She’s newly divorced and enjoying life like never before. Davina McCall discusses dating, G-strings, and that killer body with Louise Gannon
Over scrambled eggs, sourdough toast and breakfast tea in a private member’s club in west London, Davina McCall is giving me a dressing-down on the subject of sex and the single lady.
It’s in reply to a question I’d asked about dating and relationships after her divorce from her husband of 17 years, Matthew Robinson, in 2017. ‘Why is it,’ she asks in a firm but pleasant voice, giving full eye contact, ‘that women are perceived as only being properly happy and OK if they have a partner? Why is being single viewed as being a bad thing?’
She pauses. ‘I was in a relationship for 20 years and there is a lot more for me to think about than finding a date. Life is different. I have three kids and a career. Not many people ask women like me out on dates. I’m a difficult prospect, so it would take someone who didn’t mind all those particular challenges. I have been out on dates – but can’t a woman be single and happy? I am, for the record, personally in a very good place.’
Fair point, well-made Davina, I concede, and she laughs. ‘But you know what I mean?’ she says, ‘We’re women. We’re grown-ups. We are more. We can’t allow ourselves to be defined in this way.’
Now I want to cheer. This is the Miss Motivator effect that makes her hordes of fans want to follow her into freezing-cold lakes to swim after she completed a Sport Relief triathlon challenge in 2014, or turn on in their millions to watch her on shows from Streetmate to Big Brother to Long Lost Family and spend millions on her fitness DVDs, which she has been releasing since 2004 (there are 14 in total).
Now she is about to launch an online fitness website, Own Your Goals, which for £14.99 per month promises a holistic approach to health and fitness, access to all her DVDs and training techniques, along with guidance on your goals, nutrition advice, and inspirational stories to keep you on track. ‘How I exercise is mixing everything up, taking bits from one DVD and adding something from another, so you can make things harder or easier depending on your fitness levels, and you can do it all in your own time.’
I look at her. She has no signs of visible work. ‘I haven’t had Botox and I wouldn’t have it. I have lines. Sometimes it bothers me, but I look at women I know without any lines at all and they have lost something else, there is a deadness.’ She is wearing black jeans and a black cashmere jumper. There are no wobbles or bulges anywhere, but it’s her face that clinches it. She has a visible glow that owes nothing to a make-up artist.
When Davina burst on to the small screen in 1998 in Channel 4’s anarchic dating show Streetmate, the motor-mouthed, super-energetic former MTV presenter was a game changer. She was funny, relatable and traded not on her looks but on her wit, warmth and personality. Within two years she was one of the UK’s highest-paid TV presenters, launching Big Brother and going on to earn a reported £85,000 per show – unprecedented for a woman on television.
Then (after a three-month ‘mistake’ of a marriage to actor Andrew Leggett in 1997) she married Pet Rescue host Matthew (they met walking their dogs in a London park), settled down in a big house in the country and had three children, Holly, 17, Tilly, 15, and 12-year-old Chester. Marriage and motherhood only made Davina more in demand. ‘Big Brother will always be the show I think most changed my life,’ she says. ‘Not only because it became its own phenomenon, but because I went through three pregnancies on that show. I just think of huge beautiful bumps.’
Davina’s life can be – in many ways – defined by ‘bumps’ both physical and metaphorical, from her childhood to her addiction, her teenage body issues and most recently the end of her marriage. Post-divorce, Davina has moved closer to London, because ‘it works better’. Her daughters have been known to go to exercise classes with her. ‘They laugh at me because I whoop too much. I can’t help it. They used to be mortified, but now they think it’s hilarious. I have two witty daughters. Holly wants to do medicine, Tilly is most likely to follow the sort of route I have taken. She has that very observational humour that makes me guffaw. I’m always trying to pull her back from doing a YouTube channel saying: “Not yet, not yet, you have plenty of time ahead of you.” They completely take the P out of me.’
She is currently training to be a fitness instructor. ‘I’ve completed part two of the course, so I’m now qualified to take exercise classes, but I want to complete the next level to be a trainer. I think it’s important I understand as much as I can, given that it’s a big part of my life.’
Her Instagram feed is full of images of healthy food and her body – all abs and six-packs – in various styles of swimwear. Is she also obsessed with healthy food? She gives me that deep, penetrating look again and shakes her head.
‘There is no obsession,’ she says. ‘I eat everything. I exercise for half an hour a day, five days a week – I’ll mix toning sessions with boxing, I change it up every day, so it’s working different parts of my body and it keeps it interesting. I’ll just do my exercises in my bedroom. What I want is to be strong and healthy. I want to be the jogging granny who is around taking my daughters’ kids for walks in prams. I don’t diet because if you start cutting out food you just start craving it. But I have reached an age where I would rather have an amazing chicken salad than two pieces of cake.
‘And yes, I do worry about my girls having the unattainable role models of the Kardashian generation, but they have also introduced me to an Instagram girl called Chessie King who is very funny and very real about fitness [in one of Davina’s recent Insta posts, she and Chessie leapt about singing, I Don’t Care What You Think About Me], and they love her. So that’s a good balance.’
Now that she is in her 50s, is there anything she won’t wear? ‘Quite the opposite,’ she says. ‘As soon as people say, “You can’t wear that any more,” I’ll wear it.’ She recently bought her first G-string bikini. ‘It was really uncomfortable,’ she laughs. ‘Bending down to get sun cream was also a very big issue.’
Ask Davina to define herself and she will say, ‘I am half nun, half wild child. And I fix things because I’ve always had to. There have always been problems.’ Her ‘wild child’ streak comes from her glamorous, irresponsible, alcoholic French mother Florence, whose marriage to her graphic designer father, Andrew, ended when Davina was three. She was sent to Surrey to be brought up by her beloved paternal grandmother, Pippy, who is responsible for her ‘half-nun’ side. Florence never once sent her daughter a birthday card, but would occasionally take her with her to bohemian parties in Paris, then forget she’d been left asleep on a pile of coats. The young Davina would have to find someone to take her home.
‘But my grandmother gave me absolute unconditional love, so I knew I was loved,’ she tells me. ‘My mother just wasn’t able to. I now know she just wasn’t given that unconditional love herself by her parents, so she didn’t know how to mother. My sister Caroline [Baday, who died of cancer in 2012 aged 50 and was Florence’s child from a previous relationship] was brought up by my maternal grandparents. They would give her money, they would give my mother money, but there was no real sense of being a family or being loved. It’s just sad, and it was the reason Caroline chose not to have children.’
Ten years ago, Davina told me she had chosen not to go to her mother’s funeral (in 2008); instead she and her sister had their own memorial. ‘I was a lot angrier then,’ she says. ‘But the older I’ve become the more I see it differently, the more I have forgiven. And I’ve had a lot of therapy,’ she adds.
At 13, Davina chose to go and live with her much-loved father and stepmother Gaby (to whom she is very close), but by 16 she was struggling with an eating disorder, going to London nightclubs and experimenting with any drug she could lay her hands on (including cocaine and heroin). In her early 20s she was ricocheting between jobs as a singer, a nightclub hostess and a model booker. ‘My lost years,’ she says with a wry smile.
Her turning point came after she had a massive bust-up with her best friend Sarah over her heroin use, and Davina realised the people she loved would walk away from her if she continued using. By then Eric Clapton – himself a reformed addict – had become a good friend. He helped her get clean, before encouraging her to go for a round of auditions at MTV, telling her she had the perfect personality for a TV presenter. By 25, she was clean of drugs and working on MTV, a job she admits today changed her life. She still attends Narcotics Anonymous meetings. ‘Always,’ she says. ‘I know a lot about the drugs kids use today because I hear all the stories in meetings. Nothing shocks me. I’m completely honest with my kids because you have to be. I want them to be prepared for anything.’
Davina has very definite views on mothering. Given that she was always desperate to have a mother who would cuddle her endlessly, it is surprising that she is not in any way a smother mother. ‘I don’t help with their homework, apart from maybe with the odd French word (she is bilingual due to her childhood visits to France), or occasionally a bit of maths. I want them to be independent and responsible, but to know if it’s 3am and there’s a problem they can call me and I will be there. I don’t think they are snowflakes. I think the problem with millennials is they are expected to be perfect – social media is a huge pressure. But life is about learning from mistakes.’
Davina makes sure she takes off most of the school holidays, and works around her kids, but with her fitness empire, her books and TV shows, no one week is the same. Her happy place is, however, ‘sitting round a table with my kids or having all their friends’ over. My girls are part of big packs of friends and they all hang out together.’
Over a non-alcoholic Seedlip drink, we talk more about what it is to be a successful woman. ‘I am glad I was 28 when I became famous,’ she says, ‘Because I really couldn’t have handled this when I was younger. I would have messed it up because I was an addict. And I know what it’s like not to have money, so I’ve never lost that sense of gratitude.’ Her greatest luxury is, she says, ‘walking around a supermarket and not looking at prices’.
Her split from Matthew was unexpected, even though she has spoken out publicly about the couple undergoing counselling in the past and the difficulties of juggling careers with a young family. She told me almost a decade ago she would recommend counselling to anyone because it could really help a marriage. ‘You don’t want to walk away,’ she said then. ‘You want to sort things out.’
Sadly it did not work out. Divorce was not something she wanted to happen. She won’t go into it, she says, because she has too much respect for her ex-husband and the relationship they still have as a family.
You get the sense she has done a lot of thinking, along with research and therapy. In order to fix things, Davina likes to look at all the options and make a plan. Like the menopause. ‘It started for me when I was 42,’ she says. ‘I went nuts. I’m a pretty calm person, and if we are late in the mornings it’s usually down to reasonable things, but I’d be in the car screaming at the kids and then I’d come home and burst into tears. I was putting my keys in the fridge, my phone in the bin, I couldn’t sleep and then every now and again I’d have to have a towel under me because I was sweating so much.’ She began researching her symptoms, read The Wisdom of the Menopause by Christiane Northrup, and by 44 had made the decision to go on hormone replacement therapy. ‘It worked for me,’ she says. ‘And I’m staying on it until someone forces me off it.’
She is late for a meeting because we have spent too long talking. Davina likes to talk. Before she goes she takes off a small splint that is attached to her right forefinger. ‘You know how I did it?’ I shake my head, expecting a tale of extreme exercise damage. ‘Pulling on a pair of workout leggings that were way too tight.’ You’ve got to love her.