Meet Liz Jones‘s husband! We’re joking, of course. But our fearless columnist and her long-suffering assistant Nicola Bebb have a relationship that’s outlived most marriages. And now they’ve turned it into a laugh-out-loud podcast.
YOU magazine’s beloved columnist of 20 years Liz Jones and her long-term assistant and best friend Nicola Bebb are laughing together, recalling the spats they’ve had.
‘We’ve had so many stand-up screaming matches,’ Nic says, wiping away tears of mirth. ‘There was a humdinger once when Liz ended up sacking me over something petty – I can’t remember what. I said, “You can’t sack me because I resign!” I flounced off one way, she flounced off another. Then about an hour later Liz phoned and said, “Help! I’ve broken down!” I said, “All right, where are you? I’ll come to get you.”‘
You don’t find more devoted – or funnier – friends than Liz, 61, and Nic, 50. Over the 13 years they’ve known each other, together they have weathered every storm in Liz’s eventful life, from her disastrous spell living in Somerset after her divorce, to her subsequent move to North Yorkshire and her bankruptcy.
Nic held Liz’s hand throughout her calamitous relationships with the anonymous rock star (yes, she knows his identity, but she’s not telling) and more recently with David, whom the pair try – and usually fail – to refer to as ‘he who shall not be named’.
‘I’ve never met anyone more loyal than Nic,’ Liz says. ‘She stuck by me when nobody else did.’
Now the duo are cheering us all up with their new podcast Liz Jones’s Diary, in which every week they dissect recent goings-on, while also reminiscing about highlights from Liz’s diaries – such as behind-the-scenes shenanigans at the international fashion shows she attended as a magazine editor, to her panic on holiday in Thailand in 2001 when she thought her new husband, Nirpal Dhaliwal, was about to find her passport and discover the closely guarded secret of her age.
Today, the friends are sitting facing each other across a dressing table in a bedroom in a house in East London, which they’re visiting for the day from their homes in remotes Worth Yorkshire to record a new episode of the podcast (this was before coronavirus lockdown).
Two microphones set in front of them, as they record the new episode, discussing how they feel about returning to their former home city. ‘It makes me quite nostalgic for my old London life,’ sighs Liz.
‘When you get to King’s Cross and see the rubbish, the pollution… it’s like paradise,’ Nic agrees sarcastically.
How did the podcast come into being, I ask after the recording finishes. ‘At first we thought I’d just read my columns aloud, but having Nic and I do it together seemed an obvious choice because we are always chatting,’ says Liz.
‘So it became a celebration of female friendship,’ Liz continues. ‘Nic and I are like a really dysfunctional family, like some weird, heterosexual, married couple.’
‘People like builders have asked if we’re partners,’ chuckles Nic, who’s been engaged twice but never married. ‘I say, “No, I’m straight, and anyway Liz isn’t my type.”’
While Liz’s relationships with many people, from her neighbours to her family, have been fiery, Nic radiates calm. ‘A lot of people find me difficult. I’m a writer and I can be quite hard to live with,’ Liz says. ‘Whereas Nic is very practical and all about common sense.’
‘Liz becomes hysterical at anything,’ Nic smiles. ‘We’ve had many arguments – mainly when we’ve got a lot of stress in our lives. Three years ago Liz was going bankrupt and I was working all hours, dealing with accountants and lawyers. We were both super-tired, so like married couples we’d end up going “grrr” at each other. But mostly we bounce off each other well. We may appear very different, but underneath it all we’ve got the same values.’
Between them the women own four horses (two each), five dogs (three are Liz’s) and two cats (Nic’s). ‘We don’t differentiate between each other’s animals in the way we feel about them,’ Nic says. ‘When Liz’s rescue dog was vomiting up blood, we both took her to the scan and the vet called us her two mummies. If any of our animals gets put down we’re both there.’
It was animals that first brought the women together in 2007, not long after both had relocated to Somerset from London. Liz called up Nic, a former systems analyst programmer for Bupa, who’d changed her life to become an equine behaviourist, to help with her rescue horse Lizzie.
‘Lizzie had been very abused. You couldn’t do anything with her but Nic used all these very gentle, non-invasive methods that made such a difference. So she came to help with the horses and soon she was working for me permanently.’
‘I couldn’t just sit back and see Liz drowning in admin, so I gradually took on more and more – it became if Liz needed help I’d do it,’ Nic says.
‘She became my husband!’ Liz laughs. The women became so close that when, after years of hostility from the locals (one even fired at her letterbox with a shotgun), Liz decided she’d had enough, Nic – who’d been living in a cottage on Liz’s estate – packed up her belongings and followed her boss to Yorkshire. ‘There was no big conversation about it,’ she shrugs. ‘It was the obvious thing to do.’
Now Nic lives a short drive from Liz. ‘And actually it’s better now that we don’t both live in the same compound, because I am incredibly anal so in the past if Nic had left a bin liner outside her front door I would pick it up and take it away,’ Liz says.
‘And I’d be like meals on wheels,’ says Nic. ‘I’d tootle over with her dinner, only to have Liz say, “I don’t like that.” She’s very picky.’
Still, it’s clear that – more than ever – both emotionally and practically the pair couldn’t do without each other. Now, during isolation, Nic is organising their food deliveries from local suppliers.
‘When you’re single and living somewhere remote, you need back-up,’ says Liz. ‘I say to Nic, “I can’t light the fire, I haven’t got any logs,” and she’ll bring some round. No one else would do that for me.’
‘Once she called me, stuck in her car at the bottom of an icy hill,’ Nic laughs. ‘She had all this dog food she wanted to get home so I was pushing her BMW up the hill, with it rolling back on me and Liz shouting “push harder” and me saying “I can’t!” I mean, I love her but this wasn’t her finest moment.’
One of the podcast’s many joys is hearing Nic tell Liz exactly what the rest of us are all thinking – that she’s too fussy, she tries to buy people’s love with expensive presents and she worries too much about designer labels.
She’s also an outspoken critic of David, the man from whom – after seven years of on-off dramas – Liz seems finally to have split for good, just after Christmas.
‘I was quite nice to David until he was vile to me,’ Nic shrugs. ‘I fixed his iPad, I cooked his dinner the first time Liz had him to stay. But when your friend is always telling you how her boyfriend has put her down or she’s coming back at 4am in tears because they’ve had a row and he’s let her leave and drive down the motorway in that state, it makes you not like someone. So, yes, I’ve probably been pretty horrible about David and unfortunately it’s public now that I don’t like him because Liz publishes everything I say about him.’
So who would Nic like as Liz’s ideal man? ‘I want someone who will value her and look after her the way I do – not just because it’s my job but because she’s my friend and I love her. I’m a bit like Liz’s rottweiler, and I’d like her to have that in a romantic relationship.’
Liz repays Nic’s devotion, in 2014 footing the bill for her to have a tummy tuck after Nic lost six stone very quickly. ‘I was distraught, my stomach was hanging under my knickers, we called it the pitta bread. Liz knew it had destroyed my confidence so arranged the tuck.’ Since then, Nic, who has endured various health problems and – she says – ‘had every eating disorder possible over my life’, has seen her size go up again to a size 14, something she’s very hard on herself about. ‘At 5ft 2in if I’m anything over a size 10 or 12 I resemble a womble!’ she sighs.
‘But the thing about Nic,’ Liz continues, ‘is that even though I’m the slimmer of us both, she has way more male attention than me – there’s a queue!’
‘Careful,’ Nic exclaims. ‘People will think I’m a slapper.’
In fact, Nic’s weight struggles have been an eye-opener for Liz, who previously judged any woman larger than a size 10. ‘I once famously wrote I’d rather be thin than happy; deep down I’ve always wanted to be Gisele or Janice Dickinson,’ she says. ‘It gave me a willpower of steel: I could jog to the moon, I could easily stop eating for a week, so I used to look down on women who didn’t do that. But Nic has taught me to think differently.’
‘I’ve taught her that fat people aren’t lazy. I work really hard,’ Nic says. ‘We just have different mindsets. We go out for dinner and Liz will drive me mad because she’ll order an amazing dessert and be, like, “I don’t really want that” and she’ll take a couple of mouthfuls then push it away – so I end up eating it. I’m like her bin, or another dog. We’re like Jack Spratt and his wife.’
‘Or Laurel and Hardy,’ Liz smiles. ‘That’s what we call ourselves.’
‘I hate the idea of doing this YOU photo shoot, I just won’t look at the pictures because I’ll look frumpy and matronly. Liz can slip into anything and look fantastic,’ Nic continues.
‘But being thin didn’t make my husband love me,’ Liz points out. ‘Whatever size you are you have your strange phobias – even when I got married I wore trousers because I hate my legs and my husband never saw me naked – I’ve been known to unscrew lightbulbs because I’ve never wanted sex with the light on.’
‘While I’ve never been worried about anything like that,’ Nic says cheerily.
So fascinated was Liz by the differences between the two women’s attitude to weight that now she’s written her first novel 8 1⁄2 Stone, to be published in May. ‘The heroine is a big, really funny woman. She’s based on 13 years of watching how a larger woman such as Nic deals with someone not wanting to have sex with her, or going on holiday and wanting but not being able to wear a bikini,’ Liz says.
‘But then the character loses weight and she becomes me: the skinny, OCD, no-thanks-I- don’t-need-dessert-I’m-full nightmare. So the fat character thinks she’s going to become happy when she’s thin, but she’s not.’
Nic doesn’t seem to mind being the inspiration for this character, just as she’s relaxed about her unexpected entry into the limelight. ‘I didn’t look for attention; I’m just here to support Liz, but I love it when people say nice things about the podcast, I was terrified they’d tear me to shreds because I’m so common – there’s a perception that people with East London accents like mine are stupid, but I’m not.’
What’s clear is – podcast or no podcast – the women will always be there for each other. ‘We are a bit of a formidable force for a third person to come into – maybe that’s why I can’t get a boyfriend,’ Liz says, but she doesn’t sound remotely bothered. ‘Seriously,’ she continues. ‘We have had a laugh and in the end having a laugh with friends is the only thing that gets you through.’ Right now, who could disagree?
Listen to Liz Jones’s Diary: The Podcast at mailplus.co.uk/lizjones, iTunes and Spotify. Liz’s comic novel 8 1⁄2 Stone (Matthew James Publishing, price £8.99) is available as an ebook via all outlets online, including Apple Books and Kindle. A paperback will follow in August.
Did they really say that?
Some of the hilarious highlights from Liz Jones’s Diary: The Podcast
LIZ’S BEST BITS
On sex with her ex-boyfriend: ‘I found that I had to tell him exactly what to do. It was like Mary Berry giving someone a victoria sponge recipe: ingredients, method, baking time.’
When Liz talks about her romantic getaway with David: ‘One minute you’re having dinner and the next minute you have to lock the hotel room door and tell reception not to give him a key.’
Liz on having children: ‘Women think that having children will keep their man around, but it repels them. You’re better off just buying one.’
NIC’S BEST BITS
What she wants for Valentine’s Day: ‘I’m cosmic-ordering my perfect man for Valentine’s Day next year. So I’m thinking the Supervet in Magic Mike’s body. He can look after my animals and flip me like a pancake all night.’
On visiting a spa: Liz: ‘It’s funny, though, isn’t it? You lie on the table and you take your knickers off, and this poor young woman you’ve never met before is suddenly saying, “Can you splay your knees?” It’s very intimate.’ Nic: ‘Sounds like a Saturday night out in Leyton.’
On why sex is overrated: ‘They treat women like a docking bay. They dock then they take off again. Forty-five seconds, a trifle lasts longer – more pleasure, less mess.’
When Nic says she didn’t approve of Liz’s marriage to Nirpal: ‘I would have tied you to the chair and stopped you.’
Interview: Julia Llewellyn Smith