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The Biography of Britain's Best-Loved TV Star
By Nigel Goodall
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2007 Nigel Goodall
All rights reserved.
A CRY FOR HELP
Davina McCall was 15 years old when she turned up at school wearing black leather trousers and a T-shirt ripped across the waist. She had dyed her hair aubergine and was wearing Gothic make-up. It was 'mufti day' at Godolphin and Latymer School in Hammersmith, West London, and, while most girls came dressed like Bananarama wannabes in ra-ra skirts and legwarmers, Davina went punk.
Although in the spring of 1983 – the year Karen Carpenter died of anorexia nervosa, the eating disorder about to plague Davina – punk was probably no longer embraced by the mainstream. Punk dress and music were now considered wild, weird and antisocial, and the people who liked it weren't much better, but, for Davina, it was essential for the attention she craved. During the same year, she remembers she shaved her head because she was sick of people constantly saying she dyed her hair blonde to make herself look like Princess Diana: 'I was mortified because I was trying to be trendy and tough.'
It wasn't the first time that Davina had reinvented herself. Three years earlier, when punk was still in vogue, she was simply horrified when she arrived for her first day at school. 'I was this prim and proper little thing who turned up on her first day wearing white socks pulled up to her knees, a little A-line skirt, a Pringle haircut and was carrying a briefcase from WH Smith that pulled out like a doctor's case. And I walked in and saw everybody – there were all these punks and trendy types, it was a nightmare. They all had streaked hair and their socks were round their ankles, and they all had Millets bags with "The Sex Pistols" and "The Clash" written on them. I had never heard of those bands and I just thought, "I am going to die. Ground, eat me up, please!"
'But actually kids are brilliantly resilient and within three days I too had streaked my hair. And I went and got my bag from Millets – and wrote the names of bands I never heard of before on it – because I wanted desperately to fit in.' During this time she also recalls that she even changed the way she spoke when she got 'a bit of hassle' from some kids in Shepherds Bush on her way to school: 'So I started talking "loik vat" for survival because I thought I was going to be beaten up.
'It was like Sandra Dee from Grease turning into a wild Pink Lady! I never looked back really; it was like a rebirth. When my granny next saw me, she was most perturbed. An old school friend came round for dinner recently and we had such a laugh recalling my third day at school. She says she'll never forget it because I'd changed so dramatically. And since then I've been many people, and I like to play different parts of myself – sometimes a foxy minx, sometimes quiet and sensitive, sometimes loud and gregarious – and they're all me.' Basically, though, she continues, 'I am two people and they are incredibly different. There is the little girl who was brought up by my grandmother and who was taught very good morals and manners, and right from wrong. And then there is my French side, which I get from my mum and Paris – and going out and wild parties, and madness and excitement.'
It was after that third day at the school that she started experimenting with her looks – she had to. The easiest way to reinvent yourself, she says, 'is with your hair. It's immediate and it's shocking. I've had black hair, orange hair, blonde hair, and you get a lot of attention as a blonde. When I went dark again, I had to suddenly develop a sense of humour to get noticed – I had to work harder for it.'
Having learned from an early age that 'to get on you have to fit in' has probably helped Davina become one of Britain's most loved television presenters without the need for the kind of fame to be found from being crowned 'Queen of the Celebrity Jungle'. Or being an ex-Atomic Kitten, a member of Girls Aloud or a Sugababe. And fit in she still does, even with the way she talks. She has a sort of middle-class cockney twang to her accent that, according to journalist Paul Bracchi, places her somewhere roughly 30 miles up any motorway heading out of London. But, if the secret of success is an unsettled childhood, Davina was destined for greatness when she was just three years old and was sent off to live with her grandparents. Not because she was difficult or troublesome but because she was, to all intents and purposes, abandoned by her parents when they divorced in 1970.
Davina Lucy Pascale McCall was born on 16 October 1967 in Wimbledon, Southwest London, and was the only child of a French-born mother, Florence, and an English father, Andrew. Florence – who already had a daughter, Caroline, from her first marriage – was also very glamorous. By all accounts, according to Davina ('Div' for short), she was 'a wild sixties person who didn't have it in her to look after me. She was very young when she had me and I don't think she could cope with the responsibility of a child.' So she fled from the Yves St Laurent boutique she managed in Knightsbridge and ended up living in an apartment located in the exclusive 8th arrondissement in Paris, near the Champs Elysées.
What is curious, however, is how, if she couldn't cope with looking after Davina, she coped with bringing up Caroline, who had arrived in the world five years before. Florence would have been just 18 years old then, and surely having a child so young would have been far more daunting than having one at 23. But then again it was the decade of rebellion: a decade in which free thinking, free love and free drugs were the buzzwords of a generation. The burgeoning counterculture scene of two years earlier was now in full bloom and the entire world, it seemed, felt the need to go to San Francisco and put flowers in their hair. Just six months before Davina was born, Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted into the US Army to serve his national service as a protest against the war that continued to grind on in Vietnam, and, in the process, was stripped of his World Heavyweight Boxing Championship belt.
More peacefully perhaps, Elvis Presley married Priscilla Beaulieu in a secret ceremony in Las Vegas. But even that could not be regarded as completely without hysteria when you consider that at that time the marriage of a pop star – and in this instance the biggest pop star of all – would have brought certain death to a colourful career. Despite a run of less than mediocre movies, Elvis was still clearly a heartthrob. Of course, there was more at stake than just a career. What would the world have thought to discover that Priscilla was barely 14 when plucked from a US Air Force base in Germany to become Elvis's child bride?
Whatever it was that caused Davina's mother to flee back to her native France, it would now be up to her father Andrew (who still calls her 'Divvy Poohs Pops' – and who Davina, who already had her mother's Gallic good looks, describes as 'the love of her life') to decide what would be best for her. Realising he would probably not cope that well with the emotional demands of bringing up a daughter on his own while trying to hold down his job as a sales rep for fashion house Jaeger, he thought a good option would be for Davina to live with his parents in Bramley, Surrey. At least then she would have some kind of stability in her life and, if nothing else, he could see her at weekends. But Sundays, Davina recalls, 'were full of dread because he had to leave'.
For Davina, it was perfect. She was, after all, very gung-ho, a bit of a tomboy, always building houses out of tree stumps, riding a lot and, overall, was very outdoorsy. In fact, it was because she was so outdoorsy that she would imagine she was the sixth member of Enid Blyton's Famous Five, the classic series of 21 children's adventures, published over 20 years from 1943. Even now, it is one of the most popular series of children's books in England and America, still selling over 2 million copies a year. She remembers, 'I'd go out with a quiver and arrows I'd made out of kitchen rolls and sticks, sit on the gate and wait for them to come and take me on an adventure.'
Interestingly enough, to this day the stories remain the favourite among the most enjoyed books that adults read as children. And from that point of view it is not difficult to understand why they would have been one of Davina's favourites as well. Like Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, Blyton's Famous Five was about family loyalties, bonding and friendship, something Davina may have thought was perhaps missing from her own early upbringing. And what is the point of reading children's fiction if not to make the unbelievable believable?
Although not in a book and still a few years away, Davina would soon have other favourites, such as television's popular sci-fi series Star Trek, the movie versions of which she still watches every Christmas. She also shared an obsession with all British and American girlhood: Starsky and Hutch star Paul Michael Glaser. In fact, so obsessed was she with Glaser that she would never miss a single episode. But perhaps the strangest crush she confesses she had was on comedian Freddie Starr. 'It started when I was young, but I did fancy Freddie. I used to tell everyone I was going to marry either my dad or Freddie. I thought he was the funniest person ever. He used to do this thing where he walked into the microphone and hit his head. I thought it was absolutely hilarious.'
For the time being, though, and before falling for those who frequented our small screens, despite her parents going their separate ways when Davina was still an infant, 'it was like all my Christmases had come at once,' she raves. 'I was spoiled rotten. I had lovely granny food made for me all the time; she'd bake cakes and delicious treats. I still saw Mum in the holidays. Even though I missed her at first, I just got on with it, really.
'When you're that age and your life changes you don't really understand what's going on. All I know is that I had a lot of love. I had my grandparents spoiling me during the week, I saw my dad at weekends, and then jetted off to stay with Mum during the holidays.' At first, she says, 'my mum was a very exciting woman to be around, an electric personality. There was always a drama happening but she was always funny. She'd do the really embarrassing thing that you would never dare to do. I used to watch Absolutely Fabulous and I sometimes used to think, "Gosh, that's like me – I'm Saffy and my mum's Edina." Not the same kind of fashion preciousness, but that kind of relationship where she made me more square because I was constantly trying to look after my mum and keep her under control.'
But, if you asked her today how embarrassing her mother was, she would probably tell you, 'Well, I'm thinking of an electric-blue floor-length fake fur that made her look like Cruella De Vil, which she'd waft around in. And she'd go to a café and have a double Ricard before she went to work, and she'd be flirting with somebody, you know, inappropriate, and you'd be thinking, "Oh my God!" and she'd do citizen's arrests when someone pinched her bottom. Just mad stuff, but funny and fantastic ... if you're not the daughter. My friends would say, "Oh my God, she's so cool." But I didn't tell people a lot of the stuff that happened in France and I especially didn't tell my English family because I didn't want to upset them, or for them to stop me going over there because I loved my mother.
'It was like having three families. For a while, I was the envy of all my friends. The main thing was I was loved. However, I'm sure I was also a bit confused by the unsettling aspects of living with three different sets of people. It wasn't until I was in my late twenties that I could put it into perspective. I actually realised what it was about, that I was very lucky to have had so much love. It's a lot worse for other children whose parents split up – I was treated like a goddess. Before then, though, I'd gone a bit wild, not surprisingly.'
In fact, it was only a couple of years ago that 'my granny and I were talking about memories from childhood and I was remembering how I used to sit at the feet of my great-granny – who also lived with us – and how I would pinch the skin at the top of her hand and watch how long it would take to go back down again; and how she had these little things in her purse – like a pixie in a black cap – which she'd let me play with. And a couple of days later, my granny had gone through the house and found the little pixie and sent it to me in the post, and now I have it in my purse.
'That was very emotional for me ... a memory from 35 years ago and she still had it, and now I've got it. And she's just done the most fantastic book for me, called The Grandparents Book, with all our family's stories and the treats she was allowed when she was a little girl. And our family tree from way, way before me, and it's these things that are really important to me, and will be even more so when she goes.'
With so much love, isn't it surprising that, by the time she was 15, Davina was to struggle with the onslaught of anorexia nervosa? In 1994, it was one of the eating disorders afflicting 8 million sufferers in the United States, and in Britain at least 60,000 people were known to have been affected by it, but the actual figure was probably twice that.
So what exactly is anorexia nervosa? Is it a plain obstinacy in the form of a dieting obsession? Or a craving for the attention gained by a person's skeletal shape that would attract anyone who saw them? Or is it, as many theorise about sufferers, perhaps a deep-rooted psychological problem that is a blurred signal to a parent with whom there might be a relationship problem. In other words, is it a cry for help, one that can take on all forms of addiction, whether alcohol, drugs or anorexia?
Such addictions or just generally bad behaviour do seem to haunt celebrities when, at some time or another in their career, their public profile falls from grace. It's always the ones least likely to tarnish their reputations, too. Some would reason that is why Winona Ryder shoplifted thousands of dollars' worth of designer clothes and accessories from Saks Fifth Avenue in Beverly Hills in December 2001. At the time, the question on everyone's lips was why would anyone worth $30 million need to steal what she could easily buy. Many were convinced it was Ryder's cry for help.
But anorexia is a different story. It was, after all, what killed singer Karen Carpenter, who was the first celebrity to die after battling with the disorder for seven years. What is so strange about Karen's untimely death, however, is that she had no death wish. It was quite the opposite, in fact. She wanted to go on making music and expand her talent into other fields of entertainment throughout her life. If anything, Karen was a traditional showbusiness trouper. And yet anorexia seems to have been her cry for help. The question is, was it just an ugly and deadly equaliser for attention alongside her older brother, Richard, who was treated as the senior by their mother, and without whom Karen thought she would have no career? Or was it the fact that, because Karen never considered herself truly pretty enough to stand on a stage, starving was aimed at correcting her lack of self-esteem.
Whatever it was, according to Britain's Concise Medical Dictionary, 'anorexia nervosa is a psychological illness, most common in female adolescents, in which the patients have no desire to eat; eating may in fact be abhorrent to them. The problem often starts with a simple desire to lose weight, which then becomes an obsession. The result is a severe loss of weight and sometimes starvation. The underlying cause of the illness is complicated – problems in the family and rejection of adult sexuality are often factors involved.'
Of course, Davina's fight with anorexia was less fateful than Karen Carpenter's and not so prolonged. It probably started when she felt she needed a hug and to be told she was loved – which sounds strange when you consider all the love she had showered on her from her 'three families'. But, according to her, it only lasted a couple of months and 'was a weird mixture of superbly confident and terribly insecure'.
Excerpted from Being Davina by Nigel Goodall. Copyright © 2007 Nigel Goodall. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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