Frostrup erupts! Cameron's a complete joke. His wife has betrayed feminism. And TV suits are gutless for cancelling her latest show – because it had too many womenPresenter wants to see more women in politicsBeing asked to be a Booker Prize judge made her cry with prideClaims that TV is full of 1950s stereotypes
22:16 GMT, 3 November 2012
Within minutes of meeting Mariella Frostrup, she is chatting away, 19 to the dozen, like your very best girlfriend.
Tucked away in a corner of Tom’s Deli in Notting Hill, no one notices the arts presenter and literary girl-about-town in their midst. She is surprisingly, daintily, petite, but don’t be fooled. Mariella is a woman of firm views and strong opinions and she isn’t afraid to share them.
The cafe is much loved by locals who remember a time before the boutiques and fancy restaurants swept in. ‘How it’s changed here,’ she says. ‘I was at someone’s house the other day and one woman said, “My builder’s so wonderful – he quotes Proust at me.”
Not holding back: Mariella Frostrup hit out at Samantha Cameron and defended Cherie Blair
‘I thought, “Well, if he’s anything like my builder, that’s a lot of lost time we’re talking.” ’
She is referring to the author’s most famous work, In Search Of Lost Time. It is classic Mariella – clever and down to earth at the same time.
An unabashed feminist, last year she set up The Great Initiative, a charity devoted to working towards gender equality in the developing world. It’s a crowded arena. Cherie Blair has set up an international foundation to help women in business, Sarah Brown has worked tirelessly to reduce infant mortality, and Miriam Clegg founded the Lawyers’ Circle, which supports Oxfam’s work on women’s rights across the globe.
However, there is, according to Mariella, a notable exception.
She says: ‘Like her or not, Cherie Blair was a fantastic role model, Sarah Brown does amazing things and I also really admire Miriam Gonzalez Clegg.
‘I’m sure Samantha Cameron is… you know, I’ve met her a couple of times and she seemed great and intelligent and feisty and she was a working woman, for heaven’s sake. But now she supports the fashion industry. And that’s disappointing because she was in a position to do so much.’
Nor is she impressed by David Cameron, who was accused last week of excluding women from senior posts and setting the clock back on equality. Mariella agrees, the famous husky voice rising in indignation.
The first ladies: Frostrup is not a fan Samantha Cameron but has defended the Cherie Blair
‘Her husband has a risible track record in bringing women into Parliament. In Rwanda, they have 54 per cent female representation in Parliament. We’ve got 22 per cent.
‘It’s a complete joke. And I think both of them could afford to get a bit more animated about women in this country. Particularly as they are the ones losing their jobs in the double-dip recession. You’d just like to see more, wouldn’t you’
'Like her or not, Cherie Blair was a fantastic role model'
Television, she says, is no better. Along with many others, the presenter, who has book shows on Radio 4 and Sky Arts, deplores the lack of older women on our screens.
Mariella, who turns 50 in a couple of weeks, said: ‘Not long ago I was about to do a River Cottage episode which involved spending the weekend with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. It was Jo Brand and me and Kathy Burke.
‘I thought, what fantastic casting, this is going to be brilliant. It was due to be filmed on the weekend of my 50th and I still agreed to do it because it was going to be so much fun. But it got pulled because they didn’t want it be all women. How many programmes do we watch every night on television that are all men How many quiz shows, how many news shows They said there were too many women, who’d want to watch it
He could have done more: Prime Minister David Cameron has helped raise the number of women in the House of Commons to 22 per cent, but Frostrup believes it could have been higher
‘Television is the last bastion of Fifties stereotyping of women. Just look at how newsreaders have to dress in their little jackets and with their perfect hair. Television smoothes out all the character.
‘I bet they’re not inspecting Jeremy Paxman’s trousers to see how well tailored they are. It’s ridiculous. Television celebrates character in men and banality in women. And it tries to take interesting, exciting, intelligent women and reduce them.
‘I don’t think that the real women I meet, work with are like that.
‘People like my friend Penny Smith. Why is she not on television any more Just because she’s 53. I want to see women that are representative of the women I meet and associate with.’
Nevertheless, she is dismissive of the current ‘BBC bashing’ over accusations of institutional sexism, having spent the early part of her career in the music industry – she was a PR for Phonogram Records and did the publicity for Live Aid.
She says: ‘It’s not just the BBC, for heaven’s sake, it’s completely across the wider culture, other TV stations. I was in my teens in the late Seventies, I worked in the music business and sexism was endemic. When people say, “Oh, you know, he pushed me up against the wall and said, “Oh, you know you want to . . .” That was considered foreplay back then.
A previous life: Frostup worked in the music industry in the 1980s and helped to promote Live Aid
‘I’m not saying that was right – thank God we’ve moved on – but you have to bear in mind that was 30 years ago, the world has changed dramatically. I don’t think it’s to do with the BBC but a culture that existed at the time.
'I have never worked in BBC television. I have spent my entire career being taken out for drinks by the BBC controllers but not actually working for them.
‘That’s my only experience of what I would slightly consider unusual behaviour – why would I be “auditioned” regularly but never employed’
Not that any of the controllers were ever brave enough to proposition her. ‘I think I’ve always been quite fierce,’ she says.
'I have a kind of chemical I put out that says, 'Don’t even try it'
‘Not that I realised it but I worked with John Leslie for two years on The Car Show and there was not so much as a would-you-like-a-glass-of-wine -after-work. So I’m not sure what signals I’m sending. There’s clearly some kind of chemical I put out that says “don’t even try it”.’
Beneath the velvety charm, there is a steeliness to Mariella.
Hers might seem a gilded life – there’s the high-profile job, the high-flying husband, human rights lawyer Jason McCue, and, of course, that friendship with George Clooney – but it wasn’t always that way.
The eldest of six, her Norwegian father moved the family to Dublin when she was six.
‘He was foreign editor of the Irish Times. It’s very Irish – I think they thought because he was foreign he was the best one for the job,’ she says. It was a difficult childhood.
Her father was frustrated in his work and drank heavily, and her parents divorced when she was eight.
There was no money – her mother is a Scottish artist – and she hated her stepfather.
Mariella says: ‘We were dirt poor. From the age of eight to 14, I lived in about ten different places.
‘We lived in a two-room cottage in Connemara where we got water from the well – but that was romantic, an adventure.
Cast aside: Frostrup cannot understand by women like Penny Smith are no longer on television
‘In Dublin at one point we lived in one room in a shared house with my step-mother in the next room. When my parents split up I went to live with my father.
‘I didn’t get on with my mother’s boyfriend. Irish men back in the Seventies . . . violence was absolutely the norm. I don’t know – I wasn’t living in Britain then – maybe it was the same. It wasn’t the taboo that it is now.
‘I don’t remember if I actually witnessed him being violent but I certainly know that he was.
‘I adored my father. He was very clever, intellectually frustrated. I think he really fancied a more artistic life. He would have liked to be a poet or a philosopher. His best friend, who is still alive, wrote books on Kierkegaard. He was much more of an academic and intellectual than I could ever be. I always thought he was the deepest man ever.’
When he died suddenly, at the age of 44, Mariella was just 15 and was so traumatised a section of her hair turned white, ‘like a badger streak’.
She says: ‘When someone dies they assume huge proportions and I think it’s taken me a long time to bring my dad down to normal size in my life. I think I’ve done that now. I think he’d probably think my life was all a bit showbusiness.
‘When I was asked to judge the Booker, I came off the phone and burst into tears because I knew that would be the one moment he would be really proud of me.’
Missed opportunity: Frostrupt was due to appear on Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's River Cottage along with Jo Brand and me and Kathy Burke but the show was pulled due to there being too many women
After his death, Mariella couldn’t live with her mother because of her relationship with her step-father. Instead, she dyed her then mousey hair blonde, booked herself a crossing on the ferry from Dun Laoghaire to Liverpool and headed straight for London with 15 in her pocket.
All she had to her name were four plastic carrier bags of clothes. She didn’t even have a suitcase.
Mariella moved into a squat in Notting Hill and found work as an assistant engineer with the Rolling Stones. Aged 18, she married Richard Jobson, former lead singer of The Skids, because he reminded her of her father. They were divorced within three years.
Those years have left their mark and she admits she’s still terrified of being poor again even though her future is secure. She and her husband married ten years ago and have two children, Molly, seven, and Danny, six. Next year they will move to their house in Somerset while keeping a flat in London for work.
'The one thing you can't have is eternal youth, so why pursue it'
She could be forgiven for sitting back and enjoyed the fruits of her labour. Instead, with The Great Initiative, she will be busier than ever. She says: ‘I set it up because I’d just watched one too many news reports about women being raped in the Congo.
‘In many sub-Saharan countries, rape is not considered a crime. It’s at such epidemic levels that in Liberia there are posters erected along the main highway that say Real Men Don’t Rape.
‘Women are being culturally disregarded and for a long time we’ve been very liberal about it and said, you know that’s African culture, that’s the way things are. But actually this is about basic human rights. Too many women are not being given their dignity as human beings. And it’s not just Africa. Domestic violence is the biggest cause of death among women in the world, bigger than malaria, cancer, anything. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate are women.
‘The idea that we’ve changed the world and it has a woman-sized space in it is erroneous.’
The foundation works on several different levels. Mariella has collaborated with society jewellers Boodles to create a delicate silver bangle which she is launching next week and which she hopes will became an iconic symbol of female friendship. All of the profits will go to help women in Africa.
The bangle has already been spotted on the arms of a diverse range of women from Tracey Emin to Jo Brand to the Duchess of York.
Mariella says: ‘To be honest, it’s my female friendships that have kept me absolutely afloat.
‘I don’t meant that to disregard my husband who I love very much but when times are tough, it’s my girlfriends who have always carried me through.
Well read: Frostrup presents book shows on Sky Arts and Radio 4
‘This bangle celebrates the two things I celebrate most – friendships with women that are so often undervalued and the money that is raised going to help women who the world doesn’t value enough. I really hope there comes a day when you look to see who’s wearing one. But it’s baby steps, isn’t it’
She has begun compiling a gender index and next year will begin lobbying the Government to increase its focus on women’s rights.
She says: ‘To see our Government in talks with the Taliban, where women’s rights aren’t even on the agenda . . . we will be campaigning for women’s equality to be one of the benchmarks of who we give development aid to.
‘It’s a proven fact that in Africa, women are the ones with the enterprise. So this isn’t radical feminism, this is common sense.
‘If you don’t invest in women, you’re not going to get a self- sustaining country anyway.’
Her charity work in Africa offers a sobering counterpoint to her London life. While many women, particularly in the media, have succumbed to cosmetic surgery of one description or another, she has resisted.
She says: ‘I hope I won’t. I feel all kinds of pressure. I certainly feel the pressure not to look like the back end of a bus, but I don’t know.
‘I think in my heart I know absolutely that it’s a rocky and pointless road to go down.
‘I was at a house the other night and there were about ten women there who had done things to their faces that they should be suing the doctors for.
‘The one thing you can’t have is eternal youth. So why pursue it
‘I recommend anyone who’s thinking of spending 5,000 on their face to go and visit a village anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa and talk to the women there about their lives. I guarantee you’ll forget about your face.
‘That’s why I say I hope I won’t. I couldn’t justify it right now.’
There are far more important issues in the world. And Mariella, for one, is determined to address them.
For more information go to: www.thegreatinitiative.com