She's sultry, sexy and yet quite proper at the same time
ONE accurate way of measuring the popularity of a female television star is to count how many jealous comments she provokes from other women in the media. In which case, Natasha Kaplinsky must be by far the highest-rated woman on the telly. Criticisms from her own gender range from casually snide to outrageously bitchy. One female journalist noted how Kaplinsky was "at home in her stiff news anchor suits, teamed with mid-90s bouffant hair and panstick pasted to middle-aged perfection". Another commented: "She turns on the tears readily, but underneath she is as hard as nails." The Daily Mail columnist Amanda Platell has practically made a career of baiting Kaplinsky, whom she nicknamed Spangles. "She most reminded me of a cheap sequin sewn on to the frock of a dancer," she once remarked, adding, "there's more pancake on that poor woman's face than at a Shrove Tuesday cook-in". About the least condemnatory thing said about Kaplinsky is that she is "the most ambitious woman in television".
It isn't just the women who seem to have it in for her. One male producer called her "ungracious", "high maintenance" and "bloody awkward", while her former agent Jon Roseman said she was "the most difficult person I had ever worked with".
Yet the public, by and large, adore her. How else to explain the fact that ratings for Five's evening news programme soared by more than 70% in the first month after she arrived there from the BBC in 2007.
Kaplinsky is aware of her detractors and what they say, and has defended herself with vigour. "Broadcasting is a macho world and any woman who has done reasonably well in the industry gets branded a hard bitch, but I'm not," she insists. "I think I'm quite a nice person, not in a saccharine way, but I would never trample over other people to further my career. The frustrating thing is that blokes are never criticised in the same way."
Kaplinsky, 36, announced last week that she will return to newsreading on Five in a 'phased' manner after giving birth last September to her first child, a son named Arlo. She will go part-time, earning a third less of the reported 1m a year she previously earned at Five. She will not be struggling for cash as her husband, Justin Bower – they wed in 2005 after a whirlwind romance – is a merchant banker in the City. He was so uninterested in television that he called her Natalie on their first three dates, but popped the question after they'd been seeing each other for just six weeks. "What took you so long?" she said.
Kaplinsky does not deny that her good looks have been of assistance to her career. That octogenarian leader of the awkward squad, Tony Benn, was reported to have insisted that he would take part in a series on religion only if Kaplinksy conducted the interview.
Religion is one of the keys to understanding Kaplinsky, because her mittel-European Jewish antecedents can sometimes seem at odds with her reserved middle England demeanour. Born in Brighton and spending a lot of her early childhood in Kenya, she is the daughter of psychotherapist Catherine Charlewood and the noted economist Professor Raphael Kaplinsky, a South African who was exiled from his native land for campaigning against apartheid. He in turn was the son of a Jewish ropemaker who fled pre-war Poland.
After the years in Kenya, her family returned to Sussex, and Kaplinsky attended Varndean College in the south coast city before studying English at Hertford College, Oxford. On her gap year, she broke her back in a speedboat accident off the Italian coast and spent months in plaster, but she gritted her teeth through the rehabilitation process, determined to graduate and find a job in television.
It was the combination of high intelligence, Slavic good looks and English rose manners which was the secret of her first finding success. After graduating, she had a year of unemployment and menial jobs until she broke into television on a cable channel, hosting a children's programme alongside Sacha Baron Cohen. A job in television journalism was now her aim, and she achieved this in 1998 at Southampton-based Meridian Television where she rapidly rose from junior reporter to newsreader before joining ITV's London Tonight programme in 1999, followed by Sky News and then the BBC in 2002, starting with the Breakfast show.
While reading the news, Kaplinsky, a teetotal churchgoer, exudes conservatism with a small 'c', but like predecessors Angela 'Legs' Rippon and five-times divorced Jan Leeming, Kaplinsky swaps her on-air gravitas for flirtatiousness whenever she moves from behind the desk. "She's sultry, sexy and yet quite proper at the same time," said an unnamed and enamoured colleague at the BBC.
The combination exhibited itself most notably in 2004 when she took part in the first series of Strictly Come Dancing, which to many people's amazement, was a spectacular ratings success. Kaplinsky's star quality and obvious dancing talent plus her determination to do well made her the star of the show, her popularity boosted by the apparent sexual chemistry between her and her partner in the series, the professional dancer Brendan Cole. She denied any romantic liaison.
Kaplinsky and Cole won the title and, in the midst of a media frenzy, her love life became a tabloid fixation amid reports that she had earlier broken off her 12-year relationship with Michael Barnard and taken up with a former boss at Meridian, Lloyd Bracey.
Returning to a stint as one of the BBC's main television news broadcasters, she then co-presented the next series of Strictly with Bruce Forsyth and also appeared on programmes as varied as Have I Got News For You, Children In Need and the Doctor Who spin-off, Torchwood.
In 2007, the public was given a unique insight into what makes her tick when she was featured in the Who Do You Think You Are genealogy series. Kaplinsky proved on the show that she is no actress – she could not contain her emotions when she learned that almost an entire generation of her father's family had been slaughtered by the Nazis in Slonim in what was then Poland and is now Belarus. The tears welled as she learned how only her great uncle and his wife escaped, thanks to the intervention of the Polish town mayor.
In October, 2007, she made the switch to Five, reportedly trebling her salary. Five wanted her to read the news in jeans, but Kaplinsky fought her corner, demanding to be taken seriously as a journalist. Which remains her problem. Whether or not she is a haughty diva, Kaplinsky has to decide whether the fame game or her journalism wins out. But unlike John Sergeant, at least Natasha Kaplinsky can dance.
Natasha Kaplinsky has made some notable newsreading gaffes. In 2006, live on air she announced that Germany had been knocked out of the World Cup, unaware that the match against Argentina was still in progress. Germany later won on penalties.
• Interviewing David Croft, co-creator of Dad's Army, she asked if he had watched the shows being made. "Yes, I directed them," he replied.
• She and husband Justin Bower were offered 500,000 for the first pictures of them with their baby. Kaplinsky insisted that Five take the pictures and distribute them free of charge.
• Kaplinsky announced she was pregnant six weeks after starting at Five. The previous week Sir Alan Sugar, left, had said that women should tell new bosses about pregnancy plans.
• Kaplinsky's personal company is called Baraka Baraka Ltd. Baraka is Swahili for blessings, and is often altered to another slightly more famous name these days – Barack.