by Margarette Driscoll
Few women approaching 50 feel good about being photographed in a bikini, and Emma Forbes was no exception. Alas, for celebrities, there is no escaping the long lens. On holiday in Barbados two winters ago, she was snapped on the beach with her family and was mortified by the result. ‘I honestly didn’t recognise myself,’ she says. ‘I thought, “Now is the time to really take control of my exercise and my health.”’
Many of us make similar vows when the holiday snaps appear, but Emma has determinedly seen it through. She has completely overhauled her diet and made herself take regular exercise, which she used to hate. She was recently photographed on the beach in Barbados again and this time the photos went viral for all the right reasons. She looked fabulous – so much so that one devoted Emma fan has posted a tribute to her on YouTube.
‘How lovely! I haven’t seen it,’ she says excitedly. ‘It was quite a shock when those pictures got such huge kudos, but it was very nice…if you’re my age. All my hard work has paid off.’
Emma turned 52 last month and is every bit as lively and gorgeous as she was in her heyday as a children’s TV presenter on the BBC flagship Saturday morning show Live & Kicking in the mid-1990s. So it’s no surprise that she has been snapped up to model the spring/summer 2017 campaign for fashion brand JD Williams.
Yet, although there is much to envy in her life – her rock-solid marriage to mega-wealthy financier Graham Clempson (it’s their 30th wedding anniversary this year), her beautiful, talented children (Lily, 20, is studying graphic design in New York, and Sam, 18, is about to start film school in Los Angeles), her fabulous homes (a large house in Chelsea, a rented apartment in New York, plus a house being built in The Hamptons) – she has also had her fair share of problems.
After Lily was born, Emma developed acute back pain, which resulted in surgery, and for many years she suffered from endometriosis, a debilitating gynaecological disorder (‘one of the things that actually gets better with the menopause!’).
Her career in TV also came to a juddering halt after having children, which was a huge blow to her confidence. And, like so many women, she is part of the ‘sandwich generation’, caught between the needs of her children and wanting to care for her mother, actress Nanette Newman, 83, whose husband, film director Bryan Forbes, died four years ago; they had been married for 58 years.
‘Life is pretty nonstop,’ she says. ‘For the children, I’m not just a mum but a love counsellor and not very good career adviser. My mother has coped amazingly, but she and my dad were the ultimate love story, so one without the other doesn’t feel right. I have a huge sense of responsibility because I want to be there for her, but it’s almost harder looking after your parents than your children because it’s such a role reversal.
‘The nice thing is you find a camaraderie among your friends. At dinner parties, people used to talk about children and schools, but now they say, “So you found a carer who would go in on a Tuesday? Really?” And, for everyone, it comes at a time when your life is changing, you’ve got this new-found freedom because your children are moving on and you want to do things for yourself again, so you’re constantly torn – it’s a real juggling act.’
It should all be utterly exhausting, she says – particularly given that she has promised Sam, as she did Lily, that she will never go more than four to six weeks without seeing him, ‘so I’m going to be clocking up a lot of air miles’. However, she credits the lifestyle adjustments she made for giving her renewed energy and zest for life.
When those embarrassing beach pictures were taken two years ago, ‘Lily had just left for university and I was in danger of everything going downhill,’ says Emma. Then, as part of her 50th birthday celebrations, she and Lily went on a girls’ trip to LA – ‘not quite Thelma & Louise, but we rented a convertible and drove around in the sun’.
They then flew to the SHA Wellness Clinic in Spain, which Emma didn’t realise was all about digestion and the Japanese way of eating. ‘After having my children, I’d never lost that 10lb which makes all the difference,’ she says. ‘I thought I ate healthily, but I talked to a nutritionist there and everything changed. I took up a macrobiotic diet, really embraced it and felt so much better. Actually, I hate the word “diet”, it’s a lifestyle, and one I’ve fallen in love with because I was 50, I was getting menopausal and I just wanted to feel my best. If I was going to be commuting to America, especially, I didn’t want to always be running on empty, grabbing meals here and there.
‘Now I don’t eat meat, wheat, gluten, dairy or refined sugar. Refined sugar is probably the biggest diet problem of this century. Once you take out all those things you eat very well; everything fresh, in season, no processed foods. I eat loads of fish and vegetables and I also eat plenty of carbs –good, healthy ones such as quinoa, buckwheat, millet and brown rice, plus nuts, seeds and fruit.’
She admits some friends find it baffling. ‘I’ve just been invited to a friend’s house for dinner and when I said, “Did I tell you…?” she emailed back saying, “I wish we were going to a restaurant now!”’ she laughs. ‘But I’m a believer in everything in moderation, too. If it’s someone’s birthday and there’s an amazing chocolate cake I won’t sit there and refuse to have even a bite, and I do “pretend drinking”. I will hold a glass of wine to be sociable. I might take a few sips but I don’t really drink.’
Some women on rigid diets seem uninterested in food, but that does not apply to Emma. She started her TV career in the cookery slot on Going Live! (which later morphed into Live & Kicking) and wrote cookbooks, both solo and with her mother and elder sister, journalist Sarah Standing, when her children were small. She still describes herself as ‘a real foodie’, but some of the things she previously made so enthusiastically now make her shudder. ‘I used to cook with sugar, even for the children; we didn’t give it a thought back then.’
Her own childhood sounds idyllic, part of a happy household based partly in Virginia Water, Surrey, and the rest of the time wherever her father was filming. They moved to the US for 18 months in the mid-70s while he was making The Stepford Wives and Emma went to school in Connecticut. Richard Attenborough and Katharine Hepburn were good family friends.
When she first met her husband Graham, he was living in New York and she was going out with his best friend in London. After that relationship broke up, Graham moved back to London and they became flatmates, living together as friends for 18 months. ‘It all changed when I realised he was looking for a girlfriend and I thought, “I don’t want you to do that,”’ she says.
Graham has constantly travelled to America for work ‘so that’s why I live in two places and why the children have chosen to study there. As a family, we’ve always loved America.’
Although since becoming a mother Emma has frequently worked in radio, co-hosting shows with Steve Wright and Alan Carr, she has been seen infrequently on TV. When she became pregnant she accepted that she had to drop out of children’s television ‘because children watching look at you as their friend and once you become a mum it’s a different dynamic’, but what was supposed to be a short break turned into a long one.
‘I didn’t give up TV willingly, it just sort of happened,’ she says. ‘Before Lily was born I went round the BBC saying, “I think I’ll take two weeks off”, then when I looked at her I thought, “I don’t think I can leave the house ever again.” So I stepped back for a while thinking that I could step in again later as I had all those years of experience, but television is fickle, you get replaced.
‘I put a very brave face on it but I was at zero. It’s a confidence knock when you fall out of that limelight. It’s taken a while to get my mojo back, to feel good about myself. I was saying to my children the other day that in every other profession your longevity stands for something. If you’ve been a dentist or a doctor for 20 years you’re considered super experienced, but in TV that doesn’t matter, it’s just whether you are “of the moment”, which is another reason why I love America – they embrace older women. If you look at some of the women doing the big jobs on US TV I almost look like a spring chicken.’
Now, on both sides of the Atlantic, Emma is focusing her energy on a new venture, The Lifestyle News Hound, a podcast produced in partnership with her close friend, fashion stylist Gemma Sheppard, a former director at Gucci who has worked with Tess Daly, Ashley Roberts and Tulisa. ‘One day Gemma said she’d been listening to this great podcast and I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. She explained to me that it was like a radio programme you record and upload and we “could do one right now”. So we recorded ourselves chatting on her phone, and when we listened back I thought, “That’s really cool.”’
Sitting at Emma’s kitchen table, they dreamed up a name and The Lifestyle News Hound has since become a weekly programme with an impressive list of celebrity guests, including Kelly Hoppen, Liz Earle, Lulu Guinness, Sir Michael Caine and the Duchess of York. Eight episodes have been bought by British Airways for its global flights and The Lifestyle News Hound’s entire output is available free on iTunes. ‘It’s the most fun, just like doing live telly again, which I really loved,’ she says. ‘It’s recorded in my home [in London or New York], the dog is sometimes barking in the background, and the conversation just takes us wherever it takes us. We don’t edit, so it’s full of surprises.
‘Alan Carr talked about the menopause: according to him most women going through it wear floral dresses, so I can’t pick up anything flowery without thinking of him. Michael Caine explained why his roast potatoes are the best in the world. Melissa Odabash, the swimwear designer, told us about how, when she was a model, she made her first bikini and took it [to potential buyers] pretending it wasn’t hers so that if they hated it she could step away without embarrassment. So it’s varied, but the link is inspirational people who have done amazing things and we want to celebrate their success.’
She and Gemma met ten years ago, when Emma was smarting from another brush with the cameras. This time it was an outfit for a charity event that was ‘wrong, wrong, wrong’ – but she had no idea how wrong until she saw herself in pictures. ‘I’m too susceptible to flattery in shops,’ she says.
Then a friend suggested she consult Gemma. ‘We stood by my wardrobe with me in my Bridget Jones pants trying everything on. I’d say, “Now, this shirt I love” and she’d say, “Have you worn it recently?” and very often the answer was no. Having someone take an objective look at your wardrobe is quite an experience,’ she laughs. ‘Gemma taught me the courage to wear what suits me, so now structured jackets and tailored trousers are my uniform. I complained to her that I could never find dresses I like for formal events and she said, “Well, don’t wear dresses”, which was a lightbulb moment because I’d always felt I ought to. Her view was, “Only wear what you love and feel good in.” I really didn’t find my style until I was in my 40s.
‘I also had that slight panic at the thought of hitting 40 and trying to look like my daughter, which lots of women do. I don’t wear bikinis any more because Lily looks sensational in them and I don’t want to be in the back of a picture looking… sad.’
So, those recent pictures showed Emma resplendent in a series of scalloped and halter-necked swimsuits: and she looked sensational, too
EMMA’S HEALTHY LIVING REGIME
BREAKFAST: Quinoa and oatmeal porridge with brown rice milk, loads of cinnamon and blueberries on the side.
LUNCH: Soup and salad or fish and salad.
DINNER: More fish and a grain, maybe brown rice, or a risotto.
SNACKS: I’ve always got nuts and seeds in my bag.
In LONDON, I have a personal trainer two to three times a week and do everything from boxing to cardio, some weights and lots of stretching.
In NEW YORK, I go to an Equinox gym and power-walk everywhere.
READING Daring Greatly by Brené Brown – it’s about overcoming fear. I love self-help books.
LISTENING TO The La La Land soundtrack.
BAKE OFF or STRICTLY? Strictly because I often know people in it – I loved watching Louise Redknapp. I don’t know if I could do it because I’m so competitive and I’m not sure my ego could take it.
SAVING UP FOR A chair I saw at 1stdibs in New York.
WHAT KEEPS YOU AWAKE AT NIGHT? The juggling of life.
IDEAL NIGHT OUT In LA with my kids and my husband, going to see a movie then somewhere cool for dinner. I like the four of us together.
STYLE ICON I love Sharon Stone, Grace Kelly and Katharine Hepburn – when I knew her I was too young to appreciate how stylish she was.
GUILTY PLEASURE Binge-watching TV series, most recently Nashville.
FAVOURITE FILM At the moment, La La Land – I’ve seen it three times.
GREEN TEA OR G&T? Green tea.
WHAT’S IN YOUR MAKE-UP BAG? Bobbi Brown lip balm and mascara, Byredo rose perfume, YSL lip tint, Charlotte Tilbury bronze eyeshadow and apricot lip/cheek stain.
EARLIEST MEMORIES? Birthday parties. I was born in May and all my childhood birthday parties were in the garden with me in a summer dress, but I haven’t had an adult birthday when it isn’t freezing and pouring with rain.
ADVICE YOU’D PASS ON Social media isn’t the real world.
DESCRIBE YOURSELF IN THREE WORDS Loyal, outspoken, enthusiastic.
Emma wears JD Williams spring/summer collection, jdwilliams.co.uk
Styling: Philippa Bloom. Hair and make-up: Lan Nguyen Grealis