By Judith Woods
Dubbed the Green Goddess in the 1980s, workout queen DIANA MORAN is still looking heavenly. She shares her health and beauty secrets with Judith Woods.
Picture the scene: here I am in a smart, modern townhouse on the banks of the Thames, chatting over a cup of tea and a bowl of berries with a rather marvellous 78-year-old lady. I reach for a chocolate digestive, look back and she’s gone. Clean disappeared from the sofa.
I glance down and find my interviewee lying flat on the sitting-room carpet. What to do? Now, under normal circumstances, I would instinctively rush to her aid, take her pulse and hit the panic button. Instead I peer down and demand: ‘Do you absolutely promise those tummy tucks will give me a flat stomach?’ Diana Moran nods, gives me one of her megawatt smiles and continues her sit-ups.
Then, supple as a cat, the woman better known as the Green Goddess begins twisting her body by way of another demonstration. She may be pushing 80, but old habits die hard and Britain’s answer to Jane Fonda was always about showing rather than telling. ‘Do each of these 24 times a day and it will keep you fit, but you must always start with the monkey swing.’ She rises to her feet, loosens her shoulders and drops her arms to the floor, then throws them upward as she straightens. Although almost three decades her junior, I feel quite worn out just watching her – but inspired, too.
Back in the early 1980s, the mother-of-two revolutionised the keep-fit industry with her daily workouts on BBC breakfast television, becoming a household name in the process, thanks to her ‘terribly lurid’ green Lycra leotard and leggings. A former model and broadcaster, her success spawned many an imitator such as Mr Motivator and Mad Lizzie, and these days, of course, there are any number of vloggers and celebrities starring on their own YouTube fitness channels. But Diana, well spoken and enthusiastic without being bossy, remains the original and inarguably best.
Today the Green Goddess is not just lithe and limber, but is still a head-turner with the graceful deportment of a duchess. When we meet, her nails are impeccable and her blonde hair is coiffed just-so, providing proof, if proof were needed, of Coco Chanel’s pronouncement that ‘no one is young after 40, but one can be irresistible at any age’.
Yet despite the glamour, it is Diana’s smile that dazzles most. I’m not sure I have ever met – never mind interviewed – anyone who smiles as much. Even when she refers (albeit fleetingly) to her two divorces and elaborates on her battles with cancer – breast cancer 30 years ago and skin cancer – there is no trace of self-pity.
‘I feel incredibly lucky,’ Diana says. ‘Aside from the inevitable issues that come with ageing, I am healthy and happy and as busy as ever. I paint, I have four gorgeous grandchildren, aged from 17 to 23, and wonderful friends – and although I am too fiercely independent to marry again, let’s just say I don’t want for company and romance is not dead.’
It’s a delicate way of bringing down the shutters on her personal life, but then Diana, whose first marriage lasted 27 years and her second four and a half, was always a class act.
Right now she is, as they say, ‘having a moment’, thanks to her latest book Sod Sitting, Get Moving! Getting Active in your 60s, 70s and Beyond, which she has co-written with medical expert Sir Muir Gray. As the title would suggest, it is a very practical how-to guide aimed at boosting the health and happiness of those aged 60 and over.
‘It’s impossible to overestimate how much mental health is improved by physical activity,’ she says, a doctrine that is now being promoted by, among others, Prince Harry and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as part of their Heads Together mental-health campaign. In this respect, too, the Green Goddess was before her time.
Look back at photographs and footage from her heyday – Diana coaxing a phalanx of besuited commuters to leap in the air at Waterloo station, and oil workers to bend and stretch in Aberdeen – what is striking is how almost deliberately unsexy she is. The hair is bouncy, but everything else is firmly, modestly in place, a slick of coral lipstick the only cursory nod to beautification.
‘You have to remember that when I started on breakfast TV, I was 43 with two children,’ she says. ‘Nowadays there’s a whole industry dedicated to gymwear and making girls look sexy when they work out, but my job was to promote healthy athleticism, not to look alluring.’ Nevertheless it’s fair to say that the Green Goddess had her fair share of male admirers, with a postbag to match; marriage proposals were a frequent occurrence.
Diana’s Green Goddess nickname, incidentally, was bestowed by her old employers. ‘A newspaper telephoned HTV, where I had worked before, and they were terribly sweet and referred to me as “their goddess”. So, because of my leotard, I was christened the Green Goddess.’ The reason her costume was green, however, is disappointingly mundane: it was considered to be more telegenic than her alternative coffee-coloured ensemble, which ‘apparently made me look like I was naked!’
A few years ago, Diana was coaxed into trying on the original costume for a photo shoot and it fitted, although she modestly claims it was a tight squeeze. ‘I’ve never been thin,’ she says. ‘I was a good size 12 then and I’m a 14 now, but because I’m tall and toned it creates an illusion that I’m slim. Back when I was modelling my size wasn’t unusual, although these days you see such painfully skinny models on the catwalk whose shapes bear no resemblance to those of the women who buy the clothes.’
Diana’s classic English-rose look was much in demand in the 1960s and when she hit 60 it catapulted her career into a different league. In the 90s she was cast as the face of what was then Oil of Ulay and earned so much from one four-year skincare campaign that she bought her house in Shepperton, Surrey, with the proceeds and named it after the brand. Really – there’s a hand-painted tile by the front door bearing the legend ‘Ulay’.
She still swears by it too, although genetics have also played a part, and I can’t help wondering why she hasn’t been given a lifelong ambassadorship or a starring role in one of those everywoman M&S Christmas adverts. Mind you, these days they’d be hard-pressed to track her down: she presents a radio show on a station called The Wireless, writes for The Lady magazine and is a regular on cruise ships, albeit giving motivational speeches rather than holding exercise classes because ‘people are so litigious these days, you can’t take the risk they might somehow hurt themselves’. I roll my eyes in exasperation, but Diana, being a nicer and most definitely wiser person, simply refuses to sweat the proverbial small stuff.
‘Do you want to know one of the secrets of being happy?’ she asks rhetorically. Of course I do, Diana!
Is it more sit-ups? ‘It’s cutting negative people out of your life. I’ve done it and while it wasn’t easy, I feel so much more positive now that I no longer have ‘friends’ who just talk doom and gloom and try to bring down everyone around them.’ It’s a lesson many of us never learn, but again Diana is ahead of the curve.
A war baby, she was born in 1939 and married at the age of 19. Her first son was born when she was 21 and her second arrived two years later. Although motherhood spelled the end of any professional ambitions for most of her contemporaries, Diana wanted to work outside the home. She took a job in personnel at a large store in Bristol, where she was roped in to model clothes and proved to be a natural, which led to further modelling work. But then, aged 29, she had a thyroid operation after a cluster of suspect lumps was found. A year later she was hospitalised with acute appendicitis.
By now the penny had dropped. ‘I had taken my health for granted up until then, but suddenly I had a wake-up call. So I started exercising and eating properly rather than just being the family dustbin, forever polishing off leftovers,’ she recalls.
‘I began inviting friends over to exercise with me to music and then one day one of them asked if I would give a demonstration at an event she was organising to promote Outline, a low-fat spread. It took place at a local Butlin’s and was such a success I was asked to hold a class every Thursday. Eventually it was rolled out nationwide. I trained roomfuls of girls to teach fitness at the other camps.’
After that, a Mothercare commercial led her to do voiceovers for television. Then came a stint at BBC Radio Bristol, where rising star Kate Adie was her boss and taught her the art of broadcasting and interviewing. There followed a television magazine show which she co-presented and featured a keep-fit segment.
‘By that stage BBC and ITV were vying to launch breakfast television and the BBC called me and asked if I would do a slot on Breakfast Time, so of course I agreed. Nobody had any idea just how popular it would be,’ says Diana. In early 1983 she urged Britain to ‘Wake up and shake up’ and became an overnight sensation. By 1987 she was appearing on Pebble Mill At One followed by Look Good, Feel Great on Central TV. But in 1988 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy.
‘My first reaction was guilt,’ she says. ‘It was back in the days when cancer was the “C word” – a whispered taboo – and I felt devastated, ashamed, hypocritical; here I was telling people how to be healthy and yet I must obviously have done something wrong. Of course, now we know that cancer can affect anyone, regardless of age or lifestyle, but back then I didn’t want anyone to know so I kept it quiet.’
Seven weeks later, after reconstructive surgery, Diana was back on air. Exhilarated and relieved, she was finally prepared to go public with her ordeal. Her recovery was swift, but due to medical complications she had to have two further breast reconstructions. Then, in her early 60s, she was diagnosed with skin cancer on her leg.
‘Like a lot of my generation, I was addicted to sunbathing. I hesitate to admit it, but I would shake up olive oil and vinegar in a bottle and pour it over my body to get a deep mahogany tan,’ she says shamefaced. ‘The cancer – basal cell carcinoma – was caught early so it was treated quite easily. I’ve had a few more procedures on my face and now I have a small area on my right cheek that will have to be removed. But I don’t live in fear; I live in vigilance. I keep myself fit, I eat healthily and I check myself regularly.’
With a bitter irony, her immediate decision to stay out of the sun after her diagnosis led to a vitamin D deficiency, which has caused osteopenia, a bone-thinning condition that can lead to osteoporosis. But again early detection meant that she was alerted to the issue, so now she takes a daily vitamin D and calcium pill. She doesn’t take HRT, though, which as well as relieving menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes and night sweats also lowers the risk of osteoporosis. ‘I looked into it some years ago and discovered that there are a few associated risks of breast cancer, so with my history I decided it was unsuitable for me,’ she says.
Unlike her US counterpart Jane Fonda, who is now a spookily well-preserved 79, Diana has never resorted to cosmetic procedures. ‘There is no way I would ever consider even fillers or Botox,’ she says. ‘I’ve had enough surgery for medical reasons.’
As far as diet goes, Diana is old school; no weighing scales, cutting out dairy or proscribing carbs. While she remembers trying the cabbage soup diet, the grapefruit diet and various other crackpot quick fixes in the 80s, her mantra for many years has been simply ‘watch what you eat’. There is no instant solution, she says. ‘If you steer away from sugars and processed foods and towards fresh fruit and veg, fish and fibre, you’ll be fine. I’ve never starved myself because I’m in tune with my body, and if I have an extra biscuit now, I’ll cut back on something else later.’
But she admits to feelings of dismay at the obesity timebomb threatening the nation’s health, with the UK near the top of the European obesity league and levels projected to rise as high as 50 per cent by 2050.
‘I am absolutely appalled by the number of overweight people I see nowadays; it’s even more heartbreaking when they have children who are also large. Of course, some people are obese because of medical conditions, but the others, do they have no self-esteem, no self-control? I worry who will look after these people as they age. It’s very sad and baffling because we have so much knowledge and access to fresh, healthy food. Why aren’t these generations super-fit?’
A genuinely anguished look passes over Diana’s features, as though somehow she could – should – have done more. But thanks to her joie de vivre and evangelical approach to exercise, she has already achieved so much – and what is her new book if not a testament to her continued commitment?
Then she smiles again and it’s as if the sun has appeared from behind a cloud. ‘I may be 78 but I have no intention of taking things easy; I’m looking forward to the next challenge.
If older people can stay fit and well through diet and movement, there’s every reason to suppose they will enjoy a long and productive retirement.’
It sounds like the answer to an ageing population’s prayers and who else to deliver it but our very own Green Goddess?
FIT FOR A GODDESS
Strictly or Bake Off? I’ve known Mary Berry for many years and I’m a loyal fan, but I love both shows.
Scariest thing you’ve done? I trekked along the Great Wall of China, which is terrifying in parts. At one point I paid a local woman to hold my hand.
What keeps you awake at night? Knowing I have an early flight or alarm call the next morning.
Style icon Joanna Lumley, who is a friend as well as a beautiful dresser.
Guilty treat Dark liqueur chocolates. When I was younger I could polish off a whole box.
Most precious possession Photographs of my wonderful family.
On a free afternoon, we’d find you… Painting. It’s my absolute passion.
DIANA’S DAILY ROUTINE
As soon as I tumble out of bed at about 7am, I do my ‘monkey stretch’ to wake up and stretch out my body. Feet apart, bend upper body forward, swing arms down to the floor, then, in a continuous movement, straighten up, sweeping arms up to reach for the ceiling. I repeat this five times.
I take the opportunity to be very active whenever possible. I love to walk briskly, cycle, garden, do housework, etc – all good for stamina, strength, suppleness and skill (coordination of mind and body). I also fit in a set exercise routine most days. Warm up, muscle work (tums, bums, arms and legs) plus good stretching-out of muscles, usually in my bedroom for around 15 minutes. I don’t get the time to regularly go to a gym or an exercise class. I wish I could, but then again I’m proof that you can keep fit at home without the need for fancy equipment.
Breakfast Freshly squeezed orange juice (for vitamin C), muesli (for roughage), plus raspberries and blueberries (good antioxidants) and chopped banana (for potassium), topped with low-fat yoghurt (good for the stomach). And coffee to get me going!
Lunch A mixed salad with cheese or fish (for protein), then fruit (for vitamins and minerals). I avoid carbs if I can, but it’s not a hard and fast rule.
Dinner Fish or chicken with lots of vegetables and then more fruit. I occasionally enjoy a glass of sauvignon blanc with supper and I love champagne on high days and holidays.
Supplements Daily vitamin D and calcium tablets (for bone strength).
After a morning shower, I slather my body with E45 body lotion for dry skin. Then I apply Olay Pro Vital day cream on my face and neck, and a nourishing hand cream (I keep a tube in my bag so I can reapply during the day). I use Clinique make-up and love Rimmel nail polish. At night, I use Pro Vital night cream and more hand cream. I’m usually in bed by 11pm.
Sod Sitting, Get Moving! Getting Active in your 60s, 70s and Beyond by Diana Moran and Muir Gray is published by A & C Black, price £12.99. To order a copy for £9.74 until 23 July, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15