Christine Bleakley is full of apologies for phoning late from the house she shares with fiance Frank Lampard in London. “I'm SO sorry Una, one of Frank's youngsters — the wee one — had a tummy bug and I had to run to the creche to collect her ... mind you she seems to have forgotten about it very quickly since she got home!”
She sounds like any ordinary Co Down girl, like any other busy mum — or stepmother in her case — but she's vivacious and laughs a lot.
Her new agent had asked for the interview to focus on 34-year-old Christine's new ITV ‘staycation' series Off The Beaten Track, and not on her personal life, but she “doesn't mind at all” telling me that she'd loved to get married at home in Newtownards, but it all depends on Frank's footballing commitments. The date depends on whether the Chelsea player is selected for the World Cup; if so, it will be some time afterwards, and she hasn't got her dress yet, as the style of it will be dictated by the venue, which she hasn't chosen yet.
“All those stories — ah God, it's mental. Me booking castles and paying off some girl to move her wedding. Galgorm Resort and Spa near Ballymena put a press release out about it. I haven't set foot there for 12 years since my best mate got married there. There was another story said I had an Italian restaurant built there for the wedding which is pure s***e! Ludicrous.”
I try to reassure her that anyone with half a brain wouldn't believe that sort of stuff, which includes the nasty unfounded rumours of an affair with her One Show and Daybreak co-presenter Adrian Chiles.
“But there's people who don't know me who think it could be true,” she counters, genuine concern in her voice. “I'm no bridezilla, honestly. If I could clear off and do it I would but it wouldn't go down well with my parents.”
The rumour mill over her wedding venue went into over-drive when she and Frank came to the rescue of an ailing 82-year-old man at a church service in Sussex. They share the same faith and both are regular church goers, and Frank has spoken of the comfort he received from attending church after the death nine years ago of his mother, to whom he was very close.
“I noticed this old man at the front hunched over and retching, and I said to Frank ‘that poor wee man's not right,' but I didn't want to seem like a busybody butting in. Everyone there was quite elderly — Frank and I were the youngest by a mile and we were the only ones there with a mobile phone!
“So Frank phoned for an ambulance and went to the village to wait for it and we helped him out. It was the back end of nowhere. Then he wrote a lovely letter to the paper. It was a blessing we were there. It was freaky, meant to be, I think. I go to church when I can — any church will do. I enjoy it. I get a bit of peace when I'm in any church; it works for me. It's different over here as regards what religion you are and that's incredibly refreshing. I am spiritual but not in an airy-fairy way. I do have my religious beliefs and I think if you are a good enough person it comes back to you.”
Behind scenes in the BBC’s Bedford Street studios in Belfast in the early ’90s the former floor manager's star quality and professionalism always shone out. That big sunny smile and those empathetic brown eyes were never going to be hidden under a bushel for long. And despite all the sniping, almost two decades on, over her unaffected accent and presenting on Dancing On Ice, she's back in the spring for a new series and she's on ITV from Friday with Off The Beaten Track. She's is also being lined up for more work on ITV's This Morning, which she co-presented with her friend Philip Schofield, when Holly Willoughby was off sick recently.
I saw the start of the show when she told Schofield she was very nervous, which he confirmed on Twitter, and noticed she was wearing a demure — almost school-marmy — navy blue top and black skirt, a refreshing change from Willoughby's blousy prints and plunging necklines. Of course she got the usual unfair flak from Twitter trolls over her accent and “wooden” presenting style but there was praise too. Christine and co-presenter Adrian Chiles were famously axed from ITV's breakfast show Daybreak in 2011, and some viewers have failed to warm to her since she took over Willoughby's role on Dancing On Ice in 2012, after Holly quit to host The Voice.
“Yes I've got criticism for my accent for over the years — I just think, maybe I don't like yours either — get over it!,” she rallies. “I do get defensive about it. You can't help what you're born with. People can be quite opinionated about local accents but I think it makes you more unique. I got more criticism at the start but I don't give a damn.
“I was nervous doing This Morning as it was my first time presenting on the show. You kind of know what the show's about and what you need to do but it's live and you're on a wing and a prayer a lot of the time. It's been on so long it's part of TV tapestry now, TV history. I grew up watching it, so to be sitting on that sofa was quite daunting. Phil helped me though — he's brilliant — and it was over in a flash. I love Phil. I know him very well and he's lovely.”
She talks about home often and is evidently close to her family, her father Frederick, a musician, mother Mina, a keen gardener, and her sister Nicola (32), with whom she made a best-selling fitness video.
She recalls staying up late waiting for her father to come home from gigs, a habit that led to her night-owl ways and made her early starts on Daybreak “a killer”, and has never forgotten her mum's advice 'stay humble and you'll not have far to fall'.
As a result she is never cocky and has remained firmly down-to-earth, claiming that the producers of the One Show must have phoned 30 people before they originally approached her to fill in for presenter Myleene Klass.
“I'm just back from a weekend at home which I really enjoyed. I love coming home, I need it. I sleep in my old bedroom. People here are always really surprised when they visit — they come back and tell me the people are really nice. We are! And it's the most beautiful little corner of the world.
“Of course some have a preconceived view of what Northern Ireland is but that's changing. I've become more patriotic since I moved here. I honestly do want to spread the word about all the goodness. We've had a bad rap. I just loved getting home last weekend — I need it and I love it.”
She's also fiercely loyal to her sister Nicola, who lost 7st in a year when she was 18 and was angered when a woman in a Belfast bar remarked on Nicola's size 22 label, which she noticed her tucking in, bitching ‘I wouldn't let anyone see that, dear'.
“Nicola is brilliant, and puts me to shame with her fitness. She's very passionate about it. She's helping women struggling with their weight and works very hard.”
As Nicola has no children as yet, her big sister has no auntie experience. Nor is she a godmother, and although she has spoken about inheriting a life as a part-time stepmother that feels alien, she appears to be going a good job with her finance's young daughters Luna and Isla. She likes taking them out in the fresh air and taught Isla to ride her bike in Hyde Park. A self-confessed “neat freak” who likes to change her sheets daily, she credits the girls with helping her relax a bit on the cleaning front.
“I do play a big role in their lives. It's been four years now. We get along so brilliantly. I do the school runs and pick ups like today. You just find your way. You have to be cautious and sensitive at the start. I was very lucky but it's not easy for anyone. It's a tough role. You navigate your way through it.”
Having children of her own is a sensitive topic for Christine. “I don't like to think about that because some of my mates have struggled to have babies, so I'm cautious about talking about it. I don't like to tempt fate. We get the girls three or four days a week and I just try to be the best that I can with them.”
Christine goes to Frank’s matches with his father, former footballer Frank senior, and has gone from knowing zero about football to being familiar with the fixture lists. Football takes up most of the couple's weekends; otherwise they enjoy wining and dining, “whether it's posh nosh, a greasy spoon or simply cooking at home”. They're not keen on glitzy show business parties.
“Frank and I don't court fame. We don't do magazines or go to stuff. We're very normal. He's a footballer and we have to go to certain events, but the quiet life suits us fine. It's just the way we are, very normal!”
Unusually for a footballer, the Chelsea midfielder has just published his first children's fiction, Frankie's Magic Football (Little, Brown), a series of books for children over the age of five. The stories follow the adventures of a schoolboy, Frankie, his football-loving friends and pet dog Max as they battle baddies from fantasy worlds and learn valuable lessons, both on and off the field. He was on Loose Women recently to promote the book and squirmed a bit under the panellists earthy teasing about his good looks.
Christine's ready laugh lights up the line again as she agrees her fiance was less than comfortable under that particular spotlight.
“He was quite nervous going on that! I'm really proud of him, it's going really well. We had lots of chats about it but it's his baby, very much so. Me and the girls threw in little bits but he's very much in control of it. He loves wee ones telling him they don't normally read but love his book. He says it's worth it just for that.”
Lampard has credited his late mother with making sure he was well read and educated. Christine studied politics at Queen's University in Belfast but left before graduating to go into television full-time, and has criticised the student loan system for leaving graduates drowning in debt. Although she maintains a good hearty laugh is the secret to any successful relationship, she agrees that shared intellect is important.
“Frank has a good brain — absolutely — he would have to have for it to work with me, not that I'm some Einstein!” she laughs. “We have the same interests; we like reading. He's just about a year older than me so we did the same things at school and read the same books.”
In a recent interview Lampard said Christine is leaving all the wedding organising up to him.
“ I don't think about it at all,” she admits. “We do feel very married anyway. It has been four years. I can't see how marriage changes anything except making it more official. Frank's not a groomzilla but he's more interested than I thought he would be. The girls are very excited about getting dressed up for it, like any wee girls would be.”
For fans of both the news is good as regards a possible move to LA. Christine has admitted that she put all of her self-worth into her career in her 20s but now finds it's just one aspect of many in life that can fulfil it. That being the case, she's in no hurry to make it in the US.
“Not at all — there was some talk about Frank going for football but nothing happened and thank God we've stayed put. It was a big enough upheaval for me to come from London away from parents — but if I went to LA?
“It would be a big scary move. It's not something at the top of my list at all. It would be exciting but I'm very happy where I am, not too far from home.”
'I'M A COUNTRY GIRL AT HEART'
It was Christine's idea to feature Strangford Lough instead of one of the more obvious attractions like the Giant's Causeway or the Titanic Quarter in her first show of the new series on Friday.
"I wanted to move away from the bigger stuff -- I grew up in Northern Ireland and we never went on a foreign holiday," she explains.
"I wasn't on a plane until I was 18 and my parents still haven't.
"We all just got in the car and went to the Republic or Tyrone or Fermanagh, and the whole idea of the show was about holidaying at home, which is cheaper."
She doesn't mind not looking her usual perfectly groomed self on this series, however.
"Oh, that was one of the best things about it -- I just let my hair go its naturally curly way and put it up, didn't even have to wash it, and no make-up -- that's heaven for me. Don't get me wrong, I love getting my hair and make-up done for shows, but that takes time and we didn't have it for this series. It's just more... me. It only took me 10 minutes to get ready.
"I am a country girl at heart. I live in the city but Mum's from a farm and we spent summers there -- it's a different way of life.
"Where we live in London is completely built up and I think about how blessed we were growing up near the water and fields. I do appreciate the countryside and I can get down and dirty in it."