Big Issue Vendor

Cat Deeley: How a fun adventure led to cracking America

TV presenter Cat Deeley may be a primetime hit in The States but she knows the importance of home.
Cat Deeley. Image: Joseph Sinclair

For around a decade at the turn of the millennium, Cat Deeley was everywhere. From presenting Saturday morning TV to the Brit awards, she was the go-to compère, the nation’s TV darling, the glamorous, glitzy sister we never had.

These days her focus is on America — where she has been nominated for five Emmys since 2006 and won one Critics’ Choice award — and her two young sons, balancing family and career over the Atlantic with husband and comedian Patrick Kielty.

And if there’s one thing that her personal and professional life seem to share, she tells The Big Issue’s Jane Graham in this Letter To My Younger Self, it’s a sense of adventure.

Support The Big Issue and our vendors by signing up for a subscription

When I was 14 I won a model competition. I didn’t want to stop school or anything like that but my mum and I went to visit some London agencies to see which one would be the right fit for me for work during school holidays.

I actually went to Tokyo for six weeks when I was 16, before my A-levels, which is crazy. If my child asked me if they could go and live in Japan for six weeks, I would literally turn around and go: “Are you nuts? Are you mental?”

But for whatever reason my mum trusted me and thought I was sensible enough. And I think she thought it would be an adventure that I’d never get the chance to have again.

I think I was fairly sensible and mature as a 16-year-old. But I was also someone who loved adventure. I was always the one that wanted to go on the biggest rollercoaster or swim with great white sharks. I knew quite early on I didn’t want to be a model, so then I thought, what am I going to do?

When I was a kid I’d wanted to be a Blue Peter presenter so I sent a tape to MTV and then I had to go back for loads of auditions. That was definitely the scariest thing I’d ever done, because you kind of offer everything up. It’s like, OK, this is what I really want to do. Can I do it or am I no good at it? It’s that catalyst moment when you suddenly think, wow, this could change everything, or nothing. And I think that’s one of the bravest things you ever do, that first time you try to find out if you’re any good.

One thing I always knew for sure is that I love people. I really enjoy talking to people and hearing their stories. I love how everybody’s different, but ultimately the same. I love it when human beings face adversity and we find out what they did to overcome it. I love finding a sense of humour, I love all of those things. But I wasn’t sure if I could make a career of that and naively, really naively, if MTV hadn’t given me a job, I probably never would have tried again. I’d have just thought I couldn’t do it.

Now I know how much of landing a job is down to casting – do they want my look, do they want an accent, that kind of thing. But because my family weren’t in entertainment and I didn’t go to stage school and had nobody advising me, I’d have taken that first “no” as a sign I couldn’t do it and now I’d probably be doing something completely different.

People forget, when we started SMTV [Live, the popular Saturday morning show with Deeley and Ant and Dec] we were rubbish. And nobody watched it at all. It only stayed on air because Nigel Pickard, who was in charge of ITV kids’ programmes at the time, said, we’ve got nothing else to fill the slot with.

I know they’re rubbish now, but I think they’ve got something; let’s just keep them on, no one’s watching anyway. So we had this amazing luxury, where we were all learning together. And because we were surrounded by a brilliant crew it came together. There was a lovely chemistry between myself and Ant and Dec.

Also, we all genuinely really liked each other. We worked constantly, closely, together all week, and then after the show was finished, we’d all go upstairs to the bar and spend all afternoon together. I’ve never worked on another job since where everybody, and I mean everybody, hung out together so much. And I think that showed on screen. I think if you asked anybody who worked on that show they’d say they had the best time.

I think the thing that would surprise the young me about her future is what’s happened in America [since 2006 Deeley has presented So You Think You Can Dance, and been nominated for five Emmys]. I mean, I never went to America when I was a kid. I never went to Disneyland or anything like that, I’d never even seen it before.

And when I did go, I never made a great proclamation; ‘I’m going to crack America’. A relationship had just ended and I just fancied a fun adventure. It did feel crazy at times.

It’s very peculiar to find yourself somewhere you’ve only ever seen on TV and in films. I remember riding a horse in the hills – the sun was going down and I was galloping along and suddenly there was the Hollywood sign, right in front of me. It was just a sensory overload, too much to take in. There’s no way my 16-year-old self would believe me if I went back and told her she’ll be there one day.

We’ve thought a lot about bringing up our kids [Deeley has two sons with her husband, comedian Patrick Kielty], I think we’re going to flip everything back around again. We’ll base here [in London] and I’ll go and work in America when I have to.

I think the world is so global now – social media, the news, we drink the same coffee, watch the same movies, read the same books… everything is shared now. But I think we all miss friends and family when we’re somewhere else. Everything else can be compensated for, except the people. So the kids can go to school here, with family and friends around. And if I need to go back for short periods of time, I can pop back to America.

Initially, when I met Paddy, I wasn’t in the kind of place to think about relationships. I was in adventure mode. Listen, you don’t know whether you can have kids with someone when you first meet.

I think before you become a mum it’s really important that you feel fulfilled. But he does definitely make me laugh and he’s a brilliant dad. It’s funny how the world works. At first you’re just having a laugh and then it passes. Then it kind of comes back around and taps you on the shoulder again. And you think, oh! OK…

I’ve always, always loved kids. I’ve always felt very comfortable around them. Part of that silliness we had at SMTV, that’s innately me. When my niece and nephew were little they’d be the first people to say, she’s completely crazy. But I had to wait until I could find a balance between being not just crazy fun and childlike but vaguely responsible as well. Having to tell them off, teach them manners; it’s a big job.

So there wasn’t a sudden moment when I decided to have kids – to be honest, I didn’t know if I would be able to. I knew my mum had trouble having us so you just never know. That was always in the back of my head. You just can’t take anything for granted. So I think for a while I thought, it’s on the agenda for some time, just not on today’s agenda.

If I could go back to any moment and re-live it, it would be when I hosted the Brits in 2004. It was always something I wanted to do because I remembered watching it when I was a kid. The show opened, and I heard The Black Eyed Peas – oh my God, I’ve got goosebumps now – doing this big medley with Shut Up and I Gotta Feeling, and I was walking around underneath the stage. Then I got on top of this giant bottle of champagne and waited for my cue to rise up onto the stage sitting on it. It was terrifying and so exciting. I just loved the entire thing.

I think I changed my outfit about 10 times. At one point, I ran into my tiny dressing room and 50 Cent was in there. I was like, “oi you – out!” It was so fun. If I could go back in time to my eight-year-old self, sitting in her pyjamas, watching the Brits, and tell her one day you’ll host that show… wow.

The Joy in You by Cat Deeley, illustrated Rosie Butcher, is out on September 15 (Bantam Dell, £12.99)

Main Image: Joseph Sinclair