The things we sacrifice for our careers. Tess Daly gave up her name. It’s a little known fact that one of the most famous names in showbiz isn’t actually real.
On her passport, Tess is still Helen Daly, the name her parents gave her. She’s been Tess for twice as long as she was Helen, which messes with heads – her own included.
‘My mum’s really the only person who still calls me Helen, and that’s not often. She tends to call me “love”, so when she does say “Helen” it can take me a while to respond.’
Now some stage names come about through showbiz pragmatism. Let’s face it, Reg Dwight was never going to have had as much of a chance at the big time as Elton John, nor Harry Webb as his more recognisable alter ego Cliff Richard.
Strictly presenter Tess Daly, (pictured) who was born Helen, says she feels grateful to be getting back to work after months out due to the coronavirus pandemic
Helen became Tess for different reasons though. When she started out in the modelling world, at the tender age of 17, there was already a model on the books called Helen Davies. ‘Helen Daly was too similar and I was told it wouldn’t work,’ she says.
Who picked Tess though? Not her, it turns out. ‘My agent was obsessed with Nastassja Kinski at the time, who was in the film Tess, and thought I looked like her. So Tess it was. I was gullible and impressionable.
‘Mind you, two weeks later I was in Japan then travelled the world. Paris, Milan, New York.’
Yet she’s never officially ditched the Helen. ‘I’ve never changed it by deed poll or anything because I think it would be disrespectful to my parents,’ she says.
We’re talking via Zoom the day before Tess-who-used-to-be-Helen is due to go back into the studio to begin filming the new series of Strictly.
It’s an emotional time all round, and she admits she didn’t sleep the previous night because ‘my mind has been a whirr.
‘It’s excitement, and relief at getting back. I’ve never been so grateful to just get back to work.’
She hasn’t yet met the celebrity contestants, but she has been gobbling up the gossip about who the ones to watch might be (no, alas, she won’t share any details).
Tess decided to change her name when she started modelling at the age of 17 but discovered another model named Helen Davies was already on the books and decided to alter it to avoid confusion
She’s also been wading through a jaw-droppingly huge book of instructions about the logistics of filming in this Covid era. ‘It’s our Bible,’ she says.
It’s a constantly updated Bible, given the way things are still in flux. YouTuber Hrvy has already been in isolation after a positive test.
The whole juggernaut could yet be threatened, but Tess says they all – presenters, production crew, celebs – feel ‘fortunate to have this chance to get back out there and do what we do’.
She knows that others would kill for this chance. ‘Being in entertainment, I know lots of people whose work has completely dried up.
‘There are make-up artists who haven’t had any work at all since lockdown. I know people who don’t know how they’re going to feed their children.’
It’s an oft-used cliché to describe the Strictly team as a ‘second family’, but how else to put it? ‘These are our people,’ she says.
‘Right through lockdown we were all in touch, constantly asking the producers, “What’s happening?” I didn’t see how we could return – not with the nature of dancing – but when we started to hear that there were suggestions about the professionals isolating together so they could do the big group numbers it started to look possible. Now, we will make it work.’
Showbiz smiles on, then? She jokes about needing an extra layer of slap to mask the terror of the past few months.
The mother of two (pictured with Strictly co-host Claudia Winkleman) is due to return to the studio soon to begin filming the popular dancing shoe Strictly Come Dancing and says she is excited and relieved to get back to work again
‘It’s still odd. The weirdest thing will be not being able to give everyone a hug. I’ve seen Claudia a few times socially.
We’ve been round for dinner, but the natural instinct is to just lunge at her and give her a hug. It’ll be the same in the studio.
It’s showbiz, for goodness sake – everyone is tactile. You don’t do handshakes. You do hugs. Except we can’t. But at least Strictly is happening, and I couldn’t be more grateful.’
I’ve interviewed Tess a few times before, but there is something different this time. Her emotions seem closer to the surface.
THREE MEALS A DAY – EVERY DAY!
Tess has always been a sensible sort, admitting today that while she might like to leave room for spontaneity in life, the core things are sorted.
‘I’m one of those people who had written my will by the age of 35. When it comes to the big things – finance, schools – I’m like that.’
Was she like that at 17? How else to explain the fact that she came through a modelling career relatively unscathed.
She credits her parents for this. ‘I worked with a lot of girls who had eating disorders, which was shocking to me.
‘I grew up with the norm being three meals a day. You wouldn’t dream of skipping a meal.
‘It was shocking to me that anyone would deprive themselves of food because it wasn’t normal. It wasn’t my normal,’ says Tess.
‘I think I saw a lot of it for what it was. I had people telling me I was too big then telling me I was too thin – sometimes the same people.
I learned that you couldn’t win, so you can’t change yourself to fit someone else’s view of you.’
Tess pictured in a swimwear shoot in 2001
We’ve all had our weepy moments during this pandemic, and she admits that one of hers came in the car park of her local supermarket.
She’d been doing her shopping when an elderly woman beside her dropped something.
‘I went to help her instinctively, as you do, then I thought, “Oh I can’t. She might not want me to touch anything.”
‘She was struggling though. She wasn’t walking very well. Her mask was too big for her face and her glasses were steaming up, and she was just not managing very well.
‘I talked to her for a little bit. She told me she was nearly 90 and she’d worked through her 80s and had been looking forward to retirement, but then her husband died, and now this.
‘She only went out once a week now, to do her shopping. She said she used to go out with her friends for a fish and chip supper, but she didn’t any more.
‘I was choking up. I told her there were masks for kids at the till, and maybe they would be better for her, but afterwards I sat in the car and just cried.
‘I wanted to say, “I could come by to visit you,” but then you think, “I’m a stranger. She’ll think I’m odd.” You feel so helpless, and it does concern me that so many older people are at home, afraid to go out. Loneliness is dangerous.’
A complete stranger might well have been freaked by the idea of Tess Daly popping by for a socially distanced cuppa, but did this woman recognise her?
‘Oh God no. No one does these days,’ she says, explaining that masks are the great leveller. ‘There are no selfies these days either.’
Her own (widowed) mother is younger than the lady in the supermarket, and more supported, but still.
‘During that strict lockdown, I felt so far away. She’s still up north, but friends and neighbours rallied round. The sense of community was extraordinary. Every day I was hearing about people shopping for others.
‘My mum had roast Sunday lunches left on her doorstep. On VE Day she had three afternoon teas left. She had so many scones she didn’t know what to do with them. She was so looked after, I’ll never forget it.’
So how did Tess spend lockdown? Mostly in the kitchen, it seems, and doing yoga via Zoom.
‘I’m into wellbeing and nutrition anyway, but lockdown gave me the opportunity to focus on that with the family,’ she says.
Has her husband, TV presenter Vernon Kay, been joining her doing the downward dog? ‘He’s more into the gym. We’ve got a gym at the bottom of the garden and it’s his man cave. It’s his second home. It smells like testosterone.’
The rest of the house perhaps smells like roses, because Tess has been in charge of the cleaning. Usually they have a cleaner, but not during lockdown.
‘I am a bit of a clean freak,’ she admits. ‘I’ve been spending a lot of time with the cordless vacuum cleaner. I’m quite obsessive, I love a clean home.’ Does Vernon do his share? ‘He pulls his weight when I’ve told him what to do.’
As she chats away, it becomes clear that her role at the helm of Strictly is a bit more than a job.
She’s been on board since the start, and the timeline has dovetailed with her family life to an extraordinary degree.
She was pregnant with her first child when she filmed the first series of Strictly, and returned for the second half of the second series just six weeks after she had Phoebe.
With hindsight, that must have been quite full-on? She can admit as much now. ‘That was a heck of a year,’ she admits.
‘I remember Phoebe’s very first trip outside. She was just a week old and I took her to TV Centre. I remember standing outside, with Bruce Forsyth holding her.
Tess spoke of an encounter she had with an elderly lady who was struggling through a car park during the pandemic and said she got into her car and cried because she felt like she couldn’t help her like she would have done previously. Pictured, Tess and husband Vernon Kay at Wimbledon 2019
‘I went back six weeks to the day after I had her, after a major op [she had a Caesarean] and I was still breast-feeding.
‘I was terrified about how I would manage if I leaked! Because it’s the BBC there were no ad breaks, so there was a lot of padding.’
The mental image of dear departed Brucie dealing with her leaking milk is quite something. ‘Brucie would have been fine,’ she insists. ‘He had five children of his own.’
Anyway, those were seriously sleepless days. ‘I remember lying on the sofa in my dressing room and just hauling myself off when I had to get to work.’
Emotional, too. ‘My dad had died the previous year. He never got to meet my children – which is my biggest regret, he would’ve loved them.
‘But he never got to see me do Strictly either, and he would have been so proud. He loved Bruce Forsyth. He adored ballroom, all of it.’
All those memories – of her dad, her children as babies, her beloved Brucie – came flooding back when she recently filmed a retrospective series on the best of Strictly over the years.
During lockdown, while unable to work, self-confessed clean freak Tess (pictured) said she spent the majority of her time cleaning and that her home had never looked so tidy
‘To see Bruce again, doing his thing, made the tears flow,’ she admits. ‘I miss him very much. He was such a constant.’ Outside work too? ‘Yes, he’d phone me at home and chat to me, chat to Vernon.
‘He was forever giving his take. Those Brucie nuggets were invaluable, because he’d seen everything. He was about 76 when I first met him, and he’d lived a lot of life.
He’d be only too happy to share his thoughts over a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit.’
Brucie had his own life wobbles, obviously, and found to his cost that the showbiz lifestyle wasn’t always compatible with family life.
She doesn’t refer directly to the well-publicised hiccups in her marriage, but nor does she attempt to say that things have always been rosy there.
Has she ever felt a showbiz life isn’t compatible with a family? ‘No. I think it is compatible. Family life is what you make it. And showbiz isn’t the world you live in, is it? You dip into it. But family life is the priority.’
We keep returning to her parents and childhood, which is the foundation of everything, she says.
‘Your childhood is the framework for your self-esteem. If you have a grounded, loving upbringing, you will repeat the pattern. It’s part of your DNA.’
What are the keys to a long-lasting marriage? ‘Shared goals, qualities, not taking each other for granted. Holidays! And you just evolve together. We’ve grown up together.’
She also spent her newly found free time during lockdown doing yoga over Zoom but said her husband Vernon didn’t join her, preferring to go to the gym than a virtual workout
Phoebe has just turned 16 (Amber, her younger sister, is 11) and Tess talks of how parenting is different these days.
She’s troubled that her girls are growing up in the Instagram world ‘where nothing is real. It’s an… augmented reality, but it’s not real. They are so tech-savvy. Into Tik Tok and all that, although we say no phones in the bedroom and they aren’t public on social media yet.
‘It’s their world though and it’s such a minefield, it’s how kids communicate.
‘Teenagers now don’t text each other – they message on Snapchat. It’s a whole new world and we didn’t have to grow up with everyone watching us, judging us.
‘It’s really challenging, particularly for girls because you don’t want your outside appearance to be what you’re judged on.’
Of course this is said by a former model and a TV presenter who is proudly about the sparkle. ‘I know. It’s a contradiction, but when I’m at work I have two hours in make-up. I have a light shining on me as strong as car headlights. I’m sure people are disappointed when they see me in the flesh.’
How does she have these conversations with her daughters though? ‘If I catch my girls criticising their appearance – the youngest isn’t at that point yet, but the eldest is – I will nip it in the bud and say, “You are healthy. You are beautiful.” You have to move the focus away. Too much Instagram, comparing yourself to others, is not good.’
Obviously she’s not immune to fretting about her own looks, and how they’re holding up. She’s 51 and says she spent her 50th on holiday, deliberately avoiding the big 5-0 birthday party and the focus that comes with it.
‘I took myself away. We went to the Maldives. It was a distraction. You can’t be miserable when you wake up in paradise.’
Not that she’d want to be 20 again. ‘I really wouldn’t want to be in my 20s because you’re wracked with insecurity then.
As a mother of two girls, 16 and 11, she says she feels concerned about them growing up in a world surrounded by social media – worrying they will be judged for their appearance
‘I feel I’m in the right place now. Happier in my skin and all that, and what’s the point in complaining about your wrinkles? I’d rather just focus on what I’m grateful for.’
She thinks the long-term prognosis for women still being on our screens into their 80s, and beyond, is good. Her heroine is Mary Berry – now Dame Mary Berry, of course.
‘Her work ethic is amazing, and she has such energy. When you meet her, she’s a firecracker.’
It’s hard to imagine Strictly without Tess, but does her vision of her own future include the show? ‘Nothing lasts forever,’ she says. ‘But as long as they’ll have me, I’ll be skipping along.’
So might she still be at the helm in her 80s, as Brucie was? ‘Oh God no. That will never happen again – not with anyone. Brucie was a one-off.
‘When I’m that age I’ll hopefully be sitting in France, gazing out at the ocean, the kids will be coming to visit for the weekend, and Vernon will be pouring the rosé.’ n
Strictly Come Dancing is on tonight at 7.25pm on BBC1.