Susanna Reid is the glamorous, razor-sharp presenter of Good Morning Britain. But she’s also a single mum of three who’s had more than her fair share of struggles. She opens up to Cole Moreton about working-parent guilt and empty-nest fears.
Susanna Reid has just turned 50 and she’s feeling pretty good about it. ‘Age is not an issue any more,’ the Good Morning Britain presenter tells me (we are meeting the day after her birthday last month). ‘There is no longer a cutoff point for women in my job. Fifty used to be a looming date on the horizon where you thought: “How much longer might I last?” I don’t think that’s the case now.’
Her ability to stand up to bumptious co-host Piers Morgan and cut him down to size with a sharp remark or a sardonic raise of an eyebrow has made ITV’s flagship breakfast show hugely popular over the past few years. Susanna starts to list women she knows in their 50s and older who are ruling the airwaves. ‘Sophie Raworth rang me yesterday to wish me happy birthday. I went to school with her little sister. There’s Emily Maitlis and Fiona Bruce and Kirsty Wark. It isn’t an issue, so it doesn’t hold fear.’ So does Susanna really believe the battle is over? ‘Yes. I don’t feel like I’m in a battle,’ she says. ‘I’ve always joked that ageing is a blessing and I genuinely feel it. Especially over the past year, when things have been so dreadful.’
Susanna earns about half a million quid a year from Good Morning Britain, she’s whip-smart, beautiful and great on the dancefloor, as she proved on Strictly in 2013, but what else is she thankful for? ‘That I’m still here. That I’ve got my health, touch wood. And my eldest son has just come back from university, having done a negative Covid test.’ Mention of her son unlocks something in Susanna. She usually avoids talking about her children, but Sam is very much on her mind, having left home for university last October. That’s a huge moment for any parent – and from the way she winces, I can tell it wasn’t easy. ‘It’s heart-wrenching, isn’t it?’ she says.
She pauses for a moment, reflecting. ‘Like all of them, he’s been at home a lot since starting university. We discussed whether he should defer for a year but I thought: “He’s ready to go.” I did obviously cry when we dropped him off. And it’s an emotional time. The thing I found even more emotional was realising he’s on a string of three. When he goes, the next one goes, then the next one.’
As well as Sam, 18, Susanna has Finn, 16, and Jack, 15. ‘I thought: “This is the start of three or four years with all my ducklings leaving, then there’s going to be the empty nest.” I find that really hard.’
The boys’ father is the former BBC sports reporter Dominic Cotton. ‘I’m lucky, I have an excellent relationship with their dad.’ They split up almost seven years ago, but remain on good terms. ‘He lives very close by and we share the care. But when they are at mine they do spend a lot of time with me. And that’s very special.’
Her most recent partner was Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish. They split up in April 2019 after dating for nine months, but stayed friends and were often seen together at the club, which she supports. Then the pair were seen having dinner together last summer, suggesting the romance may be back on. Susanna has said in the past: ‘It’s not a secret, but it’s private.’
Meanwhile, she finds herself trying to hang on to every moment with the sons who have not left home yet. ‘This morning I had this photo shoot to do but my son wanted a lift to school so I was late. Of course, that’s the priority. Everything else stops for the kids. This won’t be for ever. So I want to be with them every moment I can. It is now you realise that all the time you had together when they were little has gone. It just gets you right there, doesn’t it?’ She puts her hand on her heart.
So far her eldest doesn’t mind taking calls. ‘Every time I’ve called he’s answered immediately and he’s wanted to talk. And I’m filled with love every time, because I think: “OK, he’s gone, but he’s not gone gone. He still wants to feel that connection.’ She still frets about the past. ‘There are moments when you think: “Why was I not present when they were tiny?” I was around a lot for them, but sometimes you can regret you weren’t there playing with them every single moment of every single day. You have that kind of guilt. Yet now I’m able to have a more grown-up, funny, chatty relationship with them, where they’re hugely independent but they still need you. That’s lovely.’
We’re used to seeing Susanna as a tough cookie, whether she’s grilling cabinet ministers on GMB or sitting with murderers for the hard-hitting documentaries she has made about Death Row in America. But the milestone of a 50th birthday is causing Susanna to show her more emotional side.
‘My sons are great boys, they made my birthday the best ever. I always decorate the kitchen for their birthdays. I’ll put up decorations, glitter all over the table with the presents so it’s like a little birthday explosion for them. So the night before my birthday I could hear them downstairs giggling. My middle son came upstairs and said: “Mum, if you could have the perfect breakfast, what would it be?” So I said avocado and smoked salmon, because I thought: “We’ve definitely got those in!” I heard the giggles again downstairs. They had to find the food. They told me I wasn’t allowed to come downstairs. I started getting snaps of the inside of the fridge on my phone and messages: “Mum, if I was craving an avocado right now, where would I find it?” When you’ve tried to make every birthday special for them and now they want to do it for you, there’s something magical about that.’
How did she spend the day? ‘Very quietly, overwhelmed with generosity and love from my family. I spent a lot of it in tears of joy, to be honest.’ Why was that? ‘My brother made a video of my mum, dad and various members of my family. I felt really moved by that. And a friend put together some images of me and the children over the years.’
Did she get any good presents? ‘Oh, lovely, gorgeous presents. My eldest son got me a sweatshirt from his university. All the boys got me a cool pair of Converse. My mum put together the most beautiful book of photographs of us and the stories to go with them, right from the moment I came into the world 50 years ago.’ This was handed over in person. ‘I did pop out to Mum’s allotment, masked-up and at a social distance. Then to come home and be quiet, it was lovely.’
We’re talking the morning after, but there’s no sign of weariness. Susanna stopped drinking a couple of years ago as part of a diet plan, but didn’t she used to be a bit of a party animal? ‘Yeah, I’ve had some big nights at the Groucho Club on my birthday, but not this year.’ She describes herself as ‘a homebody’ but adds: ‘My parameters have changed as a result of Covid. It’s going to take a while to get used to that whole big thing of going out. When I think about red carpets – the crowds, the photographers – it does feel so totally alien now.’
How does 50 feel? ‘Weirdly, I woke up this morning with a terrible headache and a frozen shoulder, thinking: “I didn’t even go out and drink last night! This isn’t a hangover. Is this what happens when you’re 50, that parts of you stop working and start to seize up?”’
I say yes and we both laugh but she puts it down to not doing enough exercise. ‘I would normally go to the gym and do a spin class and maybe Zumba, too, but all of those things are off the agenda now because of Covid. I bought myself a Peloton bike as a 50th birthday present, because I thought: “If I don’t do some form of exercise, I am going to just spread completely and take up two seats.” I thought if I chucked some money at it I would definitely use it. Of course, I haven’t been on it yet.’
She may be off the booze, but like so many of us over the past year, ‘there’s been a lot of comfort eating. I’ve definitely eaten out of boredom. But there is also a part of me that thinks: “Oh my god, we all need to give ourselves a break.”’ Does she come under pressure at work to keep her weight down? ‘I’m definitely the heaviest I’ve been for a long time. I’m lucky. I work in an industry where I have my make-up done and somebody finds a nice dress for me to wear, which is fantastic. They make you feel a million dollars. I can kind of get away with the weight.’
Looking back at footage of Susanna 20 years ago, there’s no doubt that today’s version looks a whole lot more together. Is she one of those people who feel a surge of confidence when they get to 50? ‘Yeah,’ she says sardonically. ‘I’d like to be in that position.’ Shall I take that as a no, then? ‘Am I more confident than I was 20 years ago? Am I more comfortable in my own skin? I’m sure I am. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to turn up in the morning and say: “This is my authentic self.” I still want to look television-ready.’
What does that involve? ‘I want to look as good as I can. I dye my roots. I tan myself, so I don’t feel completely pallid. I let the hair and make-up department do the best job they can, then I’ve got my armour on. Then I can bring all the journalism to it as well.’
Few jobs in journalism are as hard as fronting a live TV news, current affairs and entertainment show like GMB. Susanna has to be completely on top of the news, ready to change course at a moment’s notice and be able to ask penetrating questions of guests even as the producers are talking in her ear – and Piers Morgan is playing up next to her. ‘Piers is someone who is good to work with. He is stimulating and can be a challenge and difficult, but he also pushes all the same buttons in me that he does people we interview,’ she says diplomatically.
‘We have had a serious responsibility during Covid, because you want to make sure people are kept up to date with everything, but also you want people to feel hopeful. You want to spark debate. So it’s not just a neutral, deadpan way of presenting the news. It’s fully engaged. You’ve got to be prepared to make loads of mistakes and not be crushed by them. You’ve just got to go: “I got that wrong. Apologies, I didn’t mean to say that.” If you’re a step ahead of it all, the audience is really confident in you.’
Susanna is the daughter of a management consultant and a nurse. She studied politics, philosophy and law at Bristol University then journalism at Cardiff before joining BBC Radio Bristol and working her way up the Beeb, where she became a star of its breakfast TV before defecting to ITV. What would her young self say about what she does now? ‘She’d say: “Blimey!”’
Has the job got harder now people are waiting to pounce online? ‘The abuse is so toxic and horrible, but you can’t be afraid of what people are going to say about you. Obviously there are moments when I’m upset or I beat myself up about getting something wrong – and there are things that frighten me–but we do a good job and we enjoy what we do. I have moments of self-doubt, but I’ve been doing this a long time now.’
She compares live broadcasting with her time on Strictly Come Dancing, in which she and Kevin Clifton came second. ‘If you go out on the dancefloor on Saturday night thinking about the bit in your 30 seconds that you’ve never quite got on top of, then you’re going to make mistakes. You need to think: “I’ve done the prep, let’s just go out and perform.”’
So that’s how it works. Every night before going to bed early this home-loving Mum studies her briefings for the next day’s show, like a dancer learning a new routine. Every morning at four she gets up and heads to the studio to become the ultra-competent, ultra-glamorous Susanna Reid we see commanding the screen. No wonder she sounds so confident. ‘Well,’ says the off-duty, private Susanna, laughing, ‘I’m also very good at putting a front on it, aren’t I?’
Good Morning Britain is on ITV, weekdays from 6am