Emily Maitlis: A lot of front

Don't let the revealing frocks fool you. Newsnight's latest presenter will give Paxman a run for his money

Unlike Janet Jackson's highly orchestrated wardrobe malfunction, Emily Maitlis's unintentional breast flash last week was in no way an attempt to enliven her career. When the presenter's right bosom loomed over the top of her £730 black and white satin puffball Paule Ka frock at the Royal Television Society awards, she failed to win the gong for which she was nominated, butsecured yet more fans.

Maitlis will have been mortified by the cheeky headlines in the week she was leaving BBC London in preparation for her biggest career break to date. From 31 March, she becomes a regular host of Newsnight, the corporation's most earnest news programme, which rarely sees a glint of lipgloss. She will be casting aside her leopardskin-print trousers and throwing on a mantle of gravitas to join Jeremy Paxman, her "broadcasting hero". Much to her embarrassment, she says, she bumps into him whenever she is dropping bags or dressed frivolously for a party. It is not clear what Paxman thinks of his new stablemate, who will also be joining Kirsty Wark, Gavin Esler and Martha Kearney.

Maitlis, 34, landed the job after presenting two editions of Newsnight in October. The critics were positive. Serious and sober, she also showed a flash of humour that could lighten the show's intensity. "I would have given an arm and a leg to work at Newsnight, so I'm rather pleased I don't have to," she said on getting the job.

A regular at Harrods, she says her key weapons on screen are "flirtation, seduction and betrayal", but says these words refer to "linguistics rather than eyelashes". "There's no point meeting somebody with a meat cleaver the moment they open their mouth because they're going to clam up. The audience is going to hate you for not allowing anyone to say anything. You want to listen to their case. If there are flaws, that's where you bring in your stiletto."

And Maitlis has plenty of stilettos to wield. Type her name into Google and you will be able to see examples of her footwear on a strangely creepy fan site, along with video grabs of her cleavage and long, slender legs. To the dismay of fans, a film with Robert Downey Jr in which she was to play a lesbian photographer didn't getfunding.

The presenter is well aware of her looks, and their benefits in the profession. "If two people go for the same TV job and they're both journalists but one looks better, of course you're going to give the job to the better-looking one." But her appearance has not always helped. In 2002 she came face to face in court with Edward Vines, who had been stalking her for 10 years. The pair had met as undergraduates at Cambridge. He admitted harassment and was sentenced to four months in prison.

Very much in the public domain, Maitlis lives what a friend describes as a "double life". Her husband, Mark Gwynne, a banker for Merrill Lynch, was brought up as a "polo-playing, hunting, shooting and fishing" sort. While the couple live a cosmopolitan life in Notting Hill with their 19-month-old son Milo Atticus (named after a Greek wrestler from around 550BC), they also enjoy glamorous parties in the country where Gwynne's parents own a notable property.

"It's a bit of a closet secret that she's married to a country squire type," says the friend. "I don't think Emily has really totally got to grips with the English countryside. But she's a good sport. She wasn't born and bred into it, but she's a mucker-in. She's very well liked and popular with both the financial hedge fund banking crowd and arty-farty media types. It's quite unusual to blend in both worlds."

Born in Canada, Maitlis attended a comprehensive in Sheffield, where her parents still live. Her father is a scientist and her mother a physiotherapist. She read English at Queens' College, Cambridge, and speaks Italian, Spanish, French and "crap" Mandarin. She worked in the Far East for six years in radio and TV, including a stint for NBC Asia as business correspondent and with Channel 4 for the Hong Kong handover. In 1998, she joined Sky News as a news presenter and business correspondent. Three years later, she was poached by the BBC to present their local London news slot.

The BBC rates her "star quality", but journalist Amanda Platell says: "Jeremy Paxman she ain't. It's an insult to see someone, however beautiful and well educated, with so little political knowledge and experience presenting the BBC's flagship daily political show. It is simply a turnoff for those of us who want serious politics at the end of the day."

Maitlis takes no notice. "If someone says they [presenters] are young and thick, I forget to be offended ... It appeals to my inner Jordan," she said last week. When Kate Adie said that TV executives wanted presenters with "cute faces and cute bottoms and nothing in between", Maitlis observed: "Adie is an extremely clever woman with a book to promote."

Jon Snow, the highly respected presenter of Channel 4 News, is a fan. Maitlis was his fixer in Hong Kong in 1997. "She's really a very, very bright cookie indeed and I think she performs brilliantly," he said. "She was just incredibly efficient. She was a tremendous enthusiast in Hong Kong and it was clear that she was ambitious and that she would get there. She's focused, doesn't faff about, cuts to the quick. She'll give Newsnight a run for their money. She's young and zesty and I think she'll shake up the proceedings. She's very down to earth, very straight, very easy, no airs and graces."

Maitlis's intelligence off screen is not in dispute. "If you're sitting next to her at dinner she is the sort of person who will totally focus on you," says William Cash, a publisher and friend. "She's completely unintimidated by anybody whether it's a serious politician or a Hollywood Oscar-winning actress. She has an edgy intelligence. If the argument is not going very well she will end it by battering you down with facts. She's very witty and has a slightly dark humour."

But she can put her foot in it. She once asked the then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak if a policy "had saved his bacon", and interviewing Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather about the party leadership she referred to "the Leb Dims".

Now doubt she is now laughing off the gaffes, as she will her exposure last week, for these are busy and exciting times for Maitlis. As well as appearing on Newsnight, she will be anchoring BBC News 24 four nights a week. With such a busy schedule and a child, she will have plenty of excuses not to find the time to fathom the intricacies of country sports.

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