Showbiz can be a fickle industry, as SARA COX knows only too well. When her career stalled after she became a mum, her confidence hit rock bottom. She tells Sophie Heawood how it took a very brave move to put herself back on track
Sara Cox’s drivetime afternoon show on BBC Radio 2 – suffused with her reassuring Bolton tones and warm sense of humour – has been ever present throughout this past year and all the fear, misery and lockdowns. But the year has been a tough one for 46-year-old Sara, too. With worrying news all round and missing her own extended family desperately – ‘I was feeling pretty sad about it all; I needed the listeners as much as they needed me’ – she struggled to keep her trademark laughter going at a time when locked-down listeners needed it most.
Doing her show meant physically going into work at the BBC in Central London, riding her bike to join the skeleton staff who were producing news reports, including the ones that punctuate her own show. ‘And it was tough,’ she explains, ‘when NHS staff started to die and there was one story… oh god, I hope I’m not going to cry,’ she says, blinking back tears at the memory. ‘There was a nurse who had three kids and she was only in her 30s… and that was the moment where I thought, I cannot listen to this any more, not if I have to go on air straight afterwards. So I made an agreement with my producers that I’d turn off the volume for the bulletins and I’d only turn it back on for the FTSE bit or the weather, so I’d know when to start.’
If there was one thing that the pandemic revealed, it was that the light-hearted was as vital as the news: ‘Broadcasters who present politics or current affairs shows must always feel a strong sense of purpose because their work is so important. But when you’re asking the listeners things like, “Tell me about the time something fell on your head or you found something weird on your roof”, well, it was a whole new emotion to feel so useful.’ She laughs self-deprecatingly. ‘It’s been really nice, for those two hours, to suspend whatever else is going on in the world.’
Being part of the nation’s recovery from lockdown is a long way from the dark days of a few years ago, when Sara didn’t know which way to turn to get her own life going again. We had all known her as the Radio 1 breakfast-show host, back in the days where she was hanging out at London’s fashionable Met Bar with her best friend Zoe Ball and a gang of other celebrities. The pair of them were front-page news, staples of the boozy London scene of the 90s and noughties. (Coxy, as she was known, always found the ‘ladette’ label to be meaningless, though, having grown up in a world where women had always gone out and enjoyed themselves.)
She had come to radio via an accidental modelling career. Post A-levels, Sara headed to Paris to see a bit of the world, where she was approached by a modelling scout. This led to her working with an agency in Manchester. They printed her name wrong on her card – her real name is Sarah, which her family and friends still use – but the public identity of Sara Cox stuck.
A few years of modelling followed, including three months in New York, a month in Milan and five months in Seoul. It wasn’t exactly glamorous – the flatshare in South Korea had so many cockroaches she had to crush them with shampoo bottles – but the nightlife made up for it. I ask if her daughter loves hearing about her modelling years, but she says not. ‘I’ve mentioned it but they’re just never that fascinated, are they, kids? You’re just “Mum”, aren’t you?’
Back in England, she got her first TV job presenting The Girlie Show on Channel 4, after some model bookers realised she had the gift of the gab as well as the looks. A move to London and the BBC followed, and eventually she became the presenter of the Radio 1 breakfast show, taking over from her friend Zoe.
Fast-forward a few years, however, and things were not going so well in her career. After having her first child, Lola, when she was in her 20s (with first husband Jon Carter), Sara had proudly carried on, but after remarrying company director Ben Cyzer and having two further children, Isaac and Renee, in her 30s, things seemed to be stalling.
‘I think people thought I’d taken a career break to be a good mum. And I might have spun it to sound like that – “Ooh, yes, I put my career aside for the kids.” But that wasn’t really the truth – I just didn’t have a job.
‘The thing about working in showbiz,’ she continues, ‘is that when your career’s faltering a bit, you can’t escape everybody else’s success. Unless you don’t ever listen to the radio or watch telly again, you just see other people flourishing and launching new shows, and you can’t help being a bit [she does a deadpan, sarcastic voice], “Oh, great, well done.”’ During those years, she got very good at body combat workouts (‘I had a lot of anger’) and eventually plucked up the courage to ask for help from someone she barely knew, but whose career she admired – Davina McCall.
‘I didn’t know her that well but I had her number, so I just texted her to say, “I’ve really lost my mojo. I don’t know what I’m doing.” All I wanted was a text back saying, “You’ll be OK” – then the phone rang and I thought, now I’ve got to confront it! Davina’s very good like that, she’s really proactive. She won’t just send an emoji, she’ll get stuck in and help you.’
Davina’s advice included speaking to Michael Heppell, who writes books and gives speeches to business leaders about making the most of our talents in the workplace. He sat at Sara’s kitchen table ‘while I just sobbed. I was crying about my career so he got me to draw this balloon, like a big beach ball: one half is your work and one half is your personal life. And it was actually quite nice because I realised that my home life with Ben and the kids, being a mum, was all inflated and healthy. It was only the other side that looked like someone had taken a breadknife to it.’
Still, ambition was calling. She had known Richard Madeley for years, so she asked him for advice too, and boldly got in touch with Jonathan Ross, whom she had admired from afar. ‘Instead of being vague, I’d say, “Are you around at ten on Thursday or Friday morning for a coffee?” I was a right pain in the a***.’
Both agreed to meet her, ‘which was really lovely of them. They gave me a bit of a confidence boost and said, “Look, you’re really capable, you’re a good presenter, where do you want to go? You’ve got to get yourself out there and tell people what you want.” So I constantly bothered the controller of Radio 2. He eventually gave me a chance covering overnights and that led to my job. He is still a supporter and mentor. It was all honestly quite brave for me because I’m not really like that. So that’s all that I say to anybody now: “The squeaky wheel gets the oil.”’
And what a second act it’s been. She has the coveted drivetime slot on the nation’s biggest radio station, with several million daily listeners, has published a memoir and presented a number of successful TV shows. These include Back In Time For... (where a present-day family swap modern comforts to live, work and eat as they would have done decades before), rural matchmaking show Love in the Countryside and Between the Covers, which returns to BBC Two for a second series this month.
This last is a personal favourite due to her love of literature. It also gives her the chance to meet people she admires – a recent example being Rob Delaney, star of her favourite comedy series Catastrophe.
‘I love him but I think, when there’s somebody who you’re such a big fan of, you’ve got to be careful that you don’t sit there like a spaniel, panting with your eyes all wide like he’s got a treat in his pocket for you. I think I did a bit of that for a few minutes, and then had to have a word with myself.’
Keeping up with all the books she has to read for the show is not easy – there are two titles discussed in each of the six episodes – but audiobooks are a godsend which she often listens to while cooking.
Away from work, and as regulations continue to ease, Sara recently took her husband and three kids to see her dad in Lancashire for the first time in 15 months, on the farm she wrote about in her recent memoir Until the Cows Come Home.
‘It was so lovely – it’s normally freezing when we go to the farm, and my husband Ben, who’s from North London, will borrow a pair of my dad’s wellies and look completely out of place. But it was sunny and we got to sit in the garden and eat a proper chippie tea with real Northern chip-shop gravy. The kids were taking pictures of the cows. I was so excited: it was like a little cloud that had been getting bigger and bigger over our lives had finally lifted.’
All of which is helping Sara to continue to grow and move forward: ‘I just felt a bit rudderless. Now I realise that it’s healthy to have a bit of a dip, because then when you get on an upswing again, you’ve learnt about yourself, you’ve got a lot of humility from it. You graft a lot harder, you don’t take anything for granted.
‘I would have been grateful even if it didn’t work out, because would you really want to have a kickass career with loads of money – which obviously sounds lovely – chauffeured to work in a helicopter and be trapped in a horrible relationship where you didn’t like your kids?’
She smiles, clearly glad that things turned out the way they did. ‘Because now, touch wood, I’ve got both sides of it.’
Between the Covers is on BBC Two at 7.30pm on Mondays and also available on iPlayer. Sara’s Radio 2 show is on weekdays 5pm-7pm and available on the BBC Sounds app