“Everyone employs charm to achieve”
Queen of the arts, Mariella Frostrup, meets Lucy Holden for sushi in Notting Hill this week to discuss public image, corrupting fame and a nation obsessed with youth.
Mariella’s beaten me to lunch and is curled around the conveyor belt of Itsu’s Notting Hill branch. Sushi whirls past her elbow and on through the restaurant. Grass-green Edamame pods are neatly piling in a china bowl in front of her. ‘I’m popping these Edamame like pills’, she laughs apologetically.
The thing you quickly realise about Frostrup is that she’s not going to be difficult to talk to. ‘Have you seen Argo yet? Ben Affleck’s aesthetically very good-looking but he’s got no character. And he’s got that ridiculously pumped-up chest, he must spend about seven hours in the gym every day’, she babbles easily as we discuss Affleck’s recent embarrassing, but Oscar-winning, flexing.
Frostrup is the image of sophistication: round little John Lennon-style Ray-Bans, minimalist diamonds, still very-blonde hair tied loosely back in a way that makes the front hang forward in her famous bombshell bob. Is she bored of being asked about her looks? No way. ‘No one ever asks me about my looks anymore, I’d love to talk about my looks!’ She’s grinning, laughter lines pushing a wry gleam into her eye. ‘People used to ask me whether it was a problem being taken seriously, but they don’t seem to think it’s a problem now. The thing is – I’m not just saying this, but I really don’t care what I look like. If you hang onto something like that then tragedy always lies close. It would be totally unrealistic to want to look like my twenty-year-old self. If I regret anything, it’s not understanding then that I was attractive. At the time I was more concerned with my faults.’
Good advice, perhaps, for many who appeal to Frostrup’s weekly Guardian agony-aunt column. Anxieties veer between: ‘Dear Mariella, I can’t stand the thought of spending Valentine’s Day with my wife’, ‘Dear Mariella, I’m 15 and have fallen in love with an older man in a sweet shop’, ‘Dear Mariella, I want to stop my lesbian neighbours showing off their sex life’ (Mariella suggests the latter should relax and enjoy the free show).
Is it just part of our nature to always be worrying about something? Yes, she thinks so. ‘Even if you were the most beautiful woman in the world I think your looks would make you very insecure, because actually you can’t take any credit for them at all.’ So what does Frostrup herself worry about now? ‘I worry about maintaining a career in an ageist and fairly misogynistic culture. I wish we lived in a less ageist world generally; instead we live in a world obsessed with youth. It’s a direct result of the sexual revolution of the ‘60s, the world felt like it was being reborn, youth was changing everything, but we live in very different times now and I don’t think we’ve adapted. Young people’s energy and opinions are very important, but it’s to our detriment that we haven’t revered the wisdom of older generations. That’s our loss; it creates an un-empathetic world.’
When she hit ten years of advice-giving last year, Frostrup joked that she was lucky to have landed a job where past crimes and current misdemeanours actually enhanced your qualifications. Frostrup certainly has a past as chequered as the fashionable skinny trousers she’s crossed underneath our table.
Scarred by the sudden death of her father when she was fifteen, and unable to live in close proximity to a nightmarish step-father, Frostrup fled Ireland for London with only several carrier-bags worth of possessions to her name. ‘I don’t remember what I felt when I got on the ferry, but I must have either been very desperate or very confident. The idea of doing that now is absolutely terrifying: moving country with no job, no place to stay, no idea of what you’re going to do in the future and no money to tide you over in the interim. But if you’re lucky, in desperate situations you can summon the confidence to fight your way out. I’m quite resilient, I was determined. I do get knocked down, but I always get back up. I think an awful lot of who you become is formed in those early years of your life.’
Did the complete unexpectedness of her father’s death haunt Frostrup with the idea of loss? She’s got this enchantingly unconscious habit of referring her experiences back to something she’s read, which only proves a genuine love of what she does. ‘There’s this fantastically-titled book called The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett’ – ‘I always say Ronan Keating’, she smirks – ‘set in the backdrop of the War of Independence in the Congo. Anyway – I’m a bit of a catastrophist. I always think the worst is going to happen. I’m constantly trying to protect everyone around me.’ Tiring? ‘Time consuming’, she chuckles.
So did Frostrup have an idea of who she wanted to become when she left Ireland? Not really. ‘I didn’t realise there were options. I had to make a living. I operated on the premise of need, rather than desire or ambition. I never set targets because I’m so terribly cowardly, not to achieve them would have seemed like such a huge failure. But I believe in evolution, and I do feel like I’ve evolved, which as a human being is the best you can hope for I think.’
It’s not too difficult to imagine Frostrup must have morphed into this picture of self-sure sophistication sat opposite me later on. Back in London, it was only two years since she’d left Ireland and, searching for someone that reminded her of her father, Frostrup married the brooding lead-singer of 70s punk-rock band The Skids. Although many interviews paint Frostrup as a portrait of ambition, claiming that she was ‘too professional’ to go in for the heavy drink and drugs scene surrounding the band, they couldn’t be more wrong. What they forget is that fear was driving Frostrup and they overlook the temptation of escapism. ‘Don’t be so insulting’, she mocks amusingly now. ‘I definitely went in for it. I dabbled in most things. I just left before everyone got demented. I didn’t want to get like that. I’m too controlling to have an addictive personality.’
Whilst rumours that Frostrup received divorce papers for her 21st birthday are also false, it was all over in a couple of years. What’s her memory of this first failed marriage? Very blurred. ‘We were too young to be married and we were too young to take it too seriously. I was devastated when we broke up, I thought we were going to be together forever, but I was twenty. I thought all kinds of things that were unrealistic. Richard [Jobson] was very like me though. He was a creation bent on reinvention, perpetual motion.’
Believing reinvention to be more a way of life than a conscious decision, Frostrup finds the idea of slowing down makes her anxious. Is she a workaholic? She pauses. ‘I actually think I might be. Because I don’t really know what to do with myself unless I’m constantly moving. To sit down for a whole day I’d have to be close to death. I’ve got to keep moving. If my life was defined by anything it would be perpetual motion. Maybe it goes back to my dad dying, and having to constantly worry about money. I’ve never stopped long enough to think about it, but I find depending on anyone – for self-esteem, or money – terrifying.’
Still, even Frostrup can’t have anticipated that her reinvention would one day perch her on a speedboat amongst the Ocean’s Eleven cast as it swam through blue Lake Como waters. Frostrup was eight months pregnant and didn’t realise Brad Pitt and Matt Damon would be there when she went to stay with her good friend George. Clooney. She’d moved from Live Aid PR to television presenting to friend of the stars. Yet, Frostrup’s not sure about the often-claimed assertion that she’s ‘everybody’s best friend’, or even about the fact that she’s liked because of her un-confrontational style of journalism.
‘Journalism doesn’t have to be confrontational; journalists don’t have to be disliked. It’s about eliciting information in the most conducive way possible. I’ve seen journalists ask the same question fifty times and audiences think they’re so brave, but they don’t get different answers. It’s this slightly backseat notion of tough, male journalism.’ So how does Frostrup get what she wants? Charm? ‘Everyone employs charm to achieve things. It’s a far better weapon to have in your arsenal than brutality. But I can’t say I’m charming because nobody has any idea of what they’re like, or what they come across like.’
What impression does Frostrup have of fame, then, from her dalliance with the limelight? Her answer is as quick as lightening. ‘Horribly corrupting. It’s always the same; it’s like a virtual shrinking of your life. Because of the relentless attention, people just lead smaller and smaller lives until they end up with only four friends and they all work for them. I’m talking about super-sonic levels of fame. People begin to find it very difficult to connect with the world because their own life is so removed from it. Self-Googling is the enemy of sanity. Every person I know who’s started doing that has changed dramatically and is never a better person for it. There’s a vanity and a self-indulgence in it that becomes them.’
So as a woman under the potential scrutiny of the public eye, how does Frostrup feel about the ‘shelf-life’ of television presenters? She’s certainly glad it’s not all she does. ‘There are set attitudes about how long women are considered presentable. When you do what I do you have to have some tools in your arsenal and image is one of them. It’s shocking as you come closer to it, you realise that all those things – ageism, sexism – are actually as bad as you expected. We live in an increasingly pressurized world and I disagree with anything that gives young women, or young men, unrealistic ideals of what they should look like, or be like.’
‘There’s this scary feeling that we’re living in a society where Armageddon lurks. I really don’t think that we live in a particularly benign world at the moment and we could probably all do with taking a look at the moral choices we make. If you look at the enormity of the problem you’ll never do anything, you need to zoom in to where you can make a difference. Lots of people don’t realise how little changed the world is underneath the surface and how important it is to keep pushing against the status quo. It’s a very ill considered world. I can see why someone would want to cocoon themselves in a domestic setup away from it all. But I was insecure way before I started working.’ Why? ‘I think because I didn’t finish school, I was very aware that I didn’t have that knowledge that most people have and that I’d probably have to work quite hard to get it.’
A glance at the clock and Frostrup is scattering Edamame pods in panic. ‘Shit!’ She’s got to be at a gallery board meeting on the other side of London and is dangerously behind time. ‘They serve awful cake and they get really cross if you’re late’, she tells me with semi-mocked distress. She’s scrambling up while a waiter pulls her coat on and we’re flying out the door – Frostrup hailing a cab, kissing me on the cheek, jumping in and waving goodbye. The curtains over my little window into Mariella’s life are drawn as she speeds off into London traffic. Perpetual motion.