By Louise Gannon
Following the breakdown of her very public relationship with a fan she met on Twitter, MELANIE SYKES has vowed to keep a lid on her private life. Ironic, then, that she is about to present the revamp of iconic TV series Blind Date, she tells Louise Gannon.
There is something very telling about the way TV presenter Melanie Sykes attacks a heaving buffet table at the end of a long day’s filming. As others on the YOU shoot hover over the delights of the chocolate roulade and potato salad, Melanie knows exactly what she wants, filling her plate with spring greens, avocado and a super-grain vegetable mix.
It is the reason she is so lean and fit, and why, just two months off 47, she admits, ‘Photographers ask me to take off my clothes more than they ever did in my 20s.’ She’s aware how great her assets are, opting to remove a drapey skirt from one of the looks so that she poses in just a top, revealing those glorious legs.
Melanie – who avoids sugar, carbs, alcohol, dairy and gluten as part of the Amelia Freer ‘Eat. Nourish. Glow’ regime she has been following for the past three years – says: ‘I would eat linguine with lobster every day, but I don’t want to get fat and unhealthy. I want to be a fit, strong woman and a good mother to my two boys.’
It is also an indication of the unswerving determination and self-control it has taken to transform herself from a shy, insecure teenager into a model-turned-presenter who is about to launch Channel 5’s multimillion-pound revamp of the primetime show Blind Date alongside Paul O’Grady.
‘Am I excited about it?’ she laughs, sipping an illicit coffee (caffeine is frowned upon by Freer, but Mel believes in a little deviation from the rules). ‘I’m beyond excited. I loved the show when I was a kid. I watched it every Saturday night, like everyone else at my school. We’ve filmed a few episodes [in which a contestant chooses a date from three potential partners without seeing them by asking a series of questions] already and it’s a lot of fun. We have stayed totally true to the original format. Paul was the original host Cilla Black’s [who died in 2015] best friend and he is just brilliant with his ad-libs and sauciness.’
Melanie (who replaces ‘Our Graham’ as the voice of Blind Date) is responsible for tongue-in-cheek summations of each contestant and their potential partners. ‘I get to have real banter with Paul and make the audience laugh,’ she says.
‘I never thought I’d get to be part of such an iconic show. Blind Date made television history. It’s fun, it’s a family show and it’s something we want everyone to be talking about during the week. Everyone wants the dates to work out, but they can be very funny if they don’t. You never know!’
Which brings us neatly to the subject of Melanie’s own romantic life. She married The Tudors actor Daniel Caltagirone (he also starred in The Beach and The Pianist) in 2001, but the couple – who have two children, Roman, 15, and Valentino, 13 – divorced in 2009. Three years later Melanie began a relationship with roofer Jack Cockings, who wooed her on Twitter, having previously attempted to spark up social-media romances with singer Cheryl and glamour model Jodie Marsh. After less than 12 months of saucy flirting and besotted messages (they announced their engagement on Twitter – where else?), she married Jack – who is 16 years her junior – but six months into the marriage she was arrested by police over an alleged assault against him (the charges have since been removed from police records). Within eight months the marriage was over.
Melanie has vowed, post-Jack, never to be so blithely open about her private life again. ‘You can ask me if you like but I’ll never say anything [about the relationship],’ she says in a typically blunt manner. Has she ever been on a blind date? ‘No,’ she says. Does she enjoy dating? Is she single? An eyebrow is raised. What advice would she give to anyone looking for love? ‘I wouldn’t give advice to anyone,’ she says, then laughs. ‘It’s pretty ironic isn’t it, that I’m doing Blind Date?’
Final question: as a successful woman with a less-than-successful romantic record, does Melanie believe in the concept of having it all? She wrinkles her brow: ‘I think it’s more a case that I don’t want it all,’ she says. ‘I’m happy in my world. I don’t think there’s one rule that fits all women and that has to include career, marriage and children.
‘I have my kids, my health, good friends, a job I love and independence, which has always meant a lot to me, and that’s the stuff of my happiness. I don’t see the need to be married because, to me, it is just a financial contract. I’m very happy as I am. I won’t say never because none of us knows what’s around the corner. It’s just not something I think about or measure my success by.’
There is much to be admired about Melanie – though she is often, as she says, confined to the ‘former model, gym bunny, TV presenter’ tag. Her broadcasting career began more than 20 years ago when she appeared, wearing a pink waitressing dress, in a commercial for Boddingtons Bitter. The juxtaposition of the doe-eyed, razor-cheeked, Audrey Hepburn-style beauty with an accent thicker than a Lancashire hotpot caught the public imagination, and Melanie grabbed the opportunity with both hands.
She went from that one television advert to reporting on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast (alongside Johnny Vaughan and Denise Van Outen), to starring in shows including Today With Des (O’Connor) and Mel, Let’s Do Lunch With Gino (D’Acampo) and Mel, Humble Pie (with chef Marco Pierre White) and I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! (she finished third in 2014), and co-presenting with Alan Carr on BBC Radio 2. She has also provided regular guest-cover for Paul O’Grady’s television and radio shows – and the comedian suggested she be given the job on Blind Date alongside him.
‘I always get on really well with comedians,’ she says. ‘I’ve worked with Paul quite a bit and I like funny men like Des and Alan. They’ve all come up the hard way and they see that discipline in me. I’m never late, never off my game and always happy to play the straight man. And I absolutely love what I do.’
As a teenager, Melanie had no plan to become a famous name. The middle of three sisters (Samantha, now 48, and Stacy, 44) born to an English engineer father, Robert, and an Anglo-Indian mother, Wendy, she was teased at school in the mill town of Mossley, Greater Manchester, for her skinny legs and flat chest.
‘I was never considered pretty growing up,’ she says. ‘I was shy and introverted. The “pretty” ideal I grew up with was blonde, blue-eyed and fair-skinned – not me. I only started modelling because my mum went to a Pippa Dee party [where women could buy Pippa Dee clothes in their homes] and one of her friends made me try the clothes on because I was tall and thin.
‘My mum told me that a woman there said I should try modelling. A few weeks later I went to a model agency in Manchester and was taken on. You would think that gave me confidence, but it didn’t. I was very green and completely intimidated on every job I took.
‘I remember having to get on a plane for the first time. I’d never even been to an airport before and I just had to force myself to get on, smile, do what I was asked to do. I pushed myself to stop feeling terrified and actually started to enjoy posing for pictures.’
Melanie spent almost a decade travelling the globe as a model. ‘I loved it,’ she says. ‘The travelling was the best bit for me, but it could be very lonely. There was a lot of pressure to stay thin. You are continually on a diet and I was told quite a few times to lose weight – all models are. I didn’t eat much, which was hard for me because I love my food.
‘You have to be very thin to do editorial modelling; you could be a size ten if you were a commercial model [adverts and catalogues] but if you worked in Paris you had to be stick thin. I was mates with Tess Daly [they are still friends], who was in Paris with me a few times, and it was always nice to be with another Northern girl.
‘In my mid-20s, on my own in Paris, hungry as usual, I rang my agent to tell him I couldn’t be bothered with trying to stay super thin and I wanted to go home and concentrate on commercial modelling, which is what I did.’
The upshot was stealing the role in the Boddingtons ad. More than 20 years on, the company is about to revive its most iconic commercial campaign with Melanie back in a new advert. She smiles: ‘A lot of good things are happening to me this year,’ she says. ‘They are working on ideas for the campaign and I’m keeping myself ready.’ Does she drink Boddingtons? ‘No,’ she laughs, ‘but my dad does. I like the occasional glass of gavi di gavi, a dry white wine.’
Melanie is looking, at 46, every bit as stunning as she did two decades ago. She keeps her body finely tuned with four hour-long workouts a week (‘I alternate between pilates, spinning, boxing, yoga and reformer pilates, which is sort of extreme pilates’). She eats scrupulously healthily with ‘off-days’ kept solely for birthdays and special occasions, on which a few slices of cake or chocolate are allowed. Apart from breast implants (after breastfeeding), she has had no surgery. ‘I’m holding up because I work at it and I have good genes,’ she says. ‘My mother and grandmother looked great as they aged and that’s the way I want to go.’
But the real measure of Melanie came when she faced her greatest fear. It wasn’t snakes in the jungle or a humiliating end to an ill-advised marriage; it was the realisation her 13-year-old son, known as Tino, was autistic.
Ask Melanie to define herself and she will say: ‘Mother first, last and always.’ She won’t discuss her eldest son Roman (‘He’s asked me not to as he’s 15 and has his own life and I respect that’) but she will open up about her struggle with Tino’s autism.
Two years ago, in front of an audience of academics, parents of autistic children and her ex-husband Daniel (who was there to support her), she told an autism conference how she spent years feeling disconnected from her son, who barely spoke, and how she had thought he was deaf and then broke down when he was diagnosed with autism aged three. Admitting to wanting to ‘run away from the house’ during the initial shock, she then told how she quickly realised: ‘If I can’t accept he has autism he can’t emerge from it.’
Now she tells me how terrified she was to talk publicly about her son. ‘I had to have coaching for weeks before because I was so nervous. I was taught how to stand, how to breathe. I knew I was going to find it so hard to speak about something so personal, so emotional, and my heart was beating so much I thought it was going to burst out of me. When I was on the stage I had to take off my shoes because I suddenly felt I couldn’t speak in uncomfortable high heels. What got me through it was knowing how important it was to share my experience, tell the truth and be proud of my son.’
After years of Tino failing to develop his language skills, Melanie and Daniel started working with therapists to increase their son’s vocabulary and connect with him. Ten years later, Melanie has faced every challenge his condition has thrown at her, from automatically turning off ‘any music with violins, which he can’t bear’ to getting him into a secondary school. ‘He’s in a great state school. He’s gradually being integrated with the other kids. He’s really happy. They have a book that his teacher fills in every day and I fill in in the evening, so we all know what’s going on.’
How does she feel about Tino’s autism now? She smiles. ‘He’s my son. I love him. He says what he feels about everything, which I love because it makes me determined to tell the truth. He’s funny, he’s lovely, he hates me wearing make-up and I couldn’t live without him.’
There is, she admits, a chance that Tino will never achieve independence, get a job and move out of home. ‘I’d love him to be able to live independently because that’s what all parents want for their child. But I accept it may not happen. And if it doesn’t he will be with me for ever and I’d be happy about that, because he means everything to me.’
Daniel shares custody of the boys, which means Melanie often has weekends to herself. She isn’t good at doing nothing. ‘I’ll go away for the weekend, go to the theatre, visit an art gallery,’ she says. She shares a passion for art with her Radio 2 co-host Alan Carr, who bought her the historian Simon Schama’s book History of Art. ‘I got into art when I was modelling. I’d often end up in a city on my own and spend time in galleries. Alan is a big fan of Caravaggio.’
They are, it has to be said, an unlikely pair when it comes to appreciation of fine arts. First she laughs and says, ‘It’s this interest we have in common and like to talk about,’ then adds, ‘But why not? Why shouldn’t we both love art?’
It’s a fair point. And the fact that there is more to Melanie is borne out by the briefest perusal of her social media. Her days of giddy public romancing are long gone and today she uses her profile to blog about issues such as health, exercise and the menopause. ‘I’m interested in subjects that all women my age think about. I’m getting older, I’m going to go through the menopause. I want to know about it, I want to know why people choose to take HRT or not. And I think it’s important to stand up and share your knowledge.’
As Melanie has got older she has grown in confidence. Her icons include Jane Fonda and Madonna. Would she, like Madonna, grow old disgracefully and wear the sort of clothes deemed too inappropriate for a woman of a certain age? ‘As far as I’m concerned Madonna can do what she damn well likes because she is Madonna,’ she says. ‘There are no rules. You do what feels right for you. I’m proud of my body and I have no problem wearing a bikini – but I don’t choose one with frills all over it because that’s too girly and I’m most definitely a woman.
‘You get wiser as you get older, and I’ve certainly learnt what I want and need in life. That can only be a good thing.’
Blind Date will be on Channel 5 later this month; Alan and Mel’s Summer Escape will be on BBC Radio 2 on 8 July