Jo Whiley: "I was never cool"
I was never cool. Some girls at school wore make-up and had cleavages and knew how to show them off. That was never me, I was a bit blokey. I wore clumpy boots and ankle boots. I looked at the cool kids who went to gigs and tried to ride on their coat-tails. I remember everyone going to see The Smiths but I went to the Thompson Twins – bad choice. I’d tell the teenage me to be more daring, have more confidence in yourself. I don’t think I was very attractive and I didn’t have a dazzling personality that made me stand out, I was just really normal and quite shy.
I grew up with just my sister Frances, who has cri du chat [a developmental and behavioural disability], and though I had friends, it was all really about family. All my parents’ friends had kids with disabilities and some were a lot worse than my sister, so I grew up looking out for other people, always aware that some people found life really, really hard. I think it made me more sensitive and I think that still shows in my kids who are very considerate, as they’ve grown up with an aunt with a disability.
I owe everything to [ex-Radio 1 controller] Matthew Bannister. I’ll never forget the day he called me and Steve Lamacq into his office at Radio 1. We’d been trying out, making pilots, but we had no idea if he’d ever employ us. He was starting the revolution that cleared out Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates and those guys. We went in and sat down and he said: “I’d like both of you to be part of Radio 1’s future.” That was the Sliding Doors turning point in my life. I think Steve and I went down the pub for cider and peanuts but inside I was screaming, 'Oh my f**king God, this is amazing!'
I’ve always felt comfortable behind a radio microphone but I’ve got nervous a few times. Covering the massive Live 8 concert with Jonathan Ross and Fearne Cotton was just so huge it was like an out of body experience, and I remember feeling rigid with fear and not being particularly good. I watch myself on TV as rarely as possible – when I do it’s very painful. I just sit thinking, I definitely shouldn’t have said that.
If I could advise my young self starting out in radio, I’d tell myself the person you’re interviewing, nine times out of 10, doesn’t want to be there. If you fawn all over them they won’t respect you and they’ll eat you alive. My worst experience was probably Russell Crowe. He had just had a baby and I took a babygro in as a present – he just looked at it and said, ‘Yeah, cheers love’, and threw it on the floor!
The 16-year-old me, sitting in the upper sixth common room listening to U2, would not in a million years believe that one day she’d be going drinking around Dublin with Bono. I never dreamt of this life, I knew nothing about showbiz or radio, so if you told me one day I’d be co-presenting a show with Madonna, I would just have laughed. As for the fashion icon thing – ha ha!
I would never have thought I’d have four children but it was just such a revelation how much fun children are and how brilliant family life is. Once I’d started I didn’t want to stop. I’m so lucky to have had the absolute luxury of having a baby later in life [Jo’s youngest daughter Coco is three and a half]. I genuinely would prefer to sit watching Modern Family with my four children and my husband on a Friday night than do anything else in the world – except maybe hang out in Lake Como with George Clooney.
In 1981, the year Jo Whiley turned 16... The first DeLorean car rolls off the production line... Greece joins the European Community (later EU)... Bucks Fizz win the Eurovision Song Contest with Making Your Mind Up... US President Ronald Reagan survives an assassination attempt...
Jo Whiley is on BBC Radio 2 Monday-Thursday from 8pm. She’s also hosting BBC Radio 2 Live in Hyde Park on Sept 9: www.bbc.co.uk/radio2