Success by numbers
FOUR years ago, in her late 30s, Carol Vorderman put down her packet of Gypsy Creams and picked up a blue Ungaro dress that caused a sensation amongst excitable newspapers, who hailed it as a transition from maths mistress to red carpet vamp. In short, ‘Woman goes on diet; loses weight’.
Coincidentally, Vorderman was just about to launch several prime time shows for ITV. Not everyone thought the new look was an improvement. Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine of BBC2’s What Not To Wear hated Vorderman’s thigh-high, low-cut coming-out dress, opining that "the problem with Carol Vorderman is that she went from kind of a librarian on Countdown to this sex goddess. She feels the need to show off as much as possible". Not one to take such jibes lying down, Vorderman quickly retaliated by describing Woodall as an "anorexic transvestite", and Constantine as a "carthorse in a badly-fitting bin liner".
Vorderman, now 43, was back in the papers last week, but this time she had lost the dress altogether, posing in stockings and shaped bustiers for GQ. And coincidentally, this happens just at the point when Vorderman’s 5m contract with Countdown is due to expire. By another fantastic coincidence, she is also launching a range of ready meals, made with the Scottish company Simply Organic.
Vorderman’s reinvention as a sex goddess is enough to make a certain kind of man cry - although possibly because they are 25 and still haven’t lost their virginity. For others, this putative sexy image is less convincing. For a start, Vorderman claims she owes her new look to an intestinal cleaning programme of nuts, seeds and algae that leaves her with what she euphemises as "wind problems". She also can’t stop banging on about it, which suggests that a candlelit dinner with Carol might become somewhat tedious. Finally there is the underlying truth that Carol is as tough as old boots, and frankly, as sexy as a Sherman tank.
It’s Vorderman’s endurance, not her cleavage, that deserves applause. Few women stay on prime time TV past 40, or else they go to work for Channel Five, which adds up to much the same thing. But Vorderman has proved to be remarkably tenacious. She has, by her own admission, always been driven, probably because her Dutch-born father Anton left her mother Jean to bring up three children on her own when Carol was just three weeks old. Jean Vorderman took four jobs to support her children, but at one stage, times were so hard they even had to scavenge for leftover cakes thrown out into a hedge by the local bakery. When she went to comprehensive school in Rhyl, her uniform was knitted by her mother.
However, Vorderman was bright and ambitious. At 17 she passed the entrance exams at Cambridge and studied engineering, but although much has been made of her 154 IQ, she emerged from university with a third class degree. By this point her mother’s second marriage had foundered, and the family were back in financial difficulties. Vorderman found work as a graduate management trainee, but it was her mother who saw a newspaper ad asking for a woman with good maths to appear as co-host on a quiz show for the fledgling fourth terrestrial channel. Jean even wrote out the application for Carol.
In 1982, at the age of 21, Vorderman was the first woman to be seen on Channel 4, as the resident statistician on the word-and-numbers quiz Countdown, presented by Richard Whiteley. Like war, pestilence and the poor, this quiz is still with us and provides Vorderman with a bedrock of financial security. Early poverty left her with an avaricious streak and occasionally greed has cost her. She lost her job on the BBC’s Tomorrow’s World when she began advertising a washing powder on the other side with sufficient technical overtones for the BBC to consider this a conflict of interest.
Yet far from vanishing from our TV screens, she is now hardly ever off them. She has presented the ITV children’s series HOW 2!, Star Lives and ads for diverse products such as low-cholesterol butter and a controversial finance management plan. Then there is Better Homes with Carol Vorderman, an interior design show that leaves the viewer reflecting that most homes are much better without Carol Vorderman. The shows Vorderman chooses to present are rarely at the quality end of the spectrum, but they are reliable in the sense that they are the kind of programmes you could leave on at an old folks’ home.
They have also helped her build up a personal fortune of 18m, and she has a reputation as a tough negotiator. At one point, for five years, she had two exclusive contracts; one to Channel 4 from noon to 6pm and another to ITV for the rest of the time. Off screen, her life was not always as successful. Her first marriage, to naval lieutenant Chris Mather was short-lived. After a stormy 18 months she left with all the furniture, leaving only their wedding album on the floor. They’ve not spoken since.
"The first marriage doesn’t count," she has said. "I didn’t want to get married. It happened very quickly, within weeks of meeting. I tried to get out of it but it was too difficult. It went ahead and it shouldn’t have done - it was just a moment of madness. I can’t even remember it."
Vorderman met her second husband, Paddy King, an accountant for PriceWaterhouseCoopers, in 1987 at the wedding of a mutual friend. They married in May 1990 and went on to have two children, Katie and Cameron. However, within 10 years there were rumours that they were living separate lives under the same roof and that he did not enjoy or approve of her pursuit of television fame. In 1999 she described his most attractive quality as being his "mastery of the English language".
Vorderman finally split up from her husband in 2000. Since then she has been dating a Daily Mirror newspaper executive, Des Kelly. Last year the couple moved out of the Home Counties, buying two properties in London which they share with her two children, now aged 10 and five, and her mother. Vorderman’s father was not a part of her life for many years. "In my 20s I tried to find him but he rejected me," she has said. When she found fame with Countdown he wrote, suggesting they meet, but she refused. Finally last year she relented. "My mother didn’t mind me getting in touch - in fact she suggested I do so," recalled Vorderman. "And I’m not one to live in the past. I’m glad I’ve met him. We’ve been in contact since as well. He’s 80 now and I’m very fond of him." However, it is her mother that she remains close to and nursed through a recent brush with ovarian cancer.
Vorderman herself caused speculation with a recent mystery illness that resulted in a 12-day stay in hospital. She refuses to discuss the problem, leading to speculation that she has had cosmetic surgery, although doubtless she would prefer to hold forth on the amazing and rejuvenating skin benefits of green slime and sunflower seeds. So what next for Vorderman, once she tires of presenting hours of television of little discernible quality? The 43-year-old has suggested that she might be interested in becoming a TV executive or even trying a political career, following her campaign for safeguards for children using internet chatrooms.
However, her political skills were not much in evidence this year when she turned up for a St Patrick’s Day bash at the Irish embassy. On this occasion, Vorderman’s faux pas was more than just fashion, when she appeared wearing a Protestant orange outfit and even orange fingernails.
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