Unbelievably, Lorraine Kelly will celebrate her landmark birthday next month. Louise Gannon meets the queen of the morning-show sofa to find out how she keeps on top of her game – and glimpses the steel behind the smile.
To find out who Lorraine Kelly really is, and how she has managed to weather 35 years in the supposedly fluffy world of breakfast television, just ask her which reality TV show she would like to appear on.
‘I wouldn’t do Strictly because I can’t dance. And my daughter Rosie says she’d disown me if I went into the jungle. I can’t cook, so no Bake Off or MasterChef.’ There is a pause and a smile. ‘But I would do SAS: Who Dares Wins. I could do that one. There’s something about it that appeals to me.’
For those unfamiliar, it involves weeks of hardcore mental and physical challenges based on the Special Air Service’s gruelling recruitment process. Could Lorraine dive into ice pools and crawl through mud? What about being tied up, blindfolded and verbally abused during a lengthy interrogation?
She folds her hands neatly in the lap of her dark green belted shirtdress, cocks her head slightly to one side, and thinks for a moment. ‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I could handle that.’ And there it is. The real steel behind her smile.
Viewers caught a glimpse of that when she unleashed a look this summer – during an awkward TV handover – when Good Morning Britain’s Susanna Reid asked her if she remembered her former presenting colleague Esther McVey, now a Tory MP, who was sitting alongside Susanna smiling into the camera. ‘Yep. Yes I do. Right, coming up after half past eight…’ came Lorraine’s uncharacteristically curt response. Social media went into overdrive wondering what dark feud these women were hiding.
McVey told the press that they had shared a dressing room on breakfast show GMTV in the late 90s, until she had been promoted over Lorraine. Former GMTV colleague Fiona Phillips then waded in, saying McVey had ‘lied’ about a promotion and had only been there covering Fiona’s maternity leave. ‘You know what that was,’ Lorraine says. ‘I’d been sitting on the sofa, reading all the Brexit nonsense and literally shaking my head about how appalling our politicians were, then I look into the monitor and see one of them sitting there. I thought: “I just can’t be bothered with any of you.” She was never promoted; I don’t even think we shared a dressing room. But why should we be surprised at that of a politician? That is now very sadly to be expected. I then heard the whole station was accused of being a Labour cabal, which made me laugh. She did get my “look”, which very few people are on the receiving end of. But there is a look.’
Lorraine, who was born into a working-class family from the Gorbals, Glasgow, has remained queen of the studio sofa while her contemporaries – Selina Scott, Anne Diamond, Ulrika Jonsson, Anthea Turner – have fallen by the wayside. ‘It’s a bloody tough business and you have to be tough to survive it. I was told at the beginning of my career that I would never fit in, that I’d never make it, that I wasn’t the “right sort” and I didn’t have the right voice. It hasn’t been an easy ride but I’m still here. Even now I expect a tap on the shoulder telling me to push off, but that’s what keeps you on your toes.’
In person she is a joy to be with but, make no mistake, Lorraine is no pussycat. Bar a few weeks in 2012 when she was badly injured after falling off a horse during a charity ride, she has never taken a sick day off work: ‘In the early days, when I was working on [ITV breakfast show] TV-am, I was once so hungover I was practically green but it never occurred to me to call in sick.’ As a news reporter on local television in Scotland she was one of the first on the scene of the horrific Lockerbie disaster in 1988 when a Pan-Am flight was bombed, killing all 259 passengers and 11 more on the ground. And she can handle tough interviewees – from ‘bored’ Bruce Willis to the difficult Harrison Ford and a grief-stricken Bob Geldof.
Today, we are sitting in a converted warehouse a stone’s throw from the studio where she presents her long-running ITV show Lorraine, which is having something of a moment, with viewing figures the highest they’ve been in almost a decade. Twice this year she’s been acknowledged for her outstanding contribution to British TV, in March at the Royal Television Awards and last month at the TV Choice Awards.
This month – a matter of weeks before her 60th birthday in November – sees the release of her first self-help book, Shine. It is very Lorraine: no psychobabble, no self-indulgence, no nonsense, just matter-of-fact advice. The book is based on her own experiences, from looking your best to dealing with bullying, anxiety, menopause, friendships, parents and parenthood. It is the sort of age-old female wisdom and compassionate common sense a mother would pass on.
There is one story in particular that gets right to the heart of the sort of woman Lorraine is, though it is not something that would be allowed to happen in today’s more politically correct world. In 1994, after taking three months’ maternity leave from her job co-hosting GMTV with Eamonn Holmes, she was sacked two weeks before she was due to return to work and replaced by the then golden girl Anthea Turner.
‘I cried,’ she says. ‘I felt absolutely terrible. I’d just had a baby. We had an enormous mortgage, I was the main earner but both myself and my husband are freelancers [her husband Steve Smith is a cameraman] and this job that I loved had gone. It was an awful time.
‘I remember going to meet people in TV, trying to get a job. It was back in the days when there were no places for breastfeeding so I’d be sitting in a loo feeding Rosie, looking exhausted, breasts leaking, still carrying my baby weight and feeling just awful.’
Ironically, GMTV asked her back a month later because they’d won a large sponsorship deal with a baby-food manufacturer and wanted a short mother-and-baby slot. Anthea had no children so new mother Lorraine was perfect. ‘Of course your instinct is to tell them to shove it. But I’m not daft so I said yes.’
I ask her how she felt about Anthea sitting in her seat on the sofa. She shakes her head. ‘It wasn’t her fault. These decisions are made by the men upstairs. I remember walking in on my first day and seeing her. I gave her a hug and told her it was a great job and to enjoy it.’ She pauses. ‘Of course that felt weird, but I was never going to cry; I was never going to scream and rage. Career-wise I had nothing, so the most I could do was keep my dignity and do the best I could with my new little job.’
That ‘little job’ was the making of Lorraine. It got her off the early morning sofa, proved a massive hit with viewers and morphed into the post-breakfast show we now know as Lorraine. This story of turning a lemon into lemonade is something of a leitmotif in Lorraine’s life.
At school the round, bespectacled kid with the thick East End Glasgow accent was bullied for being a swot and immaculately dressed up every day – complete with a big fat bow in her hair. ‘That bow,’ she says, ‘It made me even more of a target.’ But she continued to wear it and never cried to her parents about being pushed around. She won over a few close friends, got top marks and, by the age of 18, was on her way to university to study English and Russian when she was offered a job on her local newspaper. Her father John, a TV repair man, and her mother Anne were devastated that their clever daughter ‘was not going to be in a photo on the mantelpiece in a cap and gown, the first Kelly to go to university’. But as much as she loved them – she still speaks to them most days – Lorraine knew her future lay in news. (She was overcome with emotion on her 35th anniversary show earlier this month when her parents appeared via cameralink. She said of her father, ‘He’s not very well but he’s doing good, he’s getting there.’)
She left the newspaper to join BBC Scotland and in 1984, after years of working as a researcher, she thought she would be offered a job as an on-screen reporter. ‘My boss looked me dead in the eye and told me it was never going to happen, I had no chance because no one on television spoke like me,’ she says. ‘But I knew I was good. I knew I could do the job, so I decided that if they didn’t like me I would look elsewhere.’ She met TV executive Bruce Gyngell, who gave her a job as Scottish correspondent at TV-am. ‘He said, “People are going to like you because you’re not glamorous and you sound like people on the street.” It might have been a backhanded compliment but it was a golden opportunity for me.’
The rest is, of course, television history and now, as she turns 60, Ms Kelly has hit her prime. Not only is her career going strong, she’s looking better than ever. ‘I used to have terrible fashion sense,’ she laughs. ‘And I had no idea about the right food to eat, so I’ve learnt all these things from working with stylists, make-up artists and nutritionists along the way. I soak it all up, I exercise and I look after myself. I’m not high maintenance; I possess one pair of earrings [diamond studs given to her by her husband] and my wedding ring. But I’m happy in myself. Happy and proud to be 60. I love it when people tell me I look great for 60. I don’t want to be any younger. Life gets better and better.’
We talk about Steve, the man she met in 1984 when she started at TV-am. ‘He was my cameraman. We were a tiny team of four people but when he walked in the room I knew he was the man I was going to marry. It took me a year to get him to ask me out on a date, then that was it.’
There has never been a whiff of scandal attached to her marriage. Their choice to put Rosie through the Scottish school system meant that they spent 13 years with Lorraine living in London during the week and home for long weekends, but she has never worried about Steve straying. Has he ever worried about her? She laughs. ‘The thought would be ridiculous. I’ve been chatted up once in my life, by Smokey Robinson. He asked me out on a date, I said I was busy.’
Then there was the incident with Robert Downey Jr. Again she laughs, ‘That was years ago. I was hosting This Morning alongside Jeremy Kyle, of all people, on one of his first presenting jobs. Robert Downey Jr came in rather well refreshed and as he sat down he leaned over and said, “Nice t*ts.” Jeremy was very gentlemanly and said, “You can’t say that to her.” I don’t think Mr Downey Jr batted an eyelid and I just moved on.’
Way before the #MeToo movement, then? She nods. ‘That was back in the days when we just put up with all that nonsense. Thank God my daughter’s generation will never have to tolerate that sort of behaviour.’
The conversation turns to Rosie, who is now 25 and living in Singapore where she works for a marketing company. Their relationship was unconventional due to the amount of time Lorraine spent away working, but Rosie has never been in any doubt of her mother’s love. ‘I always made sure when I was home that I was 100 per cent focused on her and the family. I listened to her a lot – I wouldn’t be on my mobile or scanning emails. It drives me nuts when I see mums doing that when their kids are trying to talk to them.
‘It was hard leaving her. Every weekend I would fly home on Thursday night and leave on the last flight on Sunday. I remember one time she was really poorly but I had to leave her. I knew she would be absolutely fine with Steve yet I cried all the way back to London. But we got used to it. I’m good at compartmentalising. Very good. London was work, Scotland was home. I rarely socialised in London. I wasn’t in a gang at school and I’m still not in a gang in TV. I’ve never been interested in flashy parties or hanging out with the big bosses from work. I’d always rather do my job then get home to my real life.’
Right now, her ‘real life’ is in Cookham, Berkshire, where she relocated with Steve (they still have a home in Scotland) after Rosie left for Singapore – and Lorraine had shed a few tears over her empty nest.
On a recent trip to India, Lorraine was praised for posting several make-up-free snaps. ‘I can’t bear these perfect Instagram pictures with all these filters and pouts. I post pictures of myself straight after a Zumba class because I am exactly the same as every other woman my age who does an exercise class –you get hot and sweaty, you don’t look your best but you have a great big smile on your face because you’ve done it.’
It is exactly the message she puts across in her book: be real, make the most of yourself and your opportunities, and ‘have a blast’.
I ask her if she is doing anything special for her 60th birthday. ‘My team on Lorraine has bought me the present of a lifetime – I’m going to train to be an astronaut. I’m fascinated by space. I always wanted to be an astronaut and there’s a little part of me that imagines if all the experts and astronauts disappeared, there could be this one 60-year-old Scottish woman sent into space to save everyone.’
One thing’s for sure: we would be in very capable hands.