As Miriam O'Reilly says Fiona Bruce is right about going grey being bad for women on TV, we show what top talent might look like
08:54 GMT, 19 September 2012
Locked in the bathroom with a box of L’Oreal black hair dye, my heart sank. It was only three weeks since I’d last gone through the laborious performance.
I had to slather my hair in the foul-smelling unguent, paying attention to the greying roots; wait patiently for the dye to take; then rinse it off to reveal the freshly darkened locks.
I was 51 – an age at which many women will have gone entirely grey – yet as the presenter of BBC’s Countryfile, I felt obliged to cover any hint of grey in my hair.
Newsreader Fiona Bruce, left, sports an antique look while Breakfast host Kate Garraway shows her mettle
This wasn’t merely paranoia on my part; it was made clear to me that the producers of the programme expected me to turn up to filming with youthful locks.
Once, when my grey roots were clearly visible on set, I was offered a can of black paint to cover them up before I went in front of the camera.
Despite these humiliating efforts to stay looking young, I was dropped from Countryfile when it was moved from Sunday mornings to a peak-time slot in 2009.
I knew the BBC’s decision to terminate my contract had nothing to do with my talent and everything to do with my age: I was deemed too old to present a prime-time programme.
I subsequently won a case against them for age discrimination.
I am now 55 and while I would still love a job in prime-time TV, I am fed up with having to pretend that my hair is still the glossy brown of my 20s and 30s – a pretence most female TV stars adhere to and which was so bravely highlighted by BBC1 newsreader Fiona Bruce this week.
It's a countdown to grey for Carol Vorderman, left, and a metallic mane for Nadia Sawalha, right
Nigella Lawson's locks, left, are truly the icing on the cake and Claudia Winkleman, right is strictly silver
She admitted that she dyes her hair, saying: ‘Age is definitely an issue for women in TV. So far, it hasn’t been for me, but I know I need to make the best of myself.
‘For instance, I have a few grey hairs. I dye them. I don’t let my grey hair show when I’m reading the news.’
Unlike most women of a certain age, Fiona doesn’t dye her lovely brunette bob for fun or to please her husband.
She does it purely out of necessity because, as a female newsreader, she can’t risk revealing any signs at all that she may be undergoing the perfectly natural process of ageing.
In speaking out, Fiona must be well aware she is taking a huge risk.
I have never met Fiona, but from everything I know about the world of TV, I know she will have thought long and hard before making comments that draw attention not just to her age, but to the BBC’s attitude to ageing.
Speaking to Reader’s Digest, Fiona, who is a mother to Sam, 14, and Mia, ten, added: ‘I’m 48 years old and I feel very fortunate to be offered such amazing jobs.
‘I know it’s not always going to be like this. There comes a point — especially if you’re a woman — when your career just falls off a cliff. I’m not being self-pitying. That’s just the way it is.’
While I applaud Fiona for her courage, I also find the whole situation utterly disheartening.
Here is another woman — more successful and high-profile than I was — who nevertheless feels her job depends on her looking young.
It is truly extraordinary that, in 2012, a woman who is as successful as Fiona daren’t go grey. It is so shockingly sexist that it makes me want to weep.
Sky at twilight for Kay Burley, left while Sarah Beeny, right gets a sterling makeover
Welcome to 'Greybreak' Lorraine Kelly, left, and Fiona Phillips, right, is a veritable iron lady
In the same interview, Fiona makes it clear she will never have Botox because her husband, advertising executive Nigel Sharrocks, disapproves. Yet I know a great many women in the media who have felt obliged to do so, not through vanity, but for fear of losing their jobs.
Yet switch on the TV any time of the day or night and you’ll find plenty of middle-aged men with greying hair and wrinkles. Huw Edwards, Andrew Marr, Jeremy Paxman, Ben Brown: all are older than Fiona, yet it’s perfectly obvious that none of them has ever seen a pack of hair dye.
The grotesque truth is that while older men are seen to have gravitas, older women are thought to be, if not an eyesore, then definitely a bit of a joke.
You have to hunt high and low to find a woman with grey hair on TV. And when you do, she will almost certainly be tucked away in some niche daytime programme. Admittedly, it is lovely to see 72-year-old Gloria Hunniford, Jennie Bond, 62, Julia Somerville, 55, and 67-year-old Angela Rippon — all veteran presenters — fronting BBC1’s Rip Off Britain.
But let’s face, it, while it may be fantastic TV, it’s not the flagship news programme.
Old news: Presenter Penny Smith
I can think of only two high- profile women TV stars who have dared to show off their grey hair on screen: Mary Beard, the eminent and hugely engaging Cambridge don and TV historian, and Sir Alan Sugar’s wonderful former sidekick on The Apprentice, Margaret Mountford.
But there’s no way either would be allowed to read the news looking like that — even if they have brains the size of planets.
When Margaret left The Apprentice to concentrate on her PhD studies, she was replaced by a younger woman, the glamorous Karren Brady.
This issue of women on TV not being allowed to look their age is important.
It isn’t just sad for Fiona and all the other female presenters who feel obliged to dye their hair or resort to Botox (and, yes, I was told to do that, too).
It’s important for all women. TV holds up a mirror to society. And the message being conveyed is that middle-aged women can’t be trusted to read the news.
Why Because once we show the first hint of being menopausal, we instantly become something of a laughing stock.
If you are a woman — and most particularly, if you are a woman in the BBC — you don’t win respect for your age and experience. Wrinkles and grey hairs indicate frailty and weakness.
Women are made to feel they’re no longer capable of doing a good job because their neck is no longer as firm or their skin quite so free of lines.
And when TV so publicly makes its contempt for older women clear, it makes it OK for the rest of society to do the same. As a nation, we are obsessed with youth and beauty. You have only to watch ITV’s The Only Way Is Essex to see our terrifying obsession with fake tan, cosmetically enhanced boobs and false eyelashes.
And while they may be slightly more subtle about it, TV executives are promoting exactly the same message: that women are valued only if they look good.
I’m extremely proud of having stood up to the BBC about its attitudes to older women, even though I am in no doubt that it cost me my career.
After winning my case, I was given a three-year contract with the BBC and briefly employed as a presenter on Crimewatch, but I quit after a year.
While most of the staff were extremely supportive when I returned to work, others regarded it as a chance to pay me back for daring to step out of line.
Though I had more than 20 years of experience and had won numerous awards, I was treated like a total novice. I was undermined and ridiculed.
After battling for so long, there was no more fight in me, which is another reason why I admire Fiona for making a stand.
As for me, after dyeing my hair religiously every three weeks in order to keep my job, I am gloriously free to do what I like.
The dye with which I’ve covered my hair for years has been growing out gradually and on Friday I am going to a hairdresser in Birmingham to have every last bit of fake colour stripped out of it.
For the first time in my life, I will be wonderfully, proudly white-haired.
It will be a shock — to myself as much as to anyone else. But it will also be enormously liberating.
I just wish Fiona was able to have the same freedom. I know why she can’t, of course.
For the day we see her (or, indeed, any other woman) reading the BBC news with a few grey hairs on show won’t just be news-worthy. It will be earth-shattering.