Dragons' Den star Deborah Meaden tells Gabrielle Fagan how her menagerie of animals helps keep her grounded and the fun of being on Strictly
Seriously scary and famous for that killer stare when a prospective investment doesn't appeal to her, BBC's Dragons' Den star Deborah Meaden turns out to be completely different off screen. Chatting at her country home, a 10-bedroom farm in Somerset that she shares with her husband Paul, she's warm, friendly and funny as she describes their menagerie of animals.
"At the last count it was seven horses, three sheep, a pig, ducks, chickens, guinea fowl, three very angry geese as well as four dogs and two cats," she says beaming.
"We're often the first port of call for people who want to re-home animals. I get regular 'Deborah, would you mind...?' phone calls!"
A passionate animal lover, she's raising awareness of the Purina Better With Pets Prize - which is offering social innovators, from individuals to companies, who harness the power of the pet-human bond, the chance to win more than £90,000.
It's the simple pleasures, rather than high finance, that she revels in when she's at this rural idyll.
"Whatever the weather, even if it's freezing or raining, first thing in the morning I go outside barefoot and just in my dressing gown and walk around the farm," she says.
"There's something about starting the day actually touching the world, and having nothing between me and the earth is incredibly grounding."
She's well aware of the benefits of her own animals on her own and others' wellbeing and is an ambassador for charity Medical Detection Dogs.
"If I'm facing a tough day, just sitting with my dogs before I set off will calm and centre me and bring down my stress," says the 60-year-old millionaire - reputedly worth £40m - who's originally from Taunton and started her first business as a teenager.
"There are already so many ways animals can help and even save lives, like medical detection dogs who are trained to spot cancers. It would be brilliant to find more ways we can find benefits from that incredible relationship."
What's the secret of the success of Dragons' Den?
Anyone can have an idea and wonder if it would work so it's very easy for people to identify with. It appeals across the generations from great grandparents to children.
I value my private life and never wanted to be famous so agreed to go on Dragons' Den because I thought it would last just a couple of years, but here we are 15 seasons later. There's nothing like being in the company of the other Dragons - all smart, competitive, challenging people.
The moment I sit in that chair I feel excited and like, 'Right, we're off!' I've made the highest number of investments out of the Dragons, around 40 in my time there, and still have about 19. Business gives me such as buzz and on the show there's a thrill in seeing creativity and hearing about innovative ideas, even if they're sometimes crazy.
How did you enjoy Strictly Come Dancing?
I loved it and it allowed people see the other side of 'me'. I'm tough when I'm working - it's a serious job investing money and I have to let my head rule my heart - but I'm not at all a hard person. I have a sense of humour, love to laugh and have fun and can be as vulnerable as anyone else when out of my comfort zone.
Also, it gave me and my husband a new passion. He saw how much I loved dancing and secretly took lessons to surprise me.
Now we dance the Argentine Tango together - we've even been to Buenos Aires to dance there. I love tango because it's collaborative and like a conversation in movement. The male dancer doesn't push you around or lead, instead he invites you into the moves. It's an equal partnership which totally suits my personality and is exactly like our marriage!
How do you feel about ageing?
Ageing doesn't bother me and I hate that expression 'women of a certain age'. People start feeling embarrassed about numbers once you reach 60 and above for some weird reason. Years mean nothing.
I'm not interested in cosmetic fillers or work to hide ageing signs. I feel proud of my lines. I've earned them and there's more smiling lines than frowning lines, and that's all I need to see in life.
It shows there's been more laughter than the dark, sadder moments.
Have you ever experienced discrimination as a woman in business?
I'm sure I have but I don't really pay any attention to it. When women ask me how I deal with difficult situations in working life, I say, 'Don't take your gender into account because if you do you're signalling to whoever you're dealing with that they should take it into account.'
Ignoring things is very powerful - it denies the other person a response or a reaction which is what they want.
How do you look after your health?
I'm healthy and fit but training and dancing 12 hours a day on Strictly caused metatarsalgia - pain in the balls of the feet.
Basically the show brought out a weakness in my feet that would probably have happened anyway but 10 years later on.
Steroid injections enabled me to stay in the competition and I continued treatment for a few years afterwards for the pain, but nowadays it's not as noticeable as it used to be. I fractured my pelvis a few years ago in a fall from a horse but I've totally recovered. I can still climb over five-bar gates and lift bales of hay around.
I enjoy riding, dancing, dog walking, travelling, and eating well - my husband's the cook at home because he's fantastic at it. The only pill I take is an anti-histamine as I'm allergic to horses, cats and dogs.
How do you look after your wellbeing?
Looking after my animals ensures I'm not the sole focus of my attention which is helpful as you're less likely to dwell on things. Talking to people and hearing about their lives and their point of view is, I think, intensely powerful and beneficial for your mental wellbeing. It keeps your mind open and engaged.
Financial freedom allows me to pick and choose what I want to do but I have a great understanding that life isn't perfect and realistically never can be. You have to strive to be as happy as you can, try to put mistakes right as quickly as possible if you make them and then forgive yourself, and look forward and search for new opportunities.
The Purina Better with Pets competition is back for a second year offering a reward of up to £90,000 for projects or individuals that celebrate the power of the pet human bond when seeking solutions to issues such as emotional, social, and health problems. Applications are now open and the closing date is January 28. For information and how to enter visit: network.changemakers.com/challenge/PurinaBetterwithPetsPrize/entry