Is there anybody there?

profile Selina Scott Marianne Macdonald on the woman who has charmed everyone, except Donald Trump
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE three questions that the press has never been able to resolve about Selina Scott. The first is whether she has a sex life. The second is whether she is stupid, and the third is whether she has got so far because of her looks.

The fascination of Donald Trump's letter to her last week was that it apparently threw light on all three mysteries. She had interviewed him for a Grampian television documentary last month. He complained that she had asked him off-camera if he knew anyone who could take her out. He further claimed she was "not at all very smart" and added: "I felt sorry for you in that you are obviously a woman who has seen better days."

There was more in this petty and vindictive vein: how the 44-year-old presenter had arrived in New York looking "tired and beaten; not at all what I expected"; how "totally uptight and insecure" she was; how all she could talk about was her "bad relationships with men"; how "ingratiating", "repetitive" and "obnoxious" she had been; and how she had "cried and begged" for a second interview when she fouled up the first time.

The letter was typical of the outraged interviewee: journalists get them all the time. What was unusual was that it was written about Selina, who seems unable to be rude about anyone in interview. The only memorable criticism she has had from colleagues in a decade was when Terry Wogan told her on his show that she looked "rough" - she was getting up at 3am to present breakfast TV. Trump's anger was particularly surprising in the context of the documentary, which was her usual mixture of flirtation and flattery, together with a half-hearted attempt to establish whether the tycoon really owned the properties to which he laid claim. Trump had, moreover, been fairly ingratiating about her in the programme. On camera he seemed, like all other men with whom she has come into contact, to be besotted by her beauty.

THE MOST COMMON description of Selina Scott is as "mysterious", and this is often combined with the other perennial favourites, "bachelor girl" and "aloof". Her silence on the subject of her private life has been the bone which the press has worried for a decade, with Today the most obsessed, trailing her like a stray puppy between her Majorcan villa, Kensington supermarket and Mayfair hairdresser.

In February 1987 - two years after she herself deputised for him on the show - Wogan tackled her on the subject. "I'm not mysterious," she claimed. "I'm an open book. It only takes a little bit of probing to know who I am." This may well be true; everyone assumes she has all sorts of exciting secrets but the more probable explanation is that she has very little to tell.

What is undoubtedly the case is that she has worked very hard at her career, and still does. She started at 13 filing reports on weddings and jumble sales for the Darlington and Stockton Times (she was sacked when she asked for a pay rise). After secondary school in Guisborough, near Middlesbrough, where she was head girl, she went to the then fashionable University of East Anglia, to read English and American Studies. Malcolm Bradbury, the academic made famous by The History Man, remembers her as lively and "spectacularly good-looking" but not, perhaps, spectacularly academic. "I certainly taught her," he says gracefully, "and it was quite clear from her career that she was talented, but it was the talent of character rather than intellect."

She took her first job at Scotland's Sunday Post, working in the Dundee newsroom as a reporter but also writing "lifestyle features". "She was modest and unassuming and did her job very satisfactorily," recalls Russell Reid, then the features editor, now the editor.

Her next move was an odd one for someone keen to get on in journalism. She became press officer for the tourist board on the Scottish island of Bute where she lived first in a caravan, then in a tiny cottage overlooking the Mull of Kintyre. The usual explanation is that Selina wanted to meet the huntin', shootin' and fishin' set, but this cannot be true because the only holidaymakers who went there (and still do) were working-class Glaswegians. The real reason appears to be that she loved the countryside.

Her aim at work was to rid the place of its downmarket image, but her superiors couldn't see what was wrong with the annual influx of Glaswegians. There were tearful clashes and her bosses began to hint that she spent too much time with her then boyfriend Alan MacLeod, who ran a motor yacht charter.

He says this was not true and goes on to tell an anecdote which seems to illustrate aspects of her personality - her precision, her good taste but also her desire for control. "I bought the lease on a Georgian house and because she had impeccable taste in decor she advised me on how it should look. The large drawing room was very fine, 35ft long, and she wanted it this very, very deep pink. I argued against it because it was supposed to be a boy's bachelor pad, but I lost. She was so finicky about getting the correct colour pink that it took her three months hunting through every single paint chart to find it."

It was on Bute that she spotted the advertisement for a presenter on North Tonight at Grampian, the Aberdeen-based TV channel. She was hired by Ted Brocklebank, the man whom the tabloids now like to describe as her "very close personal friend" and "mentor". From there she went to ITN to anchor News at Ten, then to launch BBC's Breakfast Time with Frank Bough, before joining the Clothes Show.

She moved in 1988 to New York to front the now-defunct magazine programme West 57th, for which she did celebrity interviews. "Here, most of the women producers are unmarried and about my age. No-one says: 'My God there must be someone wrong with them'," she remarked a trifle bitterly at the time.

WHAT fascinates the tabloids - and many of her colleagues in the gossipy world of television - is the lack of any obvious sex life. She has never married and there are no known boyfriends. The Wogan interview in 1987 elicited a rare comment from her about this state of affairs. "Are you secretly married?" he asked. She replied: "The newspapers say anything about me. A couple of weeks ago one of them said I was pregnant and its sister Sunday newspaper was saying something like I prefer girls to boys."

Roger Castles, her executive producer on The Clothes Show, deplores the persistent chatter: "The last thing someone like Selina wants to do is say she's available because she'd get knocked down in the rush." This is borne out by comments which, even five years ago, still graced the men's urinals at UEA. The lucky man may be Mr Brocklebank, 52, who was spotted holidaying with Selina last month in Majorca, but if so, he isn't saying. "My situation is that I'm a single person. I have been divorced for some 20 years and I now live in Aberdeen and I'm happy for that to continue," he explains.

Brocklebank is as quick as everyone else she has worked with to emphasise her professionalism, sense of humour and team-spirit so she ends up sounding like a cross between a Butlins redcoat and Princess Diana - with whom she is persistently compared. Women remark ruefully that she makes them feel like Roseanne meeting Grace Kelly, and one from Sky has been quoted saying: "She's terribly sweet but you almost feel you are in the company of royalty." This is hardly surprising, given that Selina has cultivated the Royal family assiduously and proved adept at getting interviews with European royals for Scott-Bellendine, the production company she has now set up. For someone from a lower-middle class background (her mother ran an antiques shop in Malton and her father was a policeman) she is certainly not shy about the aristocracy. Her interview with Prince Andrew in October 1985 was a sustained piece of flirting, with him openly leering and bemoaning her refusal to give him her telephone number at a previous meeting. She has also interviewed Prince Charles and even stood in for the Duchess of York, opening a shopping centre in High Wycombe in 1987.

It is this relentless quest for high society which has prompted her to acquire her mellifluous vowels and slightly unconvincing accent. She enunciates terribly pre-cise-ly, as though she fears she will slip into a Yorkshire dialect. The same self-discipline, one suspects, has prevented her from being a great interviewer: one senses that she is too tense to get an interesting conversation going.

So how did she get to the top? Her detractors say it is her looks, quoting the Booker prize dinner in 1983 when she asked the chairman of the judges, Fay Weldon, if she had really read all the books. One BBC employee thought her secret was being "very obedient" and doing what she was told. But this is unfair: interviewing is more difficult than it looks and everyone agrees that she is a nice person, loyal, discreet, and even witty - when you can get on her wavelength. She is renowned for being punctual, well-briefed and well turned-out. Another BBC insider provides the most interesting insight into the Selina phenomenon. "I felt she was quite vulnerable and quite misunderstood. She made you want to look after her," she says. It seems the only person immune to her charm is Mr Trump. But that may say more about him than her.

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