totally changed the way women presenters were seen on television,’ acknowledges Emma. ‘People fell in love with her because she wasn’t perfect but she was believable. You just wanted her to be your best mate. I’m lucky to call her a friend.’
Davina smiles. ‘I look back to who I was and, even though I’m proud of everything I’ve done, I was so frantic and uptight, trying to keep on top of everything. Now all that has disappeared. I’m looser and calmer.’
She’s even started travelling by public transport again. ‘I stopped doing that ten years ago because I was anxious about being recognised. I’ve started again because I think, “What’s the big deal?” People spark up all sorts of conversations with me. I stopped a fight the other day with a guy who I realised was suffering from bad anxiety; he thought these other blokes were laughing at him. We had a chat, and I could see he got something from talking it through, and so did I.’
This year she will be moving into the family home she had built from scratch for herself and her three teenage children (Holly, 18, Tilly, 16, and Chester, 13). I ask her what is key to parenting for her. ‘I want to raise independent kids. I don’t want to smother them. I understand they need to have their own experiences and learn by their own mistakes. But I talk to them about mine and my experiences… all the drugs I have taken, what effect they had. I ask questions about the drugs that are around now because it’s a totally different landscape – I’m terrified by ketamine. My kids are very savvy and I trust them, and because I’ve talked so openly about my experiences none of them has experimented with drugs.’
Her children, she says, are the first to take the mickey out of her – but surely her cool rating will have rocketed now she’s sitting on the panel of The Masked Singer next to Rita Ora? She grins. ‘Rita is funny, sassy and very good company. I spent an awful lot of time in her dressing room just talking and gossiping. I was so flattered to be asked to do this show. It’s crazy, it’s surreal, the costumes are insanely bizarre and it’s a happy, feelgood show where no one is torn to pieces.’
She pauses and grabs my hand. ‘There’s so much bleak stuff going on in the world and this show is designed to put a smile on everyone’s face and make people laugh. I don’t worry about it not getting ratings because I know this is going to be huge. We all need something to make us happy, and I’m really glad to be any part of that.’
On Davina’s radar
Most-used emoji Smiley face.
Karaoke song You Can’t Stop The Beat from Hairspray.
Favourite tipple Seedlip alcohol-free spirit, garden flavour.
Takeaway order Chicken tikka masala and saag paneer.
Last good cry The John Lewis advert. I have no idea why.
Perfect cuppa Builder’s, milk, no sugar.
Everyone should read Three Women by Lisa Taddeo.
True love is… your soul’s recognition of its counterpoint in another. It’s a quote from the film Wedding Crashers.
Sign up for a free seven-day trial of Davina’s fitness and lifestyle plan at ownyourgoalsdavina.com; The Masked Singer is on Saturdays on ITV, and on catch-up on ITVHub