By Beth Neil, photography by Kate Martin
Tess Daly would be the first to admit she leads a fairly charmed life. Two beautiful daughters, a happy marriage, a glamorous career and thriving beauty business – it all looks pretty good from where we’re standing.
So it comes as a surprise to hear that the thought of her little girls following her into showbiz is enough to send a chill down Tess’ spine.
Because while she might be enjoying the trappings of success today, the Strictly Come Dancing host, 43, saw a much murkier side of the industry while she was cutting her teeth as a teenage model.
Back then she was exposed to the often seedy, sleazy world of the casting couch and, opening up about those dark days for the first time, she says what she went through means seven-year-old Phoebe and Amber, nearly three, won’t be going anywhere near it.
“Not unless they were handcuffed to their mother,” she says, deadly serious. “It’s a wonderful industry in a lot of ways – you get to experience things you’d never normally have the chance to and you can make a lot of money quite quickly if you’re clever about it.
“But no, I wouldn’t let them out of my sight.”
She remembers the day she set off from Derbyshire for Tokyo, starry-eyed and still utterly unworldly aged just 17 with no idea of the dangers that lay ahead.
“My parents were petrified,” she says. “At that age you think you know everything and your parents know nothing. I remember when I got nine O levels my parents were so thrilled because to them it meant I could get a good job in a bank or somewhere.
“But I wanted to experience life on the road, I wanted to see the world. I was given an opportunity and I grabbed it with both hands. It was a lot to handle. I had no experience of life outside the countryside and, apart from the odd skiing trip with school, I’d never really been abroad. So finding myself in Japan was a complete culture shock.
“I was a naive teenager who’d never even cooked her own dinner, and there I was on the streets of Tokyo armed with only a Metro map. No one really spoke much English.
“My working day in Tokyo started at 5.30am, so I’d be walking to the station at 4.30am while it was dark and people were tumbling out of nightclubs. I remember taking the bullet train and having to set my alarm clock for when it was due to arrive at my stop because there were no signs or announcements in English.
“My mum and dad were right to be worried, and if my girls decide to do it then, well, maybe that would be karma.”
Tess credits her safe, loving upbringing for her ability to handle some of the trickier situations she found herself caught up in both in Tokyo and the UK. Not least with the dodgy older men who propositioned her, promising her modelling jobs in return for you know what.
“It’s a world that’s full of playboy types and much, much older men. But my parents had instilled in me a strong sense of self-worth – I was brought up not to let anyone take advantage. I knew what wasn’t right, what wasn’t appropriate, and would remove myself from that situation,” she says.
“If there was a man old enough to be my grandad pawing my knee, I’d get up and go. If I was invited out to dinner and found there were eight older men and four young models, I’d know exactly what was going on, make my excuses and leave. I always knew when to walk away.
“But I knew lots of girls along the way who didn’t have the security blanket of somewhere to call home. There are a lot of lost souls in the fashion industry and they live fast and hard and burn out very quickly. I go back to my old agency to give advice to the new girls coming through and tell them all the things they’ve got to be so careful of.”
Down to earth
These fascinating, terrifying experiences were Tess’ inspiration for her first novel.
The Camera Never Lies – out this week in paperback – features a young, blonde, northern model who goes to Tokyo before returning to the UK and becoming a TV presenter. Ahem. Ring any bells?
“It’s not autobiographical,” Tess laughs. “But I’ve walked in her shoes a few times. A lot from the modelling side of things is based on fact. And the characters are based on people I’ve met in fashion and television who’ve inspired me.”
Might anyone in particular recognise themselves in a less than flattering portrayal?
“Um… I don’t think so,” she replies, not entirely convincingly.
Unusually for a celebrity novel, it’s all Tess’ own work: there were no ghostwriters employed here à la Katie Price. And the result is a wholly readable, fast-paced piece of chick lit.
“I had a lot of handholding,” she says of the process. “But I think you lose any sense of achievement if someone else has written it for you. I wanted to prove myself. It’s the satisfaction of seeing your work in print, and I like the discipline of producing a certain number of words by a deadline.”
In her lead character, Britt Baxter, Tess has created a likeable heroine we can identify with, not without her flaws.
She also has a distinctly saucy side, so anyone thinking Tess was the wholesome, clean-cut queen of BBC prime time, had better check out the sex scenes. One encounter on the kitchen table is particularly steamy, or “urgent and dirty” as Tess describes it in the text. As is the one in the back of a limo, which then leads to “shudders of ecstasy” in the hotel bedroom.
“They were toned down!” says Tess, burying her head in embarrassment. “I kept imagining my mother and mother-in-law reading it and so had to calm down some of the sex scenes. And the bad swear words.”
Tess is already working on the sequel to her first book and, whisper it, there are even tentative discussions about turning it into a film.
She says it’s only now she’s in her 40s that she’s found the confidence to fulfil what has always been an ambition to write.
“Writing was always something I excelled at in school, but northern families are very humble. We’re taught to make the most of what we’ve got and not to get ideas above our station. So while my parents encouraged me at school, especially in English language and literature, writing wasn’t something I ever really thought I could make a living from.”
Long after her school days, in the late ’90s when Tess was living in New York, a meeting with a clairvoyant made her think about putting pen to paper.
“She told meI would move out to the country, which I instantly pooh-poohed and spluttered with laughter. I wasn’t anywhere near that stage of my life – I hadn’t met the right man and I loved my fast, rock ‘n’ roll life in the city.
“But when she said I was going to move into TV and writing, that really piqued my interest.”
Sure enough, within a couple of years Tess had returned to the UK, met fellow former model Vernon Kay, now 37, and then later settled down to a life outside of London in the Buckinghamshire countryside.
Working from home
Her love of writing isn’t going to mean an end to her TV work, though. Tess still adores Strictly as much today as she did when it began nine series ago back in 2004.
And she and All Star Family Fortunes host Vernon still harbour ambitions to try their hand in the States should the right gig come up. “I still love the buzz of live TV, you can’t beat that adrenalin rush,” she says. “Strictly is such a gift of a show. I love it so much.
“If a job offer came up abroad and it felt right then yes, you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth. We’d up sticks and go. But I don’t think you can better England. This is home.”
Being able to work from home has been a huge bonus of Tess’ writing venture. Family life comes before everything else.
“We’ve never missed a nativity or a ballet performance and we share every school run between us,” she says.
“I want to be part of that process. I’ve turned down jobs before that would have meant I couldn’t go to one of their assemblies.
“I work bloody hard and I do make sacrifices, but I believe in having a quality of life. Summer holidays and birthdays and special occasions are blocked off because I think I’ve got to be around for all of that. Life is made of memories.”
To Tess’ relief, Phoebe and Amber are extremely close, despite their four-year age gap and contrasting characters.
“They’re very different. Phoebe is quite a tomboy and into street dance. Amber is an incredibly friendly, happy child. I love seeing them play together – Phoebe is normally the bossy teacher and Amber is the compliant student. I’d worried that the age gap would be a problem, but they’re great with each other.”
Tess takes a sip of champagne – an early present from Fabulous for her upcoming 43rd birthday. She looks nowhere near that, as it happens. Pin-slim (although still in possession of a waist, hips and boobs) and with bright, cared-for skin, she could pass for a decade younger.
Tess, however, isn’t convinced.
“Oh, I’ve got quite a few wobbly bits believe me. But there’s no way I’m going to a gym – I hate them – so Vernon has put an exercise bike in the dining room for me. I sit there and watch Location, Location, Location – Kirstie and Phil do it for me.”
She admits to having numerous hang-ups, although is finding them easier to manage as she gets older.
“I have lots of insecure moments. Who doesn’t as a woman? But the older I get the more relaxed I feel in my own skin. I think it’s important that I enjoy this body that’s healthy and has produced two healthy children.
“I refuse to obsess about it. I know the industry I work in forces the spotlight on looks and you can’t get away from that. So I do what I can – I have regular pedicures and massages and I look after my skin. I take care of myself.”
Of course, she swears by the products from her award-winning beauty range, Tess Daly Beauty, just another pie she’s got her finger in.
“Am I a brand? Well, the beauty line is and I’m so proud of it. It means so much to me when people come up to me and say they’ve been using the body cream and it’s amazing.
“I really look up to people like Elle Macpherson who have branched out and created a successful business. I met Elle recently. I admire her so much.”
Given the mad, bad, ruthless worlds of modelling and television Tess describes in her book, it’s impressive that she’s managed to stay so normal.
“If you saw where I came from you’d know how. I had such a humble upbringing, which I’m forever grateful for.”
She throws on her Topshop jacket and thanks every single person in the room for their time.
“Vernon’s exactly the same. We’re cut from the same cloth. We don’t believe in egos. If I ever forgot that I’d still get a smack round the backside.”
- The Camera Never Lies is published in paperback on Thursday.
A Daly dose
What’s your greatest achievement?
My children and my book.
Best kiss ever?
The first one with Vernon. That’s why I kept him.
Best piece of advice?
“Treat people as you’d wish to be treated”. That was from my dad.
Not buying property sooner when I first moved to London.
Googling real estate. I know, I’m obsessed!
To fly. I’m so scared of planes so it would help visiting my sister in New Zealand!
Dream dinner party guests?
Alan Carr, Brian Dowling, Nelson Mandela, Oprah Winfrey, Kate Moss and Russell Grant.
Candi Staton, You’ve Got The Love. The lyrics are so uplifting and positive.