Helen Skelton: ‘Controversial? I’m just being me!’

Boobsgate! Shortsgate! Punchgate! TV presenter Helen Skelton doesn’t go looking for trouble but as Judith Woods discovers, it keeps on finding her.

Zoe McConnell

Helen Skelton skips shoeless and grinning across the room, bounces on to the sofa and curls up, unselfconscious as a schoolgirl. I find it refreshingly informal but not everyone agrees. ‘I get told off at the BBC when I sit like this in meetings, because I appear too relaxed,’ she says in her soft Cumbrian accent. ‘But that doesn’t mean I’m not listening or participating, I just like to be comfy. People forget I’m not an airhead – I’m a trained journalist. I’ve done my time, learnt my craft and I recognise a good story when I see one.’

There have certainly been plenty of stories about Helen, 34, of late so here’s a brief recap to be going on with. In no particular order: Shortsgate when she wore ‘skimpy outfits’ presenting the swimming events at the 2016 Rio Olympics; Me Toogate when she spoke of having her bum pinched live on air while pregnant and Boobsgate when she ‘flashed her assets’ in a camisole top on a private trip to the Grand National. Then there was Shortsgate II when she was allegedly dropped from the BBC presenting roster for the Commonwealth Games in Australia earlier this year on account of the aforementioned shorts, and Punchgate when she took on a reality TV contestant in a charity boxing match and shocked viewers as she pummelled her opponent relentlessly like a right little scrapper.

Those are a lot of ‘gates’, even for an occasional Countryfile reporter (boom-tish!). Helen, born into a dairy-farming family, beams wide as a valley and gives a shrug. ‘You’ve missed out Schoolgate,’ she says. ‘You know, when I tweeted about how my son was kicked out of his new playgroup in France after 20 minutes because he had a mega-meltdown. I was called into the headmaster’s office and told off. I do seem to get into trouble a lot.’ Given she has a degree in journalism and has been in the media since she was 18 – first in radio, then graduating to TV – she presumably takes every column inch of prurient indignation and faux-sympathy with a considerable pinch of salt.

Zoe McConnell

‘Ha ha! I never read anything about myself any more,’ she says. ‘I used to be on Blue Peter, which is a 52-weeks-a-year job. I was always on the go. Back then I never got time to come up for air and wonder how the public perceived me and I still don’t do it now. So much of it is plain silly, but I do wish anonymous people on Twitter wouldn’t post stuff such as, “Helen is so annoying, she should be banned from TV”, because that sort of thing has consequences and it could affect whether I get a job or not.’

That dovetails neatly with the question of reports that she was dropped from the BBC’s Commonwealth Games team in Australia earlier this year because of her revealing Olympics outfits. Or some other terrible, non-sartorial-related infraction.

‘I’ve never been on the payroll of the BBC, so there was nothing to be dropped from,’ she says. ‘Even with Blue Peter I was on a one-year contract that was renewed for five years. I was obviously disappointed because I’ve got friends and family in Australia and I’ve been following lots of these British swimmers for years, but that’s just how things go in this business – you don’t get to do everything. I do seem to make headlines a lot, but I wouldn’t call myself controversial. It’s just me being me, and I don’t know how to be anything but upfront and open.’

By any standards, straight-speaking Helen is one hell of a tough cookie. Just 5ft 2in and a size eight, her five-year stint on Blue Peter saw her kayak the length of the Amazon and become the first person to reach the South Pole using a bicycle as part of the expedition for Sport Relief. She’s also only the second woman ever to have completed the 78-mile Namibian Ultra Marathon. Yet with her tousled blonde girlishness it’s hard to believe she’s old enough to be married – to 28-year-old professional rugby league player Richie Myler – much less a mother. Her son Ernie is three and one-year-old Louis was born on her kitchen floor in rural France (more of which later).

‘As far as my Rio outfits went, I thought I looked nice and I felt great. I’d just had my first child and I wanted to make an effort and to feel good about myself, so I got a personal stylist in the way everybody else does. What was I supposed to do, not make an effort?’ Despite the salacious tabloid coverage, Helen – and her colleagues – remained unruffled. ‘My bosses at the BBC supported me – in fact, they were coming up to me and checking I was all right. I said that it wasn’t even on my radar. I’m a massive sports fan and I love live TV. So I had the brass neck to wear summer clothes in a hot country? Big deal. I wasn’t wearing any shoes either, but nobody spotted that.’

After Rio, Helen presented the swimming event at last summer’s World Aquatics Championships, held in Budapest. Again her wardrobe was described as ‘racy’ and ‘revealing’, although I thought she looked lovely and fresh as a daisy in her white dress. ‘I do think the criticisms were a bit harsh,’ she says. ‘My second son was born in the April and I was still breastfeeding. I took along my mum to look after him when I was on air and although my colleagues may have been wondering what the hell I was doing there because I was meant to be on maternity leave, it went really well and I enjoyed every minute of it.’

That’s possibly Helen’s USP: she always looks as though she is enjoying herself, and her chatty style is engaging; all the more so because she makes sure she knows her stuff. ‘Sports fans care passionately so you have to give it 100 per cent, be ready with all the facts and stay on your toes.’ Being married to a leading rugby player, Helen has spent a lot of time pitchside. She has also had to adapt to the demands of Richie’s profession. ‘We move around every couple of years, which I accept, but it can be hard to make friends,’ she says. They met through friends when he was with Warrington Wolves, and watching the scrum-half play converted her from football fan to rugby fanatic.

‘When Rich signed to Catalans Dragons we moved to France and it was a tough learning curve. I didn’t speak the language and I felt so isolated that I used to go into the local tourist office just to talk to someone who could speak English. The loneliness was crushing even though the French wives and girlfriends would invite me on their nights out, which was kind. I would try to keep up by laughing and nodding – then somebody would ask if I understood and I would say no. They thought I was bonkers.’ By the end of their two-year stint, Helen had a working knowledge of the language and had started to make friends locally. More dramatically, she had given birth to her second son, Louis, in the family kitchen when her husband was away.

‘Luckily a friend was with me when I went into labour,’ she recalls. ‘There I was on my hands and knees, with Ernie hitting me on the head with a plastic sword because he thought I was playing monsters. That is what little boys think you’re doing when you’re on your knees barking in pain. It was very surreal. The fire brigade arrived because they operate the ambulance service, but they had never delivered a baby before. Somehow we managed.’

Helen would have happily stayed on in France, but then in 2017 Rich got an offer to play for Leeds Rhinos. ‘In rugby circles you don’t turn down Leeds,’ she says. ‘So we packed up and moved back to the UK, where yet again I was the new girl in town. I started befriending people in the park, or at least attempting to. One day there was a group of mums chatting and I kept trying to break in by making small talk, to no avail. They kept ignoring me until my two-year-old said, “Excuse me, that’s my mummy.” It was mortifying, hilarious and really sweet at the same time. But even that didn’t do the trick.’

It’s no coincidence that Helen is an ambassador for MummySocial.com, a new online forum that puts mothers in touch with one another. Unlike Mumsnet, where the emphasis is on virtual communication and conversation threads about late Ocado deliveries and organic nappy cream, Mummy Social promotes face-to-face contact. It was set up by a couple of Helen’s friends, who are also mothers.

‘This isn’t a big corporate venture,’ she says. ‘It’s bad being lonely any time but sometimes with new mums that can escalate into postnatal depression; I only wish it had been around sooner for me. But I am starting to make connections in Leeds and find my feet – until we move again!’

Zoe McConnell

Fortunately Helen thrives on variety and, to some extent, unpredictability. She’s working on a follow-up to her first book Amy Wild: Amazon Summer, a children’s adventure story, and would ‘absolutely love’ to present at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. But her work-life balance is intentionally weighted towards domesticity.

‘I’m not ready to work full time while the kids are still so young, so I feel really lucky to be able to dip in and out as various gigs present themselves. The thing about previous challenges such as running or canoeing is they didn’t require me to be good at anything, just to keep rowing, keep going, putting one foot in front of the other and being physically resilient. Parenting is different; it brings you to your knees because you want to do your best, give your best to your child every moment of the day, but it makes your heart swell too. It’s easily the most challenging and most emotionally satisfying role to play.’

As far as the whole nature/nurture debate goes, Helen admits she used to imagine nurture was the main factor at play. She has since discovered that boys will be boys.

‘They shout, they fight, they love anything with wheels and if you give them each a banana they will use them as guns!’ she cries. ‘What is that about? I’ve never even shown them a gun.’ As far as having a third child is concerned, she has no plans at present but doesn’t discount it, although she doesn’t desperately hanker after a daughter.

‘I feel so blessed to have my boys and I certainly wouldn’t have another child just to try and get a girl. A third child will be an entirely gender-neutral decision,’ Helen laughs. And speaking of gender, it’s impossible not to refer back to her recent Me Too revelation that she was ‘grabbed on the arse’ during live coverage of a sporting event in 2014 – while pregnant, to add to the horrible ickiness of the experience. Her fellow (male) presenter raised the issue and it was immediately dealt with.

‘It was handled brilliantly,’ says Helen. ‘I’d never thought about complaining; I didn’t want it to become my identity. The guy was punished and that was the end of it as far as I was concerned. I absolutely did not want to name and shame him and I was against releasing any details to the media.’ As it was, the media worked it out and the perpetrator – Scottish darts player Ross Montgomery – countered that it was a ‘friendly slap’.

Helen is wary of discussing the incident further. ‘The only thing we should be saying around the Me Too movement is that young women and young men should get the respect they deserve. Talking about other stuff is irrelevant and detracts from the experiences of people who have suffered awful things, which I didn’t. I was a bit upset but not as distressed as some people might imagine; I worry that the whole movement is becoming a witch-hunt and losing focus.’

She is perhaps saving her combative side for the boxing ring. A controversial Sport Relief charity bout against former Love Island contestant Camilla Thurlow saw Helen accused of brutality as she knocked seven bells out of her opponent, winning after three rounds. ‘Everyone said it was uncomfortable viewing but I absolutely loved the training and fell so completely in love with the sport that I wanted to go out there and make my trainer proud,’ she says. ‘My worst nightmare was being told afterwards that I “punched like a girl”. I wanted people to say, “That was a good fight”.’ In truth, most of us said ‘OMG, she’s making mincemeat of poor Camilla! Make it stop!’

Helen laughs. ‘Fair play to Camilla, she retaliated with gutsiness and spirit and gave me a black eye. Yes, the ref did tell me to go easy, but when I do anything, I want to do it properly. I don’t do defence, I just go for it and she took everything I gave her and still she kept coming back. Arguably she had more balls than me.’ A statement that’s both generous and thought-provoking, much like Helen herself. ‘I care deeply about the work I do and I’m a good team player,’ she says. ‘I probably don’t suck up to the bosses enough, but there you go.’ Maybe not, but the calibre of her output speaks for itself. Let’s just hope the BBC’s Tokyo selectors are listening.

Helen is ambassador for the parenting networking site mummysocial.com

Interview by Judith Woods