Natasha Kaplinsky: 'We didn't go out for months and I put away all the mirrors'
Newsreader and former Strictly winner Natasha Kaplinsky tells Gabrielle Fagan about the explosion on their boat which left her, her daughter and father badly burned, and how support, therapy — and her beloved alpacas — have all helped them recover from the ordeal
A year on from the horrific accident which traumatised her family, Natasha Kaplinsky is reflecting on the day that changed their lives. "I'm very aware that things could have been so much worse and people suffer so much more than we did," says the BBC News presenter.
"We're lucky we survived what could have been an even more horrendous experience than it was."
Kaplinsky (46) is recalling the shattering experience that happened last June when she, her parents, husband and their two children were sailing out to a small island near Corfu for lunch and the motorboat they'd hired blew up after a petrol leak.
The scene is fresh in her mind - because with extraordinary courage, the family recently marked the anniversary of the accident by taking a boat back to the exact spot where their holiday turned to horror.
The explosion left her and her daughter, Angelica, aged eight at the time, with severe facial burns. Her father Raphael was also badly burnt. Her husband Justin Bower, son Arlo, now 10, and her mother Catherine escaped injury.
The family were rescued after 45 minutes in the water and eventually flown back to the UK, where Kaplinksy and her daughter endured months of painful treatment at a specialist burns unit.
"I didn't want boats to be an issue for our kids. It was a way of using that anniversary in a really positive way," says the TV host, her voice breaking with emotion as she explains their recent trip back.
"Physically, we're okay, no permanent scarring, but emotionally we're still on a journey," she adds, acknowledging that dealing with the mental after-effects will be an ongoing "challenge".
Talking candidly at her home, a farm nestling in the Sussex countryside, she reveals the decision to get on a boat again was part of an effort to move forward - but a step which took months of careful preparation.
It would not, she says, have been possible without her and Angelica undergoing EMDR, or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing, a treatment used for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
"Until I had that therapy, I was literally incapacitated by tears. I couldn't stop crying and having flashbacks. It was very hard feeling overwhelmed by my own feelings and dealing with my own pain, yet having to try to be strong for my daughter and help my father," Kaplinksy recalls.
"The EMDR was amazing and helped both Angelica and I so much. She's so much better because of it. I want to use our experience to help other people by raising awareness of its benefits," adds the broadcaster, who won the first Strictly Come Dancing series back in 2004.
She's determined to appreciate their "luck" in both surviving and recovering. "I think I've always been extraordinarily grateful for everything anyway, but going through this certainly makes you realise how quickly things can be taken away from you," she says with feeling.
"It might have ended very differently. We were so lucky to be found. Justin was on the phone when it happened and was able to send out an SOS, which was a lifesaver as we were far away from anywhere. Eight boats were out looking for us.
"Doctors told us that the 45 minutes we spent in the water was hugely healing and actually helped lessen the scarring, and then we benefited from treatment at one of the best burns units in the country, which just happened to be near our home."
The family received what she's gratefully described as a "love bomb" - an outpouring of support - from friends, the local community, and total strangers moved by the family's plight.
"It was a very mixed time because it was so awful and we were in so much pain and so traumatised, and yet every day we were just overwhelmed by kindness and that was just really life-affirming," she says, visibly moved.
"The house was filled with flowers, people sent Angelica gifts, and we received countless messages of sympathy and offers of help."
Another comfort was what she describes as her "Noah's Ark menagerie" of animals - 47 in total, including nine alpacas. Being in the country surrounded by them has, she says, been key in providing her with "calm and comfort" and helping her rebuild her wellbeing over the last 12 months.
"I'm not into hobbies, shoes or handbags or anything like that, but I do collect animals. Watching them play is my biggest relaxation and I particularly love my gentle, friendly alpacas," says Kaplinsky, who recently took part in Channel 4's Kirstie's Celebrity Craft Masters.
For one of her challenges, she crafted two miniature alpacas made from wool gathered from her own herd.
"I enjoyed every minute of the programme - when I was young, I wanted to be an artist and loved craft - and it was lovely to celebrate my alpacas. They're my go-to whenever I'm stressed or just need to decompress, and were especially needed during the difficult times last year."
She and Angelica were so badly burned, they "didn't leave the house for months and I put away all the mirrors", Kaplinksy reveals.
But she has now been able to return to work and recently interviewed George and Amal Clooney.
She's well known for her charity work and is an ambassador for Save The Children. As a Holocaust commissioner, she recorded the testimonies of Britain's last living Holocaust survivors and concentration camp liberators, work for which she received an OBE in 2017.
She recalls her time on Strictly with a certain amount of regret. "I wish I'd enjoyed it more but I found it so stressful. There was a lot of pressure for me to do it, because it was a new show and they wanted a newsreader. I was new at the BBC and as a woman, being taken seriously in that industry is not that easy. I was worried that dressing up in sequins and a short skirt might not do my career much good," she remembers.
"I fell in love with dancing on the show but it was the most nerve-wracking thing I've ever done in my life," she confesses. "Snuggling up with Angelica watching the show is one of our treats, but it's only recently I've been able to hear the signature music without my heart starting to palpitate and the stress roaring up. For years, that music triggered a real fear in me."
Motherhood, she says, is "amazing ... I'm so blessed to have Arlo and Angelica, they're the centre of my life and my focus is on keeping them well and safe."
She describes being in her 40s as "lovely", adding: "I feel very settled and happy. Falling in love, setting up home and having a family and raising them has been so wonderful and exciting, and I just wish time didn't seem to be going by so fast."
A lifelong vegetarian, who doesn't drink, she's pretty health-conscious.
"I've got more into health and fitness as I've become an old lady and go to the gym and exercise about three times a week these days," she says.
"Recently I've really fallen in love with yoga, which is very helpful for me as I have a bad back, since I had a very, very bad back accident when I was 19. It happened on a boat and I broke my back. Boats and I are perhaps not meant to be together!"
The legacy of the most recent accident, she says, is a renewed commitment to support people who are struggling.
"I hope I've always done that, but I've realised what a boost it is to have support from people when you're in difficulties. It makes such a big difference when you're willed on by so many people and that pulled us through," says Kaplinksy.
"I've also learnt just how precarious life is and how grateful we must be for every single day."
- Kirstie's Celebrity Craft Masters is currently on Channel 4 Monday-Friday at 5pm