Zoe Ball: ‘I’ve always done it for the love – it’s great fun to try to entertain’

From ‘ladette’ to the highest-paid woman at the BBC, the nation’s cheerer-upper talks about her long and colourful journey to the top of radio

The other day Zoë Ball’s 20-year-old son, Woody, from her marriage to Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim), was home from university and rummaging through his mum’s house. “He found some stuff in my office,” says Ball, “and he was like, ‘Oh my God, you and Dad were, like, a big thing back in the day.” We are sitting in an empty restaurant near BBC Broadcasting House in London, and Ball’s eyes are a mixture of amusement and horror as she recalls her son’s discovery. She speaks in a surprisingly hushed manner given that there is nobody else in the room. “There was a time when I found looking back to the 90s a little bit… tricky,” she says, with a diplomatic tone.

When her kids (Ball and Cook also have a daughter, Nelly, 11) ask about it, she isn’t entirely keen to reminisce, although she recently turned 50 and appreciates having such distance from her wilder youth. “Woody says, ‘You had so much fun! Tell the story about this,’ and we groan and say, ‘Ugh you don’t want to hear about that.’ And he says, ‘I do, I want to hear the story.’ So our kind-of extended family tell him the tales. My friends say, ‘Let me tell you about the time your mother was…’” she tries to think of something printable to say. “‘On roller skates.’ Whatever.” She also sometimes finds old photographs and wails: “‘God I was so thin!’ I look back and I was dangerously gaunt. Not that that’s good – that’s not good. But we didn’t stop.”

Zoë Ball is still a very big thing, of course. She is slightly hidden behind her fringe and rather gentler manner today, but she is also the highest paid woman in the BBC, after taking over the Radio 2 breakfast show from Chris Evans in 2019, at a time when the Beeb was painfully aware of its lack of gender parity in pay. She was given a breakfast show annual salary to match his, of roughly £1.36m, and is thought to have also received an additional £400k or so for presenting Strictly’s companion show It Takes Two on BBC Two, which she recently gave up after a decade. She is also sober, unable to believe her first child is already 20, and says her Friday nights are spent watching Gardeners’ World with a cup of chamomile tea made from her own garden, since she moved away from Brighton (and her marriage, and perhaps her past) into the deepest countryside.

Zoe Ball wears blazer and trousers by maxmara.com, shirt by palmerharding.com, earrings by pilondon.co.uk, bracelets by annoushka.com and pilondon.co.uk
On a roll: Zoë Ball wears blazer and trousers by maxmara.com, shirt by palmerharding.com, earrings by pilondon.co.uk, bracelets by annoushka.com and pilondon.co.uk Photograph: Sophia Spring/The Observer

She has made the Radio 2 breakfast show into a national safe space of cheery, chirpy cosiness, but, back in the 90s, her galloping chat and her joie de vivre made her a sensation. After starting out as a runner and researcher for various production companies, she followed her father, Johnny Ball, into kids’ TV, then became the host of the Radio 1 breakfast show in October 1997, six months after Tony Blair became prime minister. She was an anchor of the Cool Britannia scene in London: she looked cool, her relationships looked cool, her life looked cool. You didn’t just want to be her friend – you kidded yourself that you actually were. To me, listening at home, she and Sara Cox seemed to have a whole new way of being female in media. At a time when so many of the others felt fake, they felt real. They weren’t ladettes, as the tabloids called them, they were young women, doing what young women all around the country were doing: going out and having a bloody good time.

But while we were longing to be Zoe, it turns out Zoe was secretly longing to be Paula Yates: “She was so effortlessly cool and nonchalant and she didn’t really care. But then there was always this great sexual chemistry with everybody she ever interviewed. Whereas I think in some of those early interviews I was a bit like, don’t want to be here, don’t think I can handle this.” Ball was actually quite shy, which is one reason the drinking got out of hand, fighting to stay on top of so many huge social occasions. The tabloids lapped up her late nights and painted a picture of her as a cheekily smiling hell-raiser, a legend which she says she found herself almost trying to live up to – a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.

She eventually went to rehab, as she alluded to on Desert Island Discs, but hasn’t been keen to expound upon since. I ask what she learned in rehab but she answers only in vague platitudes about “accepting your strengths and your weaknesses”. I sense it feels uneasy for her to talk about anything with even a whiff of scandal, now that she has such a high-profile job as the UK’s cheerer-upper in chief.

Her job at Radio 2 took on particular significance during the worst of the pandemic, when her listeners, often key workers, contacted the show. She remembers “someone who was sat outside the hospital, about to go in for another shift. They were exhausted and they just sat for a minute to listen to the radio and fill themselves up with the strength to face it. So it was good to get those messages – but they had us in tears.”

She adds that, “The voice on the radio is a friend and is company,” and insists she needed it too, listening to her favourites Liza Tarbuck and Jo Whiley, and as much news as she could handle, which wasn’t much. “Bit of Emma Barnett, Adrian Chiles on Five Live, a bit of Evan [Davis] at PM. Just to hear some calm news, rather than the hysterical. And we had new listeners coming across from the current affairs space going, ‘Actually that’s quite harrowing, I just want to hear some Cher.’”

As for the show, she and her team had just been getting into the swing of it before the pandemic altered what they could do. (The recording studio at Wogan House became skeletally staffed.) They were determined to turn around the reports saying that they had lost a million listeners since Chris Evans left, and the columnists crowing that Zoe wasn’t worth the money. Given what many people think about six-figure salaries, especially in relation to a public body, I wonder if Ball has ever felt able to thoroughly celebrate, to admit she’s smashed it.

Zoe Ball with her son, Woody.
On the Ball: with her son, Woody. Photograph: Peter Powell/PA Wire/PA Images

“Er, no. I never think I’ve smashed it,” she says. “I don’t think you ever take any of it for granted at all. Erm, you know, honestly, I’ve never done what I do because of the money. I have worked for the BBC for a lot of my career and I kind of always did it for the love. People always go, ‘Oooh, well that’s nonsense,’ but it isn’t, I love my job, I love what I do. It’s great fun to try to entertain.”

I tell her that she will always be the woman who broke the BBC’s glass ceiling, that it’s a historic position to be in. “Well,” she says, slowly and carefully. “It did feel like a good, positive moment, that there was a big corporation willing to pay a woman about the same as what they had paid a man.” She relaxes a bit and lets out a laugh. “Sadly, for some, that story didn’t really seem to be that… And then suddenly you’ve got other headlines.”

It can be a poisoned chalice, I say.

“It can. There is always going to be flux between, you know, you’re taking over from Chris, and he took over from Terry [Wogan] – you’re taking over from a hugely loved popular host, there is going to be change. That takes time. And we were just getting really into it with all our big plans and then there was the pandemic. So it will be interesting when the ratings start to come out again. We’ve had a little break from that, which was joyful.”

The week I meet her, she has been working alongside Scott Mills, who is standing in for Ken Bruce, and it brings back shudders from her former life, when she would start her Radio 1 show after him, if she woke up in time.

“Whenever I think of Scott, I just think of apologising to him,” she admits. She impersonates her younger self, whispering guiltily: “‘So sorry you had to do the first 20 minutes of my show.’ I could have been a little bit more responsible. But I did love it, when Grimmy [Nick Grimshaw] was doing Radio 1 breakfast, and it was, say, the morning after the Brits, I would just laugh. Because at the start of the show he’d be” – she makes an energetic noise – “giddy, giddy, giddy! But then it would go on and on, and I’d think, Yeah, now you’re holding on to yourself thinking, ‘When is this show over?’”

On Strictly with Ian Waite.
In step: on Strictly with Ian Waite. Photograph: BBC/PA

I don’t bring up the dreaded L word but she does; she knows it’s there. “It’s that thing of going, ‘Oh, the ladette days, the ladette days’. But we didn’t set out to be ladettes, we were just girls who were having a great time and happened to do that job. I was busy being young. I used to interview people and not know what the fuck I was doing. And now I’m like, ‘OK, I feel I can chat confidently with you now.’ When I think back to interviewing Noel and Liam for The O-Zone… I’ve always been good about doing my research but there wasn’t the internet then, so it was all, you know, you had to either get hold of your copy of NME or Melody Maker or just wing it. And I did wing a lot of those.”

A highlight of her current show was interviewing Robert De Niro and Al Pacino together, which she was not intending to wing at all – she’s had 30 years’ experience now, and she adores their work.

“Even when they greeted each other it was like so many scenes from every film they’ve ever made suddenly happening in front of you. So the interview was going great, but suddenly I could feel it coming. This great heat. It’s kind of damp as well, and you go quite red. My glasses were steaming up and sliding down my nose in this great heat, in this tiny room. And I could see Al Pacino looking at me sort of willing me to get to the end of the question, which had no point to it by now, since I was on fire.”

It wasn’t until a year or so later, she realised that had been her first hot flush. “Menopause took me a while to get a handle on, but I seem to be getting there,” she says. “It’s a strange thing, I look at my daughter and think she’s about to start that journey and I’m about to end it.”

I am unnerved by Zoë Ball being 50 – it doesn’t seem possible. But the change is real, in more ways than one. She was going to give in and have a big old celebration for her milestone birthday, a proper disco with lots of dancing. “I only really dance at weddings these days, I don’t go to clubs or anything any more, so when there was talk of this party among my friends I thought, yeah all right, I’ll have this big do. But to be honest with you, when the pandemic came I actually thought,” she whispers the next bit, guiltily, “‘Ooh, I don’t have to have a party.’ It was actually quite nice.”

She adores it when her son comes home, even though he usually arrives in the middle of the night. “He scares the bejeesus out of me. ‘MUM I’M HOME!’ I’m like, ‘It’s midnight, I thought you were an intruder.’ He says, ‘Do you want a chat?’ and I’m like, ‘I’ve got to get up at four, what are you doing?’”

With fellow former ‘ladette’ Sara Cox.
Party days: with fellow former ‘ladette’ Sara Cox. Photograph: Jon Furniss/WireImage

Woody has also started not only DJing, like his father (his little sister also performs at Camp Bestival as Fatgirl Slim with her dad’s help), but also doing video interviews with people who make music, just like his mum. Ball and Cook have been watching approvingly. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” she says. “Woody makes mixtapes for all the long car journeys we go on together and, God, he plays great music. I’m constantly going, ‘Who’s this new band, who’s this?’ He’s been playing for all the gang in his halls, probably driving some of them mad; some of the others are having a great time.”

As for her daughter, they tried to rope Johnny Ball in to help with the home schooling. “We’ve always tried that: ring Grandad! Grandad will know! Because he’s so clever and he just knows everything. But I remember when I was young, asking him why does x equal y, doing algebra – and he was so enthusiastic, getting the books out, talking about Pythagoras. I’d be like, ‘Dad, I just wanted the answer.’ Although recently I did have a brilliant conversation about Einstein with him. We were under the monorail at Legoland, I listened for about 20 minutes and then said, ‘OK Dad, you’ve lost me now.’ I also had an embarrassing conversation with Nelly lately when she said, ‘Test me, test me on the Battle of Hastings!’ All I knew was Harold and the arrow. I didn’t know anything else. She just looked at me like, shameful. At 11. It’s impressive.”

Ball watched the recent documentary about Britney Spears, and says she found it heartbeaking. “The pressure she was under – you just wanted someone to step around her and protect her. It will be interesting to see what happens with that case. Now I look at Billie Eilish and some of those other girls, Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, and I love how they are writing their own stories. I just think good on you, fucking own it, represent yourself, tell people the truth about who you are.”

I say, but you had the tabloids right up in your face. Are you ever going to say, “Well, actually what they did to me was really damaging?”

“I think we all know the things they did were… I’m not talking about myself, just the overall picture. But it’s just how it was. You just hope that it has changed.”

Zoe Ball, smiling, face resting in her hand
‘I only dance at weddings these days’: on saying goodbye to her clubbing years. Photograph: Sophia Spring/The Observer

Still, things have not always been easy since the early years. Four years ago, Ball’s boyfriend, Billy Yates, killed himself, an event she has described as the worst thing she has ever been through. Since then, Ball has done a lot of work for mental health charities, including a 500-mile sponsored bike ride. (She has also been in a relationship with Michael Reed, a construction firm owner and model – she won’t discuss that; she promised not to.)

She is doing this interview because she has just done her 500th breakfast show on Radio 2, though on the day itself, when listeners phone in to congratulate, she says she can’t quite believe she’s still allowed to be in the job, and jokes that perhaps nobody has noticed. I do think she lives with the anxiety that it could all end. She says her dad taught her to go with the fear of live broadcasting and channel the anxiety into adrenalin, but she also clearly loves it. Really, truly loves it.

“I think there’s something quite lovely about coming to this sort of age and thinking, yeah! Do you know what? I mean, 30 years of working in telly and radio. I’ve had it pretty good.”

The Zoë Ball Breakfast Show is on BBC Radio 2 and BBC Sounds, Monday to Friday from 6.30-9.30am, bbc.co.uk

Fashion editor Jo Jones; hair by Alexis Day using GHD Curve; makeup by Amanda Grossman at The Only Agency using Twelve Beauty and RMS; shot at Jet studio

Contributor

Sophie Heawood

The GuardianTramp

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