Profile: Almost one of the lads; Ulrika Jonsson

If anyone could make European Monetary Union interesting, it was she.

Vanessa Thorpe
Saturday 13 June 1998 23:02

FIRST she is being beaten up by her football star boyfriend in a Paris bar, then she's appearing on BBC2 to interview the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Even by modern-day standards of celebrity, Ulrika Jonsson's week has had the lot.

Famous for being famous is one thing; the ditsy blonde who gets to discuss macro-economics in the drawing room at No 11 quite another. Ulrika - one of those TV personalities whose first name alone is enough to confer instant recognition - manages to be both of these, and more.

It's 10 years since a charming, smiley Ulrika turned up as a weather girl on TV-am. TV weather girls are all charming and smiley, of course, nurturing their dreams of where this humblest of on-camera roles might lead. Not many of them make it - but Ulrika has to a spectacular degree. At 31, she is in demand as never before, with a seemingly contradictory blend of hard-drinking raunchiness and a jolly-good-sport willingness to play along in the role of knowing stooge that is perfect for the age of irony TV.

The Ulrika image is uniquely hers while containing elements of predecessors in the role of glamour-puss TV presenter: the healthy blonde look of Anthea Turner, the scurrilousness of Paula Yates, the much-vaunted "class" of her fellow-Scandinavian Mariella Frostrup. But humour is where Ulrika really scores - not in the sense that she is a great wit but in her good- natured gameness to have herself sent up. Fancying her like crazy, yet not feeling in the least bit threatened by her, British men have, in surveys, voted Ulrika the woman they would most like to make love to - and from whom they'd most like to hear about European issues.

Like any TV personality, Ulrika has had to adapt to survive. Straight woman to hip comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer on Shooting Stars - a role that defined her as the empowered, attractive "ladette" of the 1990s - she was a vivacious sidekick to Terry Wogan in the Eurovision Song Contest last month. And now, in her interview with Gordon Brown on Friday, the clever choice to be the person through whom we can learn about European Monetary Union in a way that is both comprehensible and entertaining. It adds up to an impressive portfolio, and the BBC is rumoured to want to make more of her talents and popularity.

Back in Ulrika's native Sweden the newspapers have been plastered with her face even more liberally than their British counterparts. The country's biggest-selling popular title Expressen carried a total of six photographs chronicling the row with Stan Collymore. "The Swedes have taken her to their hearts," explained an English journalist working in Stockholm. "They feel that way about anyone who makes it big outside Sweden, and they go mad about Eurovision too. They have not forgotten the glory days of Abba."

And it is this Swedish background that may hold the key to Ulrika's career. After all, if you grow up until the age of 12 in a culture that the British habitually look down upon with a sneering sense of cultural superiority, then appearing to be "in on the joke" might well start to become important.

A chubby young Ulrika first came to Britain in her pre-teen orthodontic braces to join her mother, Gun. Some years earlier Gun had left Ulrika's father, a Stockholm driving instructor called Bo, and eventually remarried, to an Englishman. But before the eight-year-old Ulrika was able to join her mother in a new family environment overseas, she had to cope alone for four years with her father's fast-food diet and his series of new girlfriends.

Once in Britain, Ulrika did well at school and got three good A-levels before deciding not to go on to Goldsmiths College to study French and drama. Instead, she took the job of secretary to the erratic media mogul Bruce Gyngell, who was then in charge of TV-am.

Her looks quickly marked her out as a natural in front of the camera and within a couple of years she had distinguished herself as the prototype Scandinavian weather girl. Around this time she featured memorably in a series of soppy advertisements for shampoo, selling a heartfelt line about the importance of shiny hair. Then, in 1992, came her first high- profile job, as presenter of ITV's camply ludicrous Gladiators show.

Although she was confident and competent, Ulrika was still teetering on the brink of trashy cult obscurity when Vic and Bob plucked her into trendyland and made her a team captain in Shooting Stars. Ulrika's very wholesomeness was the initial joke, and she gamely accepted their lustful and demeaning on-screen advances. Loud burps and farting noises were the order of the day and Ulrika had the perceptiveness to see where the humour, silly though it was, had its roots. "They still fear women, but it is their show and they are able to do exactly what they like," she once said.

Her one-off comedy show, It's Ulrika, was written by Vic and Bob but was not a roaring success. Scriptwriters who have worked with her on TV shows confirm she is not an instinctive comic. "To be honest, I am not sure she really has enough grasp of English vocabulary to actually understand or write good jokes," said one. "I mean, I didn't go to university myself, but going through the script there were always one or two words that she was not familiar with, and they weren't that esoteric."

All agree, however, that Ulrika's manner is friendly and unstarry, even if her jolly banter does tend to centre on her own sexual appeal. "She tended to make lots of references to the fact that all the men in the team wanted to shag her," another writer recalls. "And, of course, she was right."

This teasing approach goes down less well with some of the women Ulrika has to deal with. "I think she is pretty keen on herself," commented one booking agent. "I doubt she even noticed me. She doesn't pay all that much attention to women."

Such prejudice can, of course, easily be put down to jealousy, and Ulrika is well used to deflecting criticism of the way she has used her looks. "I think in this country you would be hard-pressed to separate the words blonde and dumb with a crowbar," she said recently. "Because I'm noisy in company and smile a lot I also get called bubbly, which is equally perjorative."

As a TV performer, however, she is becoming increasingly valued. Geoff Posner, the director who worked with her on Eurovision, was impressed above all by her professionalism while under fire. "She was very cool," he said. "And that was a complicated bit of live TV. At any time she had to remember who she had just spoken to, who she was about to speak to, what the scores were and also to cope with the possibility that anything could go wrong out there. You are very exposed on a programme like that."

Kenton Allen, who also recently worked with Ulrika on a pilot for a Granada travel show, is equally fulsome in his praise. "No way is she just an autocutie," he said. "TV is a visual medium and of course people who look good get on. But Ulrika has great application and knows exactly what she is supposed to be doing."

Ulrika herself claims never to have wanted fame and yet she appears to have accepted the media's fascination with her love life in good part. In the last year or so her name has been spuriously linked to that of Vic Reeves, Chris Evans and, more surprisingly, Richard Branson. Quizzed by journalists in each case she has laughed the insinuations off. They are all based on circumstantial evidence, she claims. "Just because Vic Reeves and I turned up to a football match together and we were both wearing leather trousers, that was it. Everyone then assumed that we were having sexual relations," she complained.

The truth about her love life is that she has been married once, to the cameraman John Turnbull, who is the father of her son, Cameron. Since then she has divorced, and enjoyed much publicised affairs with another cameraman, and with the Gladiator known as Hunter. Then came Stan Collymore and that, she assured a concerned public earlier last week, was now over for good.

Last year Ulrika coyly insisted that she had had only three partners in 11 years and that she is really a home body who will always shun life in the big city. There she goes again, you may think, wanting it both ways. To retain her appeal she knows she must cling on to her wholesome image, and yet this is the woman who wantonly told readers of the magazine Loaded that she was knickerless at the time of the interview and who is always more than happy to talk about her size 32D breasts and the little red devil tattooed on her buttock (she is a Manchester United fan).

Perhaps Ulrika can have it both ways. She is the girl who was used, after all, to illustrate the new consumer category of "middle youth "- the marketing target group which is confidently mature and yet extremely reluctant to leave behind the trappings of youth culture. While this may not qualify her to be particularly funny, this does not matter as long as she remains the girl most British men would want to laugh at their jokes.

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