Thursday 22 February 2018

Ulrika’s new novel career

TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson
TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson

Hannah Stephenson

After spending half her life in the headlines, TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson is leaping away from the limelight. But, her next chapter might also raise a few eyebrows.

Fans of Ulrika Jonsson might expect her debut novel, The Importance Of Being Myrtle, to be a steamy 'bonkbuster', featuring at least one lurid affair, a string of failed marriages and a handful of celebrity misdemeanours.

But then, as Jonsson explains at a hotel in Henley, Oxon, near her country home, she didn't want her first book to be an extension of her own life and indeed, it isn't.

"People would be expecting me to write about the world of television or showbiz with lots of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. That would be too predictable. I wanted to stretch myself."

Today, looking painfully thin, which she puts down to her depression due to a four-year battle with a chronic, agonising back condition, Jonsson insists she's close to the weight she's supposed to be.

"There was talk about whether I had anorexia, which I have never had and will never have because I love food too much. I've had a debilitating problem and the past year was particularly bad, when I became depressed and didn't eat.

"My condition won't be cured but it's better than it was because I've started swimming and that strengthens the muscles in my back."

She can't run or sit down for long periods, but epidural and cortisone injections have given her some respite.

"I just have to live with it. I try to get on with life as much as possible. The days when I was immobile have made me more determined to enjoy the days when I'm mobile."

One consequence of her degenerative disc disease is that she has had to write some of her debut novel standing up, but it doesn't seem to have affected the result.

Unlike so many celebrity books, The Importance Of Being Myrtle has not been ghost written and is a surprisingly good read about a drab, dowdy 58-year-old woman whose life is thrown into turmoil when her husband dies suddenly.

Hardly autobiographical, then, from the ex-weathergirl who was once cruelly nicknamed '4X4' (four children by four different men). She was tabloid fodder for years because of her roller coaster private life, including a string of ill-fated marriages, a beating from one-time boyfriend Stan Collymore, an affair with Sven-Goran Eriksson and a controversial 2002 autobiography in which she alleged she had been raped by an unnamed TV presenter (whom she has never identified).

The debut novel is less headline-grabbing. As the story unfolds, it emerges that for 40 years Myrtle, the put-upon heroine, was trapped in a loveless marriage by a control freak incapable of letting her make any decisions for herself. There's no physical violence, but the emotional abuse is palpable.

"I'm very passionate about human relationships, having experienced quite a few myself," Jonsson, 44, says with a smile. "I've been in relationships where someone's trying to control you and suppress your colourful character. For some men, I guess having a loud, outspoken partner is not for them."

Jonsson and her third husband, advertising executive Brian Monet, and her four children aged between 16 and three, have recently moved into the five-bedroom home they have spent the last 18 months building and, while she's currently starring in the new Shooting Stars series, her focus is on her home life, rather than her TV career, she says.

"Everybody has this weird view of what my family must be like, that there are four fathers standing on the doorstep and the kids are colour-coded to go with each one. But I live with one of the fathers, another is completely absent, we see my older son's dad every day and daughter Martha's dad every second weekend.

"We are a family. I don't think my children think it's weird, odd or disjointed. There is no feeling of animosity. I've not even had a great deal of issue in organising the family. We work hard at compromising, giving and taking."

She's dispensed with her nanny, preferring to split the childcare load with Monet, who takes over when she has TV commitments such as the Shooting Stars series, filmed earlier in the year.

Reuniting with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer was like slipping back into a pair of comfortable shoes.

"I've known the boys for 18 years now and nothing much has changed. We all look a bit older. It's such an honour to sit there and get paid to laugh."

However, she seems slightly disillusioned with the world of TV which, she says, is now run by accountants who just want to make shows which make money. Jonsson would like to do more serious programmes, such as documentaries, rather than what her friend Claudia Winkleman calls 'shiny floor TV'.

"The thing is, shiny floor TV is the stuff that pays. I wanted to make a documentary about old people, not a game show where everyone gets their tits out. Everything's so commercial. I did Big Brother because it was big money. Yes, I have regrets not being able to do more serious stuff."

Born in Sweden, Jonsson was eight when her mother left her to go and live with her new boyfriend in Holland. Jonsson was put in the care of her father, but in reality she looked after him.

At 12, she was reunited with her mother who had moved to the UK with her new husband, but it left Jonsson with deep feelings of anxiety.

"I've always had a fear of being left. Then my father died when I was 27 and it made it hard for me to relax, as I was constantly anticipating the worst."

While she doesn't resent her mother's desertion, she still cannot understand how she could have left her child.

"I'm a mother four times over. There's no way in the world that a man would ever mean more to me than my child. I've tried to talk to my mother about it, but she won't discuss it."

And she bristles slightly at the suggestion her taste in men hasn't always been the best: "Why is it about my choice? If a man lets me down, how is that my choice?

"At the end of the day, a breakdown of any relationship has got to involve responsibility from both sides.

"I don't think my experiences are so different to those of other men and women. Mine have been grossly exaggerated because they've been in the public eye.

"I've been a tabloid dream over the past 23 years, less so nowadays and I have to say that's really quite lovely."

Jonsson is one of a string of celebrities taking legal action against the News Of The World over alleged phone hacking.

"Whether you think people in showbiz or politicians are fair game, everybody, whoever you are, is entitled to some aspect of private life."

Jonsson recently told of her distress when she was contacted by police about being allegedly monitored.

"It's shocking but not surprising. Over the years the tabloids have done worse things, whether they're following you, getting hold of your phone bills, turning up at your father's funeral, dressing up as doctors at the special care baby unit when my daughter Bo was fighting for her life... there's not a level to which they won't stoop."

Today, she doesn't have many showbiz friends, just a small, close circle of people she can trust. She hopes to write more books, which is altogether a more anonymous job.

"I think I'd rather be out of the spotlight," she says.

A new novel career may be just the ticket.

:: The Importance Of Being Myrtle by Ulrika Jonsson is published by Michael Joseph, priced £6.99. Available September 1

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