This issue features one of the most extraordinarily candid interviews with a celebrity I’ve ever read. When our writer Cole Moreton interviewed Strictly star Shirley Ballas, he found that nothing was off-limits. From the breathtakingly cruel comments from her controlling ex-husband, Corky Ballas, that convinced her breast implants would save her marriage, to – shockingly – her admission that there have been dark moments when she wondered if life is even worth living. I don’t mind admitting I had tears in my eyes reading about how foreign it was for her to experience real tenderness from a man, her partner Danny Taylor.
In among so many powerful revelations, it would be easy to miss a casual comment Shirley makes that I think is really worth stopping to examine for a moment: in the early days of her tenure as Strictly’s head judge, she was pulled aside and told to try to be more likable. ‘You’ll never keep this job… People won’t warm to you. You really have to try to be a bit more vulnerable.’
I’m trying to think of one man in the public eye who might have had a similar conversation. Can you honestly imagine the likes of Alan Sugar, Piers Morgan, John Humphrys, Jeremy Paxman, Simon Cowell – to name just a few men who are successful precisely because they have big, strong, unapologetic, prickly, polarising personalities – ever being asked, ‘Could you possibly be a little less… you?’
The fact is we do hold men and women to different standards. A man who speaks his mind is seen as strong. A woman who does the same is difficult, annoying, even a bitch. It’s a tightrope I’ve walked for decades now as a woman in charge of teams. You constantly try to be decisive without looking ‘bossy’. You work hard at keeping any emotions in check – displeasure, dissension, irritation, stress – for fear of being branded ‘hysterical’. Forgive me if you’ve heard this rant from me before. But it’s as true now as it was 20 years ago. And truthfully, I can be as guilty as the next person for buying into judging women in this way. When I first read that Shirley needed to be more likable for TV, I nodded along. There’s a perniciousness in how we’re all conditioned to want women to behave a certain way. Then I caught myself. I pledge to notice it as much as I can and remember to question it the way I’ve done here.
Thank goodness Shirley kept her job. It’s fabulous to see an older, confident woman on our screens. It’s great that she rose to that position because she’s worked her backside off to be the expert she is. When you read her story, I hope you will agree with me that she’s more than earned the right to never ever apologise for who she is. Together, could we all try to stop asking women to do that?
A few things I’m coveting this week
A gorgeous, any-occasion number. Dress, £39.99, lindex.com
I love this twist on animal print. Jumper, £79, Mix/Madeleine Thompson, next.co.uk
The website for imaginative gifts. Jars, green £32, and red, £37, notanotherbill.com