‘I come in peace to make love!’ Vanessa Feltz on the culture wars, quitting the BBC and life as tabloid fodder

The radio and TV presenter has left the corporation after the best part of two decades. She talks about dealing with ageism, racism, misogyny and ‘fattism’, joining TalkTV, and her pioneering meltdown on Celebrity Big Brother


‘Come round and let me see your face,” orders Vanessa Feltz, as I wander into a tidy kitchen of pink counters and framed newspaper front pages, where she is sitting with a couple of makeup artists. “You look young and handsome, delightful, naive!” she tells me. “You don’t look like a seasoned hater who’s been doing this for years.” Rapid small talk ensues, covering everything from why she’d be terrible on I’m a Celebrity (she says she has turned them down multiple times, yet they keep offering more money) to questions about my “romantic status”.

To call this a charm offensive would be to imply that Feltz cares deeply about the resulting write-up. Really, she says, she couldn’t care less.

“I did have cause, after all these years, to really consider just what is the point of these interviews. What are they for? Why does anyone read them? Why does anyone write them? Is the idea that the person comes in and somehow dismantles your facade?”

I’m under no illusion I’ll break down any facade, I tell her.

“Well, you might well do! Have a good bash at it. Who knows?”

It’s all go at Feltz’s home, a converted chapel in St John’s Wood in north-west London, where she lives with her partner, the singer and actor Ben Ofoedu. There’s a steady flurry of activity at the front door: a photographer, a representative from her new employer, News UK’s TalkTV, a courier dropping off yet more tickets to an award show (“I’ve got five invitations to this and they keep sending me more!”) and a UPS driver delivering a new mattress. Our conversation is no less busy. It feels like the quintessential Feltz experience: loud, camp, slightly combative but extremely entertaining. There’s a hurricane of anecdote and gossip until you’re not quite sure how you ended up talking about the time Feltz went on a date with a famous boxer who didn’t ask her a single question about herself (no, she won’t say who).

And there’s a lot of ground to cover. For the best part of two decades, Feltz was one of the BBC’s flagship presenters, carving out a reputation as one of the hardest-working women in broadcasting with her 4am starts on Radio 2’s This Morning, followed immediately by Radio London’s Breakfast Show at 7am. In July, she announced through tears that she’d be leaving both. She joined TalkTV in September, replacing Jeremy Kyle on the network’s three-hour drivetime slot.

Feltz and Ben Ofoedu after her final show for Radio 2.
Feltz and Ben Ofoedu after her final show for Radio 2. Photograph: James Manning/PA

The show is a mix of news bulletins, hot-topic discussions, expert panellists and plenty of what she always calls her “lovely listeners”. She is very much enjoying the fact it’s on TV and one day hopes her listeners will be able to video call in. “I want to see them – and if they’re naked and masturbating, so what?”

Feltz, 60, is also enjoying her new-found liberty. “I’m enjoying the freedom to be a bit more pissed-off than I normally could be,” she says. “I’m enjoying the freedom to, if something strikes me as utterly ridiculous, straight away to call it out.”

Since launching in April, TalkTV has earned a reputation for fuelling the culture wars. Its high-profile rightwing shock-jocks, Piers Morgan and Julia Hartley-Brewer, host such discussions as “Should wearing a poppy be compulsory?” or “Was Churchill racist?” Other recent targets include inclusive language, rail unions, trans rights, “virtue-signalling” footballers and, of course, cyclists. Did Feltz have any misgivings about joining Rupert Murdoch’s media empire?

“No, I was thrilled,” she says. “What, the home of the Times? My father used to read the Times. It was spoken of reverentially in our house. And as far as the channel is concerned, definitely I have been employed to be myself and to behave as I behave. I’ve been employed to essentially do what I’ve been doing for years and years on the BBC, which is to listen. To listen to callers, and also to field different points of view.”

And she feels no pressure to join the culture wars?

“I have no interest in engaging in war of any kind,” she says. “I come in peace to make love and to try to do my best to understand, and pilot myself and other people through this ghastly cost of living crisis.”

The day before, her show’s guests included activists from Just Stop Oil. She cites their eloquence as evidence that meaningful debate is still possible. “When they come on the show, they’re very, very good at explaining why [they do what they do]. And then you suddenly think: ‘Oh my gosh, do I want my great-grandchildren frying? I don’t really. Maybe I should go and glue myself to a bollard!’”

Her goal, she says, is simply to have a “good, spirited debate”, to make the news accessible. “Maybe I’m just naive,” she adds, “but I always hope that there is a point to it.”

* * *

Feltz is in no mood to talk about her early life, beyond stating that she had a delightful childhood in north London in a close Jewish family. But, after studying English literature at the University of Cambridge, she married a junior doctor, started a family (they had two daughters, who now have four children between them) and began writing columns for the Jewish Chronicle. She was invited on to a BBC Radio London (then GLR) show called Jewish London to discuss a column she’d written about Jewish mothers. It was a success and she returned many times until she was eventually asked to present the show in 1989.

Years later, she sought out other opportunities in the BBC. “I said: ‘Please could I cross over? Do you think you might try me on a human show, rather than a Jewish show?’”

The reply, she says, was in effect: “‘Oh, I don’t think you’d cross over. You’re a Jew – just stay in your lane’.”

“I’d read English literature at Cambridge!” she says. “I hadn’t got a European Fiddler on the Roof type accent and also you couldn’t see me, so they couldn’t say I looked Jewish.”

Her “mainstream” appeal eventually became clear when her boss had a chance encounter with a barman who made him wait for a drink while he finished listening to “our Vanessa”. “This anonymous barman that I’ve never met and don’t know obviously showed that I had crossed over. So then I was allowed to have a late-night show.”

She continued to present her Sunday night slot on BBC London until 1994, when she was poached to host a new daytime talkshow on ITV. Vanessa, as the show was called, was one of the first in Britain to focus on the private lives of the public, and Feltz was compared to Oprah Winfrey. “I thought it was ridiculous. She was an American institution; I was a complete unknown,” says Feltz. That said, she adds: “Everybody loved it.”

Feltz in the Big Brother house in 2001.
Feltz in the Big Brother house in 2001. Photograph: PA

In 1999, Feltz, now a household name, returned to the BBC to make The Vanessa Show, which followed a similar format. But this was cancelled after just seven months when it emerged producers had paid actors to pose as guests. The affair still rankles. “I went to the BBC partly for the legitimacy of being part of the BBC and then obviously was very, very badly let down. Because the show was called The Vanessa Show, the person blamed was me. I will take any blame I deserve – but I didn’t deserve that because I hadn’t booked any guests for the show.”

The infamy was short-lived. Feltz rejoined BBC London as a presenter in 2001. Such was her profile that year that Richard Curtis asked her to enter the Celebrity Big Brother house. She spent just three days there, but that was long enough for a meltdown that secured her a place in the pantheon of great Big Brother contestants, as she ignored orders and scrawled words such as “incarcerated” and “restricted” on a chalkboard.

People still stop her in the street to talk about it. “My children always say I was the absolute pioneer of discombobulating on reality TV – sobbing, weeping and all that. Since I’ve done that, everyone’s done it – but I was the first.”

There are aspects of fame that she loves, such as walking through an airport and having fans ask her how her holiday was. “It’s like, ‘Bloody hell, my whole country is thrilled to see me. They love me here!’” she says. Others she is less keen on. “I don’t like it when it’s something like your mother dying of cancer and you’re coming out of the hospital and there are a whole load of photographers,” she says. “I didn’t like it when my husband left [he divorced her in 2000] and it was completely heartbreaking, and paparazzi were jumping out from behind our rhododendron bushes and following me and the girls.”

Then there is the media’s fascination with her weight, with tabloid front pages and an endless stream of articles speculating about gains and, more recently, “miraculous losses”. Looking back, she feels she was “vilified” and “violently criticised” and had to put up with a “real level of vituperative bile”. But she stops short of calling it bullying – “an anachronism of a word”.

She has had to deal with “racism, misogyny, fattism”, she says. (In 2017 the Sunday Times was accused of antisemitism when it published a column that suggested her BBC salary was only high because she was Jewish.) “People don’t like what they consider to be a mouthy woman, but what they really mean is a woman with an opinion or a view. They think women should just shut up.”

Dealing with the intrusion and criticism hasn’t got any easier. “It’s absolutely horrible. And the idea that you develop some rhinoceros hide and you don’t feel what any other person would feel … of course I haven’t got some superpower that means when someone says something horrible to me I’m not upset.”

Why does she think the tabloids are so obsessed with her?

“I really don’t know,” she says. “But I do know that some people are on television every single day for years and they are not tabloid characters. And some people are tabloid fodder – and I’ve always been that person from day one.”

* * *

Feltz describes her decision to leave the BBC this year as “hellish, absolutely terrible”. So why did she do it? First, she was so exhausted she’d started turning up at the studio at 4am on the wrong day. “All the time my grandchildren have been alive – they’re eight, seven, three and brand new – I’ve been jetlagged the whole time.”

Vanessa Feltz photographed at home in London.
‘Some people are tabloid fodder – and I’ve always been that person from day one.’ Photograph: David Levene/The Guardian

Then, with 18 months left on her contract, Feltz wasn’t sure she had the standing within the organisation that she used to. She mistakenly booked a holiday during the Queen’s platinum jubilee – not a luxury that star presenters would usually be afforded. “I said, ‘Surely you don’t want me to go away?’ and they said, ‘Oh no, it’ll be fine – have a lovely, lovely time.’” The indifference was telling.

She also worried that her age might make her disposable. “I was aware of women over the age of 60 suddenly biting the dust,” Feltz says. “I don’t think that I would have been exempt from that at all.” Many Radio 2 listeners have complained about the departure of Paul O’Grady and the loss of Steve Wright’s afternoon show. “Who would ever not want Paul O’Grady to broadcast for them,” she asks. “He’s utterly unique as a radio voice!”

“It seems to be a casual culling and jettisoning of proper broadcasting adornments,” she adds. “And it feels as if that casualness and that callousness is applying not just to the presenters but to the audience. It’s like, ‘Oh, we don’t need you and we don’t want you. You’re too old, you’re too staid, you’re too middle-class, you’re too middle-aged.’”

The corporation’s “merciless chasing of younger audiences”, she believes, results in it commissioning and tailoring programmes for an audience who aren’t interested. She likens it to Marks & Spencer, “constantly targeting the Alexa Chung, Kate Moss audience”.

And the decision to leave was hers alone?

“Yes.” It’s a rare one-word answer, followed by an even rarer pause. But she can’t leave it at that, claiming that she got wind of the recently announced cuts to local broadcasting. “Have you seen what’s happened to local radio? I had to leave, didn’t I? I could feel it coming. It’s a terrible, terrible mistake,” she says. “I think it’s absolutely heartbreaking … I just thought: ‘I do not want to preside over the demise of this.’ You might think I’m being overdramatic, but I honestly, genuinely, really cared about it.”

I suspect there’s a lot more Feltz wants to say about the BBC. But she is as interested in looking forward, excited about her TalkTV show’s “whole new world” of “dynamism” and “can-do attitudes”. Plus, she no longer feels self-conscious about her age. “No one has referred to it at all,” she says, “I’m 60. I’m Jewish. I’ve got a gastric bypass. They haven’t said I have to be 23 with a certain leg length and a certain boobage. Nobody has said, ‘Put a veil over the camera and some Vaseline because Vanessa’s coming!’ And I didn’t feel the same at the BBC. So glory, glory to Rupert Murdoch and thank you, Mr Murdoch, very much indeed for having me.”

Watch or listen to Feltz’s new show from Monday to Friday, 4-7pm, on TalkTV and TalkRadio.

Contributor

Chris Godfrey

The GuardianTramp

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