Having recently swapped LA for London with her family, TV presenter Cat Deeley chats to Shilpa Ganatra about her first foray into children's book writing, Hollywood's beauty pressures and the untruths peddled by the Trump administration
A couple of years ago while living in LA, where Cat Deeley presents Fox's prime-time show So You Think You Can Dance, she dropped a text to her Co Down-born husband, comedian and presenter Patrick Kielty, who'd taken their elder son Milo out for a burger. It transpired she texted him while they were in the midst of a shooting scare in a shopping centre, where the two were forced to hide until armed FBI personnel arrived.
Today, she speaks to Weekend from her newly rented home in the genteel neighbourhood of Primrose Hill in London. The terrifying incident seeded the idea of returning to the UK after 14 years stateside, but family is the main reason the Deeley-Kieltys made the move, and Covid facilitated it. When the world started locking down, the bubbly TV personality had to leave pronto, even though she was in the middle of filming a Disney quiz show.
"LA was slightly behind in terms of the progression of the pandemic, and I was keeping an eye on the news back in the UK, thinking 'oh no, I'm going to have to be the bad guy that says that I have to go back to my family, and leave the production hanging'," she says. "But then LA caught up - we weren't able to bring in an audience, and it got to the point where Disney said we couldn't continue. So I flew back, and I've been back ever since.
"The thing is, the boys have got grandparents that absolutely adore them. Everybody's well right now, touch wood, and you don't know how long that will continue for," she adds. "Paddy and I both want them to know their grandparents, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles."
Now settling back in the UK for the long term, the family are making the most of their time together, even if under semi-lockdown. Deeley contentedly explains that their flat is blessed with a large garden with mature silver birches, places to play hide and seek, a trampoline and a sandpit - "lots of space for the kids to run around".
Work-wise, they're taking stock of their next move under not-so-helpful coronavirus conditions, but at least there's an assured place in entertainment for Deeley and Kielty, who wed 12 years ago. Kielty's comedic and presenting work is UK-based anyway, and Deeley has the elevated status of a rare British star who successfully relocated to the States. Already, she's reunited with Ant and Dec for a mooted special of SM:TV Live, the Saturday morning show that did wonders for the profiles of all three but especially Deeley. If she's not familiar from that, UK telly watchers might also recognise her from CD:UK, Stars in their Eyes, and Fame Academy, where Kielty and Deeley first met. Arguably, she's outgrown them all to become a celebrity in her own right; her bankable look together with her down-to-earth personality has graced many a fashion shoot, ad and gossip magazine. Even today, there's no airs or graces about her. She's enthusiastic and full of unprompted chat, more than you'd imagine for someone of her profile.
Whether anchoring Saturday night shiny-floor shows or undertaking irreverent cameos with gusto (she's one of a handful of non-Americans to earn a guest spot on The Simpsons), there's a continuing thread to her career in children's entertainment. To complement her five Emmy nominations for So You Think You Can Dance, is a Children's BAFTA win. It helps that she's now a loud and proud mother to Milo (4) and James (2) as is evident on her doting Instagram feed.
So it's on-brand that her current project is a children's book. The Joy in You is an illustrated book with messages of positivity and inspiration which she's described as "a love letter to my boys".
"I always wanted to be a writer, but I couldn't have written this book without my kids as a catalyst," she explains. "Any mum will find that by the time you get to the end of the day, you're worn out and can hardly string a sentence together. So for bedtime stories you're reading whatever's in front of you. I thought, what if I wrote something that was everything I wanted to say when I couldn't find the words?
"As parents, we universally want the same things for our kids: we want them to be happy, and to know they're absolutely enough just as they are. This gets down those ideas and thoughts, and tops and tails it with love."
Her words are illustrated by Rosie Butcher, who incorporated Deeley's requests, like a homage to how the boys play at home - readers will notice an image of two koalas pretending to be rockets accompanied by the words "If you want to, you can even fly. Imagination will take you to the most amazing places".
"The boys loved the book," Deeley says. "James made all the animal noises, because animals feature heavily - I wanted every child to be able to identify with it regardless of family background or gender.
"But Milo also said, 'mum, you say you can do anything, but that's not really true'. I thought he had come up with the ultimate flaw in my book, but he said 'if I want a koala from the zoo as a pet, I can't do that, can I?'. I had to tell him no, but if he worked really hard at school and paid lots of attention, he could become a zoologist. And he could go to Australia, and look after lots of koalas. That seemed to placate him, but it took every grey cell I had to think of that!"
Deeley laments that the pandemic has stopped her from making appearances in bookshops and schools, though there's enough home-based promotion for its global release to keep her occupied. To give her the space to work, Patrick has taken the boys to their second home in Dundrum, Co Down, driving a campervan there to minimise the risk involved. "We have the most amazing nanny, but when we're home the boys want us, so it's easy to get distracted," Deeley explains. "They're having the best time ever. They keep sending me videos from the beach, and they went to a nature reserve the other day and Milo got to hold a snake," she says, beaming.
Motherhood is just one of Cat's nine lives. Growing up in West Bromwich in England, she was first scouted as a model through the nineties BBC series The Clothes Show. It wasn't long before she side-stepped to television, first as a host of Hitlist UK on MTV, then aged 22, SM:TV Live, which led to her becoming safe hands for big-budget live television.
Having conquered UK telly, she moved to the US in 2006 for the second season of So You Think You Can Dance, a reality dance show from Pop Idol creators Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe. It says plenty about her calibre that, unusually for the cut-throat TV industry, she's kept the role ever since, while also lending her talents to ad hoc roles like reporting on William and Kate's royal wedding for CNN alongside Piers Morgan.
She dated Boardwalk Empire's Jack Huston, then True Blood's Michael McMillian in her first years in the States. But after a long friendship and a whirlwind romance with Kielty, they married in a hush-hush Catholic ceremony in Rome. It was after these enriching life events that she first became pregnant in 2015, aged 38. It all fell into place nicely, but Deeley didn't take it for granted.
"I didn't know I could have children or not - my mother didn't have an easy time having kids so I didn't automatically assume that I could," says Deeley, now 43. "I knew that I would love to have them some day, even if they weren't my own children because they become that. But it was part of the plan to do as much as I could before I had them - once you have children your responsibilities change, your values change, you have to change. It was much easier to get to that place if I'd been selfish before.
"That was part of going to LA," she says. "My idea was never to crack America. I wanted to go and have an adventure. A relationship just broke up [with businessman Mark Whelan], and I was like 'right, what do I want to do next?'
"I think it's very important as a human being to do things that are scary sometimes. Too often we can start feeling comfortable and we don't stretch ourselves. I hadn't even been to America when I was a kid, and I wanted to find a new place to live, I wanted to drive on the other side of the road and learn a new city, and I wanted to learn to ride a horse again."
Perhaps it's her wistfulness as she's left LA behind, but we reflect a little more about when she first arrived, full of the American dream that "you can be anybody from anywhere, but if you have a passion, a drive and talent, and you're prepared to work hard at it, you can get there", as she explains. These very qualities were enough to earn her a prime position quickly, but in the 2000s, at the height of a looks-obsessed LA, even a former model like Deeley had pressure to change her appearance.
She recalls: "When I went over, there were people saying 'oh, she should get her nose straightened' but I never let it bother me. My nose has always been to the left. My dad used to take the mickey out of it, and it's fine. I think what's amazing about people is the bits that aren't perfect are the bits that make you unique. If you only fell in love with a perfect person, we'd all only want to marry George Clooney and Cindy Crawford, right? But we don't, we fall in love with different types of people, and quite often we fall in love with the bits that aren't perfect, or we connect those imperfections with our imperfections.
"The pressure is around, but you can choose to listen to it, or ignore it for the inane rubbish it is. If I had gone to America aged 18 and someone had said that to me, maybe it would have hurt my feelings a bit more. But that's as far as it would have gone - I don't think I would have had an operation on my nose."
It brings us to the wider topic of the pressures of being in the public eye. It's an issue that's found on both sides of the Atlantic though in the UK, the recent death of Love Island host Caroline Flack, caused in no small part by media harassment, is a tragic example of today's unbridled celebrity culture. "I think it was incredibly sad, what happened to Caroline. Terribly, terribly sad," she says.
With social media being a key problem area, has Deeley noticed if trolling differs in the US compared to the UK? "I'm not on social media much and don't pay any attention to that, so I have no idea," she says. "But I do think it's very easy to be brave when you're sat at home behind a keyboard, and you have a set amount of words to say something hurtful and it will spellcheck it for you at the same time.
"Social media is great for staying in touch with people, and Instagram is like sending a postcard, but that's the box in which we should keep it. You can't even trust the news on social media - it's great for elements of it, but it's your responsibility to do some research.
"Ultimately, [trolling] is just stuff that fills the ether, and it's nothing. If my mum tells me something isn't very good, I'll listen because she's kind and she has my best interests at heart. But some of these people… really, are you going to listen to them? You'll just end up in a place where you'll become so scared to do anything because of nameless, faceless people who have an opinion."
Her sentiments are wise, but ignoring trolls, criticism and false narratives is much easier said than done. How has she managed to stay resilient?
"I'm very lucky because I have a close relationship with my family, so they check on me and tell me the truth," she says. "I love doing yoga. I try to eat healthy, because the better you feel physically, the better you feel mentally. I love to walk my dog, preferably in the morning when I can think about what I want to achieve in the day. I always have a to-do list, and sometimes I get through it but if I don't, I don't beat myself up about it - it just goes on the next day's list. That's just my approach, it's not scientific."
As the search for a home in London continues, their Californian house is on the market. Bought for $2.7m (€2m) in 2006, the four-bed property - complete with an office, gym, pool, spa and expansive views over LA - is on sale for a cool $5m (£3.8m). "California is so beautiful. The weather is great, so you can be outside all the time. You can swim along the beach, or in the mountains. It's a very healthy lifestyle. I will definitely miss that," she says.
Because Deeley and Kielty were preparing for the move since the start of the year, they were able to get American passports for the kids in time, to accompany their British and Irish ones. At the same time, Deeley applied for an Irish passport too, "but there was some reason why it didn't come through. I can get it, but I needed some extra paperwork that I didn't have", she explains.
Our conversation turns to her coming back to an England on the brink of Brexit. It's telling that on screen, she's flawlessly diplomatic, as presenting roles dictate. But on this matter, she's clear in her opinion.
"It wouldn't have been my choice to leave Europe, definitely not," she says. "I think the world is slightly crazy at the moment. Every day when you read the news you think it can't get crazier but it does."
With Kielty having grown up during the Troubles, and lost his father to it, she's all too aware of the Border issue. But for the wider UK public, I wonder if it's become lost in the noise?
"I think it's become completely lost in the noise," she says. "But I think the facts have got lost in the noise. I think the British public were told a lot of lies by people in charge at that time and they've shirked their responsibilities a little bit. When the ideas were being brought to the table, I would see bits of it from the States, thinking 'you're not going to cut migrancy and give money to the NHS'.
"It's so ridiculous, the lies that were told. And people believed it because we're used to believing what comes out of people's mouths. Now nobody is held responsible for those lies. It's the same in America - there, President Trump does exactly the same thing. Nobody has the answer to any statements that they make whatsoever."
She stops herself in her tracks. "Listen, I don't know enough to… I just think that there are people who need to take responsibility, and I think that the public needs to be properly informed."
Brexit is but one reason it's going to be an eventful few months for Deeley and family. The global release of The Joy in You is the biggie, but there's also the house buying and selling, and while So You Think You Can Dance is cancelled for this year, it remains to be seen whether auditions are permitted in time for next year's slot. But as she's often proven in her shape-shifting life, this Cat knows how to land on her feet.
'The Joy in You' is published by Random House Books for Young Readers, available online and in bookshops from September 15, RRP £12.99