Carol Vorderman on ageing, sexism, education and her infamous Countdown dismissal

"I was told in no uncertain terms that I was never allowed back in the studio. I still don’t understand it"

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It’s been a busy day for Carol Vorderman – raging against drugs on the lunchtime ITV show Loose Women, seven interviews about the emotionally charged Pride of Britain awards, which she presents for the 14th time (she has presented them every year since their inception in 1999) and now confronted by an intrusive hack who asks questions she doesn’t want to answer, although she’ll have the good grace to suggest later that she enjoyed it.

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The perky poster girl for sexy over-50 women – although she disparages herself as a “saggy bellied mother of two”, and adds her style is like Marmite, loved or hated – is dressed in a revealing tight grey polo neck, dark leggings and cream knee-high boots.

Sorry, this is a sexist-free zone, but she was photographed in several newspapers the following day, not for the first time, in a provocatively “pwhoar” sort of way, so it’s surprising when she asserts she has little interest in what she wears.

“I’m trying to get rid of so many clothes but haven’t had a chance to bundle them up. Fashion is not one of my things. What gets me going are factories, huge construction sites, or a space shuttle take-off. My adrenaline runs wild even thinking about it. But dresses – move on. I’d rather read the New Scientist. I’m a geek.”

She’s chirpy and friendly, unafraid to send herself up as UK Rear of the Year 2011 (left) – “at my age that’s funny” (she’s 52 on Christmas Eve). Or, how can I put this tastefully? – seeming to orally pleasure a conical pink ice lolly on Channel 4’s Alan Carr: Chatty Man last year. “It’s part of the job but not important. All my friends know I’m the laziest person on earth. In Bristol [where she lives] I wear jeans and leggings. I don’t worry about my looks going. Of course I dye my hair. I prefer it not to be grey. That’s not unfair on women. An awful lot of guys on telly do the same. I’m not naming names.”

How about surgery? She gives a contemptuous snort. “I’m bored with that question.”

She has many apparent contradictions: warm, yet controlling; family minded yet divorced twice; flirty yet flinty; ostensibly academic, although she only gained a third in engineering at Cambridge, yet frivolous; relaxed yet clearly ambitious. “Am I ambitious? I’ve thought about that. It would mean I have specific targets, which I don’t. I never court fame – whatever that means. I can’t remember the last celebrity event I went to, and don’t enjoy being photographed, although that’s part of the job. I’m more ‘driven’”.

That, I suggest, is a result of being rejected by her Dutch father. “Very probably true,” she says. “My mum and dad split up when I was three weeks old because he was having an affair with a 16 year old. Mother Jean, now 84, moved the family (she has a sister and brother ten and eight years older) to a two-bed flat rented from an uncle for £1 a week in Prestatyn, north Wales. She shared a bed with her mother.

“I wanted to see my father, but he refused. He’d visit my brother and sister who called him ‘dad’ – I called my stepfather ‘dad’”. He never once took me in his arms. It was like I didn’t exist. That’s really warped, don’t you think? His second wife died when I was about 30 and he sent me a letter. I wrote ‘return to sender’ on the envelope.”

She met him briefly in her 40s, but it made no lasting impression. “Maybe it is the root of my ambition for which I have to thank him. And the thing is that of all his five children, the one who’s the spitting image of him is me. But now I know what I am – a fighter, survivor and a happy person. My mates say, ‘Let’s go out with Vorders’ because I like talking about happy things and can’t be doing with annoying trivia.”

She has recently downsized, living in a smaller house and swapping her £50,000 blue Jaguar XK8 for a tiny £10,000 Toyota IQ. “I don’t miss a single thing,” she insists.

Coincidentally, her mother reached the same state of nirvana, or happiness, at exactly the same age as Vorderman is now.

“My mum says her life changed when she moved to Leeds at 51. When I was 20 she left my stepfather [an Italian builder] and we literally drove out of the house at 5am one morning in a rusty old Datsun with one wing mirror. We owned nothing else, had no bank account. I found a three-bed semi in Headingly for £17,000. I organised the mortgage and three weeks later my mum replied to an ad for Countdown in the Yorkshire Evening Post – in July 1982 – forged my signature, and that is when it started.”

It ended 26 years later in tears when she was reportedly asked to take a £900,000 a year pay cut. The bitterness lingers. “I was told in no uncertain terms that I was never allowed back in the studio. I still don’t understand it. I offered an olive branch – said I’d be happy to turn up at their 30th anniversary bearing in mind I was the first woman on the channel. Nothing.”

She doesn’t watch the programme now, nor much on television except Coronation Street “which is real life”. More like Downton Abbey for plebs, I joke. I’m not sure she realises I’m trying to be flippant. She draws a sharp breath. “You mustn’t use that word. It’s so snobby. Julian [Lord Fellowes] wrote Downton based on Coronation Street.”

Her first marriage, at 24, to a naval officer, Chris Mather, lasted barely a year. She was too young, she admits. Her second, to an accountant, Paddy King, produced two children – Katie, 20, who’s studying at Cambridge, and 5-year-old Cameron.

Men are never asked if they can combine a relationship with a career, but I still ask the question. “It’s very difficult to have a husband, children and career. A lot of employers won’t hire 30-year-old women because they think they’ll get pregnant. I was a single mother for most of the time and there’s a great pressure to stay at home. It’s all about childcare. I was very lucky. If it wasn’t for my mum I would never have had the career I have.

“Women are much harder on each other than men. They comment on what they look like, wear and say far more than they would about men. I’m not talking about bitchiness – that’s not a word in my vocabulary – so I don’t know why it is. I’m not judgemental, although people think I am. Anyone who knows me realises that’s not true. I’m free-spirited, live and let live, like my mother. So long as you’re not harming anyone, please go and do what you want.

Her struggles make her a sympathetic host for the Pride of Britain awards. “I’ve hosted hundreds of ceremonies – I love them. Celebrities are usually chatting amongst themselves, but I’ve never known the utter and total silence that comes across during this one. It’s very emotional. I find certain moments difficult and dig my nails into my hands and say, ‘Hurt, hurt’, but I know the stories, have met the families, and my head space is purely about them. If they’re nervous they know they can hold my hand and I can’t let them down. It’s allowing them to be the best they can on the night because it’s very daunting for them to look out on a sea of well known faces – royalty, the Prime Minister, God, even Simon Cowell. That’s a joke. I don’t want people to think I’ve lost the plot,” she laughs before becoming serious again.

“There’s nothing cynical about it at all. The winners are so extraordinary, their stories so varied. And it’s not as if there’s a happy ending. A few of the children who won over the years have since died. Hosting it has changed my attitude to life. I’m more mellow, but that could be an age thing. From my mid-40s things haven’t bothered me so much. I have the attitude, ‘It will work out’.”

Along with her television career there have been business ventures – detox diet books, Sudoku video games, maths textbooks, a company selling overseas homes (which was suspended in 2009) and FirstPlus, a loan company she advertised for 10 years. It received bad publicity, but she says “I’m not going there”. She’s also training for a pilot’s licence which she hopes to gain in the New Year, useful I say as her new boyfriend, 37-year-old Graham Duff (left), is a former Red Arrows pilot. “I’m absolutely not going there, either.” Maybe she’ll marry again, “Oh, for god’s sake, I’m not going there.”

She remains good humoured throughout – just as she does on Loose Women, which to some, mainly male, ears is a shrieking cacophony of sub bar-room banter with ludicrous competitions.

“I love it because it’s hilariously funny.” Intentionally? She ignores me. “Some of the girls are brilliant and you can vent if you want to – as I did this morning with Janet Street-Porter about drugs. We get on famously. When she’s saying [she mimics the accent] ‘Well I’ve had four marriages, la, la, la, and my second husband…’ I can say ‘Jan, yeah, yeah’.

“Janet always tries to bring it back to politics. This morning she wouldn’t let me speak about drugs, a subject the media are hypocritical about. There’s chatter behind the scenes and everyone knows who is doing what – well, I don’t because it’s not my circle. I’ve never taken a drug or even been offered one, but I don’t like it when comedians make light of it. No one seems to know that MRI scans of teenagers who started young show it can have a huge damage on the part of the brain where schizophrenia is located. We should have a proper discussion. Often on Pride of Britain there are people who have been in the depths of despair because of drugs, and then built up their lives. I’m not getting into an argument whether or not they should be legalised, but it’s Russian roulette with your head and your happiness. How sad would it be to have a child who goes into prostitution to get the next ‘hit’.

“I feel very passionate about certain things, like education. I wrote a report about maths teaching for the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, which came out last year and has been very influential. Maths is a complete mess in this country. Someone who got a C in GCSE maths and hasn’t touched it for years is allowed to teach seven year olds. What’s going on? It ain’t good enough.”

Her next project is hosting a cookery contest for ITV in the spring to find the best dish in a particular region. Aren’t there enough cookery programmes? “No. They’re very popular. On the show I talk to people and eat a lot. It’s great. I haven’t weighed myself since I went on a detox diet at 39. I’d probably have the shock of my life.”

No she wouldn’t. And she knows it.


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Carol hosts The Pride of Britain Awards 2012 – tonight at 8:00pm on ITV1