Kay Burley is a testament to drive and social mobility. The notorious Sky Anchor may have been raised with her sister in a “tiny” council house by factory worker parents in Wigan, but today she lives in a North London megapad with a second home in a starry gated community in the Cotswolds. She greets wearing a serious Audemars Piguet watch and a dazzler of a ring, rewards for her 25th and 30th anniversaries of working for Sky. How many carats in that, I wonder, enviously. “I know there’s 52 diamonds,” she says, giving off more flashes than a disco ball.
I’ve interviewed a few of the heavyweight female TV anchors in this country, including Kirsty Wark and Emily Maitlis who both have something of the bluestocking intelligentsia about them. Burley has a bit more ‘of the people’ about her. She also seems Teflon coated against criticism. Criticism, you could even say, she courts. On Monday she will take on Sky’s new morning politics show, competing with Radio 4’s Today and LBC for the plum political interviews of the day. It’s a big job, and one that vindicates her often criticised aggressive and provocative style. She must be one of OFCOM’s most complained about newscasters, which doesn’t bother her. “They've never found against me.”
She clearly gives as good as she gets. Last year, during a Brexit debate between Conservative David Davies MP and Labour’s Anna Turley on the College Green, Burley scolded David Davies MP after he objected to not being given enough airtime by saying, “I’ll check my phone while you have a little chat ok, you carry on.” As he pulled his phone out, Burley ordered him off screen, saying, “Please don’t speak to her in that fashion, that is not acceptable.” Afterwards she received a number of hateful emails, including one saying, “This is why men hit women!”. She routinely dismisses criticism as the work of misogynistic keyboard warriors. “It’s generally older men with their balcony bellies in their 50s drinking white cider in their Mum's basement waiting to be called up for their tea.”
There is no escaping there’s a touch of the Alan Partridge about her, of the performative hard news journalist who does Dancing on Ice and says outrageously inappropriate things like the now infamous tweet she sent of a dog on the Paris streets after the ISIS attacks with the caption “sadness in his eyes”. To be fair, she had been working flat out for 48 hours, consummate professional that she is, be it royal babies or terrorist attacks, if it’s going on she’s there.
There seem very few chinks in her armour, is it I wonder, because she has monumental confidence or more that she is afraid to show weakness? “Am I a confident person? Yes, when I'm working. In my private life, not at all. I hate going to parties and walking in on my own. I have to gird my loins and then it’s a glass of champagne, hair and teeth. In my private life, I’d much rather take a back seat. I think that's partly what being a Mum is as well. It’s about bringing up my son and letting him flourish.”
She raised her son, Alexander, now 25, on her own with the help of a series of young ‘Mannies' sharing custody with his father, the sports agent, Steve Kutner, whom she split from when her son was two. She doesn’t believe in working mum guilt: “No working Mum should beat herself up and compare herself to the perfectly manicured mum at the door, at the school gates. I was never that” she says. Her son loves to remind her about the time she left him and his mates in the garden with a bouncy castle for his 11th birthday “when I had to jump on a plane to interview alleged Beckham love interest, denied by David, Rebecca Loos. The Manny was there, the other Mums were there but I had to go”
Its dogs though not children which really set her off. She visibly wells up when she tells me about the death of her dear old Irish Setter, Gordon last year. “I don't think humans deserve dogs. They are amazing animals.” Thanks to the menopause has been on her mind a lot recently, the menopause, she says, has “made her more aware” of it. The Menopause is a subject, by the way, about which she refuses to shy away from. ‘I say embrace it. I don’t hide away when I get a hot sweat; I brazen it out and say to everybody. “Sorry about this. Better get the hairdryer out”.
The recent shortage of of HRT isn’t something that she has been affected by as she can’t take it because her risk of breast cancer is so high. It is a disease that killed all the significant women in her life. “I think about my grandma. I think about my aunt. I think about how they all perished before their time, Mum was 58, my age. My aunt was a bit less than that. And grandma was only 42…”
Her mum, she says, was a ‘big woman” so it could have been harder for her to detect lumps. “I don't think she checked herself well enough. She didn't go to hospital to get the diagnosis as quickly as she might have done and when she was in the system, it didn't support her in the way that it could've.” I wonder if the experience of having, as she says, “a bigger lady” for a Mum has empowered her own furious fizzing glossy health. In her late fifties she looks more toned than your average 30 year old.“No, that wasn't it at all. I just want to be around to enjoy my son's children. Mum was robbed of that.”
But visibly ageing is clearly something that plays on her mind. Last year she went to “brilliant, brilliant” Rajiv Grover for a face lift. “He has done several people on telly including women that claim they haven't had facelifts.” Wasn’t she tempted to also keep schtum? She had wanted to wait a while, she says, but “one of the team in the makeup department sold the story to the Daily Mirror”.
“I’d had my eyes done 10 years earlier and I talked about that. But I just wasn't ready to talk about it at that stage because it’s quite a traumatic thing. I reacted quite badly to start with. I was very swollen and puffy and I was off air for four weeks. I had hoped for some time to get my head around it, and then I was going to talk about it. There's nothing worse than women, and men, saying the haven't had anything done when they quite clearly have.”
This is refreshing but it is also problematic. Her extreme polish somehow feel a betrayal of the hopes that women might be able to relax into ageing in a way men have always been able to. Kirsty Wark, at 64, for example, has leant in to her age a bit more than Kay has. “I’m doing it for myself, not just because I’m on television. When I look in the mirror I want to be pleased with what’s looking back at me.” She won’t be drawn either on whether she is also keeping up appearances for a significant other in her life. Last year there was speculation Burley was secretly in a relationship, but she now tells me that this is wrong. So is she ‘actively dating’ as the hideous expression goes, and not with one person, then? “I never talk about my love life. All I’ll say I have a great time. I'm very very happy.”
She’d like to keep working like the American broadcast legend, Barbara Walters, who only retired from anchoring at the age of 85. Are we now in a place, does he think, where older women can have their seat at the table in the way older men always have? “We didn't see women like me in their 50s presenting the news either until recently. It just didn't happen. So I think you need to be good at what you do, and make the most of what you are.”
Does she ever feel threatened by the young women coming up behind her? She’s adamant gender doesn’t come into it. “I like people who work hard. Lots of the youngsters come to me and say, "Can I take you out for a cup of tea or a coffee?” And I always say, "Absolutely not.” She pauses for full effect, before adding, “But if it's a glass of wine then you're on."
Kay Burley will present Sky morning news from October 14 7am to 9am Monday to Thursday