You’re a busy business guru, a mother to three-year-old Olga, and eight months pregnant. How do you do it?
Very badly. That’s the universal answer – you’re doing too much of one or too much of the other.
In that case, do you ever feel guilty?
I feel no guilt at all at leaving my daughter. Last week somebody said, “Poor you” to me as I peeled her clinging hands from me. “She’ll get over it,” I replied. “She’ll go to school and forget in two minutes flat.” It’s all done in an attempt to make me feel guilty and I refuse! I do the best I can. My daughter knows that. My husband [baker Marcus Miller] knows that. They just have to get on with it.
Was your mother Olga, daughter of hotelier Charles Forte, made of equally stern stuff ?
I went to boarding school when I was 11 – which I adored, no hardship at all – but before that it was probably very hard for my mum, Olga. My dad died when I was nine so it was up to her to work and keep the wheels turning. She was only 32 with two little girls. My sister once left her a note, which my mother has had framed: “Please can we have some money or some food in the fridge.” I love that. My mum’s passion for what she did and love for working with the family has really informed my whole life. I think it’s so important to grow up seeing that it is possible to combine everything – and to have a life.
What compromises have you had to make?
I ran a hotel in Devon until my daughter, Olga, was born in 2008. My husband works 80 hours a week at our bakery in London. One of us had to be around. So now I tend not to do things that take me away from home more than two nights a week. In an attempt to get pregnant again, I cut down to two days a week. Now I am pregnant I will probably go up to three days a week again once this baby is born. For ages I thought I wasn’t able to have another child and that’s when I realised: the years are passing and it’s me who is missing out, not her. I’ve got this lovely little munchkin who wants to spend time with me. When she’s spitting at me aged 14 and telling me to “eff off ”, I’ll wish I’d made the most of it.
When did you decide to join the family business?
I always knew I wanted to be in hotels. My first job in the industry was a month on reception in a hotel in Monte Carlo, aged 17. I was very lonely. It made me realise that when I had proper training I wanted to do it in a hotel that wasn’t my grandfather’s so that I could make mistakes without everyone scrutinising them too closely. I wanted desperately to prove myself.
Was the family name a help?
It’s a double-edged sword: it’s hard to prove that you do anything on your own merits. I was young, I was female and I was family – those are three sizeable obstacles to get round.
Have you encountered the glass ceiling in your career?
Oh my god, yes. I absolutely think of myself as a feminist but it’s quite hard to run a business around people who are constantly off on maternity leave, and may or may not come back. The Government pays, so it’s not the money; it’s just difficult to find very good people to fill a position that’s supposed to be temporary. So I think some of it is a natural result of biology and some of it is just because we’re not given a bloody chance.
How could the playing field be levelled?
Childcare. I have so many friends who basically work to pay for their childcare. One worked for two years knowing she was making £5 every week by the time she’d paid for transport and the au pair.
Do you have a five-, ten- and 20-year plan?
Yes, except that I understand that life is full of the unexpected. I’m 41 and working in an industry – television – that is not known for appreciating middle-aged women, so I’m always expecting that work to dry up. It doesn’t worry me in the least because I will always find something to do that I enjoy.
Series two of Alex Polizzi: the Fixer begins on Tuesday at 8:00pm on BBC2