How TV's big sister coped with the end of Big Brother

Davina McCall admits she cried when Channel 4’s ground-breaking reality show was axed. But there’s plenty to look forward to, she tells Rob Sharp
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The Independent Online

The tomboyish conversation and glossy hair are still prominently on display but otherwise, she's allowed her star-power to gracefully wane: motherhood is what concerns Davina McCall these days.

She sometimes prefers to go make-up free, part of a change in lifestyle in which she's grilling sausages for Holly, eight, Tilly, six, and Chester, three, instead of interviewing 32-year-old Portuguese transsexuals and 24-year-old cross-dressing Turkish-Cypriots about their assault-course skills.

McCall first sassed her way into people's living rooms with her own show on MTV in 1992, ; three years later she graduated to hosting ITV game show God's Gift. In 1998 she began fronting cult dating show Streetmate, again on ITV, before grabbing what can undeniably be classified as her "big break" – becoming the face of the Big Brother behemoth.

From July 2000 the show trampled across the nation's morals – although the 11th series, to be broadcast next summer, will be its last (there's also the small matter of a valedictory Celebrity Big Brother coming up in January). In August, as Big Brother's main presenter, McCall was undoubtedly one of the hardest hit when it was axed, despite a regular audience of around two million viewers.

"I found out about two weeks before the end of the last series, two days before it went public," she says, sitting on a sofa in a West London boutique hotel. "I was abroad, which was nice, so I felt one step removed from it all. I was with my family and it came from a good friend of mine, Phil Edgar-Jones [Big Brother's creative director], who has been producing me for around 10 years. He was the best person to hear it from because he was as sad as me."

McCall says she saw it coming. "I had always said I could see it running for ever but I think I was being brave," she continues. "I know the ratings had gone down but it was still attracting twice as much as anything else. I was thinking Channel 4 would be mad to get rid of it. I cried the next day with my husband because I felt so sad, I was going to miss everybody.

"As a TV presenter it was the closest you can get to a day job. Now having had some time to reflect, it must have been pretty hard for [the broadcaster] to have had so much flak over the years. I know colleagues who used to lie about what they were working on when they were at a dinner party. The first year it went on, it was a cultural experiment. After that, those people who loved it for that started hating it because it turned into an entertainment programme."

At the beginning, some of the housemates could construct reasonable careers after the programme finished – the winner of the second series, Brian Dowling, attained the vertigo-inducing heights of appearing in the Irish reality show Failte Towers in 2008 – but they met increasing derision as the viewing public, and the critics, got bored.

"It was full of what I think the papers would call wannabes and I think it went through a bit of an evolution," she says. "The talk of doom which the housemates got before they went in became progressively more horrific. Now it is a proven fact that no one gets a career out of it. You need to go in thinking you will have the best 13 weeks of your life, make the nation laugh and cry, and then you will come back out and go back to your job."

McCall was born in London in October 1967. Her parents were already separated. Her French mother moved to Paris when she was three. She was brought up by her grandmother, then her father and stepmother, attended Godolphin and Latymer School, got addicted to heroin, was helped off it by Eric Clapton whom she briefly dated before she forged a career in telly. She's got a certain steely demeanour about her today: she's clearly no fool. Anyone who's been in the industry for this long has little problem keeping the press at bay. She small-talks about everything from the fanciability of Emma Watson to her drive to fix up Fearne Cotton with a boyfriend. McCall is loathe to slag anyone off, which, given the huge number of projects that she involves herself at any one time (along with everything else, she advertises the hair-care products of Garnier Nutrisse), is the only proper way you can play it.

She is now occupying herself with Got to Dance, Sky1's reality dance programme that starts in January. Solo dancers, duos and troupes compete to impress judges Ashley Banjo (Diversity's lead choreographer), Kimberly Wyatt (a Pussycat Doll) and Adam Garcia (Wicked, Coyote Ugly). You could say this is the latest in the same, tired format, especially since the BBC is launching its own prancing programme, So You Think You Can Dance? in the new year. "In my opinion there is room for all of it," says McCall. "People's appetite for dance is infinite and they really are different programmes."

No doubt she'll be able to follow the show's popularity on Twitter, to which she zealously subscribes. She has 177,000 Twitter followers which she prefers to listen to over and above newspapers, which she claims she no longer reads. "I can't just believe people in the street who come up to me in the street and they say hate a programme I'm doing – I often ask them whether they've watched it and they say that they haven't," she continues. "People would often say, 'Oh, no one is watching Big Brother any more,' and I'd think, 'Oh the papers must be saying that no one is watching it.' And then I'd go on Twitter, write a couple of things and I would literally get thousands of people saying they loved it. There is a viewing public out there and that gave me great heart."

So how does she think the balance in her life has changed? "I am definitely more focused on my personal life than I used to be," she says. "I've always wanted to have kids. I remember my husband calling up his mother just after he met me, and he described me as a 'breeder'; I guess that's what I am. Before I met Matthew [former TV presenter Matthew Robertson], I was working six days a week, really long hours. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But I did that hard graft so that when I had babies I was allowed to work three days a week and be able to maintain my career and spend good quality time with my children. It's worked out brilliantly."

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