Karren Brady: Not your average footballer's wife

After nearly 20 years in the male-dominated boardrooms of Britain's football clubs, the West Ham vice-chairman is about to star as Lord Sugar's new sidekick in 'The Apprentice'

When an 18-year-old Karren Brady was interviewed for her first job, at the most famous advertising agency in the world, Saatchi & Saatchi, she was shown a picture of a cornfield and, as a test of her creative mind, asked to describe it. She said it looked like a cornfield.

And though she was still hired, she strutted out on the agency a year later because she was "impatient for success" and not interested in its trainee scheme. Brady has been chosen by Lord Sugar to be his new adviser on The Apprentice but the vice-chairman of West Ham United has never been anyone's neophyte. As a six-year old she was offering beauty treatments from her bedroom and, after leaving Saatchi, she showed such an innate ability for business that, at the age of 23, she was made managing director of Birmingham City FC.

On Wednesday evening, she will be alongside "Sir Alan" in a seat formerly occupied by the Cambridge-educated lawyer Margaret Mountford, who moves on in order to take a doctorate in papyrology, the study of ancient manuscripts. Viewers could be excused for thinking that the show's host has chosen a replacement cast from a similar mould to his own.

Certainly there are obvious differences between Mountford, a bluestocking former partner at Herbert Smith, and Brady, who eschewed university because it was "for the professions", and who has an enduring penchant for fur-trimmed hooded parkas, minidresses and baby pink manicures. "Deep in my soul, I'm secretly a redhead," she has said. "But I couldn't be bothered to go to the hairdresser to maintain it. I've tried home dye kits over the years and it's always gone a bit orange." That's not something you'd expect to hear from Margaret.

Brady grew up in Edmonton, close to Tottenham Hotspur's White Hart Lane, where Lord Sugar was club chairman for a decade. During her time at Birmingham City, she named the Amstrad founder as one of the football bosses she most admired.

But Brady's childhood was altogether different from the peer's council house upbringing in the East End of London, where he developed his entrepreneurial instincts by selling beetroot from a market stall. Brady was sent away to a convent primary school, and then a 400-year-old Hertfordshire boarding school where she passed four A-levels.

When she came home it was to a mansion with a swimming pool and a Rolls-Royce, though her family were hardly toffs. What is clear is that Terry Brady – a self-made businessman who would later go into football as an owner of Swindon Town – and his glamorous Italian-born wife Rita instilled an unshakeable confidence in their daughter Karren and her older brother Darren.

Brady senior, who has made several appearances in the Sunday Times Rich List, made much of his fortune from printing. Perhaps that was why, when Karren Brady, as a 19-year-old sales worker at radio station LBC, decided to target the self-made publisher David Sullivan when she was desperate for a client to fill the 4am graveyard slot in the advertising schedule. And why she had the chutzpah to track Sullivan down to his Essex home, talk her way in and persuade him to cough up.

The deal worked for both of them, and Sullivan's Daily Sport paper, then something of a cult, became LBC's best client with a spend of £2m a year. Sullivan was so impressed that he gave Brady a job. Since then the pair have been partners in a business adventure that has taken them into football, first to Birmingham and now to West Ham, where Sullivan is co-chairman.

It's unlikely that Sullivan, who made much of his money from pornography, would dare to suggest that Brady was his "apprentice". On buying Birmingham City, he immediately installed her as managing director. That didn't protect her from baseless comments about her relationship with Sullivan. "There has been a lot of rumour and innuendo about my relationship with him, but that is something I have just had to put up with," she said. The manager, Barry Fry, wrote Brady off as a "bimbo", only to later admit she was "one hard bastard".

At Birmingham's St Andrew's ground, press interviewers watched in awe as she ticked off builders for failing to do their job. Players were curtly reminded of just how well they were being paid and one, who told Brady he could "see your tits in that shirt", was warned that he wouldn't be able to ogle her from Crewe when she sold him there (and the player was later shown the door).

But the chauvinists enjoyed more sport when Brady, a single woman of 24, fell for the club's Canadian striker Paul Peschisolido, who shared her Italian roots. One club official told her: "I don't think that's right." Brady is now married to Peschisolido and they have two children, but in the interests of Birmingham City she was twice prepared to transfer him to other clubs. He is now manager of Burton Albion.

As Brady attempted to establish herself in football she found herself barred – as a woman – from the boardroom at Notts County and was subjected to ribald abuse at Southend United. A year into the role, she reflected: "I thought that the job would be much easier than it turned out to be. I had never seen a company quite as badly run." Brady expressed an interest in one day hosting a television chat show and "perhaps politics at some stage". Her role on The Apprentice may allow her to indulge both of those ambitions.

But her prediction that she would stay at Birmingham "for the foreseeable future" was an understatement. By the time she departed last year – along with Sullivan and club chairman David Gold – she had served the club for 16 years and arguably, following the sale to Hong Kong businessman Carson Yeung, left it in the strongest position in its history.

Her work in breaking down barriers within the game has been widely recognised. Cosmopolitan magazine named her as a Woman of the Year for 2006. She is on the board of the England 2018 World Cup bid and is involved with SportEngland and the Government's Women and Work programme. She holds non-executive directorships at Mothercare, Kerrang! and, until recently, Channel 4. She has written four books.

Her children, Sophia, 14, and Paolo, 11, are "healthy, articulate, bright, happy", she says, though she has regrets that she took only three days' maternity leave after the birth of her daughter. "That was shameful, really," she recently told Hello!. "It was a mistake and most people would look at it with shock, as they should. When you're young and in a career you don't realise it will last a lifetime. You think it will slip through your fingers if you take time out."

Brady is still only 41. It seems certain that she would have been successful had she gone into an industry other than football. Her role in Comic Relief Does The Apprentice, when she led a woman's team that trounced their male operation, gave an insight into both her business and broadcasting skills. It led to her being hired as Lord Sugar's right-hand woman.

But when she comes off air, she must go back to the day job. Her role at financially stricken West Ham is challenging, to say the least. The revival plan is pinned on the hope of claiming the 2012 Olympics stadium for the football club's future use. Brady angered some fans when she looked into the future and suggested the new name West Ham Olympic. But that's the same Karren Brady that once called a cornfield just the way she saw it. A straight-shooter who tells it as it is, which is surely just what Lord Sugar wants.

A life in brief

Born: Edmonton, London, 4 April, 1969.

Education: Poles Convent School in Hertfordshire and Aldenham School in Elstree.

Family: Father Terry made his fortune in printing and later owned Swindon Town; mother Rita is Italian. Has one elder brother, Darren. Married Paul Peschisolido in 1995; they have a daughter, Sophia, 14, and a son, Paolo, 11.

Career: Joined advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi, and then worked in sales at LBC radio. Installed as Managing Director of Birmingham City by David Sullivan when aged 23. Appeared in Comic Relief Does The Apprentice in March 2007; revealed as Alan Sugar's new assistant in August 2009. Appointed vice-chair of West Ham United in January 2010.

She says: "I worry I look posh and fat. I can't do anything about posh – I'm accentless – but I've spent 20 years battling my weight."

They say: "A sacker." David Sullivan, West Ham co-owner

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