Natasha Kaplinsky: Strictly ambitious

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The Independent Online

She is, they like to repeat, "the most ambitious woman in television", who has enjoyed warp-speed career growth to become one of the most recognised faces on British television.

Such commentators decline to acknowledge that hard work, intelligence and an engaging personality are also factors in Kaplinsky's success, thus showing how out of step they are with the great British viewing public.

For when a staggering nine million people tuned in to the final of BBC1's Strictly Come Dancing a year ago, bringing back the long-lost phenomenon of entire families sat in front of the television on a Saturday night, it was Kaplinsky's story of newsreader turns reluctant foxtrotter they wanted to see.

With her co-presenter Dermot Murnaghan, Kaplinsky has also changed the face of early-morning television by leading BBC Breakfast to pole position in the ratings, ahead of the rival GMTV.

She now straddles the worlds of current affairs and light entertainment and has become the BBC's go-to woman, whenever the corporation needs a presenter who combines the authority of a newscaster with the recognition of Middle England. She will shortly present a new celebrity entertainment show, Saturday Swings, and when Sophie Raworth goes on maternity leave in November it will be Kaplinsky who takes her place on the Six O'Clock News.

"She's a very clever, bright woman and it's clear that some people don't like that," says Wayne Garvie, BBC's head of entertainment. "She's no airhead. She's interested in politics and history and she's got hinterland."

It was 1969 when Raphie Kaplinsky, a Jewish student activist at Cape Town University, fled to Britain to seek asylum after receiving death threats following a campus revolt which he had organised in protest at the apartheid regime of the South African government.

Four years later in Brighton, Mr Kaplinsky and his Indian-born South African wife Cathy had a daughter Natasha, before returning to Africa to make a new home in Kenya.

Natasha Kaplinsky - though she lived in Africa for only six years - goes to South Africa frequently to visit relatives (in earlier times the family was closely followed by Special Branch) and jumped at the recent opportunity to present from Kenya as part of the Africa on the BBC season of programmes.

The Kaplinskys moved back to England, and Natasha grew up in a Sussex village in a highly politicised family environment, as her father, who became a professor of economics at the University of Sussex, continued to give support to the struggle by the African National Congress.

After her A-levels, Kaplinsky's interest in politics led her to work briefly in Labour leader Neil Kinnock's office. Although she has described her role as an "office skivvy", she was working in the lead-up to the 1992 general election and was close to the action. Far from inspiring her, the experience put her off a political career, although the interaction with political reporters aroused a new interest in journalism.

Kaplinsky's world collapsed around her when, during a holiday in Italy, a speedboat in which she was riding hit a wave and threw her against the deck, breaking her back. She was close to being paralysed and spent three months in plaster from her neck to her hip. The plaster was not removed until the day she began her English degree at Hertford College, Oxford, and left her with a profound sense of her own vulnerability.

Her confidence was undermined further when, having graduated, Kaplinsky found herself on the dole for more than a year, living with friends in London and desperately trying to gain a foothold in the media.

Instead, she found herself working in a succession of mundane jobs, including one which involved daily trips to the nearest supermarket to buy ingredients for the salad lunch of the managing director of a temporary employment agency for whom she worked as a personal assistant. Kaplinsky remembers this period of her working life as her unhappiest. She felt "demoralised" and "a failure", particularly as many Oxford friends had secured top jobs via the milk round. The letters she received declining her applications for work she still keeps in a box underneath her bed.

There was one response which stood out from the others. Jill Dando, the late Crimewatch and Holiday presenter, who in many respects had a similar place on the BBC to that occupied by Kaplinsky now, took the trouble to call her up and invite her for coffee. Although Dando was not able to offer Kaplinsky work, she told her "always believe in yourself and never take rejection personally".

Kaplinsky kept trying to break into television and found work on a cable channel, Talk TV, alongside Sacha Baron Cohen, the future Ali G.

In 1998, she was taken on at Meridian television in Maidstone. It was her first news role and led to her presenting the station's evening bulletins with Fred Dinenage. When she was given the chance to work alongside Alastair Stewart presenting London Tonight, she had her dream job. It lasted a year.

Rival television executives quickly became aware of Kaplinsky's talents and, with great reluctance, she was prised away to join Sky News. Her first experience of presenting at the time of a big breaking news story was the Selby rail crash. Although her instincts had warned her against a move to BSkyB's unglamorous suburban headquarters she now accepts that the white-knuckle ride of rolling news honed her presenting skills immeasurably.

For the past three years Kaplinsky has been attempting to get to bed by 8.30pm and rise at 3.20am. Although she deeply dislikes the early starts and the physical toll they take, BBC Breakfast has been a good vehicle for her. At this year's Television and Radio Industries Club awards in London, the show was chosen as Daytime Programme of the Year, while Kaplinsky was named Newscaster of the Year.

At the same ceremony, a second series of Strictly Come Dancing, which Kaplinsky presented with Bruce Forsyth, was named as Best Entertainment television programme. Kaplinsky immensely enjoyed working with Forsyth, unlike the first series which terrified her to the extent that she was experiencing heart palpitations at night, worrying about her dance steps.

She fought tooth and nail against the BBC executives who tried to persuade her to take part in the series, arguing that "appearing in funny sequinned dresses" would greatly damage her credibility as a newsreader. When she explained her feelings of looking "frumpy and ridiculous" to viewers but later warmed to the challenges of the ballroom, Garvie and the other BBC executives realised Kaplinsky had given them a narrative to their show.

Garvie says he fully realised Kaplinsky's appeal when on a provincial railway platform he watched "middle-aged Daily Mail-reading commuters" entranced by Kaplinsky.

But this broader appeal has brought its downside. As the public appetite for Kaplinsky has increased so journalists have sought to feed it by rooting through her dustbins, doorstepping her home and questioning her parents over past relationships. It was reported that her 12-year relationship with Mike Barnard, a management consultant, broke up after she cheated on him with former Meridian boss Lloyd Bracey, prompting more observations about the stop-at-nothing careerist.

Her higher profile has brought barbed comments such as the one produced at the head of this piece from Rhiannon Vivian, who featured Kaplinsky in the Sunday Mirror "Celebs on Sunday" supplement.

Kaplinsky's appearance on the red carpet presenting BBC coverage of the Baftas this year attracted more column inches. "Her furious off-air foot-stamping over the failings of her underlings to keep her looking gorgeous was broadcast straight into the packed press room. Fellow journalists had to laugh at such tantrums," wrote a fellow journalist from the Daily Express.

For some, Kaplinsky, who doesn't drink, is just too much of a goody two shoes. She describes herself as a "spiritual person", attends an Anglican church regularly and says she finds the services deeply moving. And although she retains the liberal values of her parents she is anxious not to be seen as a "lefty". She is worried the idea that she has political allegiances may damage her standing as a political interviewer. It may also annoy her new Middle England constituency.

When Sophie Raworth returns, Kaplinsky may have to move on from the Six O'Clock News which she will co-present with George Alagiah. She maintains that her future remains in the newsroom but she will balance that with lighter presenting roles for other BBC departments. Some in the media may not like it but public demand will ensure those offers keep coming.

A Life in Brief

BORN Brighton, 9 September 1972.

FAMILY Engaged to be married to investment banker Justin Bower.

CAREER After working in Neil Kinnock's press office and presenting children's TV with Sacha Baron Cohen, joined Meridian TV in 1997, becoming lead presenter on the evening news show before moving to London Tonight in 1999. She joined Sky News in 2000, and in 2002 BBC1's Breakfast programme. Won Strictly Come Dancing in 2004, and co-presented the second series with Bruce Forsyth.

SHE SAYS "I am ambitious, but I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I'm as ambitious for my personal life as much as for my professional. If you're asking me if I'll trample over people to get what I want, then no, because I don't know what I want."

THEY SAY "No one likes her. She earns far too much money. Oh yes, and doesn't she look awful in those frocks." Rachel Cooke, The Observer

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