Vanessa Feltz: Kevin Myers and ‘Shylockian, Fagin-ian’ racism
Interview: The presenter on her fear of death, her love of praise and recent controversies
It’s 7.15am and Vanessa Feltz is talking. Of course she’s talking. Feltz is always talking. She’s on the radio, challenging the deputy leader of Southwark council, which has just announced it will “decant” residents from its tower blocks because of the risk of a gas explosion.
“You’ve chosen a very odd verb here, haven’t you? To decant residents. People know the word decant when it’s appended to a decanter which normally has sherry or brandy in it. I don’t understand the word decant as applied to human beings, and I don’t think the human beings it refers to do either. They don’t know if you’re going to pour them all out at once as you would with a large tumbler of brandy or whether you’re going to pour a drop into a shot glass …”
Feltz can talk for England on any subject – from the political to the poetic
It’s Feltz at her best – passionate, clever, combative. She makes her point effectively – the council needs to learn how to talk human. Which is something she has always done well.
Feltz can talk for England on any subject – from the political to the poetic (she loves to fling a verse of Pope at us), the inane (nothing like a good debate about pantaloons), the domestic (marmalade and its many virtues), the daft/offensive (are white girls more attractive than black girls or vice versa?) and the surreal (asking a bemused Madonna whether, like Feltz, she had struggled with breastfeeding and stopped strangers in the street to see if they would help her baby latch on to the nipple).
She earns between £350,000 and £399,000, which makes her the BBC’s highest-paid female radio presenter
Feltz used to talk on television five days a week until she got caught up in a scandal (researchers had hired actors as “guests” without her knowledge) and The Vanessa Show was pulled. Now she talks on radio five days a week – 5am–6.30am on BBC Radio 2’s Early Breakfast, then she runs across the road to a different studio and is back on air for BBC Radio London from 7am-10am. Sometimes she also stands in for Jeremy Vine on Radio 2 (12pm-2pm).
In the past few weeks, Feltz has also been the subject of much talk. There was the BBC salary controversy (she earns between £350,000 and £399,000, which makes her the BBC’s highest-paid female radio presenter but still considerably lower paid than her male radio counterparts); a disgusting Sunday Times article by Kevin Myers suggesting that Feltz and Claudia Winkleman were well rewarded by the BBC because they were Jewish; an embarrassing leaked email from her Radio London boss David Robey in which he said “it’s a constant battle to get her to suit the pace of breakfast” and that the show “lacked personality”; and astonishingly, on the same day, vindication in the form of record-breaking figures.
Too much personality
Today she is accentuating the positive. We meet at a bar near the BBC, and she says things could not be better. “On a personal note, life is terrific and triumphant because I’ve just scored record Rajars [audience figures] of all time for the Breakfast Show on Radio London and also for Early Breakfast on Radio 2. Everywhere I go, everyone says: ‘Brilliant! Congratulations!’ So I feel like I’m at a great big bar mitzvah where everyone’s shaking my hand and giving me a kiss and a sugared almond and a pat on the head.”
How does she reconcile the record-breaking figures with the critical leaked email? “Did you actually read it?” she says defensively. Feltz is quick to point out that far from saying she lacked personality, as has been reported, the email suggested the show had not yet made the most of her personality.
“It was expressing concern that it was a restrictive format because it was so heavy on news and maybe it wasn’t reflecting my personality. This is my boss, who effectively discovered me in radio. David Robey is my hero and my mentor and my great champion so he would never dream of thinking, even in his most private moments, of saying Vanessa lacks personality.”
As for BBC salaries over £150,000 being made public, she thinks it’s ridiculous
She reminds me that in the past she has been accused of having too much personality, and producers have asked her to rein it in.
As for BBC salaries over £150,000 being made public, she thinks it’s ridiculous. “When I worked in Barratts shoe shop in Oxford Street, I certainly didn’t discuss with the other sales assistants how much are you being paid, and nobody ever does in this country and that is one of the nicest things about it.
“I just don’t see how it’s enlightened anybody. What were they hoping to discover as a result? Because there is no comparison. Nobody knows, for example, how much people at ITV get paid. It’s utterly pointless. It’s like asking what does everybody get paid at McDonald’s without asking Burger King.
“It would have been just as revelatory if they had said six people earn over this, 12 people over that. And of course it provoked an unpredictable story. Everybody thought it was going to be ‘We’re appalled by the astronomically high salaries’ and it turned out to be ‘We’re appalled by the inequality between the sexes’.”
She is really getting into her stride now. “I was embarrassed and I thought it was prurient and voyeuristic. It was just gross. It’s nobody’s business how much I earn.”
Classic Feltz. She argues her case with such a flourish that you are momentarily blinded to its flaws. Without naming names and attaching them to the jobs, nobody would have been aware of the gender pay gap.
I ask if she was a signatory to the open letter published by high-profile BBC presenters demanding the pay disparity be corrected at all levels. “I didn’t know there was a letter. I never know anything because I’m not online. I have never sent or received an email in my life.”
There are all different reasons why people get paid different amounts
She laughs. “Look, thank God nobody asked me. I didn’t see the letter so I didn’t have to make any decision about signing or not.”
Would she have signed it if she’d seen it? “Probably not. How do you prove two people on the same show are doing an equal job? Has one of them been around longer, has one of them been poached from somewhere else and therefore they had to be offered more money?
“There are all different reasons why people get paid different amounts. I don’t approve of a gender gap. Obviously I think people should be paid the same for the same, but in this instance I do think it’s a bit more complicated than that.”
Feltz is impossible to pigeonhole – very English (the cut-glass accent) and very Jewish (endless Yiddishisms); so open (about pretty much everything from her divorce to her gastric band) and private (money); a tabloid presenter (a recent feature was about dogging in the afternoon on Hampstead Heath) who also loves the high-brow; huge confidence (about her abilities) mixed with raging self-doubt (constant references to her weight).
She grew up in the wealthy London suburb of Totteridge. “I always say it was the Beverly Hills of north London, the swimming pool and chopped liver belt.” Her father ran a successful underwear business, her mother was a history graduate. Young Vanessa was academic and outgoing. Her parents dreamed she would be the next Susan Sontag, but she just wanted to be the first Vanessa Feltz.
At school, she says, she was known as Vanessa the Undresser. Was she promiscuous? “No. God, no. I was a saucy girl but I fell in love at 12 and I went out with the same guy for nine years.” So why the nickname? “It rhymes, it’s convenient, because I was busty, voluptuous, that sort of thing.”
When she was 38, Kurer walked out on her for another woman
Feltz adored literature, graduating from Cambridge with a first in English. Soon after, she split up with her boyfriend and married Michael Kurer, then a junior doctor. By her mid-20s she was the mother of two daughters and had a burgeoning TV career. When she was 38, Kurer walked out on her for another woman.
After they split, she lost five stone. Today she describes the divorce as “cataclysmic and horrifying”. She says if she was still married to him today, she would be unhappy but would probably know how to go online. “My husband had just left so I didn’t have a grownup bossing me around when the internet started.”
There have been many lows – professionally and privately. But she has bounced back from them all. Feltz is not so much bottle half full as bottle positively overflowing. She now lives with her fiance, singer Ben Ofoedu, a 6ft 4in (she is 5ft 2in) born-again Christian singer 10 years her junior. They have been together for 11 years, and she says they could not be more different.
“God, he’s so laid-back. It’s infuriating! But also magnificent to behold. He says to me: ‘Be easy fam.’ He says fam but he means me, not the rest of the family.
“And I’m not easy, am I? I’m full of everything. Angst and ecstasy and fun. He says: ‘Rest your skin.’ Noooo! Of course I can’t. I’m worried about this, excited about that, concerned about this, I’m a hell of a lot of stuff.” Even by Feltz’s standards she is talking quickly.
I find it very hard to imagine myself living longer than my mother
Anyway, she says, she can’t afford to take it easy because she hasn’t got much time left. “I always think I better hurry up and do stuff. My mother died at 57 [of endometrial cancer], and I’m 55 and a half nearly, so I count the weeks and days and hours. I find it very hard to imagine myself living longer than my mother.”
Did you think about death before she died? “Oh God, yes. I’ve thought about death almost as long as I can remember. From the age of one and a half or something. As soon as I knew we were mortal I was perturbed. Fear of death really did interfere with my childhood a lot.”
“Yes.” She looks offended. “I’m not going to say anything that’s not genuine. What’s the point? So when my mother died at 57 that all made it a bit more imminent and scary. I’m not at all ready to die. So I think, if I live as long as her, how long have I got? And now we’re down to not long.”
I say I’m going to put on a bet that she lives into her 90s. Now she looks at me as if I’m mad. “Why? Why are you going to do that? I’ve always been fat. Why are you going to do that? Too much strudel, too many latkes, not enough exercise, all this aggravation from working so hard, hardly sleeping, how can I live that long?”
I feel I’m going to die
She talks about everything she wants to pack in – books and art, more work (she says radio beats TV any day, but she wouldn’t mind a telly comeback with a late-night show – “A literate Letterman with a bit of politics”), time with her girls and two grandchildren.
Blimey, I say, you really do think you’re going to die in a couple of years, don’t you? “I don’t know if I genuinely think it, but I feel it.”
Does she enjoy being a grandmother? “At last a great question,” she shouts ecstatically. “Yes, I love it, adore it. It is the most wonderful, fantastic thing that has ever happened to me. Have you seen my bag?”
The bag has a printed photo of her grandchildren on its front. She says nothing has given her as much happiness as her daughters (one a lawyer, the other a teacher) and grandchildren.
“I’m crazy about both my girls and choose above all else to hang out with them. They are my ideal companions. I really like them within cuddling, pinching, touching, kissing distance.”
I think both my parents felt I should have done something much more serious.
She says she constantly tells them how wonderful they are. Does her father ever tell her she is wonderful? “No, not really. He’s much more likely to say: ‘For this you went to Cambridge?’” For what? “Anything I do.”
Has he ever said ‘I’m proud of you, girl?’ “No!” Have you wanted him to? “I want everyone to. Doesn’t everyone? I think both my parents felt I should have done something much more serious.”
Feltz has often been given a hard time by the media – she was once ranked 93rd in a poll of the 100 Worst Britons. In 1998, when she left her ITV show after a row about money, insiders said she had demanded £2.75m over two years rather than the £1.5m she was being paid.
She has said she thinks she is perceived as “a fat, greedy Jew”. It does feel as if she has been the target of more “isms” than most of her contemporaries – sexism, fatism, antisemitism.
Feltz talks of her “infamy” and “notoriety” and says she is baffled by it. “I seemed to net an enormous amount of coverage, much more than people who’d been on the telly for years and had prime-time shows and really deserved it. Why? What’s so noticeable about me? I honestly don’t get it. I just can’t see it.”
Just after I got this car I was sitting at traffic lights and a guy gestured to me in a provocative way
Well, you can be a little loud, I say. “I suppose so,” she says quietly.
Crude, horrible stereotype
Did the Sunday Times column by Kevin Myers about her and Winkleman’s salary upset her? “It did upset me because it was so blatantly, flagrantly racist, in the most predictable stereotypically, Shylockian, Fagin-ian, Zionist-conspiracy-an kind of way. It was a crude, horrible, racist stereotype.”
For all her brashness, there is a sensitivity and generosity to Feltz. And she is a fantastic life force.
She insists on driving me home, despite it being out of the way. Her car is just as you’d expect – a bright red, top-of-the-range mini for a girl around town. Only one thing is missing – a personalised number plate. “Why would I want that?”, she asks. “I don’t need to draw any more attention to myself.”
Feltz is always true to herself. But in the car, I feel I see her at her truest – fast, funny, uninhibited. “Right, should we go topless?” she says. I give her a look. She grins, and unwinds the roof. “Are you cold? I could heat your tochus, put the heating on, make you some chicken soup, all sorts of things I could do.”
As she drives, she gets a fews waves and thumbs-ups from members of the public. “I bet if you’re Fiona Bruce or Trevor McDonald you don’t get stopped that much and people don’t expect you to give them a cuddle or a squeeze. But if you’re me, they do. Just after I got this car I was sitting at traffic lights and a guy gestured to me in a provocative way, saying ‘Phone number?’, and I just lifted up my engagement ring and went ‘Married!’. And he lifted up his hand and went ‘Me too!’”
She’s in stitches.
She’s driving through her old manor in north London. “Ah, the Phoenix cinema. I lost my virginity there. No, that’s not true. I lost it after seeing a film there. Fellini’s Amarcord. Very sexy film, with the woman in the sweet shop with the most gigantic pneumatic breasts.”
Would she have fancied being in a Fellini film? “Yes!” she screams. “I would absolutely love to have been in a Fellini film. But I’d settle for EastEnders.”
I tell her one of my favourite Feltz moments is the interview with Madonna when she went on and on about breast-feeding. “Well, Madonna doesn’t like being out-provocateured, does she? So she didn’t like it. She’d just played Evita so she was being imperious, and just utterly ridiculous.
When she goes to a dinner party she tells her friends she is out of conversation
“I was well cheesed off with the whole thing. I thought she was so rude and she’d been so cavalier with the lives of everybody who had to wait for her all those hours. The egalitarian in me could just not stand it. I thought, don’t you dare dispose of our lives like this.”
Earlier on, I asked if she ever got sick of the sound of her own voice. Absolutely, she said – she hardly talks at home, loves the silence, and when she goes to a dinner party she tells her friends she is out of conversation. As she pulls up outside my house, she remembers what she said, asks how much I have to write, and decides to help me out with the article.
“Seven hours later, Vanessa’s still talking,” she says. “Having said she’s got nothing else to say, she’s absolutely burned out, there’s not one word or syllable she wishes to utter on any subject, she is still talking.”
She bursts out laughing again, and drives off.