Kirsty Gallacher was Sky’s golden girl for years – then a series of traumas left her ‘in a black hole’. She opens up about her divorce, that drink-driving ban and how Russell Brand helped her turn her life around.
‘Not that long ago I’d hit rock bottom,’ says Kirsty Gallacher. It’s a jarring statement coming from the vibrant, friendly woman sitting opposite me in YOU’s photo studio. Chatting away about her two dogs and the perils of wearing jumpsuits when you need the loo, she gives no inkling of the pain she’s suffered.
Yet over the past few years, Kirsty, 43, who until last year was one of Sky’s best known sports presenters, has endured in quick succession the near death of her father, a divorce and a humiliating drink-driving ban which – until now – she has never discussed publicly. ‘There’s been so much grieving, trauma, stress,’ she says.
First came the agony in 2013 of seeing her golfer father, Bernard Gallacher, the former captain of Europe’s Ryder Cup team, suffer a cardiac arrest so serious that he ‘medically died’ three times, with doctors restarting his heart.
‘It’s amazing he’s still alive,’ Kirsty says. ‘I was at the hospital in Scotland where they were treating him and Sky Sports News was on with a ticker running saying “Gallacher in a coma”. It wasn’t nice to see. It was very tough.’
Then, a year later, Kirsty split from rugby player Paul Sampson, her husband of four years (they had been together ten years previously) and the father of her sons Oscar, 12, and Jude, nine. ‘It was traumatic,’ she says. ‘Divorce is horrible. It floored me like it floors everyone.’
Previously, she’s suggested it was seeing her father at death’s door that prompted her to end the marriage. ‘Lots of things contributed,’ she says now. ‘Whether it’s your decision to leave, or whether it’s ultimately the right thing to do, if you’ve got a conscience and you’re an emotional person, which I am, it kills you and it takes a long time to get over it. I was just so anxious about the kids – my pain was connected with their pain, and I didn’t look after myself.’
The year after the split, she took part in 2015’s Strictly Come Dancing, where I remember – frankly – worrying for her: she appeared so brittle under the spotlight. ‘I was worried for myself!’ she laughs. ‘I did Strictly at the wrong time. I was an absolute nervous, skinny wreck. I didn’t take time off work so I didn’t have time to rehearse the dances properly, I was constantly worrying about my children. It all tipped me over the edge.’
That she progressed at all in the competition (she was the fifth celebrity to be voted off) was largely because of her professional dance partner Brendan Cole’s support, she says. ‘He was incredible, like a big brother. And Tess Daly is a friend and was wonderful; she knew what I was going through, so did Claudia [Winkleman]. So I did enjoy elements but not as much as I should have.’
She’s shared her experiences with her ‘great friend’ Emma, Viscountess Weymouth, who’s one of this year’s contestants. ‘I said, “Em, don’t do what I did, which was to take Strictly too seriously. Just go and enjoy it.” And she is loving it.’
Things reached their nadir for Kirsty in August 2017, when she was stopped by police around 11am driving erratically through Eton on her way to meet her sons, who had been staying with their father. Having been found to be three times over the legal alcohol limit, she received a two-year driving ban and 100 hours of community service.
‘I was in a very bad place with the divorce and issues to do with the children’s schedule. I was exhausted – I’d worked really hard that week,’ she recalls. With the boys staying at Paul’s (custody is shared 50/50), she drove straight from work to meet friends in a nearby pub. ‘I’m not good with alcohol – a couple of glasses, that’s me – but one of my friends was celebrating something, so we carried on drinking wine.’
Kirsty went home by taxi and in the morning took another to collect her car. ‘I took all the precautions and I felt absolutely fine,’ she says. ‘But I hadn’t slept very well that night. I was so stressed, I hadn’t eaten much and when you’re going through all these things your body metabolises differently, so my system wasn’t all right. If I’d known that I wouldn’t have got in my car.’
What went through her mind when the police pulled her over? ‘The whole thing was horrific,’ she says. ‘I misjudged what I was doing, I felt I was going to be all right. I wasn’t thinking straight. It was very bad and very un-Kirsty because I’ve always been a good girl. But I think unfortunately a lot of people do it without realising. How many people have got up the next morning and probably been way over the limit? We all make mistakes, life’s not perfect… and in the limelight you’re apparently not able to put a foot wrong.’
For the next 18 months (her ban was reduced after she attended a driving rehab course) Kirsty had to employ a driver to ferry her around. ‘It was terrible. Now I’m loving driving again.’ She still drinks, ‘but only rarely – I’ve never been a big drinker’.
That was her lowest ebb. But now Kirsty’s in a new, happier incarnation, which seems to have been helped by her decision last spring to leave Sky (where she’d worked on and off for 20 years) to pursue varied freelance projects, such as presenting annual charity football match Soccer Aid, hosting podcasts and guest presenting on a variety of television and radio shows. Advice to upend her career came – bizarrely – from comedian Russell Brand, husband of Kirsty’s sister Laura, 32, with whom he has two young daughters. ‘We’re very close, we all help each other and Russell said, “It’s time for passion projects, to do what you want to do,”’ she says. ‘When there’s a lull, he says, “It doesn’t matter. You’ll get asked to do something soon.”’
Leaving Sky was ‘emotional, because it had been a home from home, but I’d been asked to do lots of other jobs that I wanted to accept,’ she continues. ‘Also at Sky I’d been getting home at 9pm most days and I was missing out on a lot with my children. Post-divorce, you have to work harder to make sure those little things are fine.
‘It’s great to work and to be a role model to your children, but if you’re not spending time with them it becomes, “Why am I doing this?” Now I’m busy doing all sorts of things but I can still be more of a mummy, doing the school runs, cooking more. It’s a much healthier existence.’
I struggle to imagine immaculate Kirsty hanging out with scraggly Brand who – before Laura – had a notorious Lothario reputation. But it turns out Kirsty was partly responsible for the couple being introduced, when Laura attended an event with Kirsty’s agent (who is also Russell’s), where he was performing. ‘I’ve known Russell a long time – he’s amazing and they lead a fabulous lifestyle,’ Kirsty beams. ‘Those little girls are his life, he’s so wonderful with them.’ That surprises me even more, since earlier this year Russell said he’d never changed a nappy. ‘I think that was just a flippant comment,’ Kirsty shrugs. ‘Russell does loads; he’s very hands-on.’
Russell was also responsible for advising Kirsty about her love life when – after the divorce – she was linked in quick succession with comedian Jack Whitehall, rugby player Danny Cipriani and actor Laurence Fox.
‘They were all lovely people; there was nothing awful about any of my relationships. But Russell said, “Kirsty, you don’t need to be with anyone, you need some time alone.” And he was right. After the divorce, I catapulted myself into these relationships. I wasn’t used to being on my own and I was looking for validation because I was a little bit wobbly – when I came out of a relationship I’d always be like, “Where’s the next one?”
‘But then last year I suddenly went, “I don’t need to be doing this.” Now I really enjoy being on my own, and will do until it’s time for me to meet the right person. I’m not saying I’ll want to settle down and marry that person, but I don’t need to be with anybody just for the sake of it any more.’
Dating apps don’t appeal, though to Kirsty’s fury she recently read in the papers that someone impersonated her on Bumble. ‘They were using my picture from my Instagram! I can’t believe people can do that.’ She’s hoping to meet someone the traditional way ‘through work or social events’ and would love another child. ‘A girl would be incredible,’ she sighs. ‘But really just another baby.’
A self-confessed perfectionist, Kirsty’s a much more sensitive soul than her glossy TV persona might suggest. Having been picked on at her private girls’ school for having a famous father, throughout her career she’s had to suffer accusations of nepotism – which even now upset her. Earlier this year, she was so shaken by the trolling she received while hosting a Radio 5 Live phone-in, she announced that she’d no longer present the show.
‘I’d put across one point of view in a debate about the price of tickets at Manchester City as devil’s advocate, and all these people were saying these vile things: “She’s got no idea what she’s talking about”; “She’s a stupid woman”; “She only got her job because of her father”. I found it so exceptionally hard. I know some people say, “Let the words wash off” but they don’t – you can’t stop thinking about it. It saddened me that we haven’t moved on from making those sort of comments and that it could affect me so much.’
With a new bobbed hairstyle replacing her trademark long dark locks (‘I was scared of getting my hair cut – ridiculously I was worried it would make me feel less feminine, but it feels very fresh and liberating’) Kirsty’s learning to toughen up, partly with the help of therapy. ‘I tried therapy during my divorce, but I didn’t stick with it, maybe because I was scared, though – ironically – I really needed it then,’ she says. ‘But now I’m talking to a woman about managing anxiety and stress because that is my achilles heel.
‘When I’m presenting I’m as strong as an ox, but when I go home, having done a good job and the kids are with their dad, I go, “Ooh, I don’t like this.” The love I have for them is the deepest thing, it’s almost painful, so when they’re away I feel like my heart drains and when they come back it fills up again. But they’re happy – kids are very resilient and I’m getting much better at being on my own.’
Other stressbusting techniques include mindfulness (Russell and Laura give her tips) and she exercises as much as possible. ‘Training really helps with raising my serotonin levels. If I don’t do it, it’s a problem.’ This year she ran the London Marathon for the women’s charity SafeHands; next up she’s hoping to complete a triathlon.
It’s uplifting to see someone who’s been so visibly fragile so upbeat. ‘I’ve been in a black hole for a while,’ Kirsty beams. ‘But now I can see daylight again.’
How Kirsty gets her kicks
Last great book you read? Oscar Wilde: A Life by Matthew Sturgis.
Song that always gets you on the dancefloor? ‘Rock With You’ by Michael Jackson.
The last person you texted? My mum about looking after my dog today.
Love is… My children.
The last time you cried? I cry all the time. It’s good to let it all out.
Who’d play you in a film about your life? Penélope Cruz would be nice!
What are you having for dinner tonight? I’m at an awards ceremony so whatever’s on the menu. I usually choose the vegetarian option.
Have you ever been starstruck? Yes, when I met Rob Lowe. I grew up watching those fabulous Brat-Pack movies he starred in. He’s still gorgeous.
Follow Kirsty at instagram.com/gallacherkirsty
Interview by Julia Llewellyn Smith