Agony aunt Angie Best
Published 25/10/2008 | 09:00
The timing was perfect. An interview with BBC Northern Ireland's new agony aunt, Angie Best — fresh from having a ding-dong of a row with my husband. What was the barney about? Well ... it hinged around plans for our 28th wedding anniversary.
I need her entire team of experts from the new show You're Not the Man I Married over to our house for a masterclass, pronto.
“Twenty-eight years!” Angie gasps, horrified. “Time for a change, girl! You need a whole new set of clothes.” And she's not talking wardrobe. Then, just as I'm warming to her theme, she spoils it all by laughing outrageously to show she's joking.
The new 9pm Friday night series, you see, isn't about giving husbands a hard time, though this may seem to some to be a missed opportunity. No two programmes are exactly the same, say the Beeb, just as no two marriages are identical but each one aims to deliver “an entertaining and often emotional insight to modern relationships in Northern Ireland”.
Angie finds out how each couple wants to improve their relationship and then brings in her team to get to work. The experts include David Kavanagh, a systemic family therapist; Kevin Dundon, one of Ireland's Michelin-starred chefs and stylist Cathy Martin.
Call me old-fashioned, but I'm amazed that couples are willing to put their marriage up for public scrutiny in a primetime slot.
“That,” declares Angie, “is because you're an old bird. Look, nobody cares, everybody understands. We all go through the same stuff. It's just your age, honey!
“The more people know how to talk about about what's going on with themselves and their partners, the easier it is to work on it and make things better.
“I'm so happy with all these lovely couples. Each and every one of them is different and yet so much the same — they all love each other desperately.”
That's poignant coming from a woman who married a devastatingly handsome and supremely talented football legend for love and passion, only for the relationship to implode in acrimony, accusations and alcohol, in the full glare of international publicity, half a dozen years later.
Still beautiful at 55, she insists there is no man in her life — bar her model son, Calum.
“Men are terrified of me — because I look like a woman who doesn't need them,” she says. “I never get chatted up. I don't know why that is — maybe I look like hard work.”
What's her ideal man? “Six-foot tall, with shoulder-length curly hair, very in shape, who works out every day and loves animals. No, he doesn't have to be successful — I don't care about that — it has to be more about the person.
“But he has to be loving and attentive. And he has to absolutely adore me. He has to put me first.”
A self-help author, she finds some readers email or write with their problems. Women who put the husband, the kids, the dog and the cat before themselves, she says, hit 50 one day and then turn round and say “‘What about me? I've lost my time'. Then they write to someone like me and say ‘Angie, where did I do wrong?' Where would you like me to start?”
Woah! Then, just as suddenly, she softens. “Having said that, I've always been envious of lovely, happy couples with kids who share the ups and downs of family life and do things together,” she admits. “Because that's what I always wanted and never had.”
The bitter break-up of her marriage to Belfast hero George left her angry for years.
The glamorous couple were the Posh and Becks of their day and any Press interview with Angie, ostensibly about her work projects, would inevitably veer towards the rancour around the split — much to her irritation, especially as “it was all so long ago”.
At the same time she is honest enough to admit that, her own talent aside, the frisson of her famous surname helps keep her in the public eye and a media commodity.
How does she see things now, three years after Best's premature death in November 2005 at the age of 59?
“I feel total sadness because there's no hope. While he was alive, there was always hope he'd get better and it would change and we'd get the old George back. Now that will
never happen. I was angry because he died without having cleaned himself up. He killed himself.
“We didn't want him dead — it wasn't time. The whole thing made me angry.”
In retrospect, she is convinced that undiagnosed and untreated depression was at the root of George's alcohol dependence.
“I can look back now in hindsight and remember the week before he'd disappear on one of his benders, he'd start to sleep late, not shave, eat very sugary foods,” she says. “That was the sign of the drepression setting in.”
At least one good thing came out of that ill-fated marriage — their son, Calum. He lives in Chelsea, while Angie is based in Henley, and they text each other every day. “He sometimes asks ‘Should I do this or not?' and I give him my advice.”
It grieves her yet that, as she sees it, George died before their adult son really got to know him. “Calum's very much his father's son — his personality, the little things he does. Those blue eyes, that mouth. He even has the same knees!”
But heaven help the woman who eventually comes between mother and son. “I'd love to choose a girl for him,” she says with feeling. “I look at this boy with all these dreadful women and wish he'd get it out of his system.”
That's what's wonderful about Angie. She comes right out and says what other women would only dare think.
This tough Essex girl, who swears like a trooper when the mood takes her, grew up in Southend-on-Sea with a matriarch role model: her hardworking mother, Mimi, who was the “boss” of the family and is still indomitable at 82. Her father Joseph, who ran betting shops, died 20 years ago. A work ethic was ingrained: Angie and her younger sister Lyndy would get up early to help clean and tidy the house before school and learned “to please everybody”.
At just 17, her tall, willowy figure, sculpted face and blonde hair caught the eye of a model scout who stopped her in the street. But Mimi wanted to do things properly and sent her elder daughter to the Lucy Clayton School of Modelling. The work soon followed.
“I didn't think of it as glamorous, it was just a job,” she says. “When we got paid on a Friday we went straight to Biba on Kensington High Street and blew the lot.”
A couple of years later, modelling took her to New York and from there to Los Angeles where she ran fitness and dance classes at the back of an establishment glorying in the name of The Roughage and Anatomy Asylum. “Only in LA,” she sighs.
“I turned my dance training into somethng ordinary women could do and everybody came — Priscilla Presley, Britt Ekland, Cher, all the young stars of the time. I'd no idea who they were — I'd just got there.
“Fitness had always been my thing. Cher said to me one day ‘Would you be my PA?' I didn't know what meant and said so. She explained she wanted me to work her out every day. Well, I knew how to do that so I said yes.” It was a working relationship that lasted 20 years.
Today, Angie's own regime involves a trip to the gym every day she can, regular tennis, horse riding and dressage.
Her own approach to ageing is typically gung-ho. A natural approach to the menopause is the theme of one of her self-help books. She is asked to give talks on the subject and on the importance of health, fitness and nutrition if we want to live with vigour and energy to a ripe old age.
“The menopause is just a phase of life, like puberty. When I started noticing changes in my own body I hardly knew what was happening. I thought if I don't know what's going on, then 99% of women won't know either. So, I did some research for a book.”
HRT is “pharmaceutical companies making money”, she argues, while natural photoestrogens in foodstuffs — from kale to wild yams — are a natural alternative.
But, unlike puberty, the menopause feels like an end rather than a beginning, surely? “It's a freeing up, signalling more free time, less responsibility. You don't waste a week on a period every month, for a start. And all those emotions! Sex creates so much drama. Once you are past the menopause you are free of all that drama.” Well, stready on there ...
Having been for so long a single mum to an only child, does she think she'd enjoy being a grandmother one day?
“I don't know. I think I'd rather have a horse!” she laughs. “I was at an airport the other day and this young mother was struggling with luggage, a pushchair and a tiny baby so I offered to hold the baby for her. The glorious smell of this little thing, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
“So maybe ... but then I'd have to give up my lovely son to some woman!” Perish the thought.
You're Not the Man I married, starts next Friday, October 31, 9pm.