Natasha Kaplinsky: Ice queen

She's the nation's most glamorous newsreader and set pulses racing with her turn on 'Strictly Come Dancing'. But will a new documentary delving into her family history shatter that famous composure? John Walsh meets Natasha Kaplinsky
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The Independent Online

Natasha Kaplinsky is the elegant, thirtysomething dame with the Slavic cheekbones who reads the BBC news every evening, wins dancing competitions and sets the hearts of Middle England racing. As newsreaders go, she's quite a package: clear diction, clear eyes, slender frame, a spiky helmet of streaked hair, an expression that's not so much serious as focused, and a puckish lifting of the corner of the mouth to accompany a frivolous story at bulletin's end. Instead of the girl-next-door looks of her peer newscasters, Sophie Raworth and Fiona Bruce, she radiates a distinctly un-English glamour, with her dazzling smile, perfect skin and cruel eyebrows. She could be descended from a Cossack warrior queen and a couple of generations of imperious Mediterranean socialites.

Rumours that she once sported a gap-toothed Wife-of-Bath grin and tomboyishly curly hair cannot dent the aura of machine-tooled perfection that surrounds her. Perhaps because they'd quite like to see it dented, the British public has taken a closer personal interest in the divine Natasha than in her rival autocuties – an interest conveniently mirrored by Ms Kaplinsky's apparent desire to reveal more of herself to the cameras. When she appeared as a contestant in the first series of Strictly Come Dancing, the nation sat up and blinked; they'd seen hoofing newsreaders before (such as Angela Rippon, and several Red Nose Day comic turns), but never one who threw herself into the foxtrot with such passionate abandon (and such fabulous legs). Watching her flicker and swoon in the arms of her professional partner, the Kiwi lothario Brendan Cole, it was easy to believe tabloid reports that they were having a raging affair, especially after she dumped her boyfriend of 11 years. Confronted by the kind of wholesomeness she exudes on TV, viewers could be forgiven for wanting to see her a little tousled, made more human by sex, by desire, by the bossa nova...

Now she's about to be properly traumatised on the TV screen, by having to confront the secrets lurking in her family's past. The BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are? offers the spectacle of a famous person investigating his or her background and finding out what combination of genes turned them into Jeremy Paxman or Ian Hislop and what amusing, heartbreaking or pathetic fate awaited their great-great-great-Aunt Margaret in a Bolton music hall or a French guillotine. Natasha, with her promisingly exotic surname and head-girl intrepidity, was a natural subject for investigation.

"I suppose I always had an inkling about the tragedy that exists in my family's history," she says when we meet. "With a Jewish father, even though we're not a Jewish family, I knew his background had been harrowing. There was a black hole of information, huge gaps in family knowledge. We thought his family came from Lithuania. Nobody wanted to talk about it. Dad just went quiet when we discussed the war. I look back now and wonder why didn't I press my father more, or my uncles and aunts, to find out what happened. But some things are just off-limits and that was one."

The programme's modus operandi was frustrating. After an initial meeting, to establish Natasha's level of commitment, the producers investigated her past to see if there was a sufficiently exciting story to tell. Then, without revealing the result of their researches, they took her on a mystery tour up the branches of her family tree. "When I watched Who Do You Think... in the past, I wondered: how much does the subject actually know about what's being discovered, and how much is it playing to the cameras? In my case, I knew nothing. They took my passport away, put the visas in without my knowing, told me to pack warm clothes for South Africa and cool clothes for Belarus. I went to the airport not knowing where I was going. I really hate having to do things like that. I kept asking, 'What have you found? Please tell me'."

Ms Kaplinsky is a control freak to the tips of her slightly over-styled barnet. You can see it in the precision with which she asks about the "structure" our interview is to take, or adjusts her teeny cuffs or sips her elderflower cocktail through a straw so as not to disarray her lipstick. She is charming and friendly from first to last, but cripes, she's so immaculate. You find yourself gazing at her, like a yokel confronted by the Virgin Mary. Everything about her matches and tones. The pale pink varnish on her perfect nails is the exact shade of the flesh that glows through her translucent blouse. The fur gilet on her skinny cardigan tickles the underside of her perfect chin like a million tiny fingers...

Where was I? Oh yes. The programme found a series of family shocks. Natasha learnt that her father, a lecturer in economics, born and bred in South Africa, was involved in student unrest in 1968. The university council had appointed a black lecturer and received a curt letter from Vorster's government regretting their decision to "hire a Bantu" and suggesting they find a white guy instead. The council withdrew the job. Raphael Kaplinsky attacked them "for doing the government's dirty work" and masterminded the first university demonstration ever seen in South Africa. When the sit-in collapsed, Raphael fled from his native land and came to England with his wife Catherine. Natasha, their first child, was born in Brighton in September 1972. The family moved to Kenya for six years, before returning to Sussex, from where Natasha went to Oxford, the House of Commons (as a researcher) and a broadcasting career that started with Sacha Baron Cohen on Talk TV.

Her mother's family, the Charlewoods, were Anglo-South-African, the union of a British soldier who married an Afrikaans girl. The research into her maternal grandfather's claims that his ancestor was once court apothecary to George III (ie. the chief stool-inspector seen in Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III) provides some light relief.

Why did her mother not appear in the programme? "My mother's a Jungian analyst and was reluctant to take part," says Natasha firmly. "You're supposed to preserve your anonymity, as part of the job – it wouldn't have been appropriate, professionally speaking, for her to have appeared." Hmm. Was she uncomfortable about having her daughter analyse the family? "No no, she was with us all the way through, a great support."

It was, says Natasha, like an agonising game of Pass the Parcel, unwrapping more of the truth every day, afraid of her family's response. "Of course I talked to my father about going over to Belarus and finding out what happened. It wasn't that he didn't want to know. But the generation above him didn't want to speak about it. There's a level of trauma across the entire family which is a familiar story among families caught up in genocide."

As you'll have gathered, the Kaplinsky saga doesn't end happily. Natasha, in her pristine white polo-neck and matching fur hood, discovers the village of Slonim, once in Poland, now in Belarus, from where her father's father, Morris, emigrated to South Africa in 1929 with his sister and brother. Family members who stayed behind fell foul of the Nazis, who invaded in 1941 and bundled the Jewish population into ghettos. Abraham, her great-uncle, killed himself in 1942 after his children, aged nine and two, were strangled. Great-Uncle Isaac, a Paris-trained doctor, escaped a massacre of 2,500 Jews and joined the partisans in the woods. The family patriarch and matriarch probably died when their family synagogue was torched.

This harrowing stuff is mostly relayed to Kaplinsky by a kindly, sensible historian called Tamara. There's a very moving moment when Natasha stands in the cold air, perfectly turned out in a giant fur hat like an exploding chinchilla, and weeps as she listens to Isaac's testimony of the massacre. Here is the money shot the producers presumably wanted: Natasha Kaplinsky, omni-competent TV ice-queen, aghast and emotionally disarrayed.

She handles it all with dignity, however, and arranges a family supper back home, to insist on the survival of hope and love in their hearts. It's schmaltzy but affecting. "What I learned from the experience was something about the principle of forgiveness," she says now. "My father's family was caught up in one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, then he was caught up in another, and both required enormous amounts of forgiveness in order to move on. I've become more reflective about what you have to do as a society to get over trauma. That isn't bearing grudges and constantly harping back to what the Germans did, it's about accepting this has happened and forgiving and moving forward."

Fortunately, there were one or two moments of delight as well – such as when she discovered a family souvenir. "Morris ran a rope factory in South Africa – in fact he brought the principles of rope making from Belarus to South Africa in 1929. When I was in Belarus, I found someone there who used to work for my grandfather. He produced a piece of rope with my grandad's logo on it. So I was able to go home and give my father a piece of rope his father had made years and years ago. It wasn't included in the programme, but I found myself jumping up and down with excitement about this piece of string." When it came to telling her father the grisly news about how his relatives met their fate, Kaplinsky refused to let the director film the scene. "I just thought, blow that – this is private. I put my foot down and the director respected my decision." It says more about her emotional toughness than any amount of sermonising about "moving on".

She's rather sweetly concerned about her on-screen weeping ("Tell me, really – do you think it's too much?") and stoutly defends herself as "a very emotional person and I'm proud of that". So how does she manage to read the news every night, about genocide in Darfur or the disappearance of Madeleine McCann? "But I have to be dispassionate as a journalist." So how does she fight her instincts? She looks puzzled. "If I start welling up over a story, that's not me being professional." But does she control her feelings by exercising some iron will? "There are certain times, watching reports on the Six O'Clock News, when you just have to take yourself away from the story and prepare yourself for the next one. I cry all the time ... But I feel uncomfortable and insecure about letting the public see me in that state because it isn't who I am in terms of my public persona. My job is just to be a vessel of information."

Some vessel. Ms Kaplinsky is good at self-deprecation, always referring to times when she was the youngest/puniest team member, or found herself doing things without meaning to. She didn't, for example, actually apply to go on Strictly Come Dancing. "I was taken into a dark corridor at the BBC and told, and I quote, 'I'm sure that if you don't do it, it won't jeopardise your career.' Which means, basically, that if I didn't do it, I was stuffed. I think they had a shopping list. They wanted an opera singer, a sportsman, a journalist... I was the newest recruit on the BBC news team, the weakest and most vulnerable and they pounced on me."

Nothing prepared her for the avalanche of media attention that hit her. She received thousands of letters from the public, from children's crayon pictures of her frocks to notes from elderly couples who'd fallen in love on the dance floor in the 1940s. "I was living in Chiswick and for three months I had freelance photographers outside my house, following me on motorbikes. I was a newsreader! I couldn't get my head around it." She got used to reading about her (fictional) exploits in the tabloids. "There was one weekend my name was linked with three men. One was Tony Benn, who I like very much but who's 83 and not really for me. Another was Christopher Parker [the EastEnders actor and Strictly Come Dancing contestant] who was 22 – they said I left a dinner at the Ivy, very early, stumbled out very drunk, and got in a taxi with him. For heaven's sake! I'm teetotal, and the reason I left early was because I had to be in bed by 8pm to get up at 3.20am and do the breakfast show."

She was 32 at the time, had broken up with Michael Barnard, her boyfriend of 11 years, and was trying to scotch rumours about her involvement with Brendan Cole. It was clearly a relief when, in early 2005, she met Justin Bower, an investment banker, and enjoyed a truly whirlwind romance. "It was the most bizarre experience. I was doing a favour for a friend who was organising a wedding list, of all things, and because I was working that evening presenting corporate awards, I was wearing a long dress while everyone else was in jeans. I walked into my friend's shop and even before I'd met Justin I knew I was going to marry him." She smiles fondly. "I don't think he had the same experience. He looked at me and obviously thought, 'Poor love, she's overdressed.' He'd never watched me on the telly, he called me Natalie for the first three dates and after a couple of weeks, he said, 'Why, everywhere we go, do people talk to you about dancing?' The whole thing completely passed him by," she laughs.

Was he, I ask, a master of the killer chat-up line? What was it about him? "It was," says Natasha with a sigh, "everything. He just was absolutely the right match for me." On their fourth date, he asked if she would come away with him on holiday. Five weeks later, en vacances, he proposed and they married in the autumn. "At the time, everyone was very shocked because it was all so quick, but I honestly felt like, what has taken you so long?"

It hasn't taken Natasha Kaplinsky very long to become a national sweetheart. Along with reading the news and hosting TV spectaculars like the BBC's Children in Need telethon and its New Year Live show, she's in line to present the BBC's new teeny-tiny News Update, 60 to 90 seconds long, that will go out at 8pm every night. Serious news devotees will complain that this represents another dumbing-down, a minimalist approach to serious TV journalism. I think of it in Orwellian terms. Remember the Two Minutes Hate in 1984, when all the TV screens of Oceania are tuned to the hated figure of Emmanuel Goldstein? The new BBC initiative is the One-Minute Reassurance, in which the TV-watching millions will have the progress of the world brought to them, soothingly, in tiny bite-sized chunks by the plucky, unflappable Kaplinsky, with never a single streaked hair out of place.

'Who Do You Think You Are?' is on BBC1 at 9pm on 6 September