Gloria Hunniford, the glamorous grafter
Gloria Hunniford continues to inspire, surviving the death of her beloved daughter, divorce, and a stalker. At 77, she is still full of zest, and working as hard as ever. Ciara Dwyer met her
Why are you here? You know that my mother is on the air right now."
These were the words that Gloria Hunniford's son used to defuse his mother's stalker. Sixteen-year-old Michael was at home alone, studying for his A-levels, when he opened the door to a man who inveigled his way into their family home.
"Does your family know that you do this?"
Besotted by the glamorous blonde broadcaster from Portadown, the fan used great guile to find the house. He arrived at Sevenoaks station, then told a taxi driver that he was a member of Gloria's family. His line was that he'd been invited for lunch but had lost the address. The taxi driver dropped him to the front door.
When I meet Gloria, I ask her to describe her stalker.
"He was an oldish man and he shuffled around all the time. All broadcasters have stalkers in one form or another," says the woman who has been in show business for 70 years.
She has seen it all. One time a creep rubbed up against her in a lift in work, so she told him to "Catch himself on". But this was different.
"You are never worried about somebody who turns up at the BBC or ITV because you have the security of that around you. You have the anonymity of it. You sign an autograph and they might give you a funny letter, but then you get in your car and you drive to the safety of your own home. And you don't worry about it. I'd never made any secret of living in Sevenoaks.
"This stalker would write things like 'I'll be waiting in The George Hotel just across the road', and then, when I didn't turn up, he'd send a terrible letter saying, 'you left me waiting there, all alone'. Another time he wrote to tell me that he'd booked tickets for the QE2 cruise ship. In the end, it got too much. We had to report him. It went to court and in the anteroom, my QC told me that the judge would put him in prison. I just wanted him to stop. I didn't really want to be responsible for putting anyone in prison, so the judgment of that was if he ever came near the house again, he would automatically go to prison.
"But of course, he did come back," she says. "I still couldn't get it out of my head that they would send him to prison. At this stage, he was getting older and older. But then he started to write dangerous letters about being a bunny-boiler and telling me that he knew I had dogs - those sort of threats. So I had to report him to the police again."
When I ask her if she was scared, she gives a rather practical answer.
"It gave me a reason to get automatic gates," she says. "And once I had the protection of those gates that helped me enormously because I knew that he couldn't get to the front door. I had broken my shoulder playing tennis and I knew that if I opened the door I only had one arm to fight him off. I felt very vulnerable."
Where is he now?
"I have no idea," she says. "He only stopped when I got married to Stephen [her second husband], so he is probably gone now.
"In fact, when Stephen and I were living together, he would still come to the house and Steve would say, you've got to stop this. But it was only when we got married in 1998 that he said, 'I'll give up'." He had been stalking her for over 12 years.
Stalkers aside, Gloria Hunniford has always been hugely popular with the public. When she moved from Belfast, where she worked at UTV, to London to work in the BBC, she never lost her Irish warmth.
Within minutes of meeting her in Dublin, on the publication of her autobiography, My Life, she is full of the chat with me, and everyone else around her. As a child, she beat her schoolmate, Olympic champion Mary Peters, in a non-stop talking competition. Nothing much has changed. I almost have to drag her away from Padraig, the friendly concierge in the Radisson Hotel. They talk about music, which was her first love. She started out wanting to be a singer. That was always the plan. Since the age of seven she was performing professionally. As a tot, she would stand on a chair in the tiny kitchen of their two-up, two-down home and listen to the songs on their Bakelite radio. If she could hear these singers, she imagined that they could hear her. So she would sing back to the radio.
It wasn't long before she was performing with her father in his Mid-Ulster Variety Group. He worked as an advertising manager of a newspaper by day, but by night he was a magician. The Hunniford home was very popular as her dad would do tricks for visitors - swallowing razors, then pulling them out of his mouth - and her mother was marvellous at baking cakes. Mesmerised by the stage, Gloria ended up performing songs in his show. She was earning her own money and asking her aunt Myrtle to make dresses for her performances - organza and sequins were her favourites.
"I loved the applause and people seemed to like what I was doing," she says. "It taught me a lot. Also, I liked being independent. I've always worked. I had that Ulster work ethic. I never expected anyone to work for me, and I still don't."
She grew up in a Protestant family. She went to church five times on Sundays. She tells me that this was because she was involved in the choir, she'd get to meet boys and besides, even the swings were tied up on Sundays in Portadown. The only other thing which kept her going was the cinema. Although her father was a member of the Orange Lodge, he wasn't incredibly active.
"His Orange sash lay in tissue all year round and came out on July 12. I walked in the parade too. I loved him very much and admired him for his high principles."
All those Protestant and Catholic divides melted when she went to Canada aged 17. Her uncle lived there and she spent almost a year there. She got an office job but on the side, she sang on live radio and TV shows, performing listeners' requests, mostly Irish songs for emigrants.
"If you could sing an Irish song in tune, you were on," she says. "In Canada, nobody cared about my religion or asked me about it. It broadened my horizons forever. I learned really quickly that all nationalities, all colours and creeds were living in that perfect harmony."
On returning she got a job as a production assistant in UTV, which was just starting out. It was there that she met her first husband, Don Keating. At the time, he was a cameraman. He was a Catholic, which didn't bother Gloria in the slightest. But when she tried to explain to her dad that he was "an English Catholic", it made no difference. Her father refused to attend the wedding and forbade his wife to go too. Years later, Gloria heard that her mother cried all day. Gloria's two siblings went to the wedding.
"I understood my father's principles," says Gloria. "Even though he refused to go to the wedding, he said that after we were married, he would treat Don like his own son. And he did. Looking back, I thought it was a shame that for my dad what the Orange Lodge members might say was more important than what I might say."
Gloria and Don had three children - Caron, Paul and Michael. When they married, Gloria had to give up her job. It was against the rules to work in the same department as her husband. That did not deter her. Instead, she went back to singing and recorded an album. When she was promoting her record, someone noticed that she was well able to talk. Had she ever thought of broadcasting? She was side-tracked into it but it was a route which she happily followed. She excelled at it, thanks to her background in show business and a mentor who taught her that she was as good as any man. Covering the Troubles made her very conscious of the fragility of life. But also, people needed some lightness in the middle of all that. When she did Good Evening Ulster, she did celebrity interviews which many people enjoyed. Gloria was a great grafter, and still is.
When she started working at the BBC, she was walking down the corridor and as she passed a man, she said: 'Good morning, how are you?' The man said, 'I beg your pardon, do I know you?' She said no, but she just thought she'd ask him how he was. 'How lovely', he replied, and ever after they greeted each other warmly on the corridor.
When she got her OBE last month for services to cancer charities she broke protocol, unknowingly. When she shakes a person's hand, she always clasps her other hand around it too. Seemingly, this is not the done thing with the Queen. But no matter. The two of them had a chat. When the Queen asked her to remind her why she was getting the award, Gloria then explained that her beloved daughter Caron, a well-known broadcaster, had died from breast cancer in 2004 at the age of 41. The Queen nodded and said, "But of course," as if she remembered it. Suddenly they were two women of a certain age, who knew about life and loss.
Gloria is still going strong. With Angela Rippon and Julia Somerville, she co-hosts Rip Off Britain, a consumer affairs TV programme on BBC One. Recently they got their best ratings in 10 years. The show started off on daytime TV but it proved so popular that it was switched to a prime evening slot. This is brilliant, especially in the current climate where there are moans about ageism in TV.
"If you had three 25-year-olds doing the programme, it wouldn't have the same gravity," she says. "The three of us have been around the block, lived a bit and lost a bit and suffered some of the things that people suffered. The programme is completely based on the viewers' problems." Indeed, she has had her own experience of being ripped off. A woman walked into a bank pretending to be Gloria and took all the money out of one of here accounts. She had fake ID. But anyone looking at the photos of the con artist would know that this was a bad impression of Gloria. The woman was overweight, walked with a stick and was very scruffy. This is a million miles away from the real Gloria Hunniford. Gloria is always glamorous. She was named after the film star Gloria Swanson, because her dad was crazy about her. Ever since she was a kid she has been mad about sequins. For years, she modelled her stage clothes on drag queen Danny La Rue's elegant costumes.
"You can blame my mother," she says. "She wouldn't go to the corner shop without her make up on and I'm the same. I swear by shoulder pads. I'm going to be wearing them in my coffin. I'm going to bring curling tongs too and a phone, just in case."
She tells me that she loves high heels, and always wears them for television. She used to wear high heels from 7am until 2am. This did not go unnoticed. Cynthia Payne, who was known as Madam Sin because she kept a brothel in London, kept a photo of Gloria on top of a TV. Seemingly, the sight of Gloria's legs got the punters going. This gave her a good laugh - and her family.
Gloria Hunniford is warm, funny, hard-working and straight talking. She tells me that family is the most important thing in the world for her. She adored having children and wishes that she had more. As much as she could, she tried to work around school hours. After school, her children would join her in the BBC and play cricket in the corridors. Once, as she was about to do a live broadcast, her son Michael started to walk over to her with a question about his homework. The cameraman caught him just in time. She has had a full and varied career and carried on working, even when she had death threats from the IRA.
"You can't let terrorism stop you living," she says, pointing out that the New Yorkers carried on with their Halloween celebrations even after the awful Manhattan truck outrage.
Her first marriage began to break down when she took up an offer of a job in London, while Don went to work in South Africa. She tells me that absence does not make the heart grow fonder. But they both knew that she had to take on the challenge. For all that, she still tells me that family comes first. When she met her second husband, Stephen, a hairdresser with his own salon, at the premiere of Hair, she wasn't looking for love. She says that second time round, you look for other qualities. Physical attraction is still important but kindness and understanding; someone to bring you a cup of tea and a biscuit at the end a working day.
Many people will remember Gloria's devastation when her daughter Caron died of breast cancer.
"She made us feel that she could manage it, so in the end, her death came almost as much a shock to us, as to anybody else."
She talks to Caron all the time, she set up a cancer charity in her name and she carried on living, just as her daughter would have wanted her to do. She did Dancing with the Stars to help her cope with her grief and after her OBE, she had a celebration lunch with some of Caron's friends. Gloria discovered more stories about her. At the height of the Troubles, Caron was off drinking in sheebeens on the Falls Road. Gloria never knew.
"She was wild," she says, laughing at the discovery.
"After Caron's death, I had to find a way forward. Work is my way of coping." And then, she is whisked away. Off she goes, back to Sevenoaks. Next week she will be in Tenerife filming Rip off Holidays and Stephen will go too.
"I like to keep busy," she says with a smile.
'My Life' by Gloria Hunniford is published by John Blake, paperback €17
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