CAROL VORDERMAN: ‘I’ve got nothing to apologise for’
Behold the second coming of Carol Vorderman. At 62, the TV brainbox who co-presented Countdown for 26 years is relaunching the career that she put into semi-retirement in her mid-50s.
She’s on I’m a Celebrity All Stars this summer, having munched through her share of animal parts in the 2016 series. She’s finalising negotiations to host a raft of quiz shows and documentaries on TV and radio later this year. Since it launched in January, her own multi-platform, bite-size quiz podcast, Perfect 10 – ten questions in ten minutes, with a new episode every weekday – has racked up an astonishing 16.5 million views and listens.
More surprisingly, Vorderman, the only two-time winner of the now mercifully defunct Rear of the Year award, has been embraced by a new generation as a feminist and a firebrand campaigner, for calling out alleged government corruption (and the involvement of her former friend Michelle Mone in PPE procurement during the pandemic) on social media and news shows.
Last month, Vorderman made headlines again when she called out No 10 in front of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. Vorderman was ‘absolutely disgusted’ by Equality Minister Kemi Badenoch‘s comments that compared ‘women going through terrible, terrible menopausal symptoms with those with ginger hair’, adding that she found it ‘insulting to all women’. Her take-me-as-you-find-me, don’t-give-a-damn attitude extends to her looks, and a love life that involves no permanent partner but relationships with five ‘special friends’, of which more later.
‘It comes from being slagged off for 40 years,’ she says of her sexagenarian swagger. ‘When you’ve had false headlines written about you, helicopters over your house, your kids followed by paparazzi, and every part of your life – my body, my face, my hair, my sweaty armpits, my cellulite – has had abuse flung at it over a very long period of time, one of two things happens. You either go under, which I will never do. Or it gives you a superpower.
Carol Vorderman tells Nick Curtis what years in the spotlight have taught her. Dress, zeynepkartal.co.uk
‘You think, “Well, you [her critics] haven’t got anything more in your bloody locker, have you?” I’ve got nothing to apologise for so I live without apology. And where I feel a sense of right or wrong – as opposed to right or left – I call it out.
‘I’ve always kept my opinions to myself but I’ve been so angered by the lack of freedom of speech and what I believe is corruption that has been taking place. The misery the lockdowns created, the confusion in the people – particularly the young but also the old – and all the deaths.
‘When the revelations about the VIP lanes for PPE [which Mone allegedly used to secure lucrative contracts] started to come out, mainly because of Boris Johnson, I thought, “I can’t stay quiet any more.” It shouldn’t be up to me to bang on about things – that should be what happens in the political system. But I’ll carry on because there’s a massive amount of support. So many people every day in the street stop me and say, “Thank you, we feel we have no voice.”‘
Her former friendship with Mone hasn’t stopped Vorderman repeatedly criticising her: ‘I was very angry.’ Has Mone, who seems to have gone to ground, been in touch? ‘Pffft,’ Vorderman snorts derisively. You sense Matt Hancock would get short shrift if he had gone back into the jungle alongside her. ‘If they [producers] put him on now after the lockdown files I think he’d have got a very different response,’ she says.
‘It’s an interesting time because there is this whole merging – a grey area – where a lot of politicians want to be famous. It’s not about their policies so much. I have no intention of going into politics myself: I’m just doing my little thing.’
The wellspring of Vorderman’s outrage at unfairness lies in her background. She was brought up, one of three, ‘in a single-parent family, really dirt poor’ by her mother in Prestatyn, North Wales. Her Dutch father, Tony Vorderman, left when she was three weeks old. She only learned much later, via the TV show Who Do You Think You Are?, that he was active in his home nation’s wartime resistance.
Her on-off Italian stepfather, Gabriel Rizzi, was originally a prisoner-of-war in Wales. ‘His first language was Italian, his second was Welsh, his third was English – he swore every third word and I adored him.’ Her Welsh grandfather had been gassed in the First World War. Her elders were of a generation who ‘had seen so much horror’ and she admires their stoicism about it.
The presenter, 62, opens up about becoming more expressive over the years. Dress, Roksanda at fenwick.co.uk. Bracelet, susancaplan.co.uk. Earrings, pebblelondon.com
‘The town where I grew up didn’t really have posh and not-posh people. There wasn’t a class system as such,’ she continues. ‘But you respected the doctor, the policeman and the teacher. And there was a great cultural belief in education because that was the way out.’ She was on free school meals at her comprehensive.
When I first met her, in 2016, Vorderman explained that her mother was financially dependent on her stepfather, so on the occasions when she left him they’d end up in ‘grotty B&Bs. My motivation was always that I would work hard, so no one could take the roof from over my head,’ she said. She won a place to study engineering from Sidney Sussex College Cambridge.
My ‘special friends’? It works well as long as you’re all honest
It was her mother who spotted a TV job ad for ‘a woman with mathematical skills’ and applied on her behalf. She got it, aged 22, and co-presented Countdown from its debut edition, which launched Channel 4 in 1982, for 26 years, first alongside Richard Whiteley (who died in 2005) and then Des O’Connor. This was followed by four years on Loose Women (2011-2014), lucrative stints on Lorraine and ITV’s Food Glorious Food and other gigs: she published books, set up an online maths resource (making it free for children and parents during the pandemic) and learned to fly a plane.
If her outrage is rooted in her past, her confidence in expressing it comes from the particular position she finds herself in at this stage in life. ‘I’m very lucky because I work in TV, which gives you a lot of opportunities, and I have earned a lot of money, which gives you freedom,’ she says.
She has also been freed from certain responsibilities and is keen to use the time she has left. ‘I looked after my mum forever – she lived with me and the kids in Bristol – and she died in 2017,’ she says. There followed severe depression brought on by the menopause, eventually alleviated with bioidentical HRT patches.
‘But then Covid happened, and things got confused and complicated.’ Vorderman herself suffered severe long Covid.
Now her daughter Katie, 30, has gained her PhD, fully flown the nest and established a startup working in ‘nanotech science in space’. (No, Vorderman says, she doesn’t know what that means.) Her son Cameron, 26, who had special educational needs relating to attention deficit disorder and dyslexia, has completed his MA and is working as an animator in Bristol. (They are the children of her ten-year second marriage to management consultant Patrick King, which ended in 2000; her first marriage, aged 24, to Royal Navy officer Christopher Mather, lasted a year.)
‘I’m comfortable with where my kids are: they’re on their way,’ says Vorderman.
It was her mother who spotted a TV job ad for ‘a woman with mathematical skills’ and applied on her behalf. She got it, aged 22, and co-presented Countdown from its debut edition. Pictured on the show in 1984
Last month, Vorderman made headlines again when she called out No 10 in front of the Women and Equalities Select Committee
‘And I was talking recently to my brother Anton. He was born with a severe cleft palate so couldn’t really speak until he was eight. He moved to Holland years ago and did very well for himself, but he’s been a smoker all his life, eats crap… And he has COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease], has had bowel cancer and is coming up to 70.
So I asked him the question I think all people over 50 should ask themselves: “What’s your best guess at the age at which you will die?” after which anything is a bonus. He said, “80”.’
‘I’m fit, so I always say “85”. But when you start asking yourself that question you realise you’ve got to crack on. I asked myself what really gets me motoring, what puts a smile on my face; and one of the things was work, that buzz of being around and in the mix.
‘It’s a different time for women now. Even five years ago a woman in her 60s would be lucky to get on air, unless they were Esther Rantzen or Gloria Hunniford. This is going to sound off the wall but the Lionesses winning [the Euro 2022 final] was a turning point for women, not just for women in sport.’
Red or white wine?
I think white nowadays
Radio or TV?
Tea or coffee?
Working out or vegging out?
Netflix or night out?
If I could only have one, night out
Richard Whiteley or Jeff Stelling?
Richard Whiteley, of course
Heels or trainers?
Nice meal or nightclub?
Dressing up or dressing down?
Shower or bath?
Numbers or words?
Cat or dog?
Indoors or outdoors?
Night owl or early bird?
Book or podcast?
Aren’t things a bit rubbish for women, I say in my mansplain-y way, with the pay gap still prevalent and online abuse so rife? ‘You have to see things in context. Are things better now than they were for women during the war? Yes. So that’s progress. Of course there are pressures from social media but you have to grow another skin or learn to use the “block” button.’ An icon of body positivity almost by default, she is unfussed by the recent return of skinny models to the catwalks. ‘That’s just the fashion,’ she says. ‘I’ve always had a big a**e.’
As I said, welcome to Vorderman 2.0.
She’s left Bristol and is lodging with two ‘RAF friends’ in Surrey to be close to the London media. She couldn’t complete the requisite flying hours during Covid, so her own pilot’s licence is ‘out of currency’, as the lingo has it, and her plane – a twin-engined Diamond DA42, named Mildred after a pioneering aviator – is currently used by test pilots to fly between airfields. But the thirst for adventure and the outdoors instilled by that first series of I’m a Celebrity… is fulfilled by her Vorder-van, a customised 4×4 camper she takes on hiking and paddleboarding adventures.
She works out in the gym and is a vocal proponent of health treatments: fasting, turmeric, hyperbaric oxygen therapy… To stimulate mitochondria in regenerating cells and help stave off dementia, she takes spermidine tables. ‘Named after what you might imagine because that’s where it was first found,’ she laughs.
‘But these tablets are not made from that.’ She watches what she drinks ‘because I can’t face the hangover’, hasn’t had surgery and admits to Botox and P3 facial injections. ‘Name me someone on telly, male or female, of whatever age, who doesn’t have this stuff!’ she says. ‘But often I don’t brush my hair for days.’
In the social media age one thing that has surely connected Vorderman to a younger generation is her attitude to dating and her willingness to talk about it openly, if not in prurient detail. ‘Oh yeah, yeah, my ‘special friends’,’ she says. ‘I’m continuing with that system and it’s working very well.’ There are five of them. ‘One’s been a friend for 11 years, one for seven. My kids know most of them.’
She relishes the independence and the freedom the setup gives her and says there is no problem with her partners wanting more intimacy than it offers, ‘as long as you’re all honest and have a good time’.
All involved are single – she works on the principle that you should ‘do no harm’ – and if one met somebody else, it’d be fine: ‘I’m not a jealous person and I’m happy when my friends are happy, whether they are “special friends” or not,’ she says. ‘The goal of my life is to be happy, not to be in love. I just find people interesting and life interesting. And you can get to a stage where you choose which bits you enjoy. You can’t in your 30s because you’re making your way in your career, you’re beholden to bosses and all those sorts of things. But in your 60s…’
Perfect 10 with Carol Vorderman is on YouTube and all podcast platforms