Lorraine Kelly on 30 years in Breakfast telly, sexism… and those awful TV-am outfits

“Oh, jeez! When I look back at some of those terrible, TV-am, 1980s outfits... I interviewed Liam Neeson, and I had a jacket on, and it was pink, green, purple... it was like the worst explosion in a paint factory ever”

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Lorraine Kelly has received some strange fan mail in her time. But perhaps the most memorable was a tub of chocolate body paint. It came accompanied by a request for Kelly to photograph herself while covered in said chocolate. “Needless to say, I put it on ice-cream and ate it, and did not send the photograph.” She giggles uproariously at the memory. “That was odd. That was beyond odd, actually.” 

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Of course, in choosing to tell me this anecdote, Kelly is revealing the key to her success. At 54, she is about to celebrate 30 years in breakfast television – a remarkable milestone in a notoriously fickle industry – and she is smart enough to know that her staying power has a lot to do with relatability.

The loyal (mostly female) viewers of Lorraine, ITV’s flagship morning show, do not want to switch on their sets after a stressful school run and a bad night of teething babies to be confronted by some steamy sexpot making them feel bad about themselves. No, they want a woman who eats chocolate body paint with ice-cream and then laughs heartily about it afterwards. In short, they want Lorraine Kelly.

Her appeal has always been a certain authenticity and an attractiveness that stops short of out-of-your-league gorgeousness. Audiences, I say, seem to trust her.

“That’s really important,” Kelly says, nodding her head vigorously. We meet in a juice bar in Westminster, where she has just been recording a radio interview for BBC Scotland. She talks rapidly, as if her words are simmering in a saucepan constantly on the verge of boiling over. “And not something I’ve kind of worked at, it’s just happened. And that’s really important to me, and why, when people write to me, I write back.”

She writes back to every single letter she receives by hand?

“I do. I make sure I have at least one day a week where I put two or three hours aside, and I just go through a massive pile of letters and just do it. Because it’s important. My mum always said, ‘If someone writes to you, it’s good manners to write back’.”

It is a work ethic that has served her well. These days, she splits her time between Dundee and a flat in London, commuting every week to present Lorraine. In the weekday evenings, she’ll go to a Zumba class and generally be in bed by 9pm for her early morning starts. On the plane back to Scotland on Thursday (her Friday show is pre- recorded), she’ll dash off a couple of newspaper columns before being reunited with her family. Her husband Steve Smith is her former cameraman, and her daughter Rosie, 20, is studying journalism at Edinburgh University.

Her Scottishness is clearly important to her, but she won’t be drawn on her views on the independence referendum. “I’ve got to be completely neutral…that’s the job. I cannot be one way or the other.”

Kelly was brought up in Glasgow, in a one- bedroom flat with no running water. Her parents were both 18 when she was born and her father made a living as a TV repairman. At home, Kelly and her younger brother Graham were taught to read by their mother.

“Our parents didn’t push us, they never pushed – we were encouraged. There were always books lying everywhere, and discussions. It was great.”

Although she won a place to study English and Russian at university (as a teenager, Kelly was so obsessed by all things Russian that she used to buy Soviet Weekly), she turned it down in favour of a job at her local newspaper.

Her parents were disappointed, but didn’t admit it until years later. “But Graham, my baby brother, he went to university, so my mum has got the photograph. The really important photograph in every Scottish working-class household is the kid on the mantelpiece with the scroll under the arm and the hat and the robe.” Does she ever regret her decision not to go on to higher education? “No, I don’t, actually, because it’s the University of Life that I’ve been brought up in. But I actually did get a degree: I have an honorary degree from Dundee University [in 2004] because I was voted rector of the university.”

There’s a tradition that new rectors at Dundee are carried around every pub in the city and are required to drink at each stop…

“Happy days!” Kelly says. Did she sink a pint in every pub? “Not every single one, because I would have died. But I did have a fair few.”

After a stint on her local paper, Kelly joined the BBC as a researcher and was soon taken on by TV-am as a Scotland reporter in 1984. The only time she experienced any kind of sexism, she says, was when she was sent to cover sporting matches.

“Women didn’t do sport! Women didn’t do football!” she recalls. “Of course, I love football, I’m a huge fan of Dundee United, so I would go along and it was great – because you were a girl, they were totally disarmed. So you could actually get in there and ask all sorts of questions, and they would actually be more open with you, funnily enough.”

It’s a classic Kelly response: refusing to indulge in self-pity; making the cheerful best of a bad situation. But isn’t football still a notoriously chauvinistic environment?

“It is, but they are making strides. In Scotland – Hearts and Hibs, two big clubs – there are women in charge. [Ann Budge is chairman of Hearts, Leeann Dempster is chief executive of their Edinburgh rivals Hibs.] You’ve got women lines… linespersons? I was going to say women’s linesmen, but that doesn’t make any sense! But you have women referees, although not as many as there should be, and… I mean, we’ve got Hazel Irvine, one of the best sports commentators in the business, bar none.” 

What about the sexist emails sent by the Football Association chief executive, Richard Scudamore, or the commentators who were sacked from Sky in 2011 for insisting a female referee couldn’t understand the offside rule?

“To be honest, I feel a bit sorry for them. I don’t think that’s the reality, I think they’re left behind. I really do. I mean, that attitude is unacceptable now, and quite rightly so, and I think they’re the ones who are getting overtaken.”

On the TV-am Scottish beat, Kelly also covered the 1988 Lockerbie air crash, an event that haunts her still. Acting on a tip-off from a police contact, she was one of the first on the scene. “When that Malaysian plane was shot down, I instantly was just brought right back there. Or sometimes you’re at an airport and you get the smell of the fuel – that always takes me back, because that was the smell…” She trails off, her head drooping. “You don’t forget things like that – it’s seared onto your brain.

“I think the only thing that made me able to still do my job [that day]… was the unreality. It was like being on a movie set, it really was. You can’t imagine anything worse.”

Within a few months of joining TV-am, Kelly was flown down to London and put on the presenting sofa where she has, more or less, stayed ever since – the great survivor in a world of perpetually changing formats and star presenters. She says the main thing that has changed in the 30 years she has been doing the job is the advent of social media, whereby you get instant viewer feedback on her performance – and her outfits.

“Oh, jeez! When I look back at some of those terrible, TV-am, 1980s outfits… I interviewed Liam Neeson, and I had a jacket on, and it was pink, green, purple… it was like the worst explosion in a paint factory ever.”

She credits her working-class upbringing with the fact that she remains unintimidated by people. On screen, her manner is the same whether she is interviewing the prime minister or chatting to the man who has just smashed the Guinness World Record for growing the longest toenails. 

There is a residual snobbery surrounding the cosy chit-chat of breakfast television, but Kelly insists that asking the obvious questions will sometimes elicit the most revealing answers. “It’s not about me, it’s not about how clever I appear.”

She retains a healthy scepticism about our obsession with celebrity and refuses to watch herself on television. When I ask her about the pressure on women to look a certain way on screen, she gets fired up.

“Our children, God love them, have never been fatter, eating and drinking themselves into an early grave, and we hold up these images of teeny, tiny, beany, weeny people and say, ‘That’s what you’re supposed to be like.’ I mean, you see these people [celebrities] on screen, they’re tiny, right? When you see them in real life, it’s actually scary how small they are… And there is a lot of pressure on young girls, and it really is a shame.”

Kelly herself does not believe in diets – “It’s a complete industry, it really is”. Lately, she has been taking legal advice after her image was used without permission by a dieting company advertising a weight-loss supplement. “It’s just a scam… There is no way that drinking some weirdy thing is going to make you ten stone lighter. The only way to do it is to get up off your bottom and don’t eat as much. End of. That’s it.”

Still, that doesn’t preclude the odd helping of chocolate body paint, should the opportunity present itself.

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Lorraine is on ITV weekdays at 8.30am