Not only is Natasha Kaplinsky one of the most glamorous and best-loved broadcasters on our TV screens. But she is also highly respected for the informed and sensitive way she has approached news stories and interviews throughout her glittering career.
She has also gained widespread acclaim for her involvement with numerous good causes, including her role as a Holocaust Commissioner for which she was awarded an OBE in 2017.
Tracing her intriguing and often tragic family history proved to be the most popular ever screening of Who Do You Think You Are? – the programme in which well-known people trace their family trees.
On a lighter note, her stunning good looks and determination to develop a hitherto hidden talent for dancing and master the most daring routines won her the heart of millions of viewers and saw her become the first person to scoop the fiercely-contested glitterball of Strictly Come Dancing.
But although rarely out of the limelight since her TV career began, Natasha is at her happiest at home in East Sussex, in the old farmhouse she shares with her husband Justin Bowers and their children.
“I love Sussex – it has everything you could want,” she says. “Beautiful countryside, a wonderful community spirit and proximity to stations when you need to go up to London. Sussex has everything going for it.
“I was born in Brighton, and although my family moved to Kenya for several years, we came back to Britain when I was seven years old, so I’ve spent almost my whole life in the county.”
Brought up in Barcombe, Natash was educated at Ringmer Community College before moving to Varndean College in Brighton for her A-levels. She then went off to take a degree in English at Oxford before pursuing her career in London, but the Sussex connection was never broken.
“Fifteen years ago Justin and I were nearly married and living in London, but we always kept a place in Sussex to spend weekends,” she says. “Our weekends in the country started to get longer and longer, stretching from Friday to Monday even though it meant I had to leave at three in the morning to present the breakfast programme.
“We would go to bed around seven in the evening and Justin would get up at two in the morning to drive me to our London home where a driver would pick me up to take me to the studio.
“We realised it was ridiculous as Sussex was where we wanted to be, so we began looking for a home down here, somewhere equidistant between where the children were going to school and a train station for getting up to London.
“When I saw the beautiful old farmhouse we live in now, not far from where I grew up in Barcombe, I was desperate for it. It was a working arable farm then, and we hadn’t thought about buying a farm, but it was the house we fell for, and it just happened to have land around it.
“The farmhouse was built in 1430, and it’s a beautiful building, so charming, warm and cosy, with lovely old features – a marble-tiled floor, lovely fireplaces and beautiful old beams, though the husband has knocked himself out a few times as this kind of house wasn’t built for someone over six feet tall.”
Having plenty of land has turned to be a bonus as it is now home to the family’s much-loved menagerie of four dogs and three cats in the house, and outside an assortment of chickens, ducks, sheep and goats as well as ten alpacas which Natasha adores.
“In terms of animals, my alpacas are the love of my life,” she says. “They are amazing creatures, delicate and refined.”
An unplanned addition to the animal gang came in the form of Mabel.
“We went to Ardingly to buy some wellies and came back with a Highland cow,” laughs Natasha. “They are a gorgeous breed. Mabel is very gentle and friendly, enjoys being hand-fed and loves being brushed by Justin.
“Moving down here seven years ago offered us a much more significant degree of privacy than in London, where we had many photographers outside the house. We do occasionally get a bit of intrusion, but that is rare.
“People do recognise me and say hello, but this is a friendly community. Last week I was in Lewes, wearing a face mask, and a gentleman came up to me and said very politely, “I knew you lived around here and I wonder if you would come into the White Hart and say hello to my mother, who likes you so much.
“So I went into the pub with him and met this lovely 94-year-old lady who was so sweet. I like being able to do that kind of thing.”
Although now enjoying a relatively quiet spell at home with her family and animals during Lockdown, Natasha looks back on the star-studded career which has brought her so many high spots but some periods which proved less enjoyable.
One of her first jobs was in the press offices of Labour leaders Neil Kinnock and John Smith.
“I was working in the Shadow Cabinet office during the 1992 General Election campaign – for a 19-year-old like me, it was an extraordinary experience, very special. Being in the Houses of Parliament and working with a team of brilliant people was such an honour.
“It was an eye-opening experience, and I was fascinated. I could see how people could become addicted to politics.
“After graduating from Oxford, I needed to get a job and had a screen test for a new youth chat show for Granada Talk TV, co-hosting with Sacha Baron Cohen. I spent a year on that, and it was another fantastic experience.
“I had a screen test at Meridian to present early morning news bulletins then very quickly moved to co-presenting the evening news programme from the Southampton studio and next on to London.”
Natasha joined ITV’s London News Network in 1999, and towards the end of 2000, she moved to Sky News where she initially co-presented the breakfast news programme and later the early evening news bulletin.
She joined the BBC in 2002 to present BBC Breakfast from Monday to Thursday and then to host the News at Six and later to present the Ten O’Clock News.
In 2007, she was recruited to help relaunch Five, now known as Channel 5, doubling viewing figures overnight. After three years there she went on to join ITV News as a presenter where she has hosted several factual and light entertainment programmes including Children in Need and Born to Shine, which raised awareness for Save the Children, of which Natasha is an ambassador.
Does Natasha miss the buzz of the news desk?
“After moving down here, I took on many different projects because being on the news roster can be difficult if you have a young family. When I was presenting News at Ten, we had a post-production meeting at 10.30, and I didn’t get home until about one in the morning, with the children waking up at 6 am.”
She says that although taking part and eventually winning the very first Strictly Come Dancing offered some light relief from the often distressing news issues she covered, it did lead to very unwelcome intrusion into her private life.
“There are huge responsibilities that come with being a newscaster – some stories are deeply depressing, involving lives being destroyed or impacted. Through my involvement with the Holocaust Commission, in 2014, I was privileged to talk to 112 survivors who had never spoken about their experiences before. I am dedicated to the Holocaust Commission.
“With Strictly, I was dragged into what was an untried and untested programme, so it was quite a risk. I was on the Breakfast team then and didn’t know what the effect would be, so I was quite anxious about it.
“Looking back, it was incredible that I won as I was still holding down my job on Breakfast TV, and no allowance was made for the time I had to spend rehearsing for Strictly. I am enormously proud of it as I can now watch it without reluctance, which I couldn’t do for a long time. My daughter loves it, so it is beautiful for me to watch it as a mum with her.
“I don’t know how they are going to produce Strictly now due to the new Covid rules. On my first lesson with Brendan, I was stunned when he put his leg between my two legs. I told him “you can dance over there and I’ll dance over here!” I think I was ahead of the game with social distancing!
“What happened to me in the dance studio after two or three weeks was falling in love with dancing, being whisked around the floor by world-class professionals.
“But it did lead to a lot of press intrusion with details of my life being bandied about. That also happened when I spoke out live recently on ITV’s This Morning programme about having had multiple miscarriages.”
Although Lockdown in a beautiful farmhouse surrounded by stunning scenery could have been idyllic, for Natasha and her family, it began with a terrifying situation when Justin contracted Covid.
“In March he was very sick and went downhill very quickly,” she explains. “He defied the statistics as he was relatively young and very fit, but he was slain by it for two or three weeks with an extremely high fever.
“It gave us a huge fright, calling out an ambulance and at one point we were not sure he was going to survive. He had a post-viral rash and still very much has long Covid. He will crash with exhaustion a couple of days a week.
“I got Covid but was lucky to have it only mildly. We have taken all the restrictions very seriously. Justin has been unable to fly for his work, and we have spent more time together over the past few months than in the 15 years since we married. That has been lovely.
“Lockdown has meant a lot of my usual work being put on hold but what has been lovely is that I have time to do a tremendous amount of filming, including short films for Save the Children, of which I’m an ambassador. I’ve also done a presentation for Barnardo’s of which I’m president.
“I’m doing as much as I can from home on social media, thanking supporters and people for their generosity as that is so important for charities at the moment. Lockdown has had a significant impact on children, and it is lovely to have been able to devote so much time to the charities. There’s a lot of this going on for me at the moment, thanks to the chance of working from home.
“If you have the opportunity to use your voice to help others, then I believe that is a real responsibility, and it’s a great pleasure for me to support charities in this way.
“I also believe in supporting local charities, and many of them are suffering because of the Covid situation. It’s an honour for me to be a patron of the Bevern Trust near Lewes which provides 24-hour care for people with complex medical needs.
“A great deal of good work is being done by charities and support groups on our doorstep. The food bank stall you see in supermarkets is really important at the moment.
“Volunteers are vital, especially to small charities. Everyone has something to give, some form of expertise which can be very valuable. And you get so much more than you give from helping in this way.”