I finally feel free to be the real me by Clare Balding: She is the unrivalled TV star of the Olympics, yet few know her troubled but inspiring story
22:28 GMT, 30 August 2012
23:25 GMT, 30 August 2012
Thank God for Clare Balding’s mum. Otherwise there might be some danger of her head swelling so much it explodes.
Every superlative possible has been hurled in the sports’ presenter’s direction since her Olympics coverage. If gold medals had been dished out for popularity and professionalism, (not to mention best use of highlighter pens) she would have an armful.
When we meet – and yes she is brandishing a fluorescent marker pen as she famously did throughout the Olympics – she’s still reeling from being mobbed on a service station forecourt.
National treasure: Clare Balding has become the TV star of the Olympics coverage and says that she is now recognised a lot more. 'It's gone a bit nuts,' she said
‘I’ve been recognised before, but always in context – say if I was at a sporting event. But since the Olympics it’s gone a bit nuts. I’m getting people waving and shouting: “Look, it’s Clare-off-the-Olympics!” It’s quite bizarre, but nice because it’s all very positive.’
So it’s official. She’s a National Treasure. But what did Clare-off-the-Olympics’ mum think of her big TV triumph
Has she been leaping around, in the manner of Bert Le Clos, that South African dad Clare so memorably interviewed after his ‘beautiful boy’ won gold
Well, no. It turns out that Clare’s parents are more, um, British about these things.
‘While it was going on, my mum told me that she thought I was doing quite well, but that she’d bumped into some people who thought I was doing brilliantly, which seemed to confuse her. I don’t think there is any risk of me getting carried away with the compliments.’
Next week, Clare publishes her childhood memoirs, in which her parents feature heavily. When she told her mum, Emma, that the Daily Mail was going to serialise them she said: ‘Really! Have they read them’
Written her memoirs: The TV presenter, who has been busy covering the Olympics, right, and now the Paralympics, left, has written a book about her childhood with each chapter based on a family pet
Mother's opinion: According to Balding, her mother said of her memoirs, 'she can't understand why anyone would be interested. That's very my mum'
‘She can’t understand why anyone would be interested,’ Clare laughs. ‘That’s very my mum.’
Frankly, I had doubts about Clare’s book myself when I heard that the action only goes up to the age of 19, and each chapter is based on a family pet. It sounded like a ploy to avoid revealing too much – which, she agrees, it kind of was.
‘I thought that if I made every chapter about one of my pets, I could kid myself that I wasn’t writing about myself. But I think I actually end up revealing more than I meant to.’
In fact, the finished product is an extraordinary book which, unexpectedly, makes me cry (‘yes, writing about pets dying was incredibly difficult,’ Clare says, which misses the point entirely).
Hers is fundamentally a story about a stocky, spirited little girl who keeps trying, and failing, to be like all the other (thin, swishy-haired) little girls, and can never find her place in the world.
Dad's disappointment: Balding followed in her father's footsteps, becoming a jockey but she continually tried to impress him. He once told a journalist that he 'didn't think women made good jockeys'
Horse trainer father: Balding interviewed her father Ian Balding, one of the most respected racehorse trainers in the country, responsible for training the Queen's horses after 'his beautiful boy' won in 1995
It is, in effect, a story about a Clare Balding in a world of Cheryl Coles. Obviously, you read it knowing that the Clare Balding ultimately triumphs, but still . . .
Mercifully, it’s also a funny book, and certainly the only celebrity memoir you will ever read that includes an anecdote about what it feels like to have breakfast with the Queen and find your sausage pinging off your plate towards her.
Obviously, since we are dealing with someone who wants the theme from Black Beauty played at her funeral, horses feature heavily. Clare’s father, Ian Balding, is one of the most respected racehorse trainers in the country, and was responsible for training the Queen’s horses (hence the reason Her Majesty was a regular visitor to their Hampshire home).
'We had Champagne in the house but no new clothes. My parents didn't actually have any money'
On paper, 41-year-old Clare herself is quite posh. Her family are related to Robert, Earl of Huntingdon, the man some claim was Robin Hood (Clare’s family most vociferously; all her uncles bear the middle name Robin).
Yet she says her parents were not wealthy, which put her immediately in an awkward place, socially speaking.
‘The racing world is quite a strange one,’ she points out. ‘You have all this money sloshing around, and what looks like a Champagne lifestyle, but underneath, it isn’t. We had Champagne in the house; but no new clothes. My parents didn’t actually have any money.’
She went to the local village primary school, where she was bullied because she was deemed posh and horsey (and since she could ride by the time she was two, this was quite true), but at secondary level – at the all-girls’ boarding school Downe House in Berkshire (which Kate Middleton later attended before switching to Marlborough) – she was bullied for being not-quite-posh-enough.
From racing to presenting: She left behind a highly successful racing career to join the BBC radio scheme and in 1995 she made her TV debut as a presenter at Ascot. She still presents horse racing events including Liverpool Day at Aintree Racecourse earlier this year, left
How she came to be at private school is a fairytale in itself. Her father trained the famous racehorse Mill Reef and, as a big thank you, his owner, Paul Mellon, made an extraordinary financial gift to Ian Balding, urging him to use the money to set up trust funds for his children. The money funded Clare and her brother Andrew’s schooling.
‘He paid for it . . . the whole lot. It was an extraordinary thing to do, and something for which I will always be grateful,’ she says.
When Clare was 18 and studying English at Cambridge, she wrote to Mr Mellon (‘He was always Mr Mellon’) , thanking him.
His reply detailed how he had been watching Clare from afar, and knew she would do well. ‘Be lucky, be happy, and be true to yourself,’ he said.
In a way, her book is her account of how she came to do exactly that. For someone who says she has finally, (‘for the first time in my life’) reached the point where she doesn’t care what people think about her, she is extremely concerned that people will like her book, and ‘get it’.
She mostly wanted her father – whom she clearly adores – to ‘get it’. ‘Yes, my whole life has been spent trying to gain his approval,’ she says cheerily. ‘That’s what happens when you have a father who wasn’t interested in anything you did, unless it impacted on him. When you’re little, your father is your hero. Mine was. Then it all becomes more complicated.’
'He once told a journalist that he didn't think women made good jockeys and this was when I was racing for him!'
She said of her father, horse trainer Ian Balding
In less capable hands, Ian Balding
might have come across as something of an ogre in this book. He was –
and still is, despite his daughter’s best efforts – a chauvinist who
thinks women have no place in sport. Or politics. Or anywhere that
‘He once told a journalist that he didn’t think women made good jockeys,’ Clare says, ‘and this was when I was racing for him!’
Perhaps her sense of being a disappointment to her father came because she followed him into racing, becoming a jockey herself, and as she would say, a bloody good one, too. Indeed, in 1990, she was deemed Champion Lady Rider.
There was only one problem. She doesn’t have the petite build of a jockey today; and didn’t then.
It comes as a shock, somehow, to discover that she used to abuse laxatives in order to keep her weight down. She also threw her food back up after meals.
‘Would you class that as an eating disorder’ she says. ‘It’s very difficult because of the racing context. But, yes, I did it.
‘I have spoken to people since – people outside racing – who say: “God my relationship with my father was just like that, too.” But with my Dad it was complicated because he was totally justified. I worked for him; I had to come in under a certain weight. I couldn’t hide – I was going to be weighed in public, and that is a big deal when you are in your teens.’
There is a photo of Clare at the age of 18 in her book. ‘I look amazing, don’t I So different, but I remember that five minutes after that picture was taken, I stood up and nearly fainted.’
Abused laxatives: To keep her weight down as a jockey, Balding abused laxatives and threw her food back up after meals
You couldn’t call her big these days;
she’s just not waif-like. Still, it’s hard to congratulate her on being a
healthy role-model without it sounding patronising.
‘I remember a dress designer who made me something for Ascot saying: “You are a good person for us to dress because it shows people that we don’t just do size 10 and 12s.” I thought: “Thanks!” But there are more people in the world my shape than Kate Moss’s shape.’
She admits that she would have continued to race if she’d been able to keep the weight down -‘but I just couldn’t face it’.
Racing’s loss was television’s gain. In 1994, she joined the BBC radio trainee scheme, and in 1995 she made her TV debut, as a presenter at Ascot. By 1997, she was the BBC’s lead horse racing presenter.
It’s an odd sort of world to end up in, though, for someone who struggles with self-confidence.
‘Isn’t it just!’ she says. ‘But it wasn’t planned. I just wanted to do a job that excited me.’ She didn’t immediately fit in at the BBC. She says she has never fitted in anywhere in her life, until now. At Downe House she may have been head girl, but it wasn’t before she had been suspended for shoplifting – her attempt, she says, to ingratiate herself with a particular gang.
‘Like so many kids, I just wanted to fit in, and I see now that I spent most of my life trying to be what I wasn’t, trying to get people to like me. It’s only been in the past ten years that I’ve stopped trying – only to discover that it’s when you stop trying to make people like you that they do.’
Her teenage confusion was complicated by the fact that she was gay. She didn’t know it at the time, though, and is candid about an early boyfriend who could so easily have ended up becoming her husband. He was in the Army and proposed just before he was sent off to the first Gulf war; Clare panicked, told him to ask her again when he got home. He never did.
Today, she’s the one who raises the subject of her sexuality. Talking about role models, she says she admires the American chat show host Ellen De Generes.
‘She has done a huge amount for people’s perception of lesbians,’ Clare says. ‘She is public, happy, proud, successful, warm, funny.’
Open about her sexuality: Balding and partner Alice Arnold became civil partners in 2006 and she is open to talking about her sexuality and role models which include Ellen De Generes
She also thinks the Olympics have marked a personal watershed. ‘Reading articles that don’t start “Lesbian sports presenter Clare Balding . . .” is progress,’ she says.
Yet she hasn’t been afraid to hit back when she thinks her sexuality has been inappropriately used in the media, most famously when reviewer A.A. Gill called her a ‘dyke on a bike’ while writing about a cycling programme.
Her complaint was upheld, and the paper in which the article appeared had to print an apology.
‘There were things written before that which I wish, in hindsight, I’d challenged,’ she says. ‘But you are afraid of being accused of being a grumpy old cow. I didn’t know how it would affect my career. I still don’t know if it does. I’ve never been offered a big advertising campaign, for instance. Is that because of my sexuality Probably not. It’s probably because I just don’t look right, but you can never know these things.’
'You know your parents won't go: Whoopee, my daughter's a lesbian'
She was ‘in the closet’ for ‘about six or seven years’ before it was reported that she was gay. By then, she was involved with Radio 4 newsreader Alice Arnold, who has since become her civil partner.
Clare’s parents knew about 18 months before it was public knowledge, but before that she lived a lie ‘for the usual reasons’.
‘People ask my advice now about coming out, and I smile when I hear someone talk about being on holiday, but not being specific about the gender of the person they went with. I’ve done that.’
What was she afraid of – of rejection, or disappointing her parents
‘All of it. We live in a society where there is still an assumption that it is going to be a problem – that certainly was the case ten years ago. You know your parents aren’t going to go: “Whoopee, my daughter is lesbian, let’s throw a party!” ’
In the event, telling her parents ‘wasn’t as awful as I thought it was going to be. Usually, it isn’t’. They have been supportive, and were there when she and Alice became civil partners in 2006.
For her, formalising their union was vital. ‘It gives a relationship legitimacy – people have to respect it more because it is legal. It changed something for both of us. To me, if a relationship isn’t public, it is not real. You can even kid yourself it is not real.’
Clare never wanted children of her own (‘I only ever wanted puppies’), but has two nephews, a niece and a clutch of godchildren. She bought her nephew, Toby, some football boots for his fourth birthday, and told him he could pass them on to his little sister, Flora.
‘He said: “Flora won’t need them, because girls don’t play football; girls are cheerleaders.”’ I realised that he had never seen women play football.
‘So I made sure that they watched it on the Olympics, and were aware of how many women were winning medals. So Flora will need football boots. I will make sure of that.’
Hit back: She famously hit back at reviewer A.A. Gill who called her a 'dyke on a bike' while writing about TV show Britain By Bike which she presented
My feeling is that all our daughters could do with a Clare Balding in their corner, but does she agree that she’s a healthier role model than a Posh Spice or a Cheryl Cole
‘It’s difficult for me to comment on that without sounding like I am dissing other people, but what I will say is that it’s important that hard work is valued.
‘I go into schools and am always horrified when I ask kids what they think the best things about my job are. Invariably they say:being famous, travelling the world, earning lots of money. Those are three things I really don’t give a s**t about. When some kid says to me: “I want an Olympic gold medal”, I think good on them. You have to work bloody hard for that – you can’t just turn up at an audition.’
'I just wanted to fit in and I see now that I spent most of my life trying to be what I wasn't, trying to get people to like me'
So where does Balders go now There have already been calls for her to present Strictly Come Dancing, which she finds hilarious.
‘Seriously Look at me! Can you really see that And you won’t find me going into the jungle. What is the point’
Clare says that all through writing her book, she worried herself sick about what her father would think.
‘Alice read it and did worry that I’d been too hard on him, but then concluded that it showed just how much I love my Dad.
‘I gave him the proof copy to read and while he had it we went out with some friends for dinner. I was dreading getting his copy back. I was expecting big red lines through it.
‘At the end, he had just written “BRILLIANT” with a kiss after it, in his all-colour Biro. He offered to give me his all-colour Biro, too.’
Her beaming face suggests that was her personal equivalent of Olympic gold.