"I've got a great drive for having a successful, happy life"
As she presides over TV's Strictly, Tess Daly's cheerfulness and killer smile have made her an institution, but behind the sparkle is a steeliness that saw her marriage survive a sexting scandal. Julia Molony meets her
Ah, Northern English women. Their grit is in exact proportion to their love of glamour. The north of England is packed full of ladies who could probably see off a foreign invasion, armed with nothing but hair extensions and high heels.
Tess Daly could be their poster girl. She is a towering Amazonian blonde, with a 100-watt smile. But behind the lashes and lipstick and hair and nails, she is a pure, unadulterated, no-nonsense, roll-up-the-sleeves grafter.
We meet in an enormous and swanky private townhouse in the heart of Marylebone in London, where Tess is hostess for the day, as the new ambassador for jewellery brand Pandora.
She says she's always been a fan - and that her mum and daughter wear Pandora jewellery too. "I think you get so much pleasure out of your jewellery," she says, looking down at her hands which clink softly with the weight of the Pandora finery she's wearing. "I look at the rings on my fingers all day long. You might be talking to someone in conversation, you might be on the phone, you might be braiding your kid's hair - whatever."
Daly is one of the best-known faces on television - part of a generation of eternally upbeat, hard-working, seasoned pros of light entertainment that includes Davina McCall and Dermot O'Leary. But Tess's route of entry into the industry separates her from her peers. She spent 10 years working as a model before winning her break into television.
When she was first scouted by a model agent outside a Manchester McDonald's and offered the chance to relocate to Tokyo, her parents didn't want her to go. She'd just turned 18, having grown up the elder of two girls in a loving, salt-of-the earth family in Stockport. Her parents thought she was too young to be setting out across to the other side of the world, where she'd arrive with no money and no friends. But Tess went anyway, and for the first few weeks, she spent a lot of time "trying to keep the tears out of my voice when I spoke to mum and dad on the phone, so that they wouldn't be sat at home worrying about me and thinking, 'We were right, she was wrong. She needs to come home'."
But, by the end of that trip, she says, "I was running around Shibuya (district)
on the back of a motorbike ... I immersed myself in that life and it was brilliant. I went from counting the days until I'd go home to actually really embracing life there, making lots of friends and really loving it for all of its differences. It was a fun time. I was on the road for 10 years when I was modelling; I lived in lots of different places all over the world and called them home. But I always loved coming home. I'd work a lot for Marks & Spencer, and they'd fly me home intermittently every few months. And it was such a treat to touch base on home soil, and run to Marks & Spencer and do a food shop. All those things that you missed - cheese-and-onion pasties, baked beans. Those little home comforts that you couldn't get. I'm a home girl at heart."
Her first experiences as a model are comparable, in some ways, to the manner in which she has taken on Strictly Come Dancing, which appeared back on our screens last night. When the show started back in 2004, she was an ex-Big Breakfast presenter, not widely known and definitely a wild-card choice to take on a BBC flagship show.
Bruce Forsyth, with whom she was paired, was a veteran. "He was a legend, and I was an absolute nobody coming to him ... And he was always gracious and kind to me," she says. "It took a long time to feel really relaxed around him in the first series, because I was completely in awe of him. I'd grown up watching this legend on television. My dad used to shout, 'Brucie's on the telly' and we'd all run downstairs to watch The Generation Game. Growing up, it was part of our family life, watching him on telly."
But now, 11 years later, it's Tess who owns the show. Bruce stepped down last year and she is now the longest-serving member of the permanent line-up - as much a Strictly institution as the show's theme tune.
Daly's perennial sunniness, one suspects, is as much a result of determination and forbearance as it is natural disposition. Even when she's not feeling well, or when, as happened in 2010, her husband Vernon Kay was splashed across the tabloids after a minor sexting scandal - it was revealed he had exchanged flirty messages with Page 3 girl Rhian Sugden by text and on Twitter - she goes to work and the smile doesn't flag. Though she was clearly mortified about the latter at the time.
"It's not easy when people are asking you all the time and you're trying to deal with something that is so acutely personal. It's really daunting when people ask you - because you're dealing with it at home as best you can," she said in an interview a few months later. A physical affair was strenuously denied by Vernon, and five years later, here they still are, career and family life intact - mostly, I would bet, down to Tess's sheer force of will.
Daly started dating Lancashire lad Kay in 2001 and they married two years later. In the midst of the strange showbiz world, she seemed to have found a down-to-earth fellow she could relate to. "There's an unspoken understanding between us, because we come from similar stock. We come from similar families. We've been brought up in a very similar way, really," she says. "I guess that's one of the reasons I always felt so comfortable with him." When she met his family for the first time, she says, "it was like meeting my extended family. It was just very, very similar values".
Before meeting Vernon, she had never been dead-set on having a family. But the couple now have two adored daughters - Phoebe (10) and Amber (6) - who have reshaped her priorities entirely. "It's weird, I was never particularly broody, ever. I guess you've got to meet the right chap, don't you? For me, it took finding the right chap before I felt that way. I was quite busy travelling the world and having fun."
Vernon is a regular fixture on television and radio. How does it work between them, I wonder, when the Strictly season is in full swing? "It requires a lot more organising of the diary, let's just say," she says. "There are a lot more lists on the kitchen wall. We tend to juggle it between us as well, a lot." It sounds like she's definitely the organiser in the household. "It requires juggling, but any working mother will tell you the same thing," she says. "And, of course, it's down to women to organise the details. Women furnish the fridge, we organise the schedules, we're wearing many hats. But you can't become a martyr and start whinging about it."
These days, she feels the pull between her professional life and persona and the one at home as much as any other working mum. "If anyone ever says to me, 'You seem quite driven', I take it as a compliment, but actually, sometimes within myself I wish I had more drive," she says.
Before babies, she was more career-orientated, but that changed "as soon as my children came along. I think it's natural. Once you become a parent, children become your priority. I've had the drive to have a career, because I enjoy working. It's what defines me as a person, it's part of my life and it fulfils me creatively. But the drive - yes I've got a drive to enjoy doing a job that I love and have a successful, happy life, but I'd say I've got more of a drive to be a great parent, really."
She struggles with the classic, working-mother's fear of missing out and tries to focus on being "a present parent for my children. That's also equally as important to me as work is, because I don't want to miss out on those special moments in my kids' lives. I'm all too aware how fleeting it is, that childhood phase, and how very soon - we're talking like, three years, probably, with my eldest - she's not going to want me around. I'm going to be the world's most uncool person to her. Right now, she's still holding my hand. I'm getting lovely cuddles every day and night. But I don't know how long that's going to last, because you flash back to your own teenage years and you think, 'Oh my gosh'.
"I remember when I thought my parents were just the most uncool people on Earth and I pitied them, because I thought they knew absolutely nothing, and I knew it all. And I believed that to be the truth. It's only when it comes full circle, and you become an adult and parent yourself, that you realise, actually, I knew nothing."
Outside of work, she insists there is little of her showbiz life that follows her home, despite the fact that she and her husband are both well-known faces. "I'm just Phoebe and Amber's mum. I'm that in my daily life."
She's spoken before about the decision not to have a nanny - she doesn't want someone else raising her kids, but she does have plenty of support. "We've been lucky that we can call on our parents. And I've a very lovely lady who helps me hoover my floors and make my beds and do all that stuff in the home. But when I'm around, and I have time off, I want to spend that time with my kids one-on-one, because that's special bonding time."
It's her husband who takes care of the kids when she's on telly, but her unusual job allows them to be together, even when she's absent. "They watch (Strictly) with their dad - they come down to the set and visit sometimes and watch a rehearsal," she says. "They don't mind mummy going out to work when it's Strictly, because they love it so much - they understand what it's all about now."
Her kids are Strictly babies in every sense - both of them were in the womb during the filming of previous series. Though in the years between their births, Tess had to present live while surviving on almost no sleep. There's a four-and-a-half-year age-gap between her two daughters, mainly because "our first child just didn't sleep. She didn't sleep for three-and-a-half-years. And you can't contemplate getting pregnant again and having two children that are not sleeping at night, it's just not doable."
When Phoebe did start to sleep through the night, it was "hallelujahs all round and then, as you can see, a year on from that we had another child. So I guess that's what happened."
It takes a certain resilience to front a show like Strictly, to be the keystone of a television fixture that a nation can set their clocks by, and to turn on the charm under the studio lights come rain, shine, sickness, or emotional stress. It's not, she says, that she is particularly good at compartmentalising, but more that the nature of live television "demands that you are entirely in your moment ... all the thoughts cease to exist when you are live on television. The adrenaline kicks in, the red light goes on ... The beauty of that is that it demands that you are fully present in that moment. You can't say that very often. Only meditating brings you to that point," she says.
"I'm not saying that being on live television is like meditating - it's not half as zen - I wish it was. But it does mean that you are in the moment, in the now, and that is a beautiful place to be."
Tess is the Pandora ambassador for the UK. Pandora is available in Pandora stores provincewide and online at republicofjewels.co.uk