Because I'm worth it: The Deborah Ross Interview: Anne Robinson

Low self-esteem has never been a problem for Anne Robinson. Even the recent criticism of BBC's Watchdog is only a blip in her spectacularly successful pursuit of wealth and fame. But how does someone so bossy come to terms with the shambles of everyday life?
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Anne Robinson has just got back from a week's holiday in Greece, and is about to go "walking" in Switzerland. Anne Robinson mostly divides her time between a totally exquisite, listed mews house in Kensington and a big country place in Gloucestershire with an indoor swimming pool and two dishwashers. (One to stack while the other is on the go.) She drives a new Mercedes. She dresses in Armani and Joseph. She earns pots of money, and is even said to be the highest paid female journalist ever, what with her various newspaper columns (currently The Times) and her TV programmes (BBC's Watchdog and Weekend Watchdog, and until recently, Points of View). She is hairdressed and manicured and facialed at least three times a week. She flies Concorde, first-class. Am I spectacularly jealous? Moi? Not a bit of it. I am, as it happens, very much looking forward to going to Fishguard for my holidays this year. Plus I have quite a few points on my Bhs collectors' card, which is something Anne does not have. "I don't go to Bhs, actually," she is forced to concede.

Still, I find I'm terribly interested in how Anne has done it. How have you done it, Anne? "Well, I know my worth and I make it my business to ensure that I'm rewarded at an appropriate rate," she says. How do you know your worth? "I can't really answer that. I just do." So you're a tough negotiator, then? "Oh yes. Aren't you?" No, I say, I'm useless. I go in intending to ask for a rise but come out having agreed to do twice the work for half the money, and gratefully so. I'm quite pathetic, really. I should start my own programme, Botchjob, in which people like me set out determined to get more but just mess up completely.

Anne looks at me pityingly, and sighs. I don't think we've quite bonded yet. She says: "I believe that women's greatest strength is in their earning power. It gives them freedom." Freedom to do what? "To do what you want. I do despair of some our sisters, I don't think they operate in a business- like way. You have to go to the hairdressers. You have to have a manicure. What hairdresser do you go to?" I don't, I say. I find a quick singe of my fringe every time I light a fag off the gas cooker keeps it largely in check. "I see," she says.

Anne Robinson might be quite cold, humourless and unteasable. Alternatively, she just isn't warming to me. I don't think I'm going to get one of those matey, Points of View winks, frankly. Although, that said, it's not something I've ever found especially appealing, so don't feel too cheated. She says she only started doing the winking business to annoy the producer of Points of View when she first stood in for Barry Took. She tried it once, and the producer hated it. "He was Sandhurst, ex-army, so of course when he told me not to do it again, it became imperative to do it again and to keep doing it." Would she describe herself as difficult? "I just don't like sloppy standards."

She is certainly a tough negotiator. When Watchdog went bi-weekly, she insisted on double the money and got it. When her current husband, the journalist John Penrose, fell out with Robert Maxwell and resigned from The Mirror while Anne was still their star columnist, she went to Maxwell's office and demanded a rise to compensate for loss of household earnings. She is popular on the after-dinner speech circuit even though "I won't go out the door for less than pounds 10,000". However, she'll appear in HELLO! not only because of "the hefty sum" but because "it does wonders for my standing in Gloucestershire".

We meet at her Kensington place, which is blissfully World of Interiors and chi chi. Cream carpets, beautiful antique furniture, hi-tech kitchen with gleaming stainless steel things hanging down everywhere, incredibly posh bottles of unguents in the guest loo that read: Bain de la champagne, 1994, and are possibly not widely available at Superdrug. It's her husband John who lets me in. John is now Anne's agent. I ask him how this works. I mean, if he gets, say, 10 per cent - pounds 10 for her every pounds 100 - does it end with her saying: "Right, I'm off to Chez Nico. There's a pork pie in the fridge for you." It does not, he insists. "Write down that I get 85 per cent!" he cries. He's not going to Switzerland with Anne. Their country place is being done up yet again, and it's got to the point where, he says, "the builders want to know at what height we want the light-switches, and Annie can't be bothered with any of that, so I have to stay to oversee it."

I don't actually feel as envious of Anne as I might because, it seems to me, that when you are as wholly ambitious as she is, whatever you have will never be enough. You are always going to want more. No matter how magnificent your house is, you'll always want it to be more magnificent. The Gloucestershire house is being enlarged with, among other things, "a Rosemary Verey designed garden." Two dishwashers will, of course, always be better than one.

When Anne eventually comes down, it's in a new pair of bright pink, suede slip-on shoes. She's just got them from a shop on Sloane Street which she expects me to know and may be called J P Todds. "And I liked them so much, I bought a pair in black as well." The first thing she does is grab me by the waist and wail "you're so little," which obviously upsets her. She is superbly competitive. She hates taking holidays from her columns, she says "unless Prince Philip has agreed to stand in, because I know he won't want my job afterwards".

Anne settles onto one of her big, fat, expensive sofas. John offers a glass of wine, which I accept but Anne, of course, does not. Her first marriage to Charlie Wilson, former editor of The Times and The Independent, ended messily in divorce and something of a "drink problem". She hasn't touched alcohol for 20 years now, which is a shame in a way, because it might help to relax and soften her. She is spectacularly bossy. She is Fanny Craddock, right down to "Johnny-ing" her own husband in the most imperious way. The phone goes. "Johnny, grab that." The Times fax through the proof of her Saturday column. "I'm not happy with what they've done here. Johnny, call them." Johnny, it turns out, is chief stacker and unstacker of the dishwashers. "A dishwasher that you can't fill or empty is vital," says Anne, "because then men think it's mechanical and say, `leave it to me'."

Johnny is currently trying to sort out this evening's dinner. "The pizza place is closed for the holiday, darling," he announces, "and I haven't got anything in, so Cafe Flo?" Johnny later explains: "The G'vnor can't function unless she has everything done for her, and a car outside waiting outside to take her to the hairdressers." I'm not sure what's in it for Johnny. I hope it's that 85 per cent.

Certainly, Anne Robinson is the most magnificent non-Jewish, Jewish princess you are ever likely to meet. Do you ever take a tube or bus, Anne. "No!" She thinks she has a washing machine somewhere, but wouldn't have a clue how to work it. "Johnny sends our laundry out to be done, don't you, Johnny?" Johnny confirms that he does, then adds proudly: "And I still get my mother to iron my shirts!" You would have thought that Anne Robinson was a woman of the people. It's how she was sold as a columnist on, variously, The Mirror, The Express, Today and The Sun. It's also how she was sold as presenter of Points of View, and is still being sold as presenter of Watchdog, where she champions the rights of those who've been sold rubbish package holidays in such an authoritative and convincing way you wouldn't suspect she would rather be dead than go by Airtours to Tenerife herself. There is, certainly, a kind of force to her, one which has not only seen the Watchdog viewing figures rise from 3 million to 8.5 million during her five years as presenter, but has also got captains of industry on the run. Indeed, last week 10 heads of firms such as Dixon's and Ford, Airtours and Thomson Holidays, met in London to discuss how she could be held in check. "We've obviously hit a raw nerve,"she says happily. She likes power, I think, and to have such power over big businesses pleases her enormously. She also adores fame. "That's quite powerful in itself. I'm crap at cocktail parties, but one of the side effects of fame is that when you walk into a room, people do want to talk to you, and I love that. It's shallow, I know, but I do."

So, no, not truly a woman of the people, and never has been, as far as I can make out. Her family were post-war new-rich. Although her father, Bernard, was a mild mannered remedial teacher with a musical bent - "he played the piano, the saxophone, the clarinet, the ukulele..." - her mother, also Anne, was the most formidable of women. Known locally as The Duchess, she transformed an inherited, Liverpool market stall that sold chickens into the city's largest poultry wholesaler. "Money," says Anne, "was definitely a significant currency in our house." Her mother worked hard - "she was up at 5 am most days" - but enjoyed the benefits of her wealth enormously. "Three times a year she would empty Bond Street. She'd go to the Mitzi Gaynor hat shop, and Asprey's for another Piaget watch. She liked her sheets from The White House and facials at Elizabeth Arden. If you couldn't choose between two dresses, she'd say, `Have both'. She sent me to Champney's to recover from my O-levels. She had complete contempt for housewifery. When I first got married, she solemnly gave me two pieces of advice: "Have a facial once a month and get help in the house.'"

Anne's childhood summers were spent partly in the Carlton Hotel, Cannes, and partly on the chicken stall, so that Anne was always aware that you have to earn if you want the nice things in life. She would have to stand there, she says, shouting: "Chickens, chickens. Only 7/6, and only an hour to cook." Her father doesn't really seem to figure, although she says he had "a wonderful life" and "absolutely adored" her mother. Strong women. Weak men. Earning a lot. Spending a lot. Getting other people to attend to you. It's what, it seems, she's always known.

Anne was dispatched to a convent boarding school at nine, which she didn't mind at all. "There was a striped blazer. It was very Angela Brazil." She thought, initially, she might become an actress, but then changed to journalism. She isn't sure why. She trained with a London news agency, then got a job as a reporter on the Daily Mail. She arrived on her first day in a new mink coat, bought for her by her mother. "She thought if I was going to stand around on doorsteps, I might as well be warm."

She met Charlie Wilson, a volatile Glaswegian, while on the Daily Mail. He was the deputy news editor at the time, and was widely fancied, although everyone told Anne he would never marry, which, of course, made it imperative that she got him, and she did. They married after an eight week, whirlwind romance, but it seems to have been pretty disastrous from the word go. Strong man. Strong woman. Not something that, perhaps, Anne had ever been equipped to deal with. Plus, she just was not cut out to be a corporate wife. When they divorced, "his barrister asked if it was true that I'd rather report on the Vietnam war than Hoover the sitting room. Absolutely, I said, which in those days was considered disgraceful." They fought about everything, including who should look after their daughter, Emma. It all became very nasty.

Eventually, joint custody was awarded, but not before Anne had, apparently, developed something of a drink problem. I tell Anne I can't imagine her as a drinker, as out of control in any way. Was she really an alcoholic? "I stopped drinking in order not to discover," she says. Why did she drink? "Why does anyone?" How bad did it get? "Pretty bad." Did you ever wake up next to someone you couldn't remember having gone to bed with? "No. Or, if I did, I've forgotten."

She said it was Emma, now in her late twenties and working in television, that got her through. She would have liked more children, she adds. "But I had a miscarriage with Johnny and never got pregnant again, I don't know why." Yes, Emma had full-time nannies and, yes, she says she does rather regret this now. "I find myself looking at the young women in the Watchdog office, the ones with children, and find I want to say: `Go home and look after your baby'." This is, of course, easy for her to say now. And I doubt, frankly, whether she would do anything differently, if she could have her time again. Being out there and achieving and being seen to achieve and earning lots and going to Kevin at Michaeljohn is, basically, what she's about. Anyway, she stopped drinking and pulled herself together sufficiently to, eventually, come back triumphantly as an assistant editor and columnist on The Mirror. She then went on to work for most of the tabloids, for increasingly large sums, until earlier this year when she decided to leave The Express for something much more genteel on The Times because "I just could not get excited about Anthea Turner's love life anymore." She has, she says, great admiration for The Daily Mail's Lynda Lee Potter, who is still going strong after all these years. "She once said it was unsexy for men to wear vests, so Charlie stopped wearing them immediately."

Frankly, I don't know what's made Anne Robinson such a highly-prized, journalistic asset over the years. Perhaps, ultimately, belief in your own worth really is the main thing. Anyway, I have to leave now, she says. She was hoping to go to Snow & Rock on Kensington High Street to get some "walking stuff" but doesn't have time now, "so I'll just have to get all the gear when I get to Switzerland." We exchange a chilly handshake on the doorstep. I'm not sure why she didn't warm to me more. Perhaps I shouldn't have boasted about Fishguard and all those points on my Bhs card. In retrospect, I can see it was foolishly provocative. Another item for Botchjob, perhaps?