NATASHA KAPLINSKY OBE - IN CONVERSATION
Natasha Kaplinsky is an accomplished journalist, TV presenter, and one of Britain’s best known news readers. She has worked as one of the anchors for ITN network and was the Face of Five, anchoring the channel’s main evening news. She has also been the co-host of BBC’s 6 O’Clock News and BBC Breakfast as well as being a news presenter with Meridian and Carlton. Whilst working at Sky News the channel won a BAFTA for Best News Channel. Natasha is also an ambassador for Save the Children, she is President of Barnado’s and co-founder of Mum&You, a charity-supporting company that provides sustainable baby products. Born in Brighton, Natasha spent the early years of her childhood in Kenya. Her family history was featured on an edition of Who Do You Think You Are, and in 2014 Natasha was asked by the then prime minister, David Cameron, to record the testimonies of 112 Holocaust survivors, for which she was awarded an OBE. Natasha lives on a farm in Sussex with her husband Justin, two children and many animals. She was the inaugural winner of Strictly Come Dancing, back in 2004.
"And you’re right, I was very privileged to receive an OBE for that. I wasn’t sure whether to accept it because I felt like I was being given a prize for something that was just my duty. I felt like I was settling a bit of the family score but at the same time it was such an honour for my family to think my ancestors might somehow be on my shoulders, knowing that their stories had been told".
STIL: Natasha, you had your early years in Kenya – can you tell us just a little about your childhood there and do you have any fond memories in particular?
NK: I am the daughter of a political refugee from South Africa. My father was very vocal against the apartheid movement, so we were forced to leave the country. We eventually settled in Kenya, where we lived in a very remote, rural village just outside Nairobi. We were the only white family, and I was the only white child in school. I have incredibly fond memories of living in Kenya, of the extraordinary love, kindness and support of the community that surrounded us. I spoke Swahili until I was 7 and yes, it was a very happy time.
STIL: Do you still maintain links with Kenya?
NK: We do. There are still several families who we support, who supported us when we were there. And whenever possible we go back as a family.
STIL: You then moved to England, and you must have excelled at school, as you went on to study at Oxford.
NK: We moved to a little village called Barcombe. My parents still live very close by. I went to Barcombe Primary School, and I will never forget once, the teacher said, “Has anyone been to Africa?” and half of the children put their hands up and said, “Yes, we’ve been to Natasha’s house”, because I think Mum and Dad brought half of Africa back with them! From Barcombe, I went to Ringmer Comprehensive and then Varndean College in Brighton and then yes, I went on to study at Oxford.
STIL: When you left Oxford, was there some sort of catalyst that propelled you into the media?
NK: I’d never seen a television until I was 8 – it was this magical box for me! I knew I wanted to work in the media, but I wasn’t sure how to break in. I watched all my Oxford friends get fabulous high-paid jobs with accountancy firms and lawyers, but I didn’t know where to start. So, I enrolled on a touch-typing course. I felt like the best way for me to understand television was to start from the bottom so I applied for a job in the typing pool at the BBC; I worked for Esther Rantzen and Ruby Wax and lots of different executives, and that gave me the opportunity to see how the industry worked from the inside and from a grassroots level – I did lots of photocopying and teamaking!
Then there was an advert for a presenter for a new channel that was starting up at LWT, so I went for a screen test and ended up landing a co-presenting role on two programmes, one called F2F with Sacha Baron Cohen, who went on to play Ali G, and another with Paul Ross – Jonathan Ross’ brother. So, I cut my teeth on live TV on a very shoestring budget, but it was a fantastic opportunity and I absolutely loved it. From there I moved swiftly into newsrooms, starting off at Meridian. I’ll never forget my first screen test for the main evening role. I had my earpiece in, and someone left the talkback open, and I heard them say “oh she looks grrreat!”. That gave me the confidence and I got my first main evening news show. And very quickly moved up to co-host the main London shows – Sky News, the BBC... and then that was it.
STIL: You went to Oxford. Today, so many people are going to university and the competition for everything is so fierce, do you think that education is as important, or do you think that one’s personality and determination is now equally, if not more, important?
NK: I will say that, despite the fact I went through the state system and ended up at Oxford, when it came to trying to break into television the Oxford bit was not helpful, and I removed it from my CV – it almost spoke of too much privilege. So, your answer I think, essentially, is determination. I was absolutely determined to break into television, and I simply didn’t give up. Every single day I would write a letter to an executive and ask if they could help me. I knew nothing, knew nobody, and the only way I was going to find out was just doing the hard slog. Maybe it’s slightly easier now because there are so many more channels; everyone has their own YouTube channel and there are so many ways people communicate now.
STIL: Can I ask you about racial diversity. In the media, when I watch the news on the various channels, to me it looks like there is racial diversity with news presenters. Do you think it’s inclusive enough?
NK: I think things have changed a lot. Whether they’ve changed enough I don’t know. I do remember once being asked if I would change my name from Kaplinsky to Cole because they didn’t think Kaplinksy would go down very well with the audience. Can you imagine that happening these days?! So, I very politely said I’d rather not take the job. I couldn’t imagine going back to my family, with our history, saying I’m terribly sorry but I’ve chosen a different name just so I can get a job. But that would be unheard of now. So, I do think huge changes have been made in the industry. I certainly would hope that television feels much more diverse. Whether it’s diverse enough? I think we’re all on a journey and it’s important that we are.
STIL: In 2014, you were asked by the then prime minister, David Cameron, to personally record the testimonies of 112 Holocaust survivors, for which you subsequently received an OBE in 2017. This was quite an extraordinary undertaking. These people hadn’t previously had the chance to tell their stories. Peter Lantos, one of the survivors you interviewed, said it must have been a great psychological burden for you. What did it teach you about the human spirit, and what lessons did you take away from it personally?
NK: Can I step back a little bit and explain how we arrived at that point. While I was hosting BBC Breakfast, I had been invited to do Strictly Come Dancing, which subsequently led to me being invited on Who Do You Think You Are, which revealed to me and my wider family the suffering that had occurred in my father’s family. It was a very hard experience to be taken back to Belarus, to understand a bit of what had happened to my father’s family and how that related to the Holocaust in general, so I had already been on a kind of family journey with that.
Then I received this email that said it was from Downing Street. And I deleted it, believing it was nonsense. Then I received another one and deleted that too [laughs]. Then I spoke to a girlfriend and said I keep getting these emails from Downing Street and she said, “no no – that is the government address, what are you doing ... answer it!” And so I did. And I was invited to be part of a new commission that David Cameron was launching, into the recognition of Holocaust survivors in this country. I was one of 12 commissioners, along with Helena Bonham Carter and various other amazing people, and we were charged with writing a report, visiting countries around the world to see how others marked Holocaust education, and to see what we might do differently here. One of our key findings was that we didn’t have an adequate memorial and Holocaust learning centre but also that the testimony of the remaining survivors had not yet been told adequately. So, I offered to interview five survivors. And these interviews were so extraordinary, so touching and so profound, that I went on to record the testimonies of 112 survivors, who had never spoken up before.
I start faltering when I talk about it because it was the most challenging thing that I’ve ever done. It was a huge unburdening for all the survivors, and it was a huge responsibility on my part. Many of these people had never even told their husbands and wives, their children, their grandchildren, what they’d experienced. And they were all reaching the end of their lives, and worried that no lessons had been learned from the trauma that they had endured. Which was horrific. So, these interviews took place with huge emotion. There were just so many tears. And the stories are seared in my memory. I mean 112 people; I can almost remember every single one of those facts.
It felt, somehow, that I had been given the courage to do that job; I felt I was on a mission. The chief Rabbi at the time said it was a sacred task, and it felt like it was. It felt like I’d been given the strength to help these extraordinary people release themselves, a little. But it is very hard to carry that and it’s a huge responsibility. Many of them have since died. Some of them said it was the last thing they wanted to do before they died. Many of the families were just aghast and had a renewed relationship with their mother, father, grandparent, because suddenly, they’d released the trauma that they’d been living with to protect their own families. It was huge.
And you’re right, I was very privileged to receive an OBE for that. I wasn’t sure whether to accept it because I felt like I was being given a prize for something that was just my duty. I felt like I was settling a bit of the family score but at the same time it was such an honour for my family to think my ancestors might somehow be on my shoulders, knowing that their stories had been told.
And that there were six million reasons to do that.
Now I am still totally involved. I do a huge amount of fund-raising for Holocaust education, and I am on various Holocaust boards. There’s a learning centre and a memorial going to be built, alongside parliament in Victoria Tower Gardens, and there’s a public enquiry that I spoke at just before Christmas. And so the journey continues.
STIL: You are an ambassador to Save the Children and you are also President of Barnado’s, which is there to protect vulnerable children and young people. There are so many pressures on young people today with social media, covid … but for children who grew up in the care system its obviously way harder. Can you can share with us a little about the work you do with Save and Barnado’s?
NK: I first became involved in Save the Children over a decade ago and have been involved ever since. This afternoon I’m going on to host a briefing on Afghanistan. The ambassadorial role is absolutely fundamental and key to my happiness, because I really feel that I can do something positive to help with the huge inequalities that exist in the world. Being asked to become President of Barnado’s was one of the greatest honours, especially as Royal’s have held that role previously. I could have said they could get someone far better than me - I don’t have a palace to entertain people in! – but what I do do, is work very hard, and I said I’d only take the role on if I could visit every single service that they provide. But then I learned that there were over 1,000 … so I’m slowly working my way through!
The challenges that young people face now in the UK are greater than ever and, as we are edging out of the pandemic, the huge impact that has had on the already vulnerable young children is frightening and impossible to measure. Mental health in particular is a huge worry. And Barnado’s is about £50 million short of where we should be. You can imagine what that means to the organisation and what that means to the children and the young people. Through the pandemic I tried to continue to work, with lots of online visits. Also, for Barnado’s, with our children at home, we ended up publishing a book, called Letters from Lockdown …
STIL: … this is my next question! All the proceeds of that book are going to Barnado’s. What was the inspiration behind it – we have your book up there on the shelf and it is also available online in our book section.
NK: Oh, thank you so much!! That is so kind of you! Letters from Lockdown was born from the fact that I’ve always been a prolific letter writer. And I’ve always made our children write letters from as young as they could hold a pen.
So, in lockdown we decided as a family to write a letter to somebody new every day. We started off with family and friends then widened the group and started writing to people who inspired us and who we wanted to learn more about. It was the most wonderful exchange of correspondence. Very early on we got a letter from the Queen, and then from Richard Branson and it all just became very exciting. It felt like everybody was doing something different to help another. Let’s hope that is one of the legacies from the pandemic – that we all start to think of people more than we did before. With all proceeds going to Barnado’s, we are really hoping that people enjoy the book. We just felt like it was a way for our children to understand that there are many children around this country that really need support. And that everybody can do something to help another, even if you’re four.
STIL: Once I started my research on you, I had no idea there was so much that you were involved in … ambassador for Wellbeing of Women; Patron of the English National Ballet …
NK: I’m doing less of the English National Ballet now but yes; I do a lot of fundraising for Wellbeing of Women. There’s also an amazing local charity in Barcombe, my home village, the Bevern Trust, which helps raise funds for people with profound disabilities. So yes, I do get involved in a lot of charities.
STIL: You co-founded Mum&You, which provides sustainable, well-priced baby products and supports Save the Children. Is that the main idea behind it?
NK: Yes, that’s one of the by-products of Mum&You. But there are lots of charities that the company supports.
STIL: Now let’s move onto some fun questions! You have been one of, if not the most, glamourous of news presenters in the UK. Do you adapt your wardrobe according to what programme you are presenting, according to what’s on the news agenda for that day?
NK: As a news presenter, I‘ve always seen my role to be a vassal of information. I’m just there to tell you what’s happened. So, I’ve always styled myself to be as neutral as possible - block colours, simplicity - not to distract from the information. Also, you always have to be ready for any story. You don’t want to be caught out in a beautiful red outfit when a major event breaks, such as the death of a senior Royal. So, there’s always the ‘death cupboard’, where you have a jacket ready, so you can change.
STIL: Is that actually what you call it?
NK: Yes! In fact, I’ve still got a jacket outside the ITN newsroom [laughs!], not that I’ll be wearing it! But yes, you always need a sombre jacket within easy reach.
STIL: Following on from that … you look so incredible. Diet, beauty … what’s your regime? And sleep?
NK: I’ve always been obsessed with sleep. Presenting breakfast for many years, you are completely neurotic about sleep, because you don’t get enough of it. My alarm went off at 3.20 every morning for five years, and that’s tough. I’ve always prided myself on being able to survive on very little sleep but then I hosted a conference in Lausanne for the world’s top brain surgeons, and they all obsessed about the regenerative power of sleep. And I suddenly thought gosh, me thinking it’s awesome not to have to sleep, it's actually completely the opposite!
STIL: And what about exercise?
NK: I broke my back when I was 19 and I’m fighting back pain a lot of the time. I’ve never been able to do impact exercise. I try to do yoga. And try to step on an exercise bike now and again. We’ve got lots of animals – we live on a farm, so I do lots of walking. I’m always busy; I love things to be spotlessly clean and I’m constantly racing about, so my daily life is …
STIL: … exercise enough!
STIL: And what about diet? You’re vegetarian and you don’t drink?
NK: Exactly. I’ve been vegetarian since the age of 11. I’m not a cook, so I’m very grateful if anyone puts a lovely meal in front of me. I’m a grazer, so I probably don’t focus enough on the diet that I should, but it’s worked so far. I’ve got a very sweet tooth and I eat lots of nuts. Every new year I promise myself I’m going to drink more water and every new year I renew my vow to drink more water. This year I’ve actually done relatively well!
STIL: You obviously travel quite a lot. What is the one thing that you wouldn’t travel without?
NK: Lip gloss! I travel a lot - or used to before Covid - and I’ll never forget one time with Save … we go to some very tough locations, and you have to go on various courses to deal with events that might happen. I was on an immersive course about how to respond if you’re kidnapped, which was quite frightening, even though I knew what to expect. The actors came out and covered our heads - I was on my knees in the mud and being screamed at to empty my pockets and beg for my life. I was horrified to find that as I complied, the contents of my pockets consisted of five different lip glosses! If I ever go to one of these locations again, I will ensure that I don’t have five lip glosses with me!
STIL: And if you were to paint your perfect Sunday?
NK: We have a sea of white fluffy animals in our kitchen and for me that is the greatest privilege. We have six dogs, two cats and then outside we have alpacas, a highland cow, sheep, ducks and chickens. So … the sun would be shining, I’d go downstairs – the puppy would not have weed on the floor – and I’d be greeted by a sea of white fluff. I’d have a lovely family breakfast, with music and flowers and maybe go on a family walk – we’ve got beautiful woodland close to us. And sit in the garden; we do lots of gardening. Rather than having to get the kids to do their homework. That would be a perfect Sunday!
STIL: And do you do much entertaining? Do you have dinner parties?
NK: We do. My husband is the most amazing cook. I just fluff around the edges and make everyone welcome and set nice tables!
STIL: Last question. A Natasha Kaplinsky confidence or style tip for Stil customers?!
NK: Although I am very confident when I do my job, I’m actually less confident in dressing myself, so I love working with people who do know what they’re doing. My tip would be to have a few labels that you rely on, find one or two go-to shops, like STIL, and invest in a few choice pieces that you can always rely on, knowing you’ll feel confident and stylish.
STIL: I forgot to ask you about Strictly! You were the inaugural winner! On a Saturday night, are you prone to the odd tango around the kitchen?! And where does your crystal ball sit?!
NK: Dancing with a world-class professional is very different to dancing with a drunk husband! Justin definitely doesn’t dance in the way that you need to when you are doing proper ballroom dancing! But, you know, Strictly is the most extraordinary experience because to be led around a dance floor by someone who really knows how to dance is quite magical. I love dancing. It’s a way that I keep fit. But there’s nothing more I love than sitting down on a Saturday night watching other people dance and knowing that I don’t have to ever do that again; that feeling of absolute terror standing at the top of those stairs as your name is called and having to dance in front of 12 million people and ask them to vote for you!
STIL: I always find it amazing how the contestants don’t make mistakes!
NK: I know. I guess that everyone is a professional; they’re a performer. There was somebody who once forgot their steps. But really, the professionals just push you around, which is why I prefer the Ballroom to the Latin because with the Ballroom you can just hold on! And my glitter ball … it sat in the back of a cupboard for a long time. But now that I’ve got children, their friends are fascinated by it. So, the glitter ball is now out … for selfies! [laughter]!
STIL: Natasha – thank you so much for your time.
Natasha Kaplinsky. She is, in person, every bit as glamorous and engaging as she comes across on the television. Her accomplishments are impressive by any standards and her energy, drive and desire to contribute to the greater good are a benchmark for us all.