‘Let them talk for a wee bit, then go in for the kill!’ Lorraine Kelly on tough interviews and going rogue

Lorraine Kelly is pulling at her hair and shrieking: “Aaarrrrgghhh!”

It is the morning after news leaked about Downing Street’s bring-your-own-booze party, held during those painful early months of lockdown and attended by the rule-flouting prime minister himself. Even after discussing it on her weekday breakfast TV show, Lorraine, the presenter is still trying to process the revelations. “Just when you think you can’t make it up!” she says. “Jesus, honestly, if they told me now that they’d had a masked ball for 1,000 people, like the Met ball or something, I’d just go: ‘Yeah, yep.’ And why on earth do they need an inquiry into it? If I said to you: ‘So, you went for a wee coffee today at Starbucks?’ you either did or you didn’t; you don’t need an inquiry into that!”

You can probably trust Kelly when it comes to taking the country’s pulse: she has been a regular fixture on our TV screens for 37 years. She says scandal such as this gets to her because she has spent time over the past two years speaking to those who couldn’t say goodbye to loved ones, or had to limit numbers at funerals. “And we tried, when things were really dark, to find something to hold on to, whether it was amazing NHS workers or Captain Sir Tom. There was a sense of communities coming together. But we’ve kind of lost that a bit and it’s become toxic and fractured again, which is really disheartening.”

Kelly is known for her on-screen warmth – smiley eyes, that melodic Scottish lilt – and those qualities certainly help camouflage her no-nonsense interviewing approach. Piers Morgan once called her an “iron fist in a velvet glove” and she admits to liking that; there are plenty of public figures who have sat on her sofa unprepared for the punchy line of questioning. She says her approach comes from her early reporting days. “I started on local papers and you did everything,” she says. “Some of the Scottish football managers back then looked a bit askance at a woman doing sport, but it was great, because they were totally disarmed.”

‘You didn’t answer any of the questions’ … Kelly takes Jennifer Arcuri to task.

I am certainly disarmed by Kelly’s video-call setup, which is almost as makeshift as my own: camera aimed up her nose, a tangle of coats hanging in the background, a picture of Spock framed in the corner of the screen. (“Oh that?” she says, spinning around with a grin. “I’m the geekiest geek there ever was.”) Chatting to her is a joy – her answers tend to pick up steam, barrelling downhill until I have to step in to ask the next question, at which point she slows herself down, beams a big smile and tackles the next one.

We speak shortly after her live morning show has aired. Today’s involved a spot of hula-hooping with Dr Hilary Jones (“My pelvis won’t thrust!”), a chat with Martin Lewis about the cost-of-living crisis, a feature on a dog that has learned to talk, encouragement for people to get their Covid booster shots and some innuendo about playing with balls.

Our own chat ping-pongs around in a similar way, from space travel to transgender rights, via knitting and her experience covering national tragedies such as Lockerbie and Dunblane. We even alight on her tax affairs, which have been a source of amusement – and criticism – since a judge ruled in Kelly’s favour against HMRC in 2019. The judge said Kelly was not liable for the bill in question because she was a “theatrical artist” performing the “friendly, chatty and fun” role of Lorraine Kelly on TV.

Before all that, though, we discuss the show’s viral social media clips. In recent years, these have focused on the times when Kelly’s sunny on-screen persona has been tested beyond breaking point. In 2019 alone, she dismissed an awful Jennifer Arcuri interview with a caustic: “S’point in that?” and caused the temperature in the GMB studio to drop by several hundred degrees when she was asked by the host Susanna Reid if she remembered working with the Tory MP Esther McVey during her days on GMTV. Kelly responded with a stone-faced: “Yep … yes, I do.” Is it fair to say that the past few years have seen Kelly go rogue?

Lorraine Kelly hosting her show in November 2021
‘I’ve got this glorious freedom to speak my mind’ … hosting her show in November. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

“I think I’ve always done that,” she says. “It’s interesting, people’s perceptions of what I do. People, especially politicians, think they’re coming on to do a cosy little show, and it’s really not! If you’ve done something wrong, you will get held to account. So, when Jennifer Arcuri was in … honest to God, I was sat in the studio watching her being all coy, going [here, Kelly does what can only be described as a moronic tittering noise] and she said literally nothing. So I just said: ‘What’s the point of you being on?’ Who do you think you are to do that to the viewers? You should never take them for granted like that.”

Did she plan to say her bit to Arcuri in advance? “You can’t plan it! It’s a live show. Most things that make the headlines are off the cuff. Of course, you have to have an edit button – and that’s where the training and experience comes in. I know the legals, how far you can go, because I’ve been doing it for a very long time. But at the same time I’ve got this glorious freedom to speak my mind.”

Kelly says she only thinks about the show, not how a 20-second clip might look on Twitter, although that is undeniably how many people get to see her highlights these days. Her frosty encounter with McVey was a particular hit, with many wanting to know the story behind it. McVey has implied that it stems from the fact that, back in the day, she was promoted to partner Eamonn Holmes, but Kelly maintains it was McVey’s stance on gay rights that got her goat.

Kelly is a longstanding LGBTQ+ ally who received Attitude magazine’s Honorary Gay award in 2015 and has appeared on RuPaul’s Drag Race UK as a guest judge. “I thought to myself: she’s come out and said the most appalling things about a section of society that are really hard done by and have enough going on without someone like that having a pop at them. And I didn’t really say anything, did I? But isn’t it amazing what you can say without saying anything?”

Recently, Kelly has been getting a different kind of reaction – abuse from anti-vaxxers, because of her insistence that viewers should get a booster. “Loads and loads,” she says. “But even if I disagree vehemently with someone, you still have to have the debate.”

This idea of no-platforming people leaves her uncomfortable. “Debate helps crystallise your own thoughts – and you should allow yourself to be challenged. There are some times when it’s not the right thing to do, but in general you can’t just say: ‘I hate you, I don’t want to engage with you, goodbye.’

“You don’t want is to make martyrs of people who have opposing views. You don’t want them to be … well, we call it ‘cancelled’, but what really is cancelled? Sometimes it’s better to give people space to talk, particularly toxic politicians. Let them talk for a wee bit; they’ll tie themselves up in knots and contradict themselves, then you can go in for the kill.”

When Kelly invited Kathleen Stock on to her show, she again seized the chance to debate someone with whom she disagreed. Formerly a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex, Stock resigned from her post last year amid campus furore over her gender-critical stance on trans rights. “I thought: let her speak,” says Kelly. “You’ve got to.” During the interview, Kelly questioned whether Stock had been “cancelled”; Stock agreed that she had a bigger platform now than before (“And I intend to use it”).

Lorraine Kelly interviewing Kathleen Stock in November 2021
‘Even if I disagree vehemently with someone, you still have to have the debate’ … interviewing Kathleen Stock in November. Photograph: Ken McKay/ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

Kelly is proud that they were able to have the conversation on national TV. “I was able to disagree with her. Because I think trans women are women and trans men are men. That’s my belief. And, at the end, people can make their own mind up. But it was important for me to say that and to show my support.”

When I watched the clip, I wondered if there had been a moment that crystallised Kelly’s advocacy of trans rights. Speaking now, she offers one up. “I remember getting the school bus to school in East Kilbride and the driver was a lady called Jane. Jane was a trans woman and she was going through the process of transitioning. And you can imagine the abuse she got, because it was the 70s. But I used to chat to her, got to know her as a person, and she was a brilliant woman. I often wonder what happened to her.

“But I’ve got a lot of pals who happen to be trans or they happen to be whatever … who cares?! They’re all just human and that’s a part of who they are.” She sighs. “People should just be a bit more tolerant, because trans people are currently going through, I think, what gay people went through. It’s a hard road, it really is.”

Kelly was born in 1959 to two working-class teenagers from the Gorbals area of Glasgow. Her mum, a homemaker, was a Catholic; her dad, a TV repairer, was a Protestant. Her maternal grandmother thought they should put her up for adoption, but her parents were in love and held firm. Their house was tiny, with an outside toilet, but full of love and books. Kelly had planned to study English and Russian at university, but instead went to work on the East Kilbride News (it is a point of pride that, in 2004, she was made the rector of the University of Dundee, so her mum could finally have a picture of her in a gown up in the house).

After moving to TV, Kelly reported on two major tragedies in 1988, the Piper Alpha oil explosion in the North Sea (“I really don’t know how anyone got out of that alive”) and the Lockerbie air disaster. “Weirdly, the thing I remember most was not the horror and the smell and the devastation – but everybody in town taking down their decorations. It was just before Christmas and when I saw people doing that it suddenly hit me. I went back to the place I was staying and just howled.”

After Lockerbie, Kelly thought she would never have to do anything harder. “But Dunblane was the worst by a mile,” she says of the school massacre in 1996. “That hit really hard.”

It is a mark of Kelly’s approachability that one of the bereaved mothers, Pam Ross, got in touch with her after the tragedy – not for TV, but to talk privately. Ross had lost her five-year-old daughter, Joanna, and invited Kelly to attend the funeral at her home. “I was there in the house. And Joanna was also in the house, upstairs, in her bed, in a little white coffin with her wee nightie on. And one thing I always remember is that her handprints were still on the window.”

Kelly is still in touch with Ross; proper friends even after all these years. “She’s got a big birthday coming up!” she beams, before returning to the tragedy. “A lot of people think that after Dunblane there was an instant ban on guns. There wasn’t. The parents had a massive, massive fight on their hands and they were told by one Tory in particular that it was all a kneejerk reaction. And do you know who that was? Boris Johnson.” (“Nanny is confiscating their toys,” Johnson wrote in 1997. “It is like one of those vast Indian programmes of compulsory vasectomy.”)

Kelly has seen it all during her time on the breakfast sofas. Daytime TV has been pioneering, she says proudly, because it talks about things a lot of other media ignores. “You couldn’t even say the word ‘cancer’ when I started. It was nuts! Now we have breast and testicle examinations on the show.” She proudly namechecks its Change + Check breast cancer campaign, which has helped save 53 women’s lives since it launched.With her trademark being down to earth, the tax ruling caused problems for her. She says she is happy to address this, “because I’ve never got my chance to put my side of the story across”.

Lorraine Kelly covering the Dunblane massacre with Eamonn Holmes in 1996
‘That hit really hard’ … covering the Dunblane massacre with Eamonn Holmes in 1996. Photograph: Alaska TV

Despite all the media coverage around whether or not she was “performing” the role of Lorraine Kelly, the case rested on whether she was an employee of ITV or a freelancer, as Kelly and ITV believed she was. At one point, she was prepared to pay the outstanding fee, which was only a fraction of the total bill of £1.2m quoted in reports. But then, she says, the tax office started demanding interest on it. “So I thought: no, not having this. So we took them to a tribunal and it got thrown out. The judge said it wasn’t a borderline case and we shouldn’t have ever had the hassle.

“I don’t want people to think I would do anything to get out of paying what I should be paying. That goes to the core of who I am and how I was brought up. I’m a firm believer in the NHS, a firm believer in better education and housing and looking after people who can’t help themselves. I was brought up in a very working-class background where you pay your dues.”

So where did this notion of Kelly being an actor playing the Lorraine Kelly role come from? “Now that I can laugh at,” she says. “It was, sadly, a bit of a misinterpretation, but I knew what [the judge] meant. Obviously, it’s given people great hilarity and I can live with that.”

Tax issues behind her, Kelly is looking ahead positively. Lockdowns attracted a bigger, younger audience to her show and Kelly says it has managed to hold on to a lot of those. Amid all this Tory drama, I wonder what she thinks about the opposition – and Keir Starmer in particular.

“He seems a very decent man, but maybe needs a wee bit of a rocket up his bum?” she says. “Because there are times where there does seem to be an open goal and you’re like …” She grabs at her hair again and shouts: “Aaarrrrgghhh!”

Lorraine is broadcast on ITV on weekdays from 9am and on ITV Hub


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