Kirsty Young: Island queen
She looked high-gloss glam in her Yves St Laurent suits, but there was more to her than that By Paul Vallely
Saturday 01 July 2006
It's a tough life, being glamorous. When it was announced this week that Channel Five's pin-up newscaster Kirsty Young was to take over one of the BBC's most iconic radio programmes, Desert Island Discs, the reaction was predictable enough in some quarters.
"Desert Island risk? As Kirsty Young wins plum job, Radio 4 staff fear she may be too low-brow," thundered that most high-brow of journals, the Daily Mail, quoting only anonymous sources to substantiate the story, which appeared alongside a full-length photo of the newsreader wearing a snazzy dress on a red carpet at some awards ceremony. She was, the paper noted, "married to hotelier Nick Jones" - though it, unaccountably, failed to take the opportunity to expose further her glitzy credentials by disclosing that Mr Jones is the name behind the glitterati Soho House members' clubs in London and New York which counts David Bowie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Uma Thurman, Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman among its members.
Other media outlets speculated that, given her down-market background, Young would inevitably come in for criticism from the widow of Roy Plomley ,who invented Desert Island Discs, who lambasted the previous presenter, Sue Lawley, for taking an unhealthy interest in the sex lives of her interviewees.
Worse than all that, Young is not just glamorous. She is Scottish and glamorous, allowing the media to indulge in another bout of Scottish mafia spotting.
Poor old Kirsty. She just doesn't have a face for radio, where looks are traditionally said to be immaterial. But then she has grown used to the slings and arrows of outrageous media types in her short career. She became hardened early on, in her mere 20s, when, as a celebrity on Scottish television the minutiae of her life was chronicled by muck-raking Scottish tabloids.
Kirsty Young was born in one of Glasgow's satellite new towns, East Kilbride. Her policeman father, Joe Jackson, walked out on the family when Kirsty was a baby but her mother Catherine remarried. Kirsty and her brother and sister had a happy childhood, moving when she was seven to Stirling. She went to high school there and was not, she has said, a particularly good student. On leaving school she worked in a bar and spent a year as an au pair in Switzerland and Spain.
When she returned, she got a job as a runner in an independent production company and embarked upon a classic broadcasting progression: from runner she was promoted to a PA and then to a researcher and then in 1990 got her big break as a trainee radio newscaster for BBC Scotland. There she started at the bottom - reading out the early morning fish prices. Even then she was notable for the golden husky tones which had earned her the nickname Old Man River at school. She managed, her contemporaries say, to make even "halibut, herring, cod" sound sexy.
The people who made decisions spotted it. Within two years she was poached by Scottish Television to co-present the lunchtime news. Two years after that she was given her own twice-weekly live chat show, Kirsty. From the outset the media seized upon her. Inspired by the show's confessional atmosphere she admitted in the very first programme that she had suffered, for a few fleeting months, from an eating disorder. "My bulimia hell - Kirsty speaks out" said the headlines next day.
And so it continued. The Scottish red-tops "discovered" "Kirsty Young's secret father" and revealed that his second wife once owned a sex shop in Glasgow which rejoiced in the name of Condomania. Then they had a field day with the news that her Porsche-driving, double-glazing salesman fiancé Michael Antoniou - whom she had met on a Kirsty show about fanciable men - had been in a pub brawl. When Young called off the marriage Antoniou immediately sold his story to the press.
Chastened by the experience she headed south, went freelance and embarked on a portfolio of populist TV programmes including, in 1996, ITV's The Time, The Place and for the BBC presenting and reporting for Holidays Out, Holiday 96 and Film 96 on BBC1, and the BBC2's consumer affairs show The Street.
But it was in 1997 when she was hired by the nascent Channel Five that she first came to national attention - on the rather dubious grounds of being the first British newsreader to read the news standing up (something which many news programmes have since copied but with most presenters looking decidedly awkward in a way which Young never did). She looked very high-gloss glam in her Yves St Laurent suits, with her unrufflable hair, manicured nails, shiny lips and tiny diamonds shining in each ear lobe. Before long she was on the cover of Vogue. She was a story in her own right.
But there was more to her than that. She developed a new informal style of news presentation, conducting live studio interviews in the nightly bulletins wandering round the newsroom questioning reporters with a clipboard and pen in hand. She did serious stories and popular ones with equal ease, not talking, she said, about a showbiz story "as if you were holding it with a piece of tweezers at the end of your arm".
In March 1998, she was named Newscaster of the Year at the Television & Radio Industries Club Awards. She became, says Adrian Monck, head of journalism at City University who first suggested her for the Desert Island Discs job, "an outstanding interviewer - empathic, quick, not afraid to be direct, and best of all, an intelligent listener". When the former ITN chief Richard Tait singles you out as the best woman newscaster of the past 50 years, he adds, "it's not for pedalling your own autocue and having nice teeth". She has built radio experience too, hosting Talk Radio's weekday breakfast programme and standing in for Michael Parkinson and Jeremy Vine on Radio 2.
High in the media interest was her on-off relationship with the rugby international Kenny Logan, which broke up after three years in 1999. ("I gave Kirsty the boot," he told the Mirror.) It was while she was getting over the public bust-up that she went to stay at the country hotel retreat Babington House which was owned by Nick Jones, whom she mistook for the hotel porter when they first met. Within a year they had married in a candlelit ceremony decorated with empty Campbell soup tins that were stuffed with pink roses. They live in London and Somerset and have two daughters.
That same year she was poached from Channel Five by ITN on a £500,000 two-year deal. It was not a happy experience. For two years she presented the lunchtime, early evening bulletins and News at Ten. But the pacey style she had developed at Five was not wanted at ITN, who were looking for gravitas and authority and cut her hair rather unattractively. And the seasoned ITN journalists were sniffy about her lack of a solid news background - she had never reported from the field.
Gradually she overcame that prejudice. She was the duty newscaster at ITV on 11 September 2001 when three terrorist hijacked planes crashed into two of America's most totemic buildings - the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. She was on air within minutes and did not come off for five hours, performing coolly and calmly - even interviewing her husband Nick when he rang in from the streets of New York to tell her he was OK.
"I'm an adrenalin junkie. I enjoy the feeling of danger," she has said, adding that she did not mean the real danger faced by war correspondents. "I have an idea of what I am capable of doing and good at doing, and I think that can be a strength. I don't think we are all great at everything."
Indeed. So she concluded when her ITN contract ended. Eschewing the conventional advice about never going back she decided to return to Five. "I felt I was squashed into a different box that didn't quite fit me." It also gave her more flexibility with her young family. In 2002 she returned to the Five news presenter job, in which she will be back again soon presenting the 5.30pm and 7pm bulletins after taking maternity leave for the birth of her second daughter, Iona.
Not that the money is bad. She has a £1m two-year contract, twice what she was paid at ITN. Yet she has not become grand about it. Indeed, she pokes fun at what she calls the "newsreader" thing and the obsessive pedantry it can inculcate. "I remember when we went to work at BBC Scotland, one of my fellow newsreaders had a party for other newsreaders," she told one interviewer recently. "And we all arrived exactly on time. How sad is that?"
But she is open in a guileless way about the strengths her background has built - which prompted the Radio 4 controller, Mark Damazer, to offer her Desert Island Discs for a style that "combines warmth and curiosity - the perfect combination to make a success of the programme". She has learned, she says, to ask the simple questions.
"I'm broadcasting to people at home like me. I want to ask questions I would like answered. It's not the old Peter Jay thing about broadcasting to the 22 people who read the editorials of the FT; I am a populist at heart," she told the interviewer Amanda Mitchison, who then asked her whether there was anyone she had interviewed and been intimidated by - politicians perhaps?
Kirsty Young laughed at the notion. "I am not frightened at all by politicians. They ought to be answerable. They deserve to be asked the questions. That is the useful thing about television. I love the fact that you can see them sweat and you can see their eyes shift." On the radio Kirsty Young will do her best to make sure that if the listeners can't see that, they can very definitely hear it.
A Life in Brief
BORN: 23 November 1968, East Kilbride. Parents: Catherine and James Young, a joiner. Biological father Joe Jackson walked out when she was a few weeks old.
EDUCATION: Stirling High School.
FAMILY: Married, 1999, Nick Jones, hotelier and owner of media club Soho House. Two daughters: Freya and Iona.
CAREER: Continuity announcer, BBC Scotland 1990. News presenter and chat show host, Scottish Television, 1992-96. Various holiday and consumer TV programmes for ITV and BBC1. Has also appeared on Have I Got News for You and Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes on which she imitated Peggy Lee. Main news presenter when Channel Five News was launched, 1997. ITN newsreader 1999-2001. Since then, main news presenter, Five. Takes over as presenter of Radio 4's Desert Island Discs in the autumn.
SHE SAYS: "I ask questions I would like answered ... It's not that complicated."
THEY SAY: "The best woman newscaster of the past 50 years."
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