Claudia Winkleman is certainly not new to TV, but it’s fair to say that the past few years have seen her become a household name. The intention was to keep a low profile, never to go “primetime”. Yet now she’s one half of the first female duo on live Saturday-night TV, alongside Tess Daly.
She fell into television a bit by mistake, when a friend from production company Planet 24 called to say they were testing for Live TV. Eight months later, she was on air. She was pretty useless at first (her words), replying to the director by staring down the barrel when he spoke to her through her earpiece. And on Strictly she’s convinced it’s a fluke if she gets through a show without offending someone or falling over. “If I manage that, I’m happy.”
So how is the 43-year-old art history graduate, who quit working in galleries because she couldn’t sit still, warming up for the new series of the glitziest gig in television?
“I’m ready, and I can’t wait! I have no idea who all the celebrities are yet [we speak before they’re all confirmed]. They tell me nothing. Once they told me the line-up, top secret, and I got straight in the lift and told some girl the whole thing. She reported back, and now they tell me nothing. It’s a rule.
“It takes over my life while it’s on. I smell of fake tan all the time, I wake up midweek and I’ve still got sequins in my hair.” She’s quick to make sure I’m under no illusion that she is part of the glamour. “It’s all very fabulous for every one else, but as soon as the show is over, Tess [Daly] and I sit on the floor inhaling Maltesers and eating McDonald’s. A Filet-O-Fish for Tess, and a Quarter Pounder for me. No pickles, that is very important. I learnt the hard way.”
I visualise the two of them, sequins stuck to their bums, dancers cartwheeling around them as Bruno Tonioli does jazz hands, but I’m assured it’s much less showbiz. “When we wrap, all the producers come in. They’re all women, apart from one guy called Mark who is very nice (hello Mark), and we all just sit around and burger up. The glamour is saved for when the cameras roll, and that’s nothing to do with me.”
Her look, which I’d like to coin as bedraggled chic, is a visual treat. But she’s the first to say it’s more a compromise than intentional. “In real life I look like an old goth mum, falling apart. If it was down to me I’d wear a black, high-necked, long-sleeved cape. With a shedload of eyeliner.”
So how is it backstage? Are there dancers throwing tantrums and judges demanding attention? “If there is, I don’t see it. Everyone is so wonderful. There’s no ‘I need a goat in my dressing room’ [code for diva] type behaviour.”
It’s chemistry that makes the show so lovable. The way the dancers support the contestants, the way the contestants support each other. But what about the more manufactured friendship that holds the show together? What’s it like when you’re partnered with another woman and told to entertain the masses?
“Tess and I get on brilliantly. I’ve always thought viewers know what’s real and what isn’t. Fakery and nonsense can be seen from miles off.”
It sounds more like a girls’ night in than backstage at a BBC big hit. What does she say to the idea that it’s a tough industry for women?
Strictly is run by women, the heads of BBC1 and BBC2 are women, as are the chief creative officer of Channel 4 and the head of entertainment at ITV. There are many industries where a woman can’t even get into the room of decision-making. I’m pleased that I work with such a powerful group of great women.”
Does she feel powerful herself?
“I wear orange make-up and read out loud. I love my job, but I don’t feel powerful.”
I have to ask her about recent criticism of the BBC for spending the licence fee on shows like Strictly. “I love the BBC, whether they hire me or not. I think we’re in a dangerous place where we might lose something that we shouldn’t take for granted. I used to do a holiday programme and go to weird places and the BBC is respected and loved all over the world – it was like three magic letters. I think the licence fee is excellent value for money, if not just for David Attenborough, Bake Off and the news.”