Kate Garraway: “Middle age is a chaotic time – society hasn’t really got a map for you”

"You’re in this middle period, between the young ingénue and Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey”

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“Nobody wants to be middle-aged, do they?” says TV and radio presenter Kate Garraway. “It’s almost seen as worse than old age, when at least you have wisdom and experience. You’re in this middle period, between the young ingénue and Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey.”

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For years, Garraway turned down offers to write an autobiography. But now, just before her 50th birthday, she’s publishing a candid self-help book, tackling everything from crows’ feet to money and the menopause.

In The Joy of Big Knickers (or Learning to Love the Rest of Your Life), Garraway identifies the key issues women in their supposed “prime” can face and searches for answers. Midlife is, she argues, a time of “explosive change”, especially for women. In many ways, it’s a second puberty when our hormones rage and we start taking risks, she argues. The old rules don’t work any more. Rather than sleepwalking into old age, now is the time to take stock of your life, celebrate the things you excel at, accept what is gone and change the things that make you unhappy. It’s time to accept, as she puts it, that “you’re the one driving the bus”.

It’s a scary thought, I say. “Yes,” she laughs delightedly. “There’s an oestrogen-flooded or oestrogen-depleted woman at the wheel. But you have to remember you have passengers on your bus. You may decide you don’t want them there any more, but you need to look at the choices you made, and why, and work it out.” In the mid-19th century, a woman’s life expectancy was in the mid-40s. But at 50 nowadays, “If we get it right we can have a very liberating and exciting time for the next three or four decades. But, as in puberty, there’s this ghastly phase you go through in midlife, men and women. You’re not quite sure where you are, your bosses are younger than you, you’re caring for your parents, if you still have them. And you may still have children around. It’s a chaotic time and society hasn’t really got a map for you.” 

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The GMB line-up: Piers Morgan, Susanna Reid, Ben Shephard and Kate Garraway

Of course, Garraway knows she has “an extraordinary life” – with a presenting slot on the sofa of ITV’s Good Morning Britain and a weekday show on Smooth Radio. “I’m aware that, compared with most people, I’m Richard Branson. I have a job that’s extremely well paid.” 

Happily married to her second husband, political lobbyist-turned-psychotherapist Derek Draper, she has two children, daughter Darcey, 11, and William, 7. But approaching 50, she found herself “genuinely feeling flummoxed and having a massive midlife moment”. She was panicking about ageing and feeling exhausted. So she set herself the task of finding a more positive way to approach middle age.

In a chapter entitled “The Facelift Dilemma”, she wonders if cosmetic surgery would be letting “the sisterhood” down. So she talks to surgeons and make-up artists, experts on diet, fitness and sleep – and asks for their trade secrets. She gets a new bra, gives up sugar and power-walks.

But it’s also an emotional journey. “We’ve done a lot of living and loving by the time we get to 50 and some of that will be stuff we treasure, and some hasn’t been massively helpful,” she says. In the book she talks openly about romantic disappointment – her first marriage failed after a few months, she believes, because she was a people pleaser, “a stunted personality”.

“I had a constant fear that at some deep level I was unlovable and I think in the end you almost make yourself unlovable. It’s very hard to love somebody who just goes: ‘OK’, because there’s no personality there to decide you love or don’t love.” 

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Renée Zellweger shadowed Garraway to research for Bridget Jones’s Baby

She went through therapy, learnt to be more assertive and met another man. “My loud, shouty, current husband doesn’t let me get away with anything sliding away, which is very good for me,” she smiles.

But even the best marriages can flag. So on our behalf, dear reader, she looks at waning libido in midlife couples, embarking on the “two-week challenge” with Derek (where partners agree to have sex every day for two weeks). It’s a funny, touching episode, only interrupted when Derek slips over in the park and ends up in a wheelchair. “Sadly not because of any of my gymnastics,” she hoots. “I wasn’t even present!”

Most crucially, she tackles her fear of death. When she visits a healer who works with terminally ill people, the healer suggests that Garraway, who has suffered severe tonsillitis all her life, has a constricted “throat chakra” (literally, no voice). It’s ironic, when she’s built her career on her voice – but always telling other people’s stories. And a broadcaster has to be studiedly neutral. The healer tells her it’s time to look at her own needs – “sublimated desires” are likely to bite us if we don’t deal with them.

In a 17-year presenting career, Garraway has interviewed Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp, Nicole Kidman and every prime minister since John Major. And when Renée Zellweger was filming the first Bridget Jones film, she watched tapes of Garraway in order to prepare for playing a reporter on the fictional breakfast TV show Big Up Britain. Later she shadowed Garroway for the most recent film, Bridget Jones’s Baby.   

But you sense the midlife “journey” Garraway charts in her book is the one that has gripped her the most. “It was genuinely a great thing to have done,” she says. “I feel so much happier now.”

A third of the UK population is over 50 now. She believes it’s good for society that there’s a cohort of post-50-year-old women who aren’t focused on child rearing, who are shifting their gaze from the domestic to the wider world – “a whole new evolutionary group”. 

In the meantime, she wants us to be the best version of ourselves. “It’s time to get as fit, gorgeous, fabulous and positive as you can – to be more than you’ve ever been before.

“Don’t make an enemy of your life,” she warns. Not that she’s judging anyone else’s choices.

“I’ve not said I’d never have a face-lift,” she adds with a gleam. “I still feel you have the right to fight this with everything you’ve got, if you want to. But since I’ve gone deeper into this journey, I’m not obsessing about it.”     

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The Joy of Big Knickers is available to buy now. Garraway is on Good Morning Britain on Thursdays and Fridays on ITV