Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

Davina intervention: Britain's most cheery presenter on overcoming addiction

Davina McCall has always lived life at full pelt. In the past, it was doing drugs, eating sweets and struggling for love. But now - whether she’s bellowing into a microphone or at home with her family - it’s non-stop happiness and haircare advice, as Deborah Ross discovers.

Deborah Ross
Saturday 12 January 2013 01:00 GMT

The first thing I note about the TV presenter Davina McCall is that she does have totally gorgeous hair. It's lovely, your hair, I say, in the pathetic manner of someone who has spent a lifetime in awe of Good Hair, as I so have. "Thanks," she says. And I do, I add, believe you dye it at home. No question. "I do!" she protests. "Well, not every time, but one time out of three." Her daughter Holly, she says, likes to help. "It's a joint effort. She does the shaking and stirring."

Give us a Garnier hair-swish, I say. She gives me a Garnier hair-swish. Beautiful, I say. I wish I had your hair, rather than James May's, which is what I seem to be stuck with. "That's rubbish," she says. "Don't you ever say that about yourself again. You've got lovely hair. Do you diffuse?" Begging your pardon? "Diffuse. You get one of those big circles and put it on the end of a hairdryer and diffuse it." I think, I say, I tried that once, but still looked like James May, only fluffier; like James May with a dandelion clock on his head. She says: "Diffuse, diffuse, diffuse, and it will look lovely."

Davina does exude a best-mate intimacy and if I were in the market for a best mate, which I'm not – I had one once; she drank all my wine while telling me her problems, as if I don't have enough of my own! – I would very much like her to be mine.

We meet at the London offices of her PR people where she is super-friendly and shouty and talks 10 to the gallon, as is her style. This irritates some, I know – Pipe down, Davina! Just pipe down! – but it is countered by, I think, a genuine openness and kindness. (Trust me, few are ever as kind about my hair, or have even tried.)

Anyway, she says she's been in torment trying to ignore the open tin of Celebrations on someone's desk. "They've been talking to me all morning," she says. You could just have one, I suggest. "I can't have one because I can't have one of anything," she says. "I'm the type of person for whom one is too many and a thousand is not enough."

She no longer drinks. She no longer smokes. She no longer does the drugs (famously, she was once a heroin addict). And she's now given up sugar. So you're policing yourself all the time? Are you scared your addictive side is just waiting for the right moment to pounce? Aha! You turned your back! Gotcha! "I have massive respect for that side of me, but I never take my guard down. I just don't want to go there again." But isn't it exhausting, all the policing? My police come on duty then knock off a minute later, the lazy bastards. I've already had two Mars and now I'm thinking: Bounty. She says: "I've got way too much to lose".

She may be the foremost female TV presenter today, unless you count Tess Daly or Cat Deeley, which I don't, as I can never tell which is which. (I wish there was one Tess Deeley, or Cat Daly, then we could be done with it.) She made her name, of course, as the face of Big Brother, which she hosted for a decade before it was dropped by Channel 4 and went to Channel 5. She could have gone with it, but chose not to, which is a shame, or as I say to her: "Just think, Davina, you could have been pictured in OK! magazine every week, with Richard Desmond's arm around you, you big ninny." She says: "Richard Desmond has, actually, been so sweet to me about it and he's really passionate about Big Brother. But I'd said goodbye and I had to move on."

Were you sad when Channel 4 pulled the plug? "Oh my God," she says. "I was in France on holiday when I got a call from my producer saying: 'Channel Four are dropping it. We are not doing it next year'. I got off the phone, spoke to Matthew [Robertson, her husband, who runs an adventure company], and cried. Let's not forget that, basically, I'd had three or four years of only doing Big Brother, so I had no other income apart from lovely Garnier, who have stuck with me through thick and thin." Do you find their Ultralift cream plumps up the skin, reduces the appearance of wrinkles, and gives immediate hydration leaving skin feeling softer and firmer? "I do!" she says. "And I use it twice a day, every day!"

Now, where were we? Oh yes, France. "Well, Channel 4 were trying to call me to, I think, apologise and talk it through and I kept saying: 'I can't talk to anybody. I don't want to talk to anybody until I've got my head round it'. I was bereft." She thought she would never work again, the big ninny, but the truth was, "the minute it was announced it was going to be the last series, I started getting job offers from other companies who had, I realised, been waiting for me to be available to do other projects." She now hosts Got To Dance for Sky, The Million Pound Drop for Channel 4, Long Lost Family for ITV and has, over the years, brought out a series of bestselling fitness DVDs. I own one, actually, and although I've only watched it from the sofa – my police held me down – it does look excellent.

Look, I'm no psychiatrist (except on Tuesday mornings; speak to my secretary but I am booked for the foreseeable future) but shouldn't Davina Lucy Pascale McCall be a complete mess, by rights? Her mother was an alcoholic and neglectful. Then there's the heroin business. All this is on record, at some length, so I wonder: does it bore the arse off you, talking about it, Davina? Not at all, she insists. "I know why people are interested, and it would be a pretty boring interview without it," she says. Plus, she adds: "I've shaped my own opinions about my own life through talking about it a lot. It's like therapy, in a weird sort of way. You sit there going, 'Mmm, mmm', and I'm just talking and you sort of end up sorting stuff out." "Mmm, mmm," I say. I think you can see now why I'm booked up for so long.

So, here's the mother bit: her mother, Florence, fled for Paris when Davina was three years old, leaving her to be brought up in Surrey by her paternal grandparents. Davina spent the summers with her mother, but her mother, by the sound of it, could not mother, and Davina was neglected in various ways: forgotten when she was due to be picked up from somewhere; taken to unsuitable places like nightclubs, and abandoned midway through the night. This is all out there, as I've said, but what sort of alcoholic was your mother, exactly? Was she a secret drinker? "She was a bottle of Johnnie Walker in her handbag, that sort of secret. And a double Ricard before she went off to work. And a double Ricard when she got to work. And, oh my God, the drink-driving. How any of us are still alive, I don't know. And she felt insulted if I wanted to wear my seatbelt. I'd be trying to put my seatbelt on and she'd be screaming at me: 'What's wrong with my driving? You're not putting on the seatbelt!'. You'd be like, 'Please, oh my God, I don't want to die in a car'."

OK, here's a question I'm hoping you've not been asked before: do any smells remind you of your mother? "Ricard. If I smell aniseed on anybody's breath it really reminds me of my mum; and there are certain perfumes. My mum used to wear loads of Opium so if ever I smell anybody that's wearing Opium… what's weird is it doesn't trigger a sort of 'ughh'… it makes me feel like a little girl that wants a lovely, yummy hug." Did your mother ever hug you? "Yes, she was loving. She wasn't vindictive. She wasn't mean. She gave me hugs but then, at the same time, she could flip and get furious." Do you think she had a mental condition? "No. She was just an alcoholic. It was just alcoholic chaos."

At 13, Davina moved to London to live with her father and his second wife – whom she calls "mum and dad" and "my parents" – and soon the drug-taking kicked in. Weed, at first, but by the time she was in her early twenties she had a full-blown heroin addiction. And what type of drug user were you? "I was all about keeping up appearances and saving face. No one must know. I was a very, very secret user." How did you afford it? "I worked my arse off (running nightclubs, as a model booker). I never stole. I worked like a lunatic, but I was working sustained by drugs to keep me going." And then you just decided to stop? "Something breaks, doesn't it? It's like something snaps and you just think: I have got nothing left and I hate, hate, hate myself. That's where I was. It's total self-loathing."

Do you remember the day you stopped? "That's easy. The night before, I was going to see Santana with my best friend and she locked me in her car and she said: 'Do you know what, I'm not taking you to Santana. I know that you've been lying to me. You are the topic of discussion at every single dinner party I go to. Look at you. What has happened to you?' We had a huge row in the car. I told her to fuck off. I unlocked the car door, got out, slammed it, stormed off in a huff and stormed into my mum and dad's, because I'd got to the stage where I was having to live back at mum and dad's. I had no car, no boyfriend, nowhere to live and stormed into my dad's walk-in wardrobe, which is where I was sleeping, on a camp bed, and just cried and cried and cried and cried myself to sleep and then, when I woke up the next morning, I went: 'I'm not doing it any more. I cannot do it any more. I've got no friends. I've got nothing left. I can't afford to put petrol in my car. I'm doing all the things I said I'd never do. That's it'.

"I called up my friend. and I said: 'Can I come and see you?' She said through gritted teeth: 'OK'. So I popped into her office with a bunch of flowers and I burst into tears, and she burst into tears. I said: 'I'm really sorry. I'm going to go to an NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meeting today'. I called up somebody I knew who attended NA and I said: 'Can you tell me where there's a meeting today?' and she said: 'There's one at six o'clock in Chelsea and I'll meet you there'. I went along and I felt that everybody was looking at me. I spoke at the end and I thought: 'Well nobody is going to talk to me after that'. But loads of people came up and said: 'Do you want to go for a coffee?'. I was like: 'What, you still like me after everything that I've said?'."

What did you say? "Just that I'd been lying to everybody and I'd been using more drugs than I'd told anybody. I was even on the committee for an anti-drugs ball while I was high on heroin. I just was faking everything and I'd let everybody down and I'd forgotten my little sister at school one day. I was just a wreck and so I couldn't believe it when they didn't reject me." Were you promiscuous, when you were using? "Yes definitely. Well I had a boyfriend from about 19 for about four or five years, so then I wasn't, but before that I was definitely somebody that if somebody liked me I would be with them because I was so flattered. That's very sad."

The addiction must have taken you to some horrible places, not just mentally, but geographically? "Yes, but at the time you don't think about it. You just go wherever you have to go. I remember going to a council estate in Woolwich at four in the morning, to the dodgiest, dodgiest place to go score smack, but you're not really thinking straight." You must have an iron will, to stop as you did. "For me, by the time I got to 24, I felt like I'd had seven lives. From what I'd been though – moving to my grandparents, moving to my mum and dad's, my wayward teenage years in France – then moving out of home at 19. I'd been working since I was 18. I didn't do university. I was much older than 24 by the time I stopped. I'd lived life to the max and was just ready to surrender. It was like: 'I can't do it any more. I give up. I can't pretend that I'm OK'."

She still attends NA meetings and follows the 12 steps, but what about when you became a mother yourself? Without ever having had a decent role-model? Were you scared you'd mess it up? "I'd wanted a baby for as long as I can remember. Matthew did say when he met me that I was probably going to be like the Virgin Mary, and have an immaculate conception, if I didn't marry him and have a baby with him. I was that broody. A baby could not go past me without me literally wanting to love it."

They now have three children: Holly, aged 11; Tilly, nine, and Chester, six. And she says she is less hard on herself than she used to be. "I got forgotten a lot when I was a kid by my real mother. I was forgotten at ski school or she forgot to pick me up from the airport. Just forgotten. So it was a bit of a thing for me on Tilly's first day at nursery, when she was three… because Holly had been through the same nursery and it normally finished at noon, I assumed Tilly would finish at noon but on the first day it finished at 11 and I didn't know until I got a phone call at 20 past from a friend saying: 'Look it finished at 11, but don't worry I've taken Tilly back to my house so just come and pick her up when you're ready'. I literally went into a meltdown of, 'Oh my God, poor Tilly!'. I feel so bad. An inappropriate reaction to something quite normal."

Her mother died in 2008, and Davina did not attend the funeral. There had been some attempt to re-build bridges until Florence sold a story about Davina to the Daily Mail, which Davina could not forgive. "Like being stabbed in the heart." Davina had been very close to her older half-sister, Caroline – born when her mother was 16 – who died last year of lung cancer. "She lived in the cottage next door to me. We celebrated Christmas early and she always did the smoked salmon on the bread and we'd always have a pretend argument about me telling her she wasn't doing it right and she'd tell me to fuck off and we'd be giggling. I did the salmon this year on my own and that really made me really, really sad." There are tears in her eyes. Did she, I ask, have as bad a time in the hands of your mother as you did? "She did much worse things to Caroline, but I can't really talk about it. I owe it to her memory to not splurge her life all over the papers." I think one of the things that sets Davina apart from say, Cat Daly, or even Tess Deely, is that her experiences have given her nuclear powers of empathy, which do always seem to come across on TV.

We happily chat away during the rest of our time together. She seems to love being married. "Matthew is very thoughtful," she says. "Tragically, we have an electric blanket in winter and it has dual control as he doesn't like heat but if he goes to bed first, he always puts my side on. It's those little things." How much, I ask, would you rent Matthew out for, by the hour? (I don't add: "I've looked him up on Google, and he's a dish", even though I have, and he so is.) "It would have to be a lot," she says, "because the hours you have him, I don't." A payment plan? "No."

Do you read, I ask. She says she's just read all the Shades of Grey books – "loved them" – and SJ Watson's Before I Go to Sleep. "That was amazing." She says she sometimes tries to educate herself through books, not very successfully. "I hysterically bought a book called Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg and I literally had to call my dad every other page to talk through some really weighty paragraph and I realised that, actually, I just don't have the intellectual capacity." Don't worry about it, I say. I buy Prospect sometimes and can't get beyond the first paragraph of anything in it. We were made for each other. We laugh. She would definitely be a good best mate, if I were in the market for a best mate. Also, I am going to diffuse.

'Davina Intense' is out on DVD now and the new series of 'Got To Dance' is on Sky1 on Sundays at 6pm

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in