Mary Beard’s life advice: “Take criticism, but don’t be crushed”
Zoe Ball was the party girl of the 1990s, the woman whose boozy antics – encapsulated in the photo of her in a cowboy hat on her wedding day, smoking a cigarette and clutching a bottle of Jack Daniels – inspired the word ‘ladette’. Yet, in the intervening 25 years, she’s had a well-documented stint in rehab and these days she favours a cup of chamomile tea and Gardeners’ World over a night out. Which is all very well, but surely we all need a knees-up every now and again?
So I’m cheered to hear that Zoe, who turns 53 this month, has just returned from a holiday in Ibiza, where – despite not touching booze – she spent most nights clubbing at Pikes, the party hotel where Wham! filmed their Club Tropicana video.
“I was with my friends, 30 years on from when we were first there,” Zoe says, with her trademark sunny smile.
“I drove, I was in bed by 2am, but we were there dancing. The average age in there was about 50 and it was brilliant. In the past it was always a thing – I’d just stay too long. Now I think, ‘Oh, actually now’s a good time to go home’.
“I’ve learned the art of the French exit,” she continues, referring to slipping out of a party without saying goodbye to anyone. After all, when she’s working, hosting BBC Radio 2’s Breakfast Show – her berth for nearly five years now – she has to be up at 4am if she’s staying at her home in East Sussex, or 5.30am if she’s spent the night at her London bolthole.
“It’s certainly a little limiting, but that’s not been a bad thing for me,” she says. “I went to see Frankie Bridge in [the West End play] 2:22 A Ghost Story the other day and it finishes about 9.30pm. I was like, ‘Perfect, I’ll be in bed at ten!’.”
“I’ve learned the art of the French exit”
Our interview on Zoom starts with Zoe’s disembodied, but so familiar, cheery voice exclaiming, “Sorry! Can you see me? Hang on. Start video. Do I press that? Oh God, bear with me. Why won’t it come on?”
Then suddenly she appears in no make-up, huge specs balanced on her nose and dressed in a denim shirt. The techno confusion’s very relatable, especially for someone like me who feels as if they’ve grown up alongside Zoe.
“Listeners often say that to me,” she says. “I love them, there’s a lot we’ve been through together, we’ve come through the pandemic, ups and downs and marriages and kids and divorce and bereavements.”
She doesn’t need to expand further. Zoe’s known tough times: her marriage to Norman Cook, aka superstar DJ Fatboy Slim, ended in 2016 after 17 years and two children, Woody, 22, and Nelly, 13. The couple had weathered Zoe’s brief affair with one of Norman’s friends in 2003 and rehab stints for both.
In 2017, a year after their separation, Zoe’s boyfriend, cameraman Billy Yates, died by suicide after a struggle with mental health issues, something she’s described as “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with.”
Yet she turned her grief into valuable action with a five-day, 350-mile cycle ride to improve mental health awareness, raising more than £1m for Sport Relief.
Earlier this year, she was reported to have split from her boyfriend of five years, construction firm owner and model Michael Reed, with friends allegedly saying the break-up was ‘a relief’.
Zoe was married to Norman Cook for 18 years
Certainly now, after those tough forties, Zoe seems to have embraced her fifties with gusto, even if she was thrown off stride interviewing Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together with her first hot flush.
“At the beginning with the menopause I was a little achy, it was a bit, ‘Oh, right, OK, this is quite a thing’,” she says.
“But now I’ve got a handle on that thanks to some very kind doctors and lots of my girlfriends and HRT. I handled the anxiety, which was my biggest wobble. But in your fifties, the pressure just eases off a little bit. You feel like you appreciate everything a lot, lot more. I also just feel really grateful to still be doing the job I do.”
Radio 2 has a reputation for being less than kind to its veteran talent: Steve Wright and the late Paul O’Grady are two of its stars who’ve
been replaced by younger presenters in recent years, while Ken Bruce and Vanessa Feltz both quit for other stations – Vanessa citing ageism as a factor in her decision.
Yet Zoe, who is not only the first woman to host the Radio 2 show (previous incumbents were Sir Terry Wogan and Chris Evans) but also the Corporation’s best-paid woman with a salary of between £980,000 and £984,999 a figure still way behind Gary Lineker’s £1.35m), has not a bad word to say about the BBC.
“We’ve got Scott Mills come over from Radio 1, Sara [Cox, her old friend] is there and Vern [Vernon Kay], and Wrighty [Steve Wright, who still has a Sunday slot] is like the godfather to us all and looks after us. It’s a good gang.”
“In your fifties, the pressure eases off a little bit. You appreciate everything a lot more”
For ten years, Zoe hosted the Strictly Come Dancing spinoff show It Takes Two (she came third when she competed in the actual show in 2005), but two years ago she stood down, saying it was time for a new challenge.
Now, it appears she’s found one: hosting ITV1’s Mamma Mia! I Have a Dream, a talent show with 14 finalists, whittled down from thousands of initial contenders, fighting for the roles of Sophie and Sky (played by Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper in the hit films) in the West End version of the beloved Abba musical.
“It was a dream job,” she says. After all, Zoe – the daughter of veteran television presenter Johnny (Think of a Number) Ball – is an out-and-out musicals nut, once claiming, “I only ever wanted to be Barbra Streisand,” and has been an Abba fan since her childhood in Buckinghamshire.
As a child with dad, the TV presenter Johnny Ball
“When I was seven or eight, I used to do dance routines with my friends, Claire and Yolande, in Claire’s living room,” she recalls.
“When you look at what the kids are doing on TikTok now, it was really quite basic, but I’ve always loved them.”
In the past couple of years, she’s interviewed three out of Abba’s four members – Agnetha, when she announced a solo album, and Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus for their avatar Voyage show.
“That was so surreal – they were so dry and very, very funny,” she says.
The earlier rounds of the show were filmed this summer in Corfu (the grand final will be broadcast live from a West End theatre) meaning effectively Zoe enjoyed a holiday with the other judges, who include Glee star Amber Riley, singer and food podcaster Jessie Ware and comedian Alan Carr.
“Alan was in the room next to me, so I’d get up in the morning to have my coffee and he’d be on his balcony hanging up his little budgie smugglers. Then we’d go out to a taverna and Jessie would know exactly what to order and Amber would do karaoke with the crew.”
Zoe’s daughter Nelly came out to visit. “She does drama and dance, so she completely fell in love with some of the dances,” Zoe smiles.
“When she left she sent me a QR code and the message, ‘If you miss me’. When you scan it, it starts playing [the Abba song about a daughter growing up] Slipping Through My Fingers. Kids, man! Who would even know you could do something like that? So sweet.”
Zoe and Norman now co-parent happily together and are revelling in seeing their offspring blossom. Woody, who’s a film and theatre student at Bristol University, and Zoe have appeared regularly together on Celebrity Gogglebox and four years ago he appeared on reality show The Circle, where he came out as bisexual. He’s also – unsurprisingly – carving a path as a DJ, performing sets last summer at festivals all over the country, including Glastonbury, where Nelly also performed with her father, as Fat Girl Slim, something she’s been doing since she was ten.
Zoe appears to have no qualms about the pair following in their parents’ footsteps. “You’re passing on the baton,” she says, beaming.
Nelly’s growing up has also revived plenty of memories, as she’s started plundering her mum’s wardrobe.
“A friend of mine in fashion went through my clothes and made me keep a box of some key pieces, so I’ve got all this stuff in the loft,” says Zoe.
“Nelly went through it the other day and it was hilarious – obviously there was a lot of ‘That’s disgusting’, but there were things in there she’s taken – some of my strange outfits from the 1990s. She’s had to take the waists in. It’s really rather lovely.”
Zoe with her dad Johnny and son Woody
The Ball clan’s closeness is very touching. In the past, Zoe had a rocky relationship with her mother Julia, who walked out on her family when her daughter was two, leaving Johnny to raise Zoe as a single father.
“It was tough not seeing my mum for all those years, because I think it does make you question a lot of stuff as a kid,” Zoe told Desert Island Discs.
But that’s all far in the past now, with Julia helping out with childcare when Zoe’s away.
“Mum’s a sweetheart, she mans the fort. We’re going on holiday together later this year.”
Earlier this year, Zoe, her two half-brothers, Nick and Dan, and their children all went on holiday to Cyprus with Johnny, now 85, and his wife of 47 years, Dianne.
“All the generations were there – it was wonderful. My dad has these dominoes that he’s had since he was a kid, he brings them out of the box that someone made him.
“All the cousins are really into their drama. I love watching them, and the relationship they have with their grandparents is really beautiful. I look forward to having that myself. Woody says I might have a bit of a wait on my hands but… you know!”
“Mum’s a sweetheart, she mans the fort. We’re going on holiday together later this year.”
Grannydom may be some way away, but Zoe still has an appealing vision for her old age.
“We have a plan among my friends that when we reach a certain age, whoever’s got the biggest house we’ll convert into our old people’s home,” she says. “We will all live together as friends and look out for each other. We’ll play rave tunes and backgammon and talk about the good old days.”
Sounds like Zoe has a lot more fun ahead.
Tune in to Mamma Mia! I Have a Dream every Sunday night on ITV1 and ITVX
Written by Julia Llewellyn Smith