Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

DIY: Ladies, a few home truths

DIY SOS presenter Julia Kendell arrives in Belfast today to open an Improve Your Home show ... and deliver a warning from the heart to other women about the risks of cohabiting.

Julia Kendell is fighting for better property rights for women

We know her as the unflappable TV interior designer who transforms rundown homes into dream spaces for struggling families on the BBCs popular DIY SOS programme.

In Belfast today to open the Improve Your Home Show, Julia Kendell surprisingly confided that she too knows what it is like to be down on her luck.

And in a candid chat she also revealed how – despite her fame and success – it could have happened again this year.

The talented and successful designer opened up about her personal life and revealed how – after finding herself vulnerable after two relationship break ups – she now plans to launch a campaign for a new law to protect the rights of women who co-habit.

The 45-year-old mum of two girls is a presenter, interior designer and writer.

She has filmed six series of BBC1's DIY SOS, including a Children in Need special, where she solely designed the properties and oversaw the entire build and fit-out programme.

She has just completed another DIY SOS Big Build and a series of 60 Minute Makeover with new presenter Peter Andre, due to reach our screens next month.

Alongside her TV work Julia enjoys writing for many magazines and makes regular guest appearances at home shows across the UK, presenting live seminars and giving expert advice.

But while she appears to lead a charmed life it wasn't always that way and she has had to work hard for her success. She doesn't take anything for granted and when she recalls her experiences it's obvious that she has had to learn the hard way to appreciate what she has.

Viewers of 60 Minute Makeover and DIY SOS will have seen how well Julia copes under pressure, pulling off major makeovers against the clock.

But it's not just in her career that she has had to rise to challenge.

When she was 25, her marriage broke up and she found herself struggling as a single mum to two girls under the age of five.

Earlier this year she came through another break up and it was only the goodwill of her ex partner that saved her from losing everything as all their assets were in his name.

It was a tough lesson and while Julia was fortunate not to come out the worst for it she knows how close she came to being back at 25 and starting all over again.

Back then she found herself sharing a small terrace house with a friend and her two sons in a similar situation.

She says: "Life does have a habit of throwing curve balls at you from time to time.

"I don't really know how I coped. It was very stressful and I spent five years clinging on by my fingernails. I hadn't a penny to my name. My friend Kass and I would often not be able to afford to eat after feeding the four children.

"My daughters Maddy and Sophie shared a tiny room just 7 x 5 feet for several years.

"It has made me able to empathise with the families we work for on the shows and really appreciate my home and the life I now have.

"In many ways that time in my life has given me a far greater appreciation of how it feels to be really down on your luck. It could happen to anybody. It's just one of life's challenges. It makes you step up a bit in some ways."

She stepped up in style by deciding to launch her own interior design business.

Born in Middlesex, Julia moved to Henley-On-Thames with her first husband and has stayed there even since.

She says she "fell" into interior design when as a teenager the only place offering a Saturday job was a soft-furnishings showroom down the road from her home.

She had to lie about her age (being only 14) but proved her worth, fell in love with the industry, and was offered the showroom manager position when she was just 18.

She went on to train in all areas of design including lighting, spatial planning and kitchen design to name a few.

After launching her own company in 1997 she worked hard to build up her reputation and reveals that she had always wanted to be on TV. Her ambition was fulfilled in 2002.

She laughs as she recalls: "A friend pointed out when I was 35 that I wasn't getting any younger and that if I wanted to be on TV I should do something about it.

"I went into a production company and got a show reel done and took it home. I was feeling a bit shy and embarrassed about doing it and just thought 'Well that's it, I have tried.'

"Unknown to me the company who made the reel sent it to an agent and two days later I got a call from Granada asking if I would be free for filming the next week for 60 Minute Makeover.

"Talk about being thrown in at the deep end. It is such a frantic programme but I loved it and loved the experience and being able to talk to a much wider audience about what I do and it was such fun – just phenomenal."

Julia went on to make five series and has just finished filming for a new 10-week series presented by Peter Andre to be launched on November 11.

She got on with Jordan's ex like a house on fire and really enthuses about him: "He was such a great choice to present the programme.

"He is everything you would imagine, soft-hearted and warm – although disastrous at DIY but happy to have a go which is great as it shows everybody can learn."

Julia has also appeared in a two-part special for Tonight with Trevor McDonald highlighting the demolition and refurbishment debate of Victorian housing stock in the UK.

In January she took over the role of designer for DIY SOS on BBC One and last year she was the DIY and makeover expert for ITV's The Alan Titchmarsh Show. She has also appeared on GMTV, Daybreak and BBC Breakfast.

She says: "Tonight with Trevor was a great experience. It was a very valuable programme where we set out to prove that renovating Victorian housing stock is a more effective solution to dealing with degraded housing areas than demolition. I still keep in contact with the people who work tirelessly to save their homes and their communities."

Finding herself single again this year for the second time Julia was struck by just how vulnerable women who cohabit are when it comes to their rights when their relationship ends.

Even though hers was an amicable break up it was a close call and she was very aware how different it could have been had her ex not been fair when it came to splitting their assets.

Now she is on a mission to have the law changed to protect women's rights.

"At the moment I am doing my research and I hope to launch my campaign before Christmas," she says.

"I was in a relationship for 12 years and all our properties and assets were in his name and I didn't have a leg to stand on legally when it ended. I was lucky in that I could appeal to his good nature and I wasn't left penniless, but it struck me that there are a lot of people out there who are not in such a fortunate position.

"I want to raise awareness that women should think about sorting out finances at the start when things are pretty cheery between them and their new partner – a bit like a pre-nuptial agreement.

"I know a lot of people view it as unromantic but it is so important that people look after themselves.

"It was almost as if I didn't exist legally when it happened to me so I'm looking at what laws there are at the moment and talking to MPs and I would like to see the law changed to protect women who co-habit."

It's not that unusual a diversion for this strong-willed single mum who thrives on challenge – most of her TV makeovers are completed under seemingly impossible time frames.

But she admits that the all-consuming aspect of working against the clock took its toll last year and she had to step back from doing DIY SOS to give herself a break.

She says: "About 18 months ago after doing four years of DIY SOS non-stop it had become emotionally as well as physically demanding and I had to stop.

"It just got to the stage when I needed to step back a little as it totally consumes your life and I had to think of my own family.

"The show has actually now brought in desk designers for that very reason, because it is so intense.

"You do feel so privileged to have an opportunity to work for these families and it is very clear how much they need your help and very often we were the last resort for them.

"It is unbelievably heartening to be able to do something for them that is going to make such a difference to their lives and its always very emotional.

"But stepping back has allowed me to do other things such as being ambassador with Habitat for Humanity.

"It's enabled me to finally get to grips with my work life balance. My two daughters Maddy (23) and Sophie (19) have left home so I am on my own again. Sophie has just started university.

"I'm living alone for the first time in my adult life."

Julia now feels she has the freedom to pursue other interests and in particular her work as an ambassador for Habitat for Humanity – a perfect charity for her as it focuses on eliminating housing poverty around the world.

It doesn't surprise me in the least that Julia has rolled her sleeves up and happily got her hands dirty to join the charity on one of their many overseas building projects.

"I did a Big Build in Nepal with over 400 other volunteers and we built 40 houses in a week. It was amazing and just as emotional as when I was working on SOS and just as rewarding."

She adds: "I think Habitat for Humanity is a phenomenal charity. There is such a synergy between the work they do and what I do.

"The new ReStore in Lisburn is such a genius idea and I believe the first in Europe.

"It's like a real treasure trove with all sorts of materials donated from developers, maybe left over from a job, or from people who are clearing out their garage, which are sold onto people who need them at a fraction of what they would cost in a shop."

As well as her new campaign for new legislation to change the Common Law status so that women have more rights and equality when cohabiting, Julia is also working on a book to empower women with the confidence to tackle their own DIY.

She adds: "I want the book to be pretty comprehensive. Rather than show you how to fix a leaky tap which doesn't do it for me, I want it to show people how to create beautiful rooms.

"I want it to give women the skills to physically make beautiful things and create effects that designers do."

Get half price ticket to show

Habitat for Humanity is making it easier for Northern Ireland homeowners to improve and restyle their homes, at a fraction of the normal cost with its new low cost DIY outlet, ReStore, located in the Riverside Centre, Lisburn.

Habitat ReStore is the first of its kind in Europe and sells donated new and used building supplies and home improvement materials for as little as half the normal retail value.

Profits from ReStore will also support communities around the world by helping families in need to build their own way out of poverty.

Habitat ReStore is the official charitable partner of the Improve Your Home Show, which will take place at the Kings Hall today and tomorrow, 10am-6pm each day

The show will be opened by BBC's 'DIY SOS' presenter and long-standing Habitat Ambassador, Julia Kendell.

Entry costs £6 at the door, but Habitat ReStore fans can purchase tickets half price using the promotional code 'HABITAT" at www.yourhome.ie.

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