Thursday 22 August 2019

Jagger told me it was a shame we never met when I was younger. . .

It seems fitting that I hear Mariella Frostrup before I see her in the ground floor entrance of Le Café Anglais, located just a short stroll from Frostrup's beloved neighbourhood of Notting Hill, West London. She's speaking into her BlackBerry with that glorious husky voice that has shifted more than one decadent Marks & Spencer meal deal, all while taking off her coat and handing it to the check-in girl at reception.

"I'm sorry, I just want to make sure we're not bothered during lunch," she apologises after hanging up, and continues to quickly punch the phone's buttons as we take the lift up to the restaurant.

Frostrup is a busy lady. In addition to wearing various hats as a journalist and broadcaster, she has spent the past few days organising a new photo-campaign for her gender equality charity with Australian actress Naomi Watts.

What's more she had an awards ceremony to attend that night. At least she doesn't have to worry about having something to wear: one of her best pals, actress Gina Bellman, works on the US TV drama Leverage and so has an enviably full wardrobe from which to pilfer.

"Gina gets a new dress every episode," she laughs in a manner as throaty as her speaking voice. "And I haven't been shopping for literally six months."

Frostrup's face is make-up free, the kind of freshly-scrubbed complexion that only a Scandinavian heritage could bestow.

She's more petite in person than you'd expect, which makes her seem even more of a girl, rather than her 50 years of age.

BlackBerry switched off, Frostrup's attention turns to food. "I don't eat out too often," she admits, making a start on our table's complimentary olives. "But I still feel it's a luxury going somewhere to eat food you haven't had to prepare yourself."

We both order from the set lunch menu, Mariella going for a salmon starter and a seasonal roast squash, while I choose a cep risotto and roast cod. She also insists we order the parmesan custard with anchovy toast to share. "It's divine," she says. "Neither of us is drinking today, so let's eat instead."

We swap Dublin food recommendations. She's a fan of the Gresham Hotel and The Winding Stair restaurant, which she visited during a recent stay with her half-brother in the city. "Beautiful surroundings, and just really simple, relaxed food," she says.

Make no mistake about it: Mariella Frostrup considers herself Irish – notwithstanding the English accent. "Everything I remember about childhood is all to do with Ireland," she says. "When I think of my childhood it's totally in relation to an Irish landscape, an Irish sensibility."

She gesticulates as she says this, as if painting a portrait of what she's trying to describe. Frostrup is an expressive speaker, and tends to lean forward on the table when pressing home a point.

Her parents – Norwegian Peter, a journalist and PR man, and Scottish Joan, an artist – had taken a family holiday to Dingle from Norway, and fell in love with the place. They moved the clan here a year later when Mariella, the eldest of three children, was seven.

"My parents were not happy in Norway, and they weren't happy with each other.

"They felt it was to do with the place, and perhaps if they were somewhere they felt more comfortable their marriage would benefit," she explains.

The family set up in Kilmacanogue in Wicklow, and her father got a job with The Irish Times. However, her parents split up around two years later. For the next few years, Mariella lived with her mother and siblings in Bray, Galway and Dublin.

The family must have seemed extraordinarily exotic in 1970s Ireland?

"We were – and in some places that was good and some places that wasn't so good," she recalls. "There was an awful period in a little school in Dublin where we were bullied mercilessly. So much so that me and my brother and sister had to be locked into the classroom by the teachers at lunchtime to stop a gang beating us up."

Another brief spell in a Loreto convent school was similarly unhappy. "My parents were atheists but they felt like I should be exposed to the country's culture – and that involved exposure to Catholicism," she says.

"I only went to Loreto for a few months, because when I first got there I was separated from the rest of the class. My chair and desk was put right at the back because I was a heathen. They thought I'd infect the rest of them with my terrible heathen ways.

"I didn't tell my dad about that for a while, but when I did I was taken out of there straight away."

Her mother had met another man and had two other children (though she didn't re-marry). Mariella's father, however, died when she was 15. A year later, Mariella left Ireland for London.

"I'd run out of options," she says. "I couldn't live with my stepfather, I loathed him. My mother had two young children so she didn't have too many options then. And it seemed that after my father died that I couldn't afford to waste a second."

With her father's modest weekly pension of £15 in her pocket, Mariella set off for London with her friend Mairead Houlihan, from Kilkenny, and lived in a squat near Shepherd's Bush.

She had a contact from Dublin who helped her to get a job in the Rolling Stones' recording studio.

"I met Mick Jagger years later," she laughs. "I said, 'I used to work for you', and he said (doing a Jagger impression), 'Get outta here! What a shame we never met when you were younger.' That's very Mick. He's very funny." Today, she humbly confirms that she has Jagger's number in her phone.

Her next move was to Parlophone Records, where she stayed until the late 1980s, working on the likes of Band Aid and Live Aid, at the same time as setting up her own PR company.

The nascent Channel 4 gave Mariella her break in TV with a gig co-hosting the music show Big World Café in 1987. Some 25 years later and she's still working, primarily in broadcasting, mostly covering books, films, and the arts for Sky and BBC in between a weekly advice column in the Observer and other freelance writing spots.

Mariella can't deny she's had fun throughout her long career, travelling the world on fabulous assignments and mingling with the rich and famous. She's been friends with George Clooney since the late 1990s, and is a regular visitor to the star's summer pile in Lake Garda in Italy.

"We met with friends during the Cannes Film Festival, so we got on very well," she explains.

Did they date? She laughs. "Have I ever, ever talked about things like that? I'm prepared to admit to my husbands, but that's about it."

What does she make of the persistent gay rumours about Clooney? She fixes me with a stare.

"Come on. I always used to laugh about those rumours about Richard Gere, who then married Cindy Crawford. I thought, 'If that's gay, let's all be gay'.

"(George) has never done anything but go out with women. He's chosen not to get married and doesn't believe in marriage. Why that non-conformist position should make people assume he's gay is ridiculous. He's George Clooney: if he was going to be gay, he'd be gay."

At any rate, Frostrup has her own leading man. She first got married when she was 17 to punk singer Richard Jobson – they divorced just after her 21st birthday. "Obviously there was a huge space left in my life from the death of my father," she says.

"Poor old Richard had the burden of that thrust on his shoulders."

She was single or in and out of relationships for the majority of her 20s and 30s. Aged 39, as part of a process of shaking up her life, Mariella went on a charity trek of Nepal. That's when and where she met human rights lawyer Jason McCue.

He proposed on the eve of her 40th birthday and they married a year later. Defying her gynaecologist's statistics, Mariella has had two children, a boy and a girl, in her 40s. ("I think perhaps medical science hasn't caught up with the reality of what's happening in women's lives," is her take on the topic of late motherhood).

"I never thought I'd get married," she says, finishing her macchiato, reactivating her over-worked BlackBerry. "If I'd been a bit more confident about what the future held, I probably would have enjoyed my 20s and 30s a lot more."

She pauses for another of her throaty laughs. "Here I am: living proof that it'll all be alright in the end."

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