'My father's illness has been really tough for the whole family... we are trying to cope with it but thankfully he is just amazing'
Claire McCollum tells Karen Ireland how presenting Songs of Praise has strengthened her Christian faith, why she would really love to interview legendary Northern Ireland broadcaster Gloria Hunniford and how the family are dealing with her dad's heartbreaking illness
Claire McCollum describes her life now as a "dolly mixture of all sorts of things". Eyebrows and curiosity were raised nine years ago when she gave up a full-time job with UTV to take voluntary redundancy and pursue a freelance career in broadcasting.
Looking back she says she has never had any regrets about her decision.
One of the most recognisable faces on TV, Claire lives in Whiteabbey with husband Alastair Clarke (44), a financial advisor, and their two children Samuel, (10) and eight-year-old Rosa.
The 43-year-old recalls the decision to quit UTV for a new challenge. "At the time I was going on maternity leave with Rosa and it felt like the right thing to do for me and my family.
"I was there for nine years and I am now out nine years. I learnt so much during that time and am so thankful for it but I am very much enjoying life now."
A University of Dundee graduate, Claire went on to London to study an MA in radio broadcasting.
"I always knew I wanted to come home and I got an opportunity to work with Macmillan media - there I did everything from presenting the news to making the boss his tea.
"I was then offered a job presenting the news on the Downtown Radio breakfast show with Ronan Kelly.
"I did that for two years and loved it. It was a real home for me and a great grounding."
A three-week trial at UTV followed which she was offered a six-month contract in features. "I was working with Alison Fleming and Sarah Bell. I loved it," she reveals.
With a natural love of sport, Claire, who grew up playing hockey and then rugby at university, got a chance to present a sports feature before being asked to do more work on the sports desk.
"That was a fantastic opportunity and some of my real career highlights came out of working in sport. I loved covering the North West 200 and one of my proudest moments was interviewing Robert Dunlop. Sadly I never got to interview the legendary Joey."
She did, however, get to interview football stars such as David Beckham who she describes as "lovely", and George Best.
"I found George to be a total gentleman. He was very quiet and unassuming and lovely to talk to."
And she was called on to cover George's funeral, adding: "It was amazing to witness first-hand the love for him and the homecoming he received. I was the reporter on the ground covering it for UTV. That is something I will never forget."
Such was Claire's success at UTV she won the Newcomer of the Year Award during her first year there.
"That was a huge honour and highlight of my time at UTV. Other key people I interviewed over the years include Mary Peters who is a truly inspirational lady and has done a tremendous amount for women in sport in the province.
"I never take anything for granted in this job and have always felt very grateful and privileged for the opportunities I have had."
Since leaving UTV Claire says she has been very blessed at the doors which have opened to her, including the BBC's Songs of Praise which she has been regularly hosting for the past three years.
"I worked with Mike Edgar who was head of Songs of Praise here and he said they were looking for new presenters and I should consider it. I sent them my show reel and they decided to give me a chance.
"I have loved every second of it. I have always had a strong faith and gone to church, but this has grown my faith even more as I learn of so many truly inspirational stories and the work God is doing in people's lives.
"One of the early shows I did was around Harvest time and we took a potato farmer from Donegal back to Kenya where he had been teaching people about potato seed and harvesting.
"Everywhere we went people shouted 'Hallelujah' and were delighted to see him back. That to me spoke of God's work and the sincere heart of people."
Claire also hosted the recent Remembrance Day Songs of Praise from Enniskillen which marked 30 years since the bombing in the town.
"This was a very emotional programme to be involved in and I felt very privileged to be part of it. I interviewed people connected, including Joan Wilson who lost her daughter Marie and Stephen Ross who was badly injured during the attack.
"These people were so open and honest and so full of love. Through doing programmes like that my faith has really grown."
In addition to Songs of Praise, Claire has also been working on the BBC Proms and presenting lots of charity and awards shows, including the Belfast Telegraph Sports Awards.
She is also a devoted parent.
"My main role over the past nine years has been as a mum and I try every day to get the balance between home and work," she says.
"Every working mum knows how difficult it is but family will always come first.
"I am very lucky as my parents live two minutes away by car and they are a great help with the kids. This is something I love to see as my mum's mum died of breast cancer when she was just 21 and her dad died before I was born, so I never got to meet my maternal grandparents, which I sadly missed out on.
"The only grandparent I had was my dad's mum and an aunt. I love to see the relationship my parents have with my children. My mum Margaret gave a talk at church on Mother's Day about being a grandparent and she said every day was like waiting on them to come home, and I see that in my parents and in my children who are always asking when their grandparents (on both sides) are coming over.
"Alistair's parents are in Dungannon, so we don't see them as often, but we try to get up there as much as possible.
"I feel very blessed to have my parents with me," Claire adds, her voice filling with emotion.
"I've never talked about this before," she stumbles as she adds, "but my dad, Sam has been diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease.
"It has been very difficult for us as a family, but it is what it is. We cope with it and he is amazing. My mother and him are a real team and go to all his appointments together.
"They just work so well together and have been such an example to me of what a marriage should be like.
"It is a horrible illness which robs people of so much but thankfully he is still dad and he can still come out with us and enjoy a glass of wine and family time.
"I think it is important to speak out about issues like this to raise awareness and to start conversations. I will do anything I can to help."
Claire says she is looking forward to having some down time and having all the family over to her house for Christmas dinner.
"We take it year about and this year is my turn. I may be doing the cooking but everyone will be mucking in and I will definitely be asking my mum to bring her stuffing. No one makes stuffing like my mum," Claire says. "My sister Kelly and her husband John and two girls will be home and we are all very close. Kelly lives in Scotland but we speak almost every day."
With her father's diagnosis and the history of breast cancer in the family it would be easy to imagine Claire worrying about her future health, but she assures me she doesn't.
"I just take each day as it comes and I'm thankful for every day. I try to take care of myself and I am sensible enough that if anything was wrong I would go to my doctor. There is no point in wasting time worrying about what might or might not be."
A keen runner, Claire says she likes to run along the shore line to "clear her head" several times a week.
"I only run a few miles, but it is my time to have head space and time out when the kids are at school.
"I enjoy my own company and once before I met Alistair I went on holiday to Fuerteventura on my own. I met a couple I knew at the airport and they ended up in my hotel, so I had a few meals with them but for the most time it was just me.
"I also eat healthy as much as possible although I do like a chippy or a Chinese as much as anyone else."
In the McCollum/Clarke house life is busy with both children involved in many activities including football for Samuel and Rosa has Brownies, swimming and football, too. The two of them also go to trampolining lessons once a week.
"They are great friends and get on very well and I am lucky as they are welcoming to anyone who comes over to the house."
Claire says while at university one of her friends kept telling her about a guy called Ali Clarke and saying the two of them would really hit it off and had to meet.
"A few years later I was on a night out and I bumped into a friend who was with the 'famous' Ali Clarke who I had to meet."
The couple became friends and quite quickly, according to Claire, realised they were meant to be together.
Nine months later she surprised him by proposing live on air at DTR on a leap year. Luckily for Claire, Alistair said 'yes' and the couple married in her parish a year later.
They celebrated in the Galgorm before he surprised her with a trip to South Africa for safari and then Mauritius.
"My sister had packed my case and hadn't realised it would be winter in South Africa. I was freezing and ended up having to buy jumpers and wear loads of layers for the early morning safaris.
"Couple time is really important to us and we try to spend as much time together as possible. We have a night away a couple of times a year and try to go out for dinner when we can.
"Even just being in the same room at night watching TV together is a plus," she jokes.
"I love cooking and will watch loads of cookery programmes and am always experimenting. I also love home renovation programmes especially since we moved a couple of years ago."
Despite her lengthy and varied career, Claire admits there is one interview she would love to do and that's with our own Gloria Hunniford.
"I've come close to meeting her a couple of times but we keep missing each other. I think she is remarkable. Not many make 70 years in showbiz and she is always keeping the memory of Caron alive and raising awareness of breast cancer and the work of Action Cancer.
"I'd love to interview her. She went to the same school as my dad in Portadown and her father did some gardening for my grandparents so we would have plenty to talk about. She is a real inspiration."