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Donna Air: I was a bit of a pain for a while

Actress, presenter and jewellery designer Donna Air reveals how she has finally found contentment

By Gabrielle Fagan

Donna Air has posed with her new jewellery collection all morning but there's one finger that remains bare of adornment - the 'engagement' finger on her left hand.

While the TV presenter and actress has been dating the Duchess of Cambridge's younger brother, James Middleton, for 14 months, she's coy about revealing anything about the progress of their romance beyond saying, “Things are going well ... we get on very well.” All she will concede it that she believes in happy endings: “I'm quite a romantic, I'm quite girly in all those aspects.”

She certainly looks blissfully happy but it's understandable that she's cautious about any public pronouncement on her relationship with Middleton (27), who's seven years her junior.

Air had a seven-year relationship with multi-millionaire conservationist, Damian Aspinall, by whom she has a 10-year-old daughter, Freya, but the couple broke up in 2006. Their split was reportedly blamed on his reluctance to marry.

Newcastle-born Air, the actress who first found fame as a 10-year-old child star in BBC children's drama, Byker Grove, resolutely picked herself up from that heartbreak and has continued acting as well as enjoying success in a new career as a designer.

She already has a successful children's clothes range for Debenhams and has just launched a new Little Bird jewellery collection available at TV shopping channel, QVC, which includes on-trend stacking rings and necklaces glittering with precious stones.

“I feel I'm at a lovely time in my life,” says Air. “I'm 35 this summer and although I don't give age much thought, I like the feeling now that I'm more confident and sure of myself. One of the blessings of getting older is that you actually don't give a damn any more what people think of you, not like you did when you were insecure and younger. That's quite liberating, and I just say what I think and even though sometimes my opinions may be a little too strong, I feel I can voice them.”

Her confidence has been honed from an early age. She grew up the daughter of a bus mechanic in the North East, and her acting talent was spotted early. “When you work and earn money as a child, you need to be confident but it can make you a bit precocious and I think I was a bit of a pain for a while when I was young,” admits Air, one of the young cast on the hit series Byker Grove along with TV presenters Ant and Dec.

“I've always earned my own money and enjoy being independent. It's how I was brought up. I also want to set an example to my daughter that you should have a career and be your own person.”

Air went on to be a presenter on shows such as The Big Breakfast and ITV's Popstars: The Rivals Extra which created girl band, Girls Aloud, as well as appearing in a host of dramas including Lynda La Plante's Supply And Demand and films, most notably The Mummy Returns and Bad Day.

While she and Aspinall (son of late casino owner John) were together, she split her time between his London home in Knightsbridge and a stately home set in the park and zoo, Howletts, Kent. Now she lives with her daughter in London.

“I have changed a lot over the past 10 years, of course,” she says. “Life experiences can, at times, be quite humbling but you learn from them. But I like the changes in my life and what kind of person they've made me into. I'm very open, not as judgmental as I was in my twenties, and a lot more compassionate.”

Motherhood, she says, has not only fulfilled her but helped her to learn patience. She's a devoted mother to Freya and remains close to Aspinall's two daughters, Tansy (24), and Clary (21).

“Would I like more children? Well, I don't know really, if it happens, great but if not, I'm very happy with what I've got. I'm so lucky to have Freya and two gorgeous step-daughters. Although I am a single mum, often I don't feel like it because Damian is so hands-on as a dad. Freya is very outdoorsy and shares his love of animals so they have a great bond. I cherish my time with my daughter because she's growing up fast. She starts secondary school this year, and has just got to the stage where she thinks I'm boring and I have to walk one pace behind her!” she says with an indulgent smile.

“She's great fun to be with and keeps me on my toes. I find you just think you've got motherhood cracked and then they start another phase and you're trying to work that out.”

While her relationship with cake entrepreneur Middleton guarantees her the attention of the paparazzi, Air professes to enjoy having more anonymity than when she was working full-time in showbiz.

“Nowadays, I don't think I could be in the spotlight all the time. I have turned down a lot of touring work in the theatre over the last few years because I felt my daughter needed me around but now she's older I'm open to more work in the future,” says Air, who's appeared in TV's Hotel Babylon and Hollyoaks, and last year as a contestant in ITV's reality diving show, Splash.

“I feel completely at home on a TV set — it's where I grew up after all — and every so often that need to perform jumps out of me. I'm lucky I've had opportunities to get my fix of ‘lights, camera, action' and working in a team. But I also get so much pleasure from being creative in other ways.

“It's a real buzz to see children wearing my clothes and I hope my jewellery will be as successful and appeal to working women like myself who don't have much headspace, are always in a hurry, and need easy-to-wear pieces that work well with their wardrobe.”

Air, who's a petite 5ft 10in, keeps herself fit with swimming, running, and yoga, and says taking advice on life from ‘mentors' benefits her wellbeing: “I'm quite thoughtful about making decisions and I have people that I can run things by whether they're about issues in my business or my personal life.

“I think it's important to keep learning all the time and listen to feedback. At the end of the day, I'll probably go with my gut instinct, but only after I've taken on board all the wise words I've been given first.”

Summing her character up as “adaptable, no-nonsense, and down-to-earth”, she says she's finally found “contentment”.

“You run around in your twenties like a headless chicken thinking you have to do this, that or the other to be happy, and then you realise as you get older that stability and contentment come from within, and it's there all along.

“You just have to tune into yourself and you'll find it,” she says.

  • Donna Air's debut Little Bird jewellery collection is sold exclusively by QVC. For details, visit qvc.com

Air's boyfriend and his royal links

Air’s boyfriend and his royal linksHe’s the prince (sort of) to the beautiful blonde princess that is Donna Air and their romance took London society by surprise.

As the Duchess of Cambridge’s brother, the closeness of James Middleton to the future King and Queen of England elevates his social standing and so the interest, as with his other sister Pippa, in whoever they date is intense.

The 27-year-old, who apparently overcame dyslexia to give a beautiful reading at the royal couple’s 2011 wedding, met the former TV presenter at a friend’s party in London in February 2013.

Mother of one Donna is much older — some seven years — than the blue-eyed son of Carole Middleton. There was some speculation that the relationship had ended last Christmas as Donna and James had not been seen together for some time in public.

But the cake boss (James now runs a cake business) was seen with Donna earlier this year and so far reports suggest that the pair are still very much a couple.

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