THE EYE PROFILE : VANESSA FELTZ talks with James Rampton
Howard Stern, America's premier shock jock, was lying on the Big Breakfast bed last Monday trying to nuzzle up to Vanessa Feltz. He took her hand and kissed it with as much romanticism as he could muster at eight in the morning. "You are a doll, my dear," he whispered. "Yes, an inflatable doll," she retorted, at once puncturing his puffed-up flirtatiousness and sending up her own size. Stern may have easily bested Chris Evans on TFI Friday, but nobody gets the better of Vanessa Feltz. On a Newsnight debate about talk shows, she even trounced Jeremy Paxman.

A Cambridge graduate, she has swiftly moved on from women's magazines and the BBC's Greater London Radio through regular slots on This Morning to become one of the brightest TV presenters around. The US network ABC is trying to lure her over the Atlantic for a mega-bucks, five-days-a- week show.

Owen Gay, producer of BBC1's Watchdog: Value for Money which Feltz presents, is also a fan. "She has a combination that a lot of presenters don't have - a sharp mind and an amazing personality," he reckons. "With her, you're not getting any number of other identikit presenters."

Her larger-than-life style is not to everybody's taste, though - some viewers find her overpowering personality, not to mention her spangly wardrobe and jewellery, just too, too much. People tut-tut about the quasi- American format of her daytime ITV talk show, Vanessa, which risks accusations of dabbling in its guests' souls as it deals on consecutive days with subjects such as "people in love with their best friend's partner", "people who can't stand the friends of their partner", and "people who can't stop getting married".

Feltz sits in her Big Breakfast dressing-room beside her wedding photo (which, with typical understatement, features her in flowing white surrounded by 10 bridesmaids). With a typically expansive gesture, she dismisses suggestions that she is "the British Oprah". "I'm nothing like her," she declares. "There was a memorable moment during a programme about drug abuse, where Oprah broke down and in quivering voice told a guest, `I did your drug.' The only equivalent thing I could think of was, `I did your cake.' I couldn't do all that `Thank you for sharing that with us.' If I did, I'd go `Urgh!' [mimes being sick]. We haven't got that nauseating schmaltz-fest that the Americans specialise in. We have British reserve - thank God. Although I might compromise my integrity and be like that for a large enough fee," she adds with a smile.

Feltz and her ilk stand accused of being voyeuristic in a daytime zone - a charge she vehemently denies. "I always say that if Chaucer were alive today, he'd either be in the audience at Vanessa or a guest," she counters. "We have the Wife of Bath on all the time. Voyeurism is a healthy peccadillo, the stuff of life. Why pretend we don't indulge in it? Would you rather see the sheets or the bread? I'd go for the sheets every time."

Her chief accusers have been Fleet Street's finest. Feltz has had to fight a long-running battle against press snobbery. "In condemning the show for voyeurism," she complains, "the critics are affecting a prissy disdain that doesn't ring true. Prurience is a healthy, human thing. With hand on heart - if I could reach it through the fat - I can honestly say no guest has ever said, `I wish I hadn't appeared'. It may be an appalling indictment of 20th-century life that there are no priests or rabbis people can confide in and that the only place they can do it is on my show, but it's not my fault."

Feltz has also constantly struggled against journalists passing unfavourable comments about her size 18 frame. "They have written things like, `Mrs Blobby on reinforced stilettos', and `How can this fat thing be allowed on television?'," she sighs. "But I didn't mean to get this fat. It was an accident. One woman journalist suggested that I had done it deliberately, that I had noticed a gap in the market and gone for it.

"There are no fat women on television," she carries on, "apart from funny ones like Dawn French, Roseanne or Jo Brand. You can have lots of balding, paunchy men, but no women with cellulite. Everyone must look like Anthea Turner. The thinking is that no one will listen to you talking about, say, supermarket cards if you're fat. You have to be an aspirational figure and no one aspires to be fat. But I'm accepted now. Thin women feel fantastic looking at me, and so do fat women. So I make all women feel good."

There is an underlying sense that the articulate Feltz is dumbing herself down for her TV vehicles. Wouldn't a more challenging programme be better suited to her? "You sound like my father - `For this, we sent you to Cambridge?'," she laughs. "I wouldn't want to be making documentaries about breast cancer in inner-city slums. Serious journalists can do that, it's not where my strengths lie. I'm much more interested in Cherie Blair's high heels than any political ideology. My parents were appalled that I never reached the communist stage. I was always more interested in feather boas. But I don't have a featherweight body or brain. I wouldn't mind a slot on The Moral Maze, and perhaps one night a week on Newsnight."

Look to your laurels, Paxo.

Vanessa Feltz presents a new series of Watchdog: Value for Money, from Thur

EYE TEST

1962: Born the daughter of a North London Jewish lingerie maker known as "Norman the Knicker King". Educated at Haberdasher's Aske School and Cambridge University.

1980s: Became a journalist. "I worked for every trade publication - Hair and Beauty magazine, Wedding Day and First House," she recalls. "I wrote a bloody good piece about wedding-flowers, one of the finest of its kind." Became first ever female columnist at The Jewish Chronicle, and presented Jewish London on GLR - "my complete training-ground."

1990s: An article she wrote for She magazine about bald pates being erogenous zones led to headlines in the Sun (`Don't be a thickie, give a bald man a licky' - "my finest hour," according to Feltz), and an appearance on This Morning with Richard and Judy. This soon became a thrice-weekly event. "I did the anti-agony aunt thing," Feltz remembers. "They sent me once to a rubber-fetishists' party." From there, she was offered Vanessa, a daytime talk show on ITV, BBC1's Watchdog: Value for Money, and C4's The Big Breakfast, about which she says: "I'm meeting celebs who have six or seven finely-honed anecdotes which they roll out indiscriminately. I'm trying to stop them telling those. I want to know whether their wife chooses their underwear."

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