Christine Bleakley has opened her heart for the first time about her relationship with Frank Lampard and her anguish over the criticism of her new ITV show Daybreak.
The 31-year-old Newtownards-born presenter revealed that the Chelsea footballer had been a huge support as she struggled to cope with the onslaught of negative publicity around the ailing ITV breakfast show.
In her most revealing interview yet, she admitted that there were times she felt she was being driven “slowly insane” by the “completely inaccurate and utter lies” being written about her.
She also refuted suggestions that her controversial move from the BBC to ITV involved a deal worth millions of pounds.
But she said she believed that when a woman is described as ambitious in a newspaper, “it always equals ‘bitch’”.
Christine broke her silence in a no-holds-barred chat with her friend and former BBC NI colleague John Bennett. The interview will be broadcast on his With Bennett programme on BBC Radio Ulster tomorrow at 1.30pm.
Referring to the constant paparazzi attention, Christine said: “I kind of can't quite sometimes see why the interest is there.
“People do say to me ‘oh gosh, you're in the paper again’, and I'm certainly aware of it, but you have to detach yourself from it because you'd slowly go insane.
“I mean, I was followed here today by three cars and three guys on bikes. I'm doing my normal things every day and yet, yes, it's strange but having said that, there are other days when there is no interest at all, so you do your best to just detach yourself from that.”
Undoubtedly Christine — considered one of the brightest stars on British TV — has been deeply upset by the constant criticism.
She said: “You can read certainly some hurtful things. I've got now that I try my best not to and that is difficult when you have to read papers everyday for your job.
“I get into the taxi about twenty to four in the morning, the papers are sitting and I have got recently that I flick over and I’m slightly hesitant because I’m scared I might see myself.
“This past couple of months hasn't been necessarily the easiest period, but recently when I've clocked things I just flick on, because, what's the point?
“You still have to go into work and you want to be yourself. You don't want to have to read something maybe that's completely inaccurate and utter lies about yourself, because then that affects you. So you do your best just not to. It's not easy, though, but I do distance myself as best I can.”
Though Christine maintained she can’t “quite understand the buzz about it all at the minute”, she does concede that Daybreak’s worse-than-expected viewing figures must take some of the blame.
In a move that shocked many, she and co-host Adrian Chiles quit BBC’s The One Show to launch the successor to GMTV in early September. But within days there was criticism of the programme’s content, as well as sniping that the on-screen chemistry between the presenters had been lost in the move from BBC to ITV.
The criticism peaked when viewing figures fell to 530,000 in the last week of October — a third of the audience for rival BBC Breakfast and a steep fall from the one million who had tuned in for the show’s launch.
On the upside, by the following week viewing numbers had rallied to an |average 800,000, and Christine says she will |remain confident |for the show’s future.
She said: “It is only TV and sadly it has been sort of misreported, certainly in the past couple of weeks. Actually, in terms of our figures, we're really happy with the way that it's going. But it's early days and I think that was the problem — everyone expected this huge overnight hit.
“Even Adrian, who is naturally quite pessimistic and negative about life itself, and certainly work, was even excited and positive about it.
“To be fair, I think I might have been the only one that wasn't, which isn't my natural way, but I was fully aware of it being a tough job and a tough gig and, well, |television, particularly breakfast television, is a personal thing in the morning.
“We're all habit forming |by nature and when you're used to doing something in the morning and it's the company that you've been used to, we've taken the GMTV company away from people and replaced it within a weekend.
“So I certainly wasn't expecting this huge overnight success by any means and I don't even think the bosses were. It was a long-term plan and it certainly is in my head. The corner that was slightly turned in the past two weeks has given us all a little bit of a lift, thankfully.”
Christine also insisted she and Adrian get along just as well as they have always done.
“We still bicker and argue like brother and sister, then make up five minutes later ... I still enjoy more than anything working with him, he was the major reason for going in the first place.”
As well as the confidence-knocking flak in the papers, Christine admitted the early starts have not been easy either.
“I’ve been up since five past three this morning, having had, I think, probably about four hours’ sleep last night and then you’re into work for 3.50am,” she said.
“I get up, have a quick shower, get dressed and ready in the dark. Once I get into work I start thinking ‘yeah, I need to dry the hair and put a bit of make-up on. Thankfully, there’s a lovely lady that takes care of the make-up part of it.”
Evidently, though, partner Frank Lampard (32) has been a huge moral support over the past difficult weeks.
Laughing off recent speculation that he has popped the question or that she is expecting a baby — “I’m neither pregnant nor married nor engaged nor secretly engaged ... who becomes secretly engaged anyway?” — Christine described Frank as “incredibly normal, very down-to-earth, very humble.”
And she added: “If he was none of those things I wouldn’t be with him.”
Revealing how she loves to bring him over to Northern Ireland to spend time with her
family, she went on: “We've a very normal, lovely home life and we're very content.
“No matter how crazy your day is, it's lovely to have that feeling like you look forward to going home. That's the way it is and I'd like to hope it's the same for him as well.”
The couple last week celebrated their one-year anniversary at the Pride of Britain awards — the event where they were first introduced by former editor-turned-celebrity Piers Morgan in 2009.
Piers, Frank and cricketer Kevin Peterson were sitting at one table and, according to Christine, that initial meeting was “done in that really awkward schoolyard way”.
She explained: “Piers came over along with Kevin and said ‘oh, there’s someone wants to meet you’, and brought Frank over. Then they both left and I stood there going ‘oh God, this is really embarrassing’, and then he said ‘I watch you on The One Show’, and that was the start of the conversation.”
Though not a huge fan of the sport, Christine knew Frank was a footballer and was “97% sure he played for Chelsea, but there was a tiny little bit of doubt”.
Frank, who has two daughters Luna (3) and Isla (2) with ex-fiancee Elen Rives (35), is currently injured but hopes to be back playing again within the next few weeks.
“I’m new to the football world and I knew nothing about it until I met him, but I'm slowly understanding the passion that's involved with it,” said Christine.
“He's working incredibly hard to get back — the injury obviously was much more severe than anyone had first anticipated.
“He feels football like a fan does. If he feels he hasn't done well he comes off as angry as the fans do, and I like that. He's passionate about it, he's still like the little boy that feels really lucky to be out there and I admire that he hasn't lost any of the magic.”
Though they are now one of the most high-profile couples in Britain, surprisingly, Christine does not particularly enjoy showbiz events.
Instead, they’re happier relaxing at home with a takeaway. Christine said: “I mean, if you want to go to showbizzy things and do red carpet things, you've got to understand that people will want to come and chat to you and you're part of that world, but we don't do it.
“We went to the Pride of Britain Awards and ... I don't do the red carpet things ... I feel incredibly awkward on them. I know I'm gawky when I'm walking up those red carpets and I'm awkward, I'm just hopeless at it.
“But when we get together and we have our free time we just do ordinary things we're going for a Chinese tonight and I'm very happy to do that.
“People are always wanting to chat and get autographs (from Frank) and those are a really lovely reflection on how he's rated.”
Christine, of course, famously got her big break on The One Show when Chiles’ then co-host Myleene Klass went into labour on air and she was asked to step in at a moment’s notice. But behind the “overnight” success lies a long apprenticeship in the world of television.
Christine started work at BBC NI on her 17th birthday after turning up in her school uniform for a day’s work experience, and spent 10 years at the station, grafting |behind the scenes before going on-camera to present shows such as Sky High.
It’s an enviable |career trajectory — a mix of hard work and good fortune — but Christine insists her main motivation has always been to be able to look after loved ones.
And she is clearly riled by suggestions she is overly ambitious.
“I'm ambitious in the sense that all I've ever wanted was to be able to look after my family. It's not like I have my own children, I'm talking about my sister, my parents I think of them a lot.
“But ‘ambitious’ ... I've seen it written and particularly when a woman is linked with the word ‘ambitious’ it equals am I allowed to say ‘bitch’?
“But that's what it basically means when you read it in a paper and I certainly don't think of myself like that at all.
“I'm ambitious in the sense that I want to be able to buy my own stuff and look after myself and be independent and certainly look after my family.
“I wouldn't call myself |‘ambitious’ in any other way, other than just wanting to survive.”
Christine also refuted rumours that she is now on a four-year contract which — depending what paper you read — ranges from £4m to £10m.
“That's absolutely more nonsense — I mean, £10m, really! In all honesty, that just goes in with me being married and pregnant within the space of three days! People love to exaggerate and they just love a bit of gossip don't they? It doesn't always have to be true.”
And while she admitted to having met Simon Cowell “a few times”, she also played down reports that she is to take over from Dermot O’Leary as host of The X Factor.
“I have met (Simon Cowell) a few times. He's a great guy, I'm very, very fond of him. He's the sort of person if you asked his advice, he would give it to you. But I've read things before where it makes it sound like I'm on the phone to him every single day and that’s certainly not the case. I love The X Factor, but I think Dermot does a brilliant job at it and I quite enjoy watching it. It's a great, scary job to take on... no, I think they do it very well the way it is.”
Despite her stellar career, it’s clear that Christine Bleakley has changed little from the down-to-earth, sunny-natured girl-next-door that audiences here first fell in love with.
She’s at her most passionate and emotional when talking about her work for Comic Relief and Sport Relief.
In March this year Christine water-skiied 21 miles across the English Channel to France to raise money for the charities.
“At one point when the skis came off I thought I’d broken my back,” she admitted.
She was deeply moved when she travelled to Uganda to meet some of the young people being helped by the fundraising.
In particular, she recalled an encounter with a 16-year-old girl, Pajara, whose mother had died when she was 13.
“Her dad left the second her mother died and she was left to look after her brothers and sisters. You walk into this little hut and her brother was lying on the bed rolling around in pain.
“And I thought, if that little child was at home, one tablet could fix it.”
With faltering voice, she continues: “They hadn’t eaten for two days, they were starving, exhausted and the only time I saw her and her brothers and sister smile was when she had this tiny photo album and she was flicking through photos of her mother.”
And it is to her own mother and father that Christine will be returning for Christmas.
She added: “I’ll be home for Christmas. There’s no other place like it ... I wouldn’t be anywhere else.”
One imagines a certain Mr Lampard might just be getting on that plane with her.
With Bennett is broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster tomorrow at 1.30pm