She dished out style advice on TV’s What Not to Wear, but having swapped fashion for fiction, Susannah Constantine’s go-to outfit these days is an old T-shirt and joggers. What would Trinny say?
What not to wear for lunch with Susannah Constantine? Together with Trinny Woodall she was a household name in the noughties – and naughty they most certainly were, with their blunt critiques and trademark ‘boob grabs’. Plummy, posh and very, very bossy, the pair were shameless in dissecting the fashion faux pas of middle-aged Middle England. Their gimlet eye for frumpiness, dumpiness and mutton-dressed-as-lambiness was a joy to behold. But I have no desire whatsoever to experience it.
So I turn up at Susannah’s splendid 19th-century Sussex mansion in a crisp white shirt, bang-on-trend cigarette trousers and achingly fashionable mules. She answers the door in an ancient Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt stretched tourniquet-tight across her ginormous bosom, trackie bottoms and battered Havaianas.
I immediately wonder aloud if I’ve perhaps come too early or on the wrong day. ‘Oh God, I don’t care how I look now I’m buried here in the country,’ she says airily. ‘On the rare occasions when I’m persuaded to go to London, I always wear the same loose trousers from Net-a-Porter and navy silk Zara shirt, but even then Trinny swears at me and orders me to wash my effing hair.’
Susannah leads me into the vestibule – it is the sort of house that most definitely has a vestibule – skirting the ancient lion-skin rug, the tipsy candles in interesting holders, paintings and eclectic objets d’art, and into a high-ceilinged sitting room that has been knocked through to a large Shaker-style kitchen (or vice versa) to form what an estate agent might call a family room.
At first glance Susannah, now 55, looks exactly how we remember her when she was the perfect curvaceous foil to Trinny’s lean angularity. At second glance, even more so. The intervening years have been kind; despite her wilfully downbeat attire, she remains a head turner. ‘I have a vast wardrobe of glamorous clothes I don’t fit into, stored in a very damp cellar,’ she says matter-of-factly.
‘Seriously, there are toads hopping about. I only ever go down there when one of my daughter Esme’s friends wants to borrow something tiny with a label. There are sooo many labels, but I’m now a size 12 on the bottom and a 14 to 16 on top,’ she says, squinting down at her embonpoint before vigorously cupping it. ‘These just expand and expand, so I usually get a size 16 and have it altered. Still, my husband’s rather fond of them…’ Susannah trails off and beams at me.
I have come to talk to her about her debut novel, After The Snow, which is the antithesis of the chick-lit bonkbuster her detractors might have expected from someone who dashed off so many successful spin-off books from her TV shows (Trinny did the pictures, Susannah the words).
Instead, After The Snow is the surprisingly delicate, tenderly absorbing tale of an 11-year-old growing up in a rambling old house in the 1960s, much as Susannah herself did. Its social observation has shades of Dodie Smith and having polished it off in one sitting, my first thought was, ‘What’s next?’ It cries out for a sequel, a TV mini-series.
Susannah looks so thrilled when I tell her this that I get a (rare) sense of the vulnerability behind the private education at the £7,000-a-term St Mary’s School in Oxfordshire and the giddy relationships with the likes of Viscount Linley and Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
‘OMG I am so glad you liked it,’ she says, hugging me. ‘This is the first thing I have ever done on my own. I’ve always had Trinny to bully and chivvy me, because I’m fundamentally a lazy person, but now I’m responsible to nobody. I find myself getting up at 2am to write or settling down after supper and working straight through until breakfast.
‘I think every first novel is to some degree autobiographical,’ she says (she called her main character Esme after her favourite book by J D Salinger, and it’s also her elder daughter’s name). ‘There is a lot of me in there. The book is set in Scotland, where I’ve spent a lot of time. I was quite a lonely child because my sister was six years older than me, so I relied on the company of pets and my pony.
When I was writing it was fascinating to interpret adults’ behaviour, whether relating to alcohol or adultery, through the eyes of a child. There’s so much room for misinterpretation, yet there’s a real clarity to a child’s vision as well.’
Susannah is already working on the sequel, fitting it round her family; she has a Danish husband, three children, four dogs and two cats. ‘I love being at home, hanging out, watching the kids come and go and their friends arriving and eating the contents of the fridge,’ she smiles. ‘Another legacy of my own childhood maybe; I revel being in a busy house full of people.’
Susannah is married to Sten Bertelsen, an easy-on-the-eye Danish businessman. ‘Ooh you are so handsome!’ she cries unnecessarily, embracing him when he strolls into the kitchen. He works in oil and gas security. ‘We’re all convinced he must be a spy,’ she tells me later, with a thrill in her voice.
Their three children are Joe, aged 18, Esme who is 16, and 13-year-old Cece. Joe, looking like a bleached-blonde surfer dude, is at home today. Esme is at her godfather’s house helping to streamline his dressing room because he’s selling armfuls off for charity. Her godfather just happens to be Sir Elton John.
‘Elton is a really great friend and he always sends us white orchids on our birthdays,’ says Susannah, nodding at a generous bowl on the nearby sideboard. ‘Esme’s sorting through hundreds of ties at the moment! She hasn’t got a clue what she wants to do in life yet but she will be fine because she’s incredibly charismatic and people really warm to her.’ Joe is set to study marine biology at university, while Cece is already showing literary promise and enjoys writing stories and making little films.
‘The one thing I really want for my children is to be themselves and not care what other people think,’ she says. ‘If they have the confidence to break the mould they will have the confidence to do anything they set their minds to.’
Ah yes, the confidence trick. In truth, What Not to Wear, and its successor Trinny & Susannah Undress… were, for all their fashionista pretensions, all about self-esteem rather than hemlines. ‘We were honest and upfront but we were never brutal,’ insists Susannah. ‘We would never criticise a woman’s body or anything she couldn’t change about herself.’
As a viewer there was something quite moving about the transformative effect of binning the school-run baggy jumpers and cinching waists that may not have been as slim as they once were, but were still worth showing off. ‘I loved the psychology of the show,’ says Susannah. ‘It was so wonderful to watch women blossom before our eyes because they’d been stripped of the layers they’d been hiding inside.’
I can’t help but ask what, in her professional opinion, her current outfit conveys about her own inner life. ‘That I’m a slob, but a very happy one!’ she says. ‘That I am relaxed in my own skin and content with who I am. Yes, it’s nice to dress up occasionally and maybe if I lived in London, as Trinny does, I would make an effort more often, but I don’t care about clothes and it’s wonderful not to have to.’
Susannah and Trinny may no longer be joined at the hip onscreen – their high-profile TV career ended in 2008 – but they remain firm friends, chatting on the phone at least twice a week. ‘Now we’re not partners on screen we have the space to be friends,’ says Susannah. ‘We talk about life, kids and our projects. But never about fashion. I think it’s an age and stage thing; once you find your own style and know what suits you it’s easy to put together a look without any of the agonising. Or, in my case, just pull on what I wore yesterday.’
After What Not to Wear ended, the pair hit upon the wheeze of self-parody and launched a pastiche of themselves online. What Trinny and Susannah Did Next was a tongue-in-cheek, hilarious mockumentary in which the two pulled no punches in presenting themselves as fame-hungry has-beens. ‘It was my absolute career highlight,’ says Susannah. ‘We got to play the self-centred monsters the media had portrayed us as. It was brilliant fun to do.’
There was an attempt to launch themselves in the US that never quite happened and then clothing ranges for Littlewoods and QVC, but thereafter the two went their separate ways, professionally speaking. Trinny, who has a 13-year-old daughter, Lyla, is currently in a relationship with advertising guru turned art collector Charles Saatchi, the ex-husband of celebrity chef Nigella Lawson.
She now runs a fashion and beauty website, Trinny.London, for which she tests not just skincare products but occasionally outlandish cosmetic procedures, including ‘Dracula facials’ (where her own blood was injected back into her face) and body micro-needling (using tiny nails in a derma roller in order to lose weight). She regularly appears on TV to talk animatedly about her adventures.
‘I know why she’s doing it,’ says Susannah. ‘I think she’s already beautiful and doesn’t need to do any of these things, but women trust her and the fact that she’s tried things before writing about them gives her verdict added integrity.’
Susannah tends to steer clear of the media, admitting to feeling ‘very bruised’ after thetabloids picked up on Instagram photographs of Cece (then aged ten) holding up a dead duck, her face smeared with blood to mark her first kill. The outrage on social media was genuinely hurtful. ‘That was a really hard time,’ says Susannah. ‘I was proud of her and I still am; she shot the duck and then we took it home and ate it. I think it’s important that children know where their food comes from.’
One major TV programme she has taken part in was I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! in 2015, when she famously wore huge granny pants. That was a bit desperate, surely? Susannah laughs: ‘They paid me heaps of money for it. That was the only reason I went on; not to test myself or any of that nonsense, it was all about the money.
My only real achievement, if you can call it that, was managing to keep down a glass of something unspeakable when everybody else vomited up theirs. I figured it was protein so I needed to keep it down. Apart from that I just sat quietly and plotted my novel in my head; I was the first to be voted off because I was so boring. But I still got paid.’
Alongside her writing, Susannah hopes that she may one day return to primetime television; but strictly on her terms – although definitely not Strictly because ‘that would be one public humiliation too far’. Instead, she is excited about a pilot of Tranny and Susannah (yes, it’s really called that), a makeover show for ‘people who don’t fit in’, which she would co-present with transgender DJ Stephanie (formerly Simon) Hirst. ‘My son thought up the name of the show, isn’t it great?’ she says. ‘I think it would tap into the current conversation about gender fluidity.’
She’s also punting the idea of a travel show called Two People One Place in which two people go to the same destination in search of very different experiences. To that end, she accompanied Esme to Magaluf this summer. ‘Everyone was drunk and staggering about,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t shocked, just very bored. Esme was mortified because I am so old and fat and people kept trying to photobomb us because they recognised me.’
That recognition factor is a powerful thing and could yet lead Susannah back on to our screens. But for now I just wish she’d hurry up with the next manuscript. She needs no second bidding: ‘I itch to write. It’s all in my head and it needs to come out. A book is a very subjective thing and you do it for yourself; you might feel stressed writing it but if you are happy at the end of it, that’s enough. Whatever happens after that is in the lap of the gods.’
She gives a contented little sigh and looks out of the french windows that open on to gardens, a swimming pool and a vista of rolling countryside. ‘I’m a homebody. I have a fabulous family. I’m where I was meant to be. I’m 55 years old and I’ve finally grown up. I never thought I’d say this, but it’s the most wonderful feeling.’
By Judith Woods
-Hair and make-up: Julie Read at Carol Hayes Management using Batiste and No 7
-After the Snow by Susannah Constantine will be published on 2 November by HQ, price £12.99. To pre-order a copy for £10.39 (a 20 per cent discount) until 5 November, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640. P&P is free on orders over £15