When Michael Buerk met Katie Hopkins

Is the tabloid TV star really the "biggest bitch in Britain"? Michael Buerk enters her moral maze to find out...

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Truth to tell, I rather enjoyed Katie Hopkins. Right up to the moment she said – as near as dammit – she wished I was dead. It cast a pall, I don’t mind admitting. Honesty and candour are all very well about other people but a bit of a conversation stopper when you’re in the firing line yourself. You begin to see why – how can I put this? – not everybody regards her as a national treasure.

We’d been getting on terribly well, I thought. She’s smart, funny; attractive, too, in a beaky sort of way. She’d been rattling on, saying out loud the kind of things the rest of us feel guilty even thinking. She giggled a lot. I did a fair bit of sniggering myself, looking around furtively to make sure nobody was noticing. Then I made the mistake of asking the obvious question about her latest television venture, If Katie Hopkins Ruled the World… I couldn’t not ask her: well, OK, what would she do if she did?

“Right,” she said, saucer blue eyes looking me up and down, evidently seeing a problem to be solved. “We just have far too many old people.” Did I know that one in three NHS beds was being blocked by the elderly and demented? A third of our hospitals filled up by people who don’t even know they’re there? She’d soon put a stop to that. “It’s ridiculous to be living in a country where we can put dogs to sleep but not people.” Her solution? “Easy. Euthanasia vans – just like ice-cream vans – that would come to your home.” After they’d finished in the hospitals, presumably. “It would all be perfectly charming. They might even have a nice little tune they’d play. I mean this genuinely. I’m super-keen on euthanasia vans. We need to accept that just because medical advances mean we can live longer, it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”

I stuttered something about not being entirely with her on this. “Not with me on that? Is it because you’re old?” I told you she was smart. Smart enough to be making a fair old living being rude about people, quite often to their faces. It’s a strange career for a conformist convent schoolgirl, whose first ambition was to join the Diplomatic Corps.

At school, she says, she just wanted to fit in and be liked. The nuns were strict and she loved it, right down to the regulation green polyester pants that had to be ironed into six-inch squares. “We should have more of that in life. Particularly if you’re thick, of course.” Wham.

Her sense of superiority came early. “They split you into A and B streams, which was great because you knew you were with the bright ones and all the thick kids were in the B group. It was fine and super-efficient – I still think so. If you’re slow, go sit with the slow kids. None of this endless negotiation, discussion, ‘golden time’ nonsense you get in state schools these days.” Biff.

She gave up the idea of being a diplomat, not because she felt she lacked the diplomatic skills, certainly not, but because she thought “it would be too louche. Too much offering round chocolates.” Instead, she went to Exeter University – “Sloane Central” – on an Army scholarship and then on to the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst. “I had a brilliant time. I loved the discipline, the hardship, the ruthlessness of it. We started with 30 in the girls’ platoon – no ridiculous faffing around with a quota of girls in each section. Only eight of the lumpy jumpers made it to the Passing Out Parade.”

Hopkins was one of them. But then she passed out at the Passing Out Parade and her dream of being the first female general was over in seconds. She’d been diagnosed with epilepsy at 19 and not told the Army. “I had a little seizure. Everybody else carried on marching and I just stood, stock still. They chucked me out. Fair enough. I’d lied.”

She’s definitely not what she would call a whiner. She says the prognosis of her epilepsy has changed since those early “petits mals” but doesn’t say how. In an open letter to her children she’s said epilepsy “will get her in the end”. Making the most of the hand you’re dealt is her mantra.

She joined a small business consultancy, which was bought by a bigger company, and ended up in Manhattan, married to the boss. “I knew bugger all about it, but I always say if you get the right qualities into kids, they’ll have sufficient bravado to bluff their way in, then succeed by just working harder than everybody else.”

That all came to an end when her first husband walked off with his secretary the day after her second child was born and, she says, neither she nor the children have seen him since. Not for the first, or the last time, Hopkins was back to square one.

She got a job “flogging the weather” – marketing the Met Office. It wasn’t very exciting. “The public sector combined with scientists added up to a stifling level of sheer dullness.” So she applied to go on The Apprentice in 2007 and, out of 10,000 applicants, got picked for the show. The rest is showbiz history.  

 “I thought I was doing well. People would see this fairly smart girl, quite tough, didn’t cry, didn’t take any crap. I thought everybody else was doing that honest bit. But it was just me.” She went back to the Met Office… “And then, six months later, this show, this monster, came on air and the stuff really hit the fan. This character, me, this evil, white witch person, this vicious cow with her killer one-liners became the thing.”  

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