Trisha Goddard: Truth is stranger than fiction

The presenter of a hit daytime-television show, Trisha Goddard is famous for persuading members of the public to share lurid real-life tales with her audience. But her own story is every bit as extraordinary as that of any of her guests, as Julia Stuart discovers
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The Independent Online

Trisha is in a hotel suite, giving off a slight whiff of anxiety. The presenter of the eponymous daytime ITV chat show nibbles fretfully on a biscuit as we start to talk. The nerves, I suspect, are down to the fact that the last time Ms Goddard entertained the company of a broadsheet journalist she came off looking a considerable chump. A resident of Norfolk (the show is filmed in Norwich), she announced that it was "much harder to get a level of intellectual stimulation here - unfortunately, when you go rural, intellect goes hand in hand with snobbery or elitism". And, with one final grind of her heel, she added: "Other women my age are too old for me - mentally they've let themselves go."

Trisha is known as a survivor of a rash of traumas, any one of which would have left many of us on a psychiatric ward. Her youngest sister committed suicide; her first husband turned out to be gay and died as a result of Aids; her second was having an affair with one of her staff when their second child was born; and she has attempted suicide twice - all of which ended up in the press in Australia, where she was working in television.

Yet, having read her new book, The Family Survival Guide, which interweaves advice on how to improve life at home with tales of Trisha's past and present, I am half expecting to meet a version of The Independent's lifestyle columnist Denisella Brown. It includes handy tips on what colour to paint your home to create the perfect ambience. "Yep, I'm a firm believer in thinking before you pick up the paintbrush," she writes. She also informs us that she has "triumphed in the face of racism many times, not through aggro and militancy, but by using good grooming, good manners, a radiant smile and sharp wit." On the subject of her appearance, she tells us: "I love the way I look right now. I love that people gasp in surprise when they hear I'm 45." There is mention of the housekeeper and gardener "who come three times a week".

And, lest we start turning green, she generously points out that "being Trisha has both its ups and its downs". The poor love can't just "nip into any old nightclub for a bit of a bop" (she describes herself as a "brilliant dancer") because she gets stared at and approached by fans of the show. For those who haven't seen it, it has a confessional tabloid format, regularly inviting warring couples to have DNA tests to determine the paternity of their children or to take lie-detector tests to prove that they're not a "love rat".

Yet Trisha is hugely likeable in the flesh. Once her make-up artist, personal assistant and two daughters, aged nine and 13, leave the room, she relaxes. Dressed in green combat pants and top, there is no hint of the ego that comes out in the book. I am not the first to take to her. "Everybody really loves her," said a former colleague, who can't help adding: "but she's got hideous taste in interiors. She throws a Christmas party for staff at her house and there's snakeskin all over the place. And she's got a terrible stylist; her clothes are awful."

Trisha doesn't see her past as extraordinary. "I know any number of people, some celebrities, some not, who had much worse; they just haven't spoken about it. None of this would ever have come out but for the fact that I was headhunted in Australia for this job [as presenter of her TV show] on the basis of literally one article that I did when I was in psychiatric hospital to prevent other people writing what they wanted to make up," she says, scratching her scalp with long French-polished nails, which sends her entire hairdo rocking gently from side to side. "Somebody had tipped off the press and I was terrified about it coming out. I had always talked about standing up for mental health issues, and as a mental health campaigner I talked about not being frightened about talking about mental illness, and here I was hiding away in a psychiatric hospital. I wasn't stupid, it could have done me great damage."

Her journey to the acute ward of a psychiatric hospital was particularly painful. She was born in Hackney of a black Dominican mother and white English father, both psychiatric nurses. She was bullied at her school in Norfolk because of her colour. When the family moved to Surrey she went to a grammar school, where she was treated as a novelty and became a "total snob". Her three younger sisters, however, went to the local comprehensive. She doesn't remember having much of a relationship with either them, or her parents. She does, however, vividly recall being hit by her mother and father. Is she close to her parents now? She wrinkles her nose. "Um... it comes and goes, we are not an amazingly close, close family." Their inclusion in the book, is, she says, "a balance of me being true to me and not being awful to them".

After school, she joined an all-girl rock band, became a hovercraft hostess and then spent five years as a Gulf Air stewardess, based in Bahrain. Her boyfriend - "probably my first love" - would put his hand over her mouth while they were in bed to muffle her screams as he punched her.

At 28, while on a flight, she met Robert Nestdale, the director of Unicef in Australia, who was also involved in conservative politics there. Nine months later, after having spent about 10 days in each other's company, they married in Australia in 1985. Trisha still hasn't completely worked out why. "I think I was at a crossroads. I had an opportunity of doing a BBC cadetship, but the money was horrendous. I was a bit directionless. I was blown away by what I saw as his social standing in Australia, and it seemed to be the age that a lot of my friends were getting married."

After the reception, she knew immediately that she had done the wrong thing. Nestdale told her he was working the following day - a Sunday. Their love life was almost non-existent, and three months later the couple moved into separate bedrooms. "It seemed that once the ring was on my finger, 98 per cent of the pretence went," she says. "It was a weird, weird relationship. He'd go to work and lock me in the house, and there were bars on the windows, so if he double-locked the door I was trapped. I'd ring him and say, 'You've locked me in' and he'd say, 'I can't get away.'"

At one stage, he took Trisha's gym buddy to dinner and asked him to take over having sex with her, detailing her sexual preferences. Trisha was so angry when her friend told her about her husband's request that she took a knife to her wrist, with the result that she was almost unable to use her left hand for a year. She left nine months into the marriage.

Through connections with her work in public relations, she got a job as a current affairs journalist with SBS TV. Eighteen months later, she became presenter of ABC TV's news and current affairs programme, 7.30 Report, and was the first black primetime anchor on Australian television. She also presented Play School.

Trisha started dating a television producer, Mark Greive, who was to become her second husband. Then, tragedy: her youngest sister, Winnie, who had schizophrenia, died after getting into her mother's car and setting fire to it. Trisha decided to channel her grief into helping others and, for 10 years, worked for mental health advisory services, eventually becoming a government adviser. "I was one of the most powerful and key people on the subject in Australia," she writes.

Trisha and Greive had a daughter, Billie. Less then three hours after the birth the "career-driven monster" - as Trisha describes herself - was back in full make-up in front of the cameras. A month later, her first husband, who had told Trisha he had leukaemia, died. After attending the memorial service, Trisha was told by one of his political contacts that he had in fact died as a result of Aids. It was 1989, and the presenter, who was breast-feeding, had to wait 10 days for her HIV test result to come through. "I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. I just existed." The test was negative.

Why does she think Nestdale married her? "Oh, he needed to. There were rumours about his sexuality and he had to find somebody outside the country, and he wanted to get involved in the United Nations. I spoke languages, I was exotic and I was from outside the usual crowd," says Trisha, who had no intimation during their marriage that he was gay. She says she doesn't hold a grudge against him. "The ironic thing is that if he had been honest about who he was, I might have had histrionics for five minutes, but I'm actually very loyal, I would have dealt with it."

In 1994 she and Greive had another child, Madi, who nearly died of respiratory failure when she was seven weeks old. Shortly afterwards Trisha discovered, through mobile-phone bills, that her husband was having an affair with one of her trusted researchers, which had started when she was six months pregnant. "When I discovered that she'd actually finished with her Mark some time before, and that when talking about 'Mark' she could have been secretly asking me for advice on how to handle my own husband, it was another shove over the cliff of sanity."

Three months after the birth, Trisha took an overdose and spent five weeks in a psychiatric hospital. It was her lowest period. Her despair was at its most acute when she wandered into the nurses' station and saw from a chart on the wall that she was on suicide watch. "I suddenly looked round and thought, 'I'm not trusted. I'm seen as the biggest danger to myself and so ill that I have to be locked in this place.' That to me is as low as you can go in lack of control. It was decided when I would eat, when I would see a doctor, whether I could have visitors or not, and someone was probably talking about whether I was fit enough to have my children with me, maybe for the rest of my life."

The couple split up and Trisha spent two years having twice-weekly psychotherapy. Her psychiatrist eventually fled the country and was struck off for having inappropriate relationships with women patients. Fortunately, Trisha was spared his attentions. Worryingly, he now works in England.

Trisha experimented with sex, at one time having three boyfriends on the go, who all knew about each other. She tried Ecstasy. She eventually did some more television, and through her mental health work she met Peter Gianfrancesco, the director of a mental health service in Sydney. They married in 1998, the same year she took up the offer of the Trisha show. Gianfrancesco, who contributes to her book, is now the chief executive of the mental health charity Mind in Norwich.

Trisha says she doesn't see herself as having been deceived by the previous men in her life. "My focus was on work and career, and I tended to sort of drift into these totally unsuitable relationships. I don't see myself as a victim and 'poor old me, these men were horrible to me'. The sort of person I was then, I clicked into people who were emotionally stunted, as I was. That was the key to happiness, or some balance in my life. I woke up and realised that I was the person who attracted these relationships and I was the one who could change that." She puts her tendency towards depression down to a combination of genetics, personality and life stresses, and uses exercise to help her mood.

One wonders quite what effect going on the Trisha show has on her guests' mental health. One victim of domestic violence was told by another guest: "I'm not fucking surprised you were beaten up, you look like a fucking dog." The presenter even admits that she herself wouldn't go on the show as a guest. She strongly defends it, however, saying that the guests benefit from the after-show counselling, which is their incentive to appear. "The day the psychological and mental health services in this country are really working, we won't get a single guest." The DNA tests, which people from "council estate ghettos" cannot afford, do finally put an end to gossip, she claims.

The interview has come to an end and Trisha reaches for another biscuit. "How's life in Norfolk?" I enquire. "Great!" she says, and then bursts out laughing. Trisha is an immensely admirable and impressive woman. Many may feel that her book - and the trashy television show - do her talents a disservice.

'The Family Survival Guide' is published on Thursday (Vermilion, £8.99)