Natasha Kaplinsky on why Sussex has a special place in her heart
PUBLISHED: 16:03 22 May 2014 | UPDATED: 12:16 03 November 2017
© marc macdonald / Alamy
Newsreader and TV presenter Natasha Kaplinsky sparkled on the Strictly dancefloor, but now she’s a mum she’s happiest down with the animals on her Sussex smallholding. Angela Wintle discovers why the county has a special place in her heart
To say Natasha Kaplinsky is pressed for time would be an understatement. On the day we chat, she is frantically packing her things in readiness for a highly-publicised flight to Israel with Prime Minister David Cameron. Earlier this year, the former Strictly Come Dancing star was chosen to sit on the Holocaust Commission, tasked with looking at what more should be done to establish a permanent memorial to the millions of victims. It will report its findings next April.
“The trip has been top secret and I’ve only just found out the destination,” says Natasha, 41, who, due to a late call-up, has spent the day cancelling engagements. “It has resulted in a horrible clash of diaries because I’ve been organising a massive fundraising event for Save the Children, but when you get an invitation like this you don’t turn it down.”
Natasha was chosen as a result of her 2009 appearance on the BBC genealogy series, Who Do You Think You Are?, in which she discovered she had lost Jewish ancestors in the Slonim ghetto in Poland. “The trip will give us an insight into what we might recommend. There’s no guarantee the Government will follow the recommendations, but one thing’s for certain – there’s a level of urgency because the Holocaust survivors won’t be around for much longer.”
This is a return to the spotlight for Natasha who has focused on bringing up her two children, Arlo, five, and Angelica, three, in recent years, although she regularly stands in for colleagues on the 6.30pm and 10pm bulletins on ITV News.
You sense she is relishing life like never before, not least because she and her husband, investment banker Justin Bower, relocated from West London to their dream Sussex farmhouse near Uckfield last August. “The minute we saw the property, Justin put in an offer,” she says. “The owner asked if we wanted to look round first, but my husband said we didn’t need to – we just knew this was our home.”
Natasha, who grew up in Barcombe, near Lewes, had been commuting to Sussex at weekends for years, but the pull to her childhood stamping ground eventually proved too strong. “Departure times on Sundays were getting later and later, and we dreaded driving back to London and getting stuck in traffic. Everyone said it would take years to settle, but after 12 hours in our new home, Justin and I looked at each other and said: ‘Why didn’t we do this years ago?’”
She paints a bucolic picture of her new rural environment. “To bribe the children into moving, we promised them all sorts of animals,” she laughs. “We’ve always had our two Tibetan terriers, Molly and Benson, but I finally managed to talk Justin into allowing me to have a cat. And he fell in love with it so much that a second arrived two days later. Then we promised the children chickens, so now we have five. And did I mention the alpacas? We have four, and two of them are about to have babies.”
Although Natasha was born in Brighton, she spent her earliest years halfway across the world in Kenya. “We had the most idyllic childhood. Every weekend, Mum and Dad would pack a Land Rover, and we’d go off into the bush and pitch up a tent.” But her parents hadn’t always had it so good. Just a few years earlier, her father, a professor of economics, and her mother, a Jungian analyst, were forced to flee their native South Africa after opposing the apartheid regime.
“My father was heavily involved in politicising the ANC campaign and had a very hasty departure from South Africa when someone found a list with his name at the top – and all the other names had been killed. He sought political asylum in the UK, which is where I was born. My parents missed Africa so much, they moved back to Kenya, but for various reasons, including our education, we returned to Britain.”
Barcombe proved a massive culture shock for Natasha, who cut an exotic figure when she wandered barefoot into the village, speaking Swahili. “I feel extremely committed to Barcombe, but it’s fair to say we were initially treated with suspicion. A friend of mine had never been to London, so you can imagine the impact we made coming from a different country. Mind you, it was an idyllic childhood. We’d run down to the River Ouse with a dinghy every weekend in the summer. And I was so excited when the village flooded because we delivered the neighbour’s milk in a boat. I also loved dressing up for Barcombe Bonfire Night, and now I enter my own children so it’s come full circle.”
After graduating from Oxford, Natasha started her TV career reading bulletins for ITV’s Meridian News. She then moved to London Tonight, followed by Sky News, before joining the BBC in 2002 as a Breakfast presenter. But she reached a whole new level of fame when she competed in the first series of the BBC talent contest Strictly Come Dancing in 2004, and, along with Brendan Cole, went on to win. In an interview last year, however, she revealed she was virtually forced into taking part, despite deep misgivings.
“I’d just started at BBC Breakfast and obviously the bosses at Strictly had a shopping list, a newsreader was on it and I was their easiest target,” she says. “I was strongly encouraged, but I was very worried about not being taken seriously after putting on the sequins. And I found it really hard being on a dancefloor and being judged. It was the most nerve-racking thing I’ve ever done.”
She was right to worry. Paparazzi rummaged through her bins and camped outside her London flat, precipitating her to move house in the middle of the night. Journalists even contacted her old Brownie teachers in Barcombe in a bid to unearth tit-bits. “One weekend, newspapers claimed I’d been seen out with three different men, one of whom was Tony Benn, who was in his 80s at the time. I was romantically linked with him for a long time. He was a dear friend, but to suggest we were an item was ridiculous.”
The tone of her media coverage changed, too, and she was vilified by Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell, who nicknamed her Spangles because she reminded her of “a cheap sequin sewn on to the frock of a dancer to make them shine”. Natasha, she argued, had sold out by joining Strictly and become “just another celebrity show pony”.
She also twisted the knife by arguing Natasha’s arrival at the BBC had had a serious impact on the quality of the Corporation’s news presenters. Serious women presenters like Anna Ford and Moira Stuart had been replaced by ‘autocuties’ “who didn’t just read the news, they had to make it”. When Natasha moved to Channel 5 after negotiating a £1m pay package, she came under fire again, this time from veteran broadcaster Peter Sissons, who suggested she had “done very well out of her looks”.
Natasha is philosophical. “If you do the job I do, you just have to deal with it. You can’t moan about these things. I’ll never forget reading the first proper hatchet job and I didn’t recognise the person being written about. But so many people who had gone through it themselves said it would blow over, and eventually it did. And now even Amanda Platell has started writing nice things.”
Natasha is also mindful there are people much worse off than her. As an ambassador for the children’s charity Save the Children, she has seen many of its overseas aid programmes first-hand, but it was the recent scenes she witnessed at a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan which touched her most deeply. “One man had lost pretty much everybody when a mortar bomb arrived in his village, and he didn’t know how to compute that. I resolved never to feel embarrassed about asking people for money again.”
But while she believes it’s vital to see the work on the ground, she knows it can come at a heavy price. “Last year in South Africa, we were caught up in a riot and I felt really unsafe for the first time. My husband does remind me that I’m the mother of two children, so I’m very careful where I go. But you can never be sure.”
Justin, her husband, crops up a lot in conversation and she reveals their paths crossed when she was asked to open a shop for a friend. “The day we met I knew I was going to marry him, and five weeks later I had a ring on my finger. It shocked everyone, but I was just so certain. What was particularly lovely was that I’d just won Strictly, and Justin hadn’t watched any of it, so I knew it was me he loved, not the job. As for the children – well, they find the news boring and would much rather watch Peppa Pig!”
Mind you, now that the weather is warmer, you won’t find Natasha’s brood indoors for long. “We’re really looking forward to the arrival of our baby alpacas, and now our chickens have finally started laying eggs, Arlo is determined they’re all going to hatch,” she laughs. “We’re just loving the country life. We feel so lucky to have found our Sussex home!”
To make a donation to Save the Children, visit www.savethechildren.org.uk
My favourite Sussex
Restaurant: The Griffin Inn in Fletching - The atmosphere and cuisine are amazing and we always bump into people we know.
Pub: The Coach and Horses in Danehill - We love this family-run pub on the edge of the Ashdown Forest.
Shop: Trading Boundaries in Sheffield Green - We particularly like the courtyard boutiques and summer space for the children.
View: From my parents’ window - They’ve dug a big pond in the back garden in the shape of Africa to remind them of home. The garden is beautiful in the summer, when it’s packed with wild flowers.
Place to visit: St Mary’s Church, Barcombe - Where we had our marriage blessing. It’s a beautiful spot and brings me a lot of peace.