ROSEMARY CONLEY LOVES TO EAT chips. Big golden chunky ones. She also has a penchant for Pringles and vanilla slices. In fact, the fat girl inside Britain's favourite diet and fitness queen craves the same junk food as other mortals. The only difference between her and the rest of us is that for most of the time, her inner glutton goes hungry.
"I have to watch my weight just like anyone else so I probably only have a vanilla slice about five times a year when it's somebody's birthday in the office," says the 59-year-old who, on the day we meet, is sporting her trademark coiffed bob and is immaculately turned out in a pair of black trousers and figure-hugging red jumper. "I only eat chips once or twice a year but, if I am out in a restaurant and someone else is having them, I have to pinch one off their plate. I also adore Pringles but the only time I have them is on holiday. My husband and I will buy a mini-tub and we'll try and make them last between two of us for two days." The thought of two grown adults rationing a small tub of crisps does, on the surface, seem slightly ludicrous, yet Conley cannot be dismissed as just another neurotic dieter. Her name is synonymous with all things low fat and healthy and her figure is her brand. Imagine how disastrous it would be for business if she suddenly piled on the pounds?
And so, for the last 17 years - since she was catapulted into the public domain when her first book The Complete Hip and Thigh Diet became an overnight success, with sales of two million copies to date - stealing a chip from a friend's plate and having a few Pringles on holiday is about as much excitement as Conley's inner fat girl gets.
"I am not naturally like this - I've had to train myself to be this disciplined," she says. "I have had to make certain life choices to stay slim. I don't drink too much alcohol, I don't have big portions or second helpings." However, Conley has been at this low fat game for so long now that sticking to a low fat diet has become second nature. In fact, strangely enough for a woman who used to love cream and butter, these days she can't bear even olive oil on her salad and the sight of anything swimming in fat turns her stomach.
"You do find that once you get into the habit of eating low fat you actually don't want to eat fatty foods," she says. "So while I am constantly watching my figure and I am very conscious of the boundaries of what I can eat, I don't consider it a handicap because, at the end of the day, I want to be slim more than I want to eat the cream cake."
In exchange for this life of self-denial Conley has a business empire which, from the slimming club franchisees alone, turns over 10 million a year. What started off as a slimming club held in her living room, has grown into four separate companies: Rosemary Conley Diet and Fitness Clubs; Quorn House Publishing (which publishes her eponymous Diet & Fitness magazine); Rosemary Conley Enterprises (which handles her books and videos); and Rosemary Conley Licenses Ltd (responsible for all the food, fitness and electrical products that bear her name). She received a CBE from Prince Charles last year.
Conley is clearly very happy with her lot. "I am immensely privileged to be in the position that I am in," she says. "I'm happily married [to her second husband, Mike Rimmington, who helps run the business empire], I have a successful business, and I am healthy and slim."
Being slim might not feature on everyone's list when they are counting their blessings but for Conley, being thin means being happy.
"I love being slim," she says unapologetically. "I went through years of walking into a dress shop and things not fitting and now I adore buying clothes because everything I try on fits and that is the loveliest feeling."
Yes, Conley didn't always possess an enviable size eight frame. She admits to having cellulite, which she hated, from the age of 16 and in what she has previously described as a "soul-destroying experience" Conley piled on the pounds throughout her twenties when she was working as a secretary in Leicestershire. She has previously blamed a Cordon Bleu cookery course for the weight gain which taught her to prepare delicious, yet calorific, meals for her first husband. However, the heart of the problem was that she was an unhappy woman who sought solace in food.
"I wasn't very happy with myself and because of that I wasn't very happy with my body, and because I hated my body I hated myself so I took comfort in food, which was causing the problem in the first place and so the whole thing was a vicious circle. I had a really bad relationship with food and just used to binge and starve and binge and starve. It was ridiculous."
When 5ft 2in Conley was 23 she weighed 10 stone three pounds. Not obese, but heavy enough for her self-esteem to plummet. But then the steely resolve that is so palpable when you meet her kicked in hard and, believing that her local slimming club did not offer what she was looking for, she set up her own.
Perhaps what made those early classes such a success was the empathy Conley could offer her fellow slimmers. And although there is more than a touch of Bree Van De Kamp from Desperate Housewives about her, it is this ability to overcome her stiff demeanour and relate to slimmers which has helped Conley grow her businesses.
"I think I have had the success I have had because people do know that I have been there and I know what it's like," she says. "In this business it's essential to be able to relate to your client."
In fact, it is so important that all of the Rosemary Conley franchisees operating slimming classes around the country have to, at some point in their lives, have battled with their weight.
The Rosemary Conley slimming clubs went national in 1980. But, while she was busy building up the business her marriage broke up and her daughter Dawn (now 30) went to live with her father. Then, in 1986, she was rushed to hospital with stomach pains and discovered she had gallstones. She had two choices: have her gall bladder removed, or cut fat from her diet permanently.
She took the latter option and lost even more weight. Around this time she became a Christian and, empowered by this as well as her slimming success, she proposed to the man she was in love with, Mike Rimmington. She decided to publish her new diet the same year, in 1988. Thus the life-altering Hip and Thigh Diet was born and broadcasting opportunities came her way almost immediately.
Conley became This Morning's resident fitness expert, perched on the sofa between Richard and Judy, a role she gave up in 2000.
Yet things have changed in the diet world over the past five years. While there are probably copies of her books or aerobics videos lurking at the back of cupboards in houses up and down the country, they are probably gathering dust, thanks to the trend for fast fix celebrity-led diets.
From Atkins to South Beach, cabbage soup to coconut oil, there is a whole generation of keen young dieters who have never heard of Rosemary Conley. Rather like piped mashed potato and the wet perm, the sensible, no-nonsense Hip and Thigh Diet has been relegated to the back of the shelf with the other 1980s relics. So Conley is going on the offensive with a new book, The Gi Jeans Diet, which follows the release of her new DVD, Shape Up & Salsacise. The diet still preaches the virtues of exercise and the low fat, low calorie approach to eating that she became famous for but, in addition, it encourages slimmers to eat slow burning carbohydrates such as Basmati rice, wholemeal pasta and wholegrain bread.
"I did go through a period where I wasn't writing any books because I felt that I had written all that I had needed to write," she says. "But then the Atkins Diet came along and I was so irritated by the bad sense which was being taught that I thought I really had to come out with a sensible diet that had a bit of a new angle to it."
The results of the trials, she says, have been impressive, with the testers losing more than 7lbs on average in the first two weeks.
And that's the secret to Conley's impressive longevity - her diets work. She doesn't court celebrity in an effort to cash in, she doesn't promise overnight weight loss, and her diets are neither sexy nor radical but, in the long term, they work.
"It's all about making the right choices in life," Conley says. "Where I feel people fall down is that they don't make the wisest choices and instead of eating healthy foods they go for the easy option and pick up a ready-made-meal or unhealthy snack. Then, when they put on weight, they expect a quick fix to undo all the damage.
"But what people have to realise is that there are no quick fixes. You don't get a good figure overnight - you work at it."
But isn't she tired of working at it? She rarely eats out and, during the week, has a chef prepare her meals from a selection of Conley recipes. Although she does indulge and cook a nice meal at the weekend she works that off by walking her German Shepherd, Max, and taking two exercise classes a week. Doesn't Conley ever just want to just give it all up and spend her retirement slobbing out in her pyjamas and watching movies with a family-sized tub of Hagen-Dazs ice cream for company?
Not at all. Although Conley might look reassuringly her age (she is not a fan of cosmetic surgery) she has the verve and energy of a much younger women and is showing no signs of slowing down.
"I love what I do," she says. "I have some very exciting food products in the pipeline, including a range of Rosemary Conley foods which are going to go into supermarkets."
What about a Dr Gillian McKeith You Are What You Eat-style television programme? "I am tempted to go back to television," she says. "I think if the right programme came along I would be delighted to pass my message on.
"Yes, there are some days when I feel a bit lacklustre and as I get older there are bits of my body which aren't as firm as they used to be but, in general, I have the energy of someone 20 years younger. People don't realise that eating a healthy diet affects everything from your skin to your teeth.
"The way I look and feel is not down to good genes but a good diet. I would like people to take heart that somebody can be older but still be fit and slim," says Conley. "I am not lucky, I simply make right choices and I want people to feel that if I can do it, they can do it too." sm
For more information about Rosemary Conley visit www.rosemary-conley.co.uk or tel: 01509 620222.
Lose to win in 2006
START the new year with the Rosemary Conley Diet & Fitness magazine year planner - free with The Scotsman today - and keep track of all the important events in 2006.
With it pinned to your wall there will be no excuses for missing life's special occasions. In addition, on the reverse is printed a handy weight-loss graph, measurement record chart and inch-loss accumulator, plus practical diet and exercise planners.
So, if you are looking to lose weight and inches in 2006, plot your progress on these charts.
Weigh and measure yourself on the same day, at the same time, on the same scales and wearing similar clothes. This weekly weigh-in session will provide the most encouraging proof of progress and motivate you towards your goal.
Rosemary Conley says: "If losing weight and getting fitter are at the top of your list of New Year resolutions, not only will you look and feel better if you succeed, but you will have given your body a real health boost. You will reduce your chances of having a stroke, a heart attack or developing Type 2 diabetes - to name just a few of the life-threatening diseases caused by being overweight.
"Being fat is not a pleasant feeling, but being slim is. Being slim means we have more energy every day. We sleep better. Our self-confidence rockets. We feel healthier. We are much happier in ourselves. In fact, being slim is fantastic - but, interestingly, we only appreciate it if we have personally experienced the horrors of being overweight. Some people know why they have gained weight. They acknowledge that they eat too many high-fat snacks and drink too much alcohol and do too little exercise or activity. Others are puzzled. They don't eat anything in excess and can't understand why they are now wearing a size 16 when they used to be a size 12. They don't binge, they are not greedy and they are active. It all seems so unfair. 'It must be my metabolism,' they presume. Unfortunately, it isn't.
"If you weigh more now than you did a year ago it is because you have taken in more calories in the form of food than you have spent in the form of exercise and activity.
"But don't be too hard on yourself. Getting the balance right between 'energy in' (food) and 'energy out' (activity) is more sensitive than you might think. The slightest imbalance can have a dramatic effect. For instance, if a woman who burns 2,000 calories a day consumes exactly 2,000 calories a day, her weight will remain constant. But if that same woman were to eat one chocolate digestive biscuit (about 80 calories) every day in addition to her 2,000 calories, over a year she would gain 12lbs. This puts into perspective our 'I'll just have one' excuse.
"Every calorie you save and bit of activity you do add up to your ultimate weight-loss success."