Nicky Hambleton-Jones: Knives out for extreme queen

The TV presenter and stylist Nicky Hambleton-Jones is a stern task mistress who’s feeding our obsession with looking younger than we really are. So, what would she make of our very own Deborah Ross?
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Nicky Hambleton-Jones is the presenter of the top-rated Channel 4 make-over show 10 Years Younger and, having arranged to meet at a central London hotel, I am on time and she is not. One minute goes by, then another, until I am thinking: 10 More Seconds and I'll remodel her nose with my fist, kerpow, job done, let's get out of here. This is horrible, I admit, and she's not even that late – no more than 10 minutes – but you know how it is and come on: you've always wanted to punch her a bit yourself, right? You've always wanted to knock those weird specs a little skewwhiff, right? Don't lie to me. I know.

Ah, here she comes, stepping into the lobby, and, blimey, the state of her. She's 37 but looks at least 172. Her jaw line is hidden by revolting giant jowls, her hair is more bleach babe than beach babe and her saggy leggings are just so "disgustingly Grannysville". Yuk. Nicky, what were you thinking of? OK, only teasing; only fanciful thinking. As if! Instead, she is as polished as ever. Today, the blonde hair is all elegantly swept up and, aside from the specs – not just a gimmick; she has severe astigmatism and can't wear contact lenses – she is wearing a French Connection black dress teamed with heels by Moda In Pelle. Moda In Pelle wouldn't normally be her thing, as it happens. "They are a high-street shoe brand but I opened a branch for them and they gave me 10 pairs and I actually like them." She does have phenomenally gorgeous, creamy, flawless skin, as I would, if only mine weren't quite so lizardy and parched and damaged by everything going (sun, smoking, public transport; you name it, it's had its say). She says she has always, always kept her face out of the sun. She is South African originally, and grew up there with a grandmother "who was obsessed about the sun, was Victorian like that, and considered it low class to have a tan. She drummed it into my mum who was always on my case." The thing about Nicky, I quickly learn, is that she can make you feel as déclassé as you almost certainly are.

We settle in the hotel café where she orders a skinny decaf latte whereas I order a caffed-up fatty caff with extra caff. "I don't drink caffeine as it makes me feel sick," she says. We talk about the TV show which is, apparently, going from strength to strength. "Each series we reinvent it, change it, redesign it," she says. "People of all generations are getting something out of it for themselves." The format is pretty much as follows: a sad woman who is all frazzled and frizzy and has, admittedly, rather let herself go, is appraised as if she were Freddy Krueger and is then transformed by the combined efforts of a plastic surgeon ("You need a lot of surgery; a lot of work"), a dentist, a make-up artist, a hairdresser and Nicky who, as the stylist, confiscates those grannysville leggings and replaces them with an outfit that usually appears to involve a short, fitted jacket and knee-length brown boots. Actually, the grannysville leggings are not the worst of it. "Oh my God," says Nicky, when I ask what the worst of it is. "The thing that comes to mind is the mutton dressed as lamb, so it's the leopard-print shorts. You're a 40-year-old woman, what are you doing wearing those things? I've also had people who have just got dirty clothes; covered in paint splatters and dog hair and cat hair. One woman was so awful I got hay fever – I was sneezing, eyes pouring – just through touching her."

Nicky is chatty and vivacious and rather bright, in her way, but I do wonder about her lack of sympathy. Marvel at it, even. But is this why so many of us don't feel sympathetic towards her? All women are patronised on TV make-over programmes – Your business has gone bust? What you need is a yellow shrug cardigan! – but at least Trinny and Susannah and that funny little Gok fellow patronise with some warmth. ("Great arse, girlfriend," Gok will say, even when that arse rightly belongs on a hippo.) When I ask Nicky if she keeps in touch with any of the women who appear on TYY she says: "Some more than others." And then adds, pointedly: "Some are more grateful than others." I'm kind of thinking that if the success of a show depends on women being talked into having full-on cosmetic surgery – not a small thing, not a hair appointment; the pain, the recovery time, the scars – then maybe it's not these women who should be feeling grateful. Whatever, Nicky thinks Trinny and Susannah have probably had their day. "Their new show is a disaster, isn't it?" she says. "That naked sculpture – dire." And that funny little Gok fellow? "He's a sweet guy but we're competitors," she says. "Same production company, same channel." Who wins in the ratings? "Me!"

I'm not quite sure what I think of TYY. On the one hand I'm pretty sure I disapprove, but on the other I'm not averse to standing in front of a mirror and lifting a bit of skin up here and a bit up there, just to see how I'd look (spooky, since you ask). The thing is, I tell her, I just wouldn't know what to think about myself if I did have anything done. She says the secret is to do it on the quiet. "The secret is little bits when you need them and no one need know." I would know, I say. She says: "It's a personal thing you do for yourself. It makes you feel better. It's the same way as if you went and bought a horribly expensive handbag and didn't want to admit it to your friends, were worried about what they would f think about you spending all this money on just one item. But if it gives you pleasure and you just love taking it out ..." I don't say that I also wouldn't know what to think of myself if I bought a really expensive handbag. She says you don't have to go in for cosmetic surgery, anyway. "It doesn't have to be a facelift or Botox. There are so many other things you can have done, like a gentle peel or micro-dermabrasion. Very subtle." Go on then, I say, guess my age. She puts it at 40 which, given we both know you knock off 10 years when someone is in earshot, probably means 50. Still, I play the game excitedly. "No, 47!" I cry. "You look amazing!" she lies.

Still, I just don't know. I think it may have something to do with having been a student in the Seventies; the era of Virago and Spare Rib and Gloria Steinem and those lapel badges that read: "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle" which, I have to say, was patently untrue. (Or, as my goldfish Bubbles puts it: "I'd be lost without my bike. How would I get around?") Still, if anyone had said to us back then: "You go for it girls, but in 30 years women will be injecting poison into their faces," we would not have believed it. Nicky says, why all the fuss about Botox? "Cigarettes are poisonous too and we've been sucking that into our lungs for how many years? We all knew the dangers of that. Botox doesn't kill you. Smoking will." But people don't smoke because of the pressure they feel to look a certain way, I say. Plus, isn't it unfair that women have to spend all this time, energy and money on looking good, whereas men can happily get on with other things? She says: "I do think it's changing a bit. It used to be the woman who started to look really old in the relationship while the husband still looked good whereas now women are looking after themselves so well that the husband is looking a bit shabby." Is there an age at which we'll be allowed to stop bothering, I ask. When I'm 97, can I let it all hang out and say to hell with it and to hell with you? She says: "Look at Sophia Loren. She's in her seventies and still looks amazing." So that's a "no", then. (Hells bells.)

Were you, I ask, one of those little girls who, when growing up, was always in front of the mirror? She says yes, totally. "My mother used to say: 'Stop being so vain, get out of my clothes.' I was always dressing up in my mother's clothes and customising my outfits. My mum would make me a dress and then she'd find I'd cut it shorter. I just loved it. I dressed my brothers up. I remember one birthday party – we used to have these great big birthday parties, invite the whole class – and we had a fashion parade." She would have liked to have become a hairdresser – "I'd have been a bloody good hairdresser" – but her dad, a geologist, wouldn't have it. Instead, he decided she should become a dietician. "He thought it was a really sensible thing to do because it was a new profession, had a lot of growth opportunities and you could be self-employed." I don't think that it being one of the caring professions was the allure.

Initially, she looked after critical care patients in hospital, but it was never going to make her rich, so she went into private practice where, it would seem, her patients did little but irritate her. "Unfortunately, when you go into private practice you get everyone's sob story. It's: 'Oh I can't possibly not eat a bar of chocolate a day. My husband is having an affair.'" She didn't understand what these people didn't get. She'd want to say to them: "Seriously, calories in, calories out, what is it about that concept you can't understand?" Not especially sympathetic, like I said. I wonder if her father is now bemused by her career. She says: "He's terribly proud of what I do. But then my dad, who has spent his life mining uranium in deepest Africa, gets his teeth whitened. And the other day he starts going on at me about his skin care regime. He always uses Nivea mixed with sun cream. So he does have some awareness."

She came to England 12 years ago, as she always planned to do. She has English ancestry and says she has always felt English. She first worked in the City, which wasn't a great success, as she was made redundant three times in two years. After the third time, she spent all her redundancy money on a trip to Mauritius where she lay on a beach and wrote out a list detailing her ideal lifestyle. "Some of it I still haven't achieved, like my villa in Italy, but it was: if I could have it all, what would it look like? I wrote I wanted a job where I could be very creative and be my own boss and which had a fashion element to it, as fashion was my passion. I didn't have a clue then what I was going to do. This was before I'd even set up my own styling business." On her return she did set up a styling business – Tramp2Vamp, now sensibly (in my opinion) renamed as NHJ Style – and was on her way. Ambitious? You bet. A girl who knows what she wants and is going to get it? You bet. A girl who, on that holiday, also wrote out a list detailing her ideal future husband and is now married to him? Don't be ridiculous. Actually, better make that a "yes".

She is married to Rob, a civil engineer whom she met on a blind date, and fitted her requirements perfectly. "I remember describing my ideal man very clearly and it does match Rob pretty well. I wanted someone who was very confident and self-assured. I wanted someone who had a great sense of humour, who was sporty, and who really made me feel good about myself and would not hold me back in any way. I can't remember if I went into exact details on hair colour and eye colour but knowing me I probably did. And it's definitely what I met."

When I ask if Rob is ever slobby, if he sniffs his underpants to ascertain if they are good for another day, that sort of thing, she is quite mortified. "He'll wear a T-shirt and shorts but not slobby, no. We are not slobby people. Often I'm aware that I go off and I'm filming all day and I make an effort and I come home and change into my casual clothes or whatever and my husband never really gets to see me looking my best, so I always try to make a conscious effort. Why should he be the one that actually sees me looking my worst all the time? We've made a conscious decision not to slob around each other because it's just not fair, really." I'm thinking just the thought of having children probably freaks her out, and I'm right. She has been thinking about it a lot lately – "I am 37, and not 27" – but then also thinks about "women who've had five children and what they look like". I say, but look at Ann Widdecombe, who has had no children, and what she looks like. She would say to Ann Widdecombe, if she could. "You've got time on your hands. What are you doing, love?"

Time's up; one last question: you don't think it would be easier if everyone could just accept getting older – it's a fact, get over it? "No!" she says. Still, I am going to give up at 97. Ho hum, only another 50 years to go.