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'For a long time I thought the world was terrible and I didn't want to bring children into it'

She found success despite never finishing school and became a mum in her 40s. Mariella Frostrup talks to Gabrielle Fagan about doing things her way

Mariella Frostrup
Mariella Frostrup
Mariella Frostrup with her husband Jason McCue

By Gabrielle Fagan

Mariella Frostrup - well known for her husky voice and campaigning spirit - has won recognition in a wide variety of roles. As a TV presenter she's fronted the likes of The Little Picture Show and Frostrup On Sunday back in the Nineties, more recently Mariella's Book Show and last year's hard-hitting documentary The Truth About the Menopause, while in April she hosted BBC One's Celebrity Painting Challenge.

Born in Oslo and raised in Ireland, she's worked extensively with charities and organisations abroad helping women and children, and in 2010 co-founded the Gender Rights and Equality Action Trust.

Currently, as well as hosting Radio 4's Open Book and the popular podcast Books To Live By, she's on the judging panel of Amazon's Kindle Storyteller Award.

"I'm pretty ruthless as judge. I'm very black and white and know what I like, as I've been reading books for a very long time," declares Frostrup (56).

"I read an enormous amount - at least a book-and-a-half every week - because of my Radio 4 programme Open Book, which reviews new fiction and non-fiction. So it doesn't take me very long to have a sense of whether something has the right ingredients which, in my view, are a really strong narrative and a bit of originality.

"Kindle is so worthwhile supporting because it gives access to writers who possibly wouldn't be able to break into mainstream publishing without it."

Here, Frostrup, who has two children -Molly (15) and Danny (14), and is married to human rights lawyer Jason McCue - opens up about her views on feminism, motherhood, and how she looks after her own health and wellbeing...

How do you feel about ageing?

I feel shocked that I'm 56. When I tell people how old I am, in my head I'm thinking, 'What? I must have got that number wrong'. Everyone has an age which they imagine themselves to be and for me, I'm 38. Every year added on to that comes as a total shock and surprise to me.

That's odd really because that age for me was pretty dismal because I was at my peak of panic about whether or not I'd meet someone and ever have children and a family life of my own, rather than a fantastically exciting but not very settled independent life.

What's been the biggest turning point in your life?

Having children. Motherhood means everything to me. I was 41 when I had Molly, and 42 when I had Danny.

For a long time, because I thought the world was a terrible place, I didn't want to bring a child into it. I learnt through my work with charities here and abroad what spectacular things people are capable of, and changed my mind. I tried late, so they were such a wonderful gift when they arrived.

How do you feel about motherhood?

Molly and Dan are teenagers and that's not without its challenges, but it's amazing to see them develop into themselves. I have to keep reminding myself what I felt at their age: an overwhelming desire for independence and an unshakeable belief that adults don't know what they're talking about and are redundant.

It leaves me constantly thinking, 'Hang on a minute, I still have to steer this ship somehow!'

I can be quite strict and bossy and I'm tough about their use of social media and technology. I won't have phones at the table, I take them off them at night before they go to bed, and make them have breaks from them on holidays, which is not popular but so much of parenting isn't when they're in their teens.

I just want them to realise it's important to have time when you're not engaging with what other people are thinking and saying, and instead follow other pursuits like reading, and have time to think about what you believe and want.

How important is feminism to you?

It's very important. I think I've been a feminist from birth. My mum was a Seventies feminist, when they all ranted and raved and spent a lot of their time fighting each other, rather than working together.

I think one of the great things about today is that there's much more of a unity amongst women, a sort of collegiate approach. The other thing that's incredibly important, which we've neglected, is to bring men on board because every man is a father, brother, uncle, grandfather, lover or a husband, and so there's a reason for them to be invested in equality for all as well. It's too easy to just turn it into a battle of the sexes, and I really don't think it is. It's about equality and that's something we all believe in.

How do you look after your health?

We live in the middle of the country in Somerset and I set up a running group with a bunch of mums about three years ago. I actually hate running but the combination of running and venting - we set off straight after we've dropped the kids off at school and chat all the way round - is a great use of early morning time.

I also go to yoga and Pilates classes in our village hall and walk my two dogs. I wouldn't say I'm super-fit but I've always been really active. I'm not good at sitting around. As I get older, I find I stiffen up if I don't exercise, so that's another incentive.

Unfortunately I'm a total insomniac, which was not helped by the menopause. I'll fall asleep easily but wake up in the middle of the night with thoughts about what I haven't done, ranging from the minutiae to the major. I use the time to read until I can go back to sleep.

How do you look after your wellbeing?

I'm a fairly robust person. I'm much more of a doer than a thinker, which means it's probably bad for my intellect but good for my mental health because it means I don't dwell on things. I just sort of move on, carry on, keep busy and that's my own personal mantra.

Do I feel happy in my own skin? Well, I feel resigned to my own skin, sagging though it is! Actually, I think the best you can hope for is learning to be content with yourself.

What's the best piece of advice you've ever received?

My mum really early in my life told me: 'Never be afraid to be yourself. There will be lots of times when you'll be insecure about who you are or what you've got to offer, but you should never be afraid to be yourself'.

What's helped you succeed?

My mum's advice gave me confidence to not feel I have to conform. Also, I've never recognised boundaries, which is a personality trait rather than any bravery on my part.

For instance, I never finished school and came to England on my own when I was 16. Despite a lack of education, I've managed to forge a career in fields for which most people would assume further education was a prerequisite."

Do you have any regrets?

I really don't believe in regrets. Life is very short, which is what you realise when you get to my age, and it's much better to pack it full of things you want to do, rather than looking back at things you haven't done.

Mariella Frostrup is on the judging panel of the Kindle Storyteller Award, which recognises outstanding writing. The annual £20,000 literary prize was open to all writers who published their work through Kindle Direct Publishing. The winner will be announced this month. To learn more about the shortlisted books, visit amazon.co.uk/storyteller

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