"I nearly fell off the chair when UTV offered me a 40-week show"
Veteran broadcaster Pamela Ballantine has bounced back from redundancy with a Friday night programme and an amazing new look. Stephanie Bell visits the star in her Belfast home
With a svelte new look, a handsome man by her side and an exciting new chapter in her career to look forward to, 2016 is already shaping up to be a memorable year for local TV personality Pamela Ballantine.
The bubbly presenter, who is one of Northern Ireland's best-known personalities, is set to host her own new prime-time Friday night entertainment show for UTV starting next weekend.
No one is more delighted than the lady herself, although she does confess to being a little daunted by the latest announcement that UTV has decided against a male co-host.
The timing is ironic, as it was exactly six years ago, almost to the very day, that a tearful Pamela left UTV after her job was axed during compulsory redundancies.
However, she has continued to be a regular face on TV, remaining at the station as a freelance member of the team at Havelock House working as a continuity announcer and ambassador, and occasionally presenting the weather or reading the news.
Viewers will see a new-look Pamela when they tune into the first programme of the 40-week series next Friday night.
Not only has she dropped three dress sizes in the past two years, but is also glowing after recently treating herself to cosmetic work on her face.
The glamorous 57-year-old, who is a self-confessed shoe addict, completed her first run-through for the new show yesterday. And, while excited about her TV comeback, it was her wardrobe for the new show which was on her mind this week.
She laughs as she reveals: "They've told me that the dress code for the show is casually glamorous and the dilemma is how as a woman you do that?
"If I think of dresses then where do you put your mike? Boys don't have to worry about things like that; they just put it in their pockets.
"Years ago I used to tape it to my thigh with camera tape and then I would have pulled a layer of skin off when I was removing it, so I quickly learnt to wear cycle shorts under my dresses."
Pamela doesn't take life too seriously, which is one of the reasons why she is such a much-loved figure here.
She is looking amazing with her new trimmer figure, having shed a stone-and-a-half, dropping from a size 14 to a size 8-10 and, towards the end of last year, getting cosmetic work carried out on her face.
She revealed that her diet, which she started in January 2014, came about as a result of a health check and also because she was horrified after seeing a photograph of herself at an awards event.
She says: "I think your weight creeps up on you and you don't notice it. I saw a picture of myself at the Sunday Life Spirit of Northern Ireland Awards. It was a side-on picture and I was the size of an elephant.
"I actually thought I looked fab that day, but I was horrified by that picture.
"Randox Laboratories had also asked me to do a health check on my liver before and after the Christmas party season for a special report.
"The results showed that my liver was storing high levels of iron and I had to go through tests to see what was causing it. There was a fear it might have been hereditary and if so I would have needed treatment.
"Luckily it wasn't and they put it down to lifestyle. When they were doing the tests you get weighed and have your body mass index measured. When you hear someone saying out loud what your weight is you realise you need to do something about it.
"It was also at the time when the 32-inch waist for women health campaign was going and my waist measured 34. My friend Brenda Shankey was going to Slimming World and suggested that I go with her and so I joined in January two years ago."
Although she is not attending classes any more, Pamela has continued to follow the Slimming World eating plan.
As a freelancer she works a lot from home, which she says makes it easier to prepare her own food.
Pamela manages by making fresh soups and healthy sauces in advance, which she then freezes to have at hand for quick and tasty meals.
She has gone from a size 14 to a 12 on top and an eight or 10 on the bottom and while she is thrilled by her new figure, she was not so happy with the way the weight loss changed her facial features.
She says: "I felt my face was really sunk in and I had marionette lines running from my nose down to my chin and looked like a puppet.
"I got cosmetic fillers in August last year. I had to go three times and I was a bit worried I would end up looking like Lesley Ash, but they are great.
"It wasn't Botox, but a type of filler that apparently works with your natural collagen and no one knows I've had them. People have just remarked that I look younger, which is wonderful.
"I am feeling great, but the main reason I did the weight loss thing was not for anyone else, it was for me. Most women do these things because people have passed a comment, but for me it was about health.
"I always enjoyed walking and I live at the bottom of Craigantlet and would have walked up and down the hill, which is a three mile loop. It had gotten to the stage where I was out of breath and feeling lousy. Now I'm going up and down trying to break my own record.
"Someone once said that for every decade you live you grow a dress size and that has been true for me. "
Although she keeps her private life well away from the cameras, Pamela has been dating Lisburn businessman Alan Graham (60), who runs a motor factor shop, for the past eight years.
Also well known for her passion for rally driving, the couple met through their mutual love of the sport and Pamela says they also share the same sense of humour.
Again the joker comes out as she gives little away other than to say they both have a relationship that works for them and which they are happy with just the way it is.
"I live in east Belfast and he lives in Drumbo and that works well for both of us. We love our motorsport and we are really good friends.
"We both share this really strange sense of humour and we just get on so well together - and of course he did buy me a pair of Christian Louboutins for Christmas."
There is no surer way to Pamela's heart than with a pair of designer heels. Her passion for shoes is legendary and she has an entire room in her Belfast home devoted to her beloved collection.
She has no idea how many pairs she owns, but eight years ago her niece attempted to count them and gave up when she reached 140 pairs.
"I'm starting to get good now at throwing a pair out when I buy a new pair," she says.
"I am a hoarder. A friend did help me to have a clearout a few years ago and I think if you are going to do that you really do need a friend there to help. The most I have ever spent on a pair of shoes was £650 in a shop in London. They are beautiful shoes but I can't wear them because they are ridiculously high.
"They are platforms with a six or seven inch heel and my fear is I will do a Naomi Campbell on the catwalk and go over on them in a restaurant some night."
Another passion is her love of horse racing and she landed her dream job four years ago when she was invited to become a Tipster for Down Royal and Downpatrick Race courses.
In what is a labour of love, she studies the form before the race meetings and then is in her element passing on her tips to guests in the hospitality tent. She also acts as parade ring announcer at the races.
It is a hobby she believes she inherited from her maternal grandfather, who she never met.
"My grandfather was 62 when my mother was born in 1932, so I never met him, but he was a bookie and bred race horses and trained them at a time when the Lisburn Road was still fields.
"I have his owner's and trainer's badges dating back to the 1800s. He was obviously a person who didn't allow the Great War to get in the way of a good time as I have badges from 1914 every year through to 1918.
"Maybe it was in the genes and skipped a generation. I do remember as a kid on a Saturday afternoon when Grandstand and the Racing was on TV we put a sixpence in the middle and we all picked a horse. Whoever picked the horse which was nearest the front won the sixpence."
Pamela is excited about her new show and while she has been involved in talks about it with UTV since last summer, she revealed that she wasn't told for sure until two weeks before Christmas.
She says: "I was sworn to secrecy and you can imagine how hard that was for me.
"Things in TV change all the time and no one really knows with the takeover by ITV what is going to happen, so there was some reluctance to plan ahead.
"I know this sounds like PR spin but local programming is what UTV do best. It is a channel which people trust to come into their homes and people have grown up with it. I think ITV will recognise that and not change it too much.
"I was surprised to be asked and I am very excited. When they told me it was a 40-week series I nearly fell off the chair.
"The redundancies were fairly public. It was six years ago this month and I didn't take it personally. I realised it was for financial reasons and I've kept working at UTV and have had a good relationship there."
The show goes out at 10.35pm on Friday nights until 11.05pm and while there will be studio guests there will also be human interest stories from around the province featured each week.
Having presented the teatime magazine show UTV Life for years, Pamela welcomes a return to that style of programme.
She says: "It won't be heavy news or anything political or dreary, but stories people can relate to in a more human way.
"It won't be like a Kelly Show, but more a slice of UTV Life. Someone once described UTV Life as like watching the Belfast Telegraph and we want to tell those good news stories that don't see the light of day here because our news is so often overtaken by politics."
Pamela's rise to the top in TV
- Pamela started her broadcasting career as a secretary at Downtown Radio, progressing to news reading and reporting in the Downtown news room. She also presented her own programme.
- She then went on to work for BBC Radio Ulster as a morning presenter before moving to Ulster Television as a continuity announcer and news presenter in 1983.
- When UTV Live launched in 1993 she was appointed news reader.
- In March 1999, she took up a new post as reporter/presenter at the evening magazine programme UTV Life, where she worked until February 2009.
- Pamela has worked on a number of other TV shows over the years including RPM, Ulster Schools Quiz and Hot Pursuits.
- In 2009, she returned to the UTV's Continuity Department and became a weather presenter at the station.
- A year later, she was let go as part of a round of redundancies at the station, but was offered freelance work as well as the position of ambassador for UTV.