Janet Street-Porter Interviews Davina McCall

Big Brother presenter Davina opens her heart about her mother, Matthew and alcoholism

DAVINA MCCALL HAS THE UNIQUE GIFT OF TALKING TO US AS IF SHE’S THE SISTER WE NEVER HAD. It’s hard to reconcile her onscreen persona – the assured, slightly knowing dominatrix who has fronted Big Brother since it started in 2000 – with her troubled history. She had sporadic contact with her alcoholic mother in France, living with her grandmother in England instead. As a rebellious teen, she moved in with her dad; drug abuse followed in her twenties. Having got herself clean, she landed a job at MTV after holding down a variety of occupations, from singing waitress to club hostess.

Apart from Big Brother, Davina has presented a load of shows, from the Brits to Comic Relief. But when she landed her very own chat show on the BBC in 2006, it was not well received, and it seemed as if Davina’s surge of good fortune had hit a bump. In the past, Davina has stated that, ‘If you want to be famous, you can’t have secrets.’ And it’s true – you can ask this woman absolutely anything, as I found out during our lunch together.

JSP Do you know the exact date when you got clean?

DM 17 June 1992. I have a belly button birthday – the day I’m born – and a ‘clean’ birthday.

And what do you do on your clean birthday?

I go to [an addiction recovery] meeting and there’s a cake.

Do you still go to meetings?
Yes. I go twice a week.

Do you have any problems finding meetings where you can trust all the people there?

Never. I’ve been going to them for 15 years and no one has ever blown my anonymity.

I can see your life is very structured. Do you still work out three times a week?

I’m not fanatical about exercise, but I am really fastidious about trying to be a good parent. My youngest daughter is four and my son is one; they don’t understand that I’m an entertainer yet.

What about Madonna taking her daughter, Lourdes, to high-profile awards ceremonies?

From what I’ve read, she seems like an amazing mum – she sets boundaries. So, if anyone’s going to grow up with a good head on her shoulders, it’s Lourdes. When I eventually take my children to a big event, it’ll be when they’re ready to accept the pressure. My eldest daughter is just learning that it’s not cool to show off about Mummy. She’s really excited that I’m on the telly, but I explain to her, ‘If you tell people, they’re gonna think you’re showing off and people don’t like show-offs.’

I think the relationship between a mother and daughter is a very complicated one. And if the daughter’s successful or living a life the mum perhaps wishes she had…

Definitely. My mum was stunning, effervescent, exciting to be around. You never knew what was going to happen from one minute to the next. Incredible clothes, outgoing – she should have been something amazing.

As a teenager, did you ever think, ‘This woman is so extraordinarily sophisticated’?
Because she was drinking so much, I just found her excruciatingly embarrassing.

So you acted like her mum.

Yes. I was a bit like Saffy [in Absolutely Fabulous]. Although, when I was staying with her in France, I used to dress very inappropriately for a girl of my age. I was in high heels aged 12. I was allowed to do it, so I did.

Your parents can really fuck you up, can’t they? What about your dad?

He’s my everything. He’s a man of the sea, an old sea dog. He’s really handsome, and he’s got ruddy cheeks and windswept grey hair and he’s lovely. My stepmum’s an angel, too.

Despite everything, it must have been tough when your mum died.

Yes, but all my guilt went, really. It was hard when she was alive because I’d always get called on financially. A bridge would be built, then she’d sell a story and we’d have to start all over again. Every time she reached out [emotionally], the financial demands came soon afterwards.

Did you ever get her to go to any meetings with you?

That’s how it all went wrong. When I got married, I asked my mum to come to the wedding. And she did and it was fantastic. She got on really well with everyone and we had such a great time. And then we went to [an AA] meeting together. It’s a powerful thing, going to a meeting with your mum. This was in June [2000]; that October, the Mirror ran a story that said, ‘Mummy, I need a meeting.’ She’d sold a story saying I was on the verge of relapse before the wedding and she had to take me to a meeting, which was so far from the truth. I go to meetings every week, not because I’m on the verge of relapse but because it keeps me sane. I tried to explain to Mum that, firstly, she’s blown my anonymity, which is the worst thing you could ever do; secondly, she’d given pictures of my private life, which is the second worst thing you could ever do; and, thirdly, it’s just a betrayal of trust and, had she not done that, I imagine she’d have been going on holidays with us and living here when she was ill. She would have known my kids.

Moving on to your husband [Matthew Robertson]. Does have an opinion about your career?

If I’ve got an idea, he’s amazing at putting a treatment together.

Because he was a presenter himself [of Pet Rescue in 1997]?

Yeah, but he only did that for about a year; now he’s got an adventure travel company. But he sees things visually, and he can word things really brilliantly.

What’s the worst thing that you row about?

I love to talk things through and Matthew, like most men, doesn’t. He’ll generally say, ‘Look, this is ridiculous,’ and walk out. I’m left huffing and thinking, ‘I need to talk about this!’ Under duress, he will sit down and listen to me if he has to. But, you know, I can’t imagine ever being with anybody else now. I’m so ensconced with Matthew that I don’t know what I’d do without him. I’d be lost.

That’s a big admission. Most successful women, myself included, find it quite difficult to admit that there are things they can’t do.

It’s not things that are predominantly men’s things, because I’m quite good at plugs and lightbulbs. I’m talking about on an emotional level. Matthew and I went to a therapist about five years ago, not because we were splitting up but because we were bickering a lot. It was the best thing we’ve done and I’ve recommended it to lots of friends.

How long did you go for?

Four sessions. We had this stumbling block and every time we started talking about it, we’d have a row. So we needed a mediator to say, ‘Hang on a minute, let Matthew talk. Right, Davina, how do you feel?’ Afterwards, we were like, ‘Blimey. We’ve achieved in 90 minutes what we’ve been trying to talk about for six months.’

Do you go to a therapist now?

I’ve been seeing a cognitive behavioural therapist since December about Mum. I went specifically about her because everything else in life is good.

I’ve got to hand it to you, you’re very, very organised.

Do you think so?

Yeah – take how fit you are, for example.

Hmmm. Well, let’s weigh it up: I don’t diet – low-fat and sugar-free are swear words to me – and I have supper. But instead of having two crumpets and a bowl of cereal for breakfast, I’ll have a crumpet and some fruit.

As I say, I’m really nauseated by your discipline.

This is an edited version of the full feature, which appears in the August 2008 issue of Marie Claire.

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