Gloria Hunniford: I Remember

Amanda Riley-Jones

This year, Gloria Hunniford, 77, celebrates seven decades in showbiz. She started out as a child singer, became the first woman to host a daily radio show and currently co-hosts Rip Off Britain and Loose Women

...My joyful childhood

Growing up in rural Portadown

I was born in 1940 in a pebble-dashed two-up, two-down with an outside loo in Portadown—a small market town in semi-rural Northern Ireland.

I shared a double bed with my older sister, Lena, and my younger brother Charles slept in a single bed in my parents’ room.

We were Protestant and my father was a member of the Orange Order. I went to church five times on a Sunday to meet up with my pals!

 

...My magician father

I was very close to my father, Charlie, who was a newspaper advertising manager by day and magician by night. When I was little, he sometimes let me watch his shows from the wings.

I was open-mouthed in awe and a bit scared when he used to put sharp razor blades in his mouth, along with a rolled up ball of thread. To a drum roll, he’d draw them out one by one.

 

...Mum was an incredible homemaker

My wonderful mother, May, had family at the heart of her DNA. She was cooking, washing and cleaning all day long and was a fantastic mother to come home to. On Saturdays she made 14 different kinds of bread, which she shared with the neighbours.

If Mum saw me sitting reading, she’d say, “Go off and do something.” Those were innocent times and we children were practically shoved out of the house after breakfast.

 

...My stage debut

Singing in Belfast's City Hall aged 16

The day before my seventh birthday, I performed at Portadown’s Cloncore Orange Hall wearing yellow taffeta with a few silver sequins. My first number was “Powder Your Face with Sunshine”.

Soon I was singing in churches, schools and concerts across Ireland, sometimes five nights a week. When I was about ten, I remember making £8 in one week. I got inspiration for my stage outfits by watching Come Dancing on our neighbour’s television, and my Auntie Myrtle expertly made them up for me.

 

...The start of an obsession

When I was nine, I came home from school to find a tall man with white hair at our front door. Mum said he was my great uncle, Jim, who had emigrated to Canada and made good. He told us about mountains, prairies, Eskimos and Native Americans. Then he opened his bag and out tumbled marshmallows, chocolate, angel cake and even exotic red apples.

When he heard me sing, he asked my parents if he could take me back to Canada where I’d have the best opportunities. It all sounded thrilling but Mum’s answer was a firm no.

 

...Emigrating to Canada

Over the years Uncle Jim sent me countless letters and, at 17, I decided to emigrate to Canada. I’d never been out of Ireland before.

My dad and brother were on the quayside as the ship set sail from Belfast to Liverpool. I saw Dad break down in tears: What had I done?

Apart from two days of seasickness, it was an exhilarating seven-day adventure, with fancy dress parties and cinema screenings. The crew even threw me an 18th birthday party.

"My dad said 'If you marry this chap, I cannot and will not go to the wedding on principle'"

 

...My introduction to broadcasting

I moved into a YMCA and took a job as an accounts assistant at a nearby military base. A colleague sang on the local TV station and introduced me to the producer. He gave me a slot singing Irish songs and from that I was offered my own weekly radio show, singing listeners’ requests, backed up by a trio of piano, bass and drums!

 

...Meeting my first husband

I went home to Ireland for Christmas but ended up getting work at Ulster Television as a secretary, then a production assistant. I fell in love with a cameraman called Don Keating and when I was 21, we decided to get married. He was Catholic and my dad said, “If you marry this chap, I cannot and will not go to the wedding on principle. But afterwards we will welcome Don as part of the family and treat him as a son.” He was as good as his word.

 

...Becoming a mother

Gloria and her daughter Caron on the beach in Florida

My daughter Caron was born in October 1962 and was perfect in every way. The moment she was born, I could see why my parents had been so protective. I wrote to them, “If Don and I can be anything like you as parents, then we’ll be very complete.”

With the arrival of her brothers Paul and Michael we were a devoted family and I loved motherhood with a passion.

 

...Making my first record

I’d been a cabaret artist since about 1964 and it was one of the most exciting days of my life when I was flown to London to record “Are You Ready For Love?”

Being interviewed about it afterwards on the radio was life-changing. The producer of Good Morning Ulster told me, “I was very impressed with the way you handled yourself—not short of a word or two. Have you ever thought of becoming a broadcaster?”

 

...Moving into broadcasting

He took me into the newsroom and said, “Remember you are as good as any bloke sitting in this room.” I quickly realised I had made the right move but saw some terrible things during that time.

The worst was the Abercorn restaurant bombing in 1972. By the time I arrived at the scene, there were scores of people over the floor, screaming in pain and terror. Many had lost limbs.

 

...Getting my own show on BBC Radio 2

Working in the studio

When Radio 2’s The Jimmy Young Show asked me to do two weeks’ holiday cover, I lay awake at night, worrying about having to swap witty banter with Terry Wogan.

On the first day Terry announced, “Next up we have Grievous Bodily Hunniford. Gosh, I can see her now behind the glass, wearing those slinky fishnet stockings and high heels.”

On the first day Terry announced, “Next up we have Grievous Bodily Hunniford. Gosh, I can see her now behind the glass, wearing those slinky fishnet stockings and high heels.”

Little Miss Nobody daring to cheek the great Wogan went down a storm and, in 1982, I became the first woman to have my own daily show on BBC Radio 2.

 

...Meeting some of our greatest stars

Gloria with Terry Wogan

In 1993 I flew to LA to interview the reclusive Doris Day, one of my childhood idols. She talked to me about her career, marriages and friendships and I discovered that she had 21 dogs with their own kitchen and cook.

When the legendary Bette Davis came on to Sunday Sunday, I’d never experienced such studio silence. You could hear a pin drop. She was quite frail and I’d been told to put my arms out towards her in case she needed help—but she didn’t take it.

The only person who made me lose my train of thought was Omar Sharif. His eyes were so amazing, like dark pools.

 

...My fairy-tale second wedding

With husband Stephen Way

A few years after my divorce, I met my future second husband Stephen Way, a hair-salon owner, at a drinks party. We hit it off immediately and I felt as though I’d known him forever.

Stephen was teaching me to swim on holiday in Barbados when I started to go under.

I grabbed him really tightly and asked him to help me to the steps. Suddenly he asked, “Will you marry me?” He said it was the only time he’d seen me looking so vulnerable.

We married at St Peter’s Church at Hever Castle on 6 September 1998. I would relive that day any time.

 

...Losing my beloved daughter

On April 13, 2004, I lost my beloved Caron to breast cancer at just 41 years of age. When she was dying, an extraordinary smile spread across her lips. Her little boys hugged and kissed her, then went downstairs. Russ, Michael and I stayed with Caron, clinging to her until her last breath had left her body and this amazing, enigmatic smile held fast. We filled the room with flowers and photographs and lit candles everywhere. She looked so beautiful, free of the pain that had wracked her body for seven years.

"Strictly Come Dancing lifted me out of a state of mind that I thought I would never get out of"

 

...A life-changing letter

Afterwards I was consumed with grief. I received over 8,000 condolence letters and read every one. A woman called Ann wrote, “Caron is not lost to you. Her soul is bigger than death and death is never the end. To stay healthy you must work with this loss and not against it.”

I woke up in the middle of the night and knew what I had to do. I started The Caron Keating Foundation to raise funds for small British cancer charities. Thirteen years later, the whole family are involved and it’s my healing.

 

...Strictly helped me smile again

About 18 months after Caron died, I was asked onto Strictly Come Dancing. I thought I’d never laugh or smile again but everyone urged me to do it. It was one of the best experiences of my career and lifted me out of a state of mind that I thought I’d never get out of.

 

...Becoming a Loose Women

It’s rather fun being a Loose Women in my seventies, hurling in the occasional shocking comment. You’d be amazed by how many quite elderly women stop me in the supermarket and say in hushed tones, “Oh, I do love Loose Women.” I have to admit that if my mum knew I was talking about sex on TV she would turn over in her grave!

 

...Getting an OBE

hen an official-looking envelope arrived in May last year, I opened it, read it, re-read it and screamed for my husband Stephen to come in from the garden. Apart from being utterly delighted, I felt extremely humbled.

In addition to running the charity, I’m still working three or four days a week. My husband says I seem to be busier than ever, but I’ve been this way since I was seven. There are still many things I want to achieve and I want to make the most of every minute.

My Life by Gloria Hunniford is published on February 22 (John Blake Publishing, £8.99)