As Strictly dances back to our screens on Saturday, Tess Daly is as excited as we are. Here she crowns our special hair issue with the hottest looks from the A/W 18 couture shows and tells Amy E Williams how, after 14 years, she still gets a kick from that glitterball.
Tess Daly turns 50 next year, but I’ve read that it’s not something she wants to talk about – she thinks dwelling on female TV presenters’ ages is sexist. So in the spirit of sisterhood I vow not to bring it up. But then I meet Tess on the set of the YOU photoshoot, and I have a problem. She is wearing black fishnet tights and a high-cut jersey bodysuit, her creamy blonde hair is swept into a 21st-century beehive and – to quote the shoot assistant – she simply looks ‘off the scale’ good.
Tess, 49, is the face of the YOU hair special, modelling four high-fashion styles inspired by the A/W 18 couture shows – created by Percy & Reed co-founder Adam Reed – and she carries each off with enviable flair. Suddenly I’m wondering how I can possibly not mention the big 5-0, because it would seem almost rude not to. ‘You’re too generous,’ she says later, when I mention how great she looks. ‘I refuse to define myself by my age,’ she clarifies. ‘First, growing older is a luxury. Who am I to complain about turning 50 when many are not as fortunate? And second, men are not called out about their age in the way women are. We women create limitations around age that are beneath us, yet perpetuated.’
All true, but I still want to know – is there a secret? ‘Well, I think denial goes a long way,’ she laughs. ‘But having a good outlook helps. I believe you get the face you deserve; that your thoughts accumulate inside you, so you don’t want them to be too negative because – without wanting to sound too hippy-dippy – I believe that our soul shines out of our eyes.’ As for her beauty regime, ‘I get my highlights done every six weeks. I like short cuts – you know, multitasking moisturisers. I don’t have eyelash extensions or gel nails, I treat myself to the odd facial and that’s about it.’
Tess is aware of the pressure to look a certain way for the cameras but, she says, ‘The older I get, the less I care about outside opinions. I want to feel good in my own skin, and if that ever changes I’ll get out.’ She refuses to compare herself to others. ‘No, I don’t feel competitive in that way – it will only lead to discontentment. I’ve got one body, one face, one life and I intend to embrace it, enjoy it and have a good ride.’
As good rides go, bagging the role of Strictly Come Dancing co-host must feel like one hell of a Brucie bonus. The show will return on Saturday for its 16th season, meaning (because there were two series in the first year) that Tess has been holding down the dancefloor for 14 years. She can’t believe it. ‘My eldest daughter turns 14 this year too. I was pregnant with her on the first series and now she is this beautiful young lady who I have to lift my arm over because she’s grown so tall.’ A record 13 million viewers tuned in last year, proving that our national appetite for jazz hands never seems to wane. ‘It’s just one of those joyful shows, isn’t it? And I never tire of it,’ she says. ‘I compare it to when you are little and you holiday at the same place every year. We went to Shanklin on the Isle of Wight – I knew what it was going to be like and yet it was exciting because I was returning to my favourite place.’
It also means falling back into her role as one half of the nation’s favourite TV duo. In 2014 Tess and Claudia Winkleman became the first female co-hosts of a live primetime show. ‘I’m so proud that we paved the way,’ she says. ‘I can tell my daughters that we were the first. It was the start of something that should have happened long ago.’ The pair have become quite the dream team, with Tess playing the straight gal to Claudia’s kooky comedian. ‘I keep telling Claudia she needs her own stand-up show! She makes my job easy. She’s got my back and I’ve got hers.’
The absence of Bruce Forsyth, who died last year aged 89, is felt keenly by Tess. ‘He’s still there, when I scroll through photos on my phone, when I go to Wimbledon, when I speak to his wife Winnie. Sometimes I’m talking to my daughters about him and I stop and think, “I can’t believe he’s gone.”’ She is visibly moved when recalling how she was driving when she received the news that Bruce had died, and had to pull over. She says she owes her Strictly experience to him. ‘I didn’t have a lot of live TV under my belt when I started, but he was willing to share everything he knew and was always a friendly voice at the end of the phone. He made the people around him sparkle.’
Outside of Strictly, Tess’s life revolves around daughters Phoebe, 14, and Amber, nine. She’s been married to fellow model-turned-presenter Vernon Kay for 15 years and they live what sounds like a down-to-earth yet picture-postcard existence in a Buckinghamshire village. But I wonder how she and Vernon deal with the two of them being so high profile? ‘In our own minds and in our own lives we’re just two ordinary people getting on with raising a family and enjoying life. You don’t think of yourself as a celebrity, if you do it will be your downfall.’ Tess doesn’t read her own press and neither does she Google herself. ‘Never let the ego take over because it’s the road to ruin,’ she says pointedly.
Born in Stockport, Cheshire, Tess credits her parents with providing a ‘safe haven’ for her throughout her nomadic modelling years, and she was devastated by the death of her father Vivian, a factory worker, in 2003. It’s clear that family is crucial to her, and it’s the shared parenting of their daughters that has enabled Tess and Vernon to keep it real. ‘Children bring so much joy, and it’s a journey that you go on together,’ she says. ‘Celebrating all their firsts. Your daughter fighting for her ears to be pierced, and you disagreeing, then finally agreeing, about when she can have them done. There are so many highs to celebrate; it’s the good times that keep you together.’
Tess strikes me as someone who rides all life’s highs and lows with consummate ease, strong-willed and in control, though not necessarily controlling (she’d happily leave Vernon to look after the girls for a week, she says). She’s on time, she’s friendly, she’s not a faffer, she’s keen to get on with things. ‘I’m quite a calm person – my husband would probably argue with me about that because I am not at all calm when he leaves a trail of wet towels on the floor. But other than that? Yes, I am calm,’ she says. She’s a yoga devotee and has taught herself to meditate. ‘With age I’ve learnt not to sweat the small stuff – stress kills us all.’
Tess is slimmer than she looks on screen, slipping into the size 8 clothes on the shoot, but she claims not to obsess over exercise. How fit is she on a scale of one to Davina McCall? She laughs. ‘Well Davina is an athlete so I don’t think I can compare!’ Would she, say, run a marathon? ‘No – I’m not competitive enough and I hate sweating!’ She prefers five minutes of skipping every morning (‘One minute on, one minute off, it sets you up for the day’) – and, of course, she loves a good old dance. ‘Anton [du Beke] is always willing to take me for a dip and a spin when requested.’
This year’s Strictly – featuring contestants such as reporter Stacey Dooley, Faye Tozer of Steps and cricketer Graeme Swann – will be more competitive than ever, Tess predicts. Does she have a celebrity crush she’d love to see on the show? ‘I met Alexander Armstrong recently and I could listen to his voice all day. But if we’re talking proper crushes then I’ll say The Rock.’ Might we ever see Vernon on the show? ‘In the early days I remember his dance moves quite impressing me. So you never know, watch this space.’
Strictly Come Dancing – The Launch Show is on BBC One on Saturday