'When Mel wed, even though I felt joy for her, it also felt like a death... I was a mourner as well as a celebrant'
As her memoir is published, Great British Bake Off's Sue Perkins tells Hannah Stephenson about her mixed emotions as co-presenter Mel got married, coming out to her mum and being told she'd a brain tumour
Being the famously private person she is, it's surprising that Great British Bake Off presenter Sue Perkins should decide to write a memoir. Meeting her today, Perkins (46), dressed in jeans, black V-neck jumper, beetle-patterned shirt and brogues, is charming, courteous and careful about how she answers questions. She probably feels more at home in a big tent, shouting "Bake" at a group of amateur cake-makers.
Her memoir, Spectacles, ebbs and flows from happy and humorous to dark and, at times, desperate, in a life as multi-layered as the cakes she admires on the hit BBC show. But this is no misery memoir.
Many of the excerpts are written like a play, the direct dialogue between Perkins and others creating quick-fire humour, while further chapters see light-hearted moments intertwine with times of intense sadness.
When, after moving to London, she fell for actress and presenter Emma Kennedy, Perkins decided to come out to her parents. There's a hilarious excerpt about how she'd imagined the conversation with her mother would go: Mother: "Oh God, I'm in shock. I'm going into shock. I can't believe it. I guess my initial worry is that now you're a lesbian, you'll have to spend the rest of your life in a fleece."
The reality was far less melodramatic. Perkins asked nervously if she could come home to talk to her about something, to which her mother, matter-of-factly, replied, "Is it about you being gay? Fine, well just whenever you like, no rush."
The media recently pounced on the headline-grabbing fact that Perkins has had a brain tumour for eight years, which has left her unlikely to be able to have children.
In the book, she skims over the discovery - it was, after all, benign - but focuses more on how, after telling the consultant she was gay, he said: "Well that makes it easier. You're infertile. You can't have kids."
"He said it would be very hard (to have children). Technically, it is possible with various medications and persistence to have kids, but it was just the idea that I wouldn't want to go to those lengths because I couldn't 'have a natural conception'. It's very difficult to be told that fertility's an issue with you," she says.
"It's particularly relevant to women now in their 30s and 40s, who think that their ovaries are going to keep on firing 'til they are in their 60s. It's a rude awakening.
"Had I discovered that I'd had this thing before, and had I had the medication, it's all entirely possible, but one doesn't think about it. That's very hard.
"But I try not to dwell on things and I'm an incredibly lucky, fortunate, happy person and the search for meaning is something that human beings are cursed with. I try not to indulge that curse too often. I prefer the search for happiness - it's a more profound quest."
Other traumatic times she charts include her father's battle with cancer, as well as her own mid-life crisis when she reached 40.
"I had this profound recalibration," she recalls. "Lots of things subconsciously hit you as you get older and they all came out in one go. I thought, I don't have kids and a family, I'm not in my big relationship any more, I move house endlessly, I'm tired. I felt the disconnect between suddenly being much more visible in public and much less visible to myself."
She sought counselling, which she thoroughly recommends.
"You don't hear yourself in a quiet room talking about what's wrong very often, but when you do, it's incredibly informative. I did that for as long as I needed to and came out the other side into a state of being very content. I love my life and my friends and humanity. I needed to take stock for a while.
"I've learned that I've become incredibly comfortable in my own skin since then. That's not age, it's hard work, it's being thoughtful and mindful."
Born in Croydon, the daughter of a car dealer, Perkins was a shy child, with a slight stammer.
"I couldn't look people in the eye and felt awkward and weird, but underneath that there's this much more fluid, open human being desperate to come out. I've sort of cracked it with age."
In spite of this, she joined the Cambridge Footlights while studying English at Cambridge University, where she met Mel Giedroyc, in 1988.
Over the years, they've had tremendous collaborations as a stand-up duo, first at the Edinburgh Festival and later on TV, and after a few years apart, reunited five years ago to co-present Bake Off.
Theirs remains a glorious friendship. Perkins is searingly honest about feeling both joyous and heartbreakingly bereft when Giedroyc got married, even though she adores her husband and was maid of honour at the wedding.
"I felt all the joy of it, for sure, but it was accompanied by a profound sense of something being over. It felt like a death. I was a mourner, as well as a celebrant, at the wedding," she writes.
They've admitted there were periods when they each envied what the other had. Giedroyc's career took a back seat when she had children and she didn't have the freedom Perkins had to pursue other goals, while Perkins saw in her pal's life the children she could never have.
"We are able to look at one another's lives and appreciate them without envy or speculation, but there can't help but be a certain degree of wistfulness," she says now. "As I get older, I think, 'What am I for and what is the purpose of life?'
"As I see it, it's not to constantly be on television. I love my job, but there needs to be something that runs parallel to that experience.
"I think about community and family, about whether I should foster or adopt, how I could do more to help those who aren't as fortunate as I am."
Bake Off and several travel documentaries have raised her profile again. When she's out and about, cries of "Bake" are never far away. So what are Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood really like?
"I adore Paul Hollywood. He's a really sensitive, decent man, which doesn't always come across on television, but he's not been picked to judge Bake Off because he's sensitive, or funny; he's been picked because he knows exactly what's required in professional baking.
"Mary loves a tipple, but within reason. She's hardly a drunk. She's so demure. It's like having the Queen as a mate. She's a true lady."
Perkins has been known to put on weight during filming, but her partner, Channel 4 presenter and hypnotherapist Anna Richardson, has helped stem her sugar craving.
"She's helped a lot, but weirdly, when I was regressed, I went back to my earliest memory of sugar and it was my mum pulling out a brown book and opening the page to Mary Berry's lemon drizzle cake. Forty years later, I'm working with the good lady herself."
While Richardson has been pretty vocal in the media about their relationship, Perkins remains tight-lipped.
"Life is good. I don't like talking about my relationships, because, at the end of the day, some stuff has to be private."
She's planning a big travel series next year for BBC2, and hopes to write another book.
"I'm attracted to fear and pushing myself," Perkins admits. "There are lots of things in my life that I've done that weren't comfortable, but they've always turned out to be the most rewarding, whether it's a near-death experience in Alaska, or pushing myself in personal relationships or at work."
Spectacles by Sue Perkins is published by Michael Joseph, £20