Shine On Katie
by Lisa De Silva
Golden girl of our screens and airwaves, Katie Derham has turned her hand to many successful ventures over the years, both on and off screen. She meets with Lisa de Silva near her home in Mid Sussex to talk Strictly, music, education and achieving the perfect work/life balance.
Broadcaster, journalist, dancer, conductor, musician, jam maker, wife, mother, Katie Derham is a Renaissance woman of many talents, whose success has been built on the advice of her no nonsense Yorkshire mother – work hard, be kind, be polite and be easy to get along with.
And indeed she is. Any apprehension of meeting one so accomplished instantly evaporates on meeting Katie, who is smart, funny, interesting and interested, making it easy to understand her success.
A relative newcomer to Sussex, it was a newspaper photograph of a particular house that inspired Katie, husband John and daughters Natasha and Eleanor, to make the move from London. “We’d been thinking about moving within London, but were gob smacked at how insane property prices were and then John came home with a picture of a house in a newspaper, but it was in Sussex,” says Katie. To cut a long story short, after visiting the house, it was love at first sight and eight years ago, the family made the move to Mid Sussex. “We’ve never regretted it for a minute and love it down here.”
Growing up in Cheshire, Katie’s dad was a keen gardener, making his own home brew, chutneys and jams and with her new Sussex home having a garden full of fruit trees, she was determined not to let it rot and set to making jam. “I love the fact we’re in the country here. I want to do all that stuff like jam making and genuinely enjoy it,” she explains. Although Katie does confess to a freezer full of fruit waiting to be preserved from last autumn, when she joined Strictly and jam making took a back seat to dancing.
Katie was first approached about appearing on Strictly in 2004. At the time she was a full time working mum at ITN, up to her eyes in small children and work, a combination which was not compatible with the demands of the show. “To be honest, I thought that ship had sailed,” she tells me. “Then last Easter out of the blue, I had an email asking me again. The timing was good, the girls were at an age where they would appreciate it and I thought, why not?”
One of the most difficult things was keeping it a secret, made doubly difficult as it was impossible to commit to either any long term plans or work, as Katie didn’t know whether her time on the show would be two weeks or two months. The level of secrecy before the official launch involved everything from code names (last year these were Disney characters – Katie was Belle), to genuinely not knowing who your dance partner would be until the live launch show.
“The first time we all met our fellow contestants and the professionals was at a secret location in London. The whole thing is like speed dating, slash, arranged marriage, as the producers and choreographers are watching to see who looks good together and who gets on. Then you’ve got the pros all circulating trying to find out where you live and how much time you have to rehearse, as they all want to do well on the show. The choreography for the first group dance sees everyone dance with at least four of the professionals and even up to just hours before the launch, the bosses are still changing their minds and so it really ramps up the element of surprise and excitement.”
More than happy to be partnered with Anton, Katie confides they had a hoot making the show. Depending on work schedules, training often took place in Haywards Heath, at either the Dolphin Leisure Centre or The Hub at Central Sussex College, or in a Crawley gym. “Although I’ve always loved watching dance, I had no relevant experience and you soon realise that to learn a whole routine and perform it well within a week, is a massive task. In fact, Strictly was a really good life lesson of what you can do with the fear of God and brilliant one-to-one tuition from an expert for six hours a day. It all feels a bit like a distant dream now, I look back and think, God, did I actually do that?”
Having taken Anton to his first Strictly final, Katie had a chance to learn all of the dances, bar one: the samba. With a love of Latin music and a father born in Brazil, the chance to dance a samba was high on the list of Katie’s wishes, although clearly not Anton’s. “He looked at me as if I was insane when I said I was looking forward to doing the samba and said no good could come of that – the samba is one of the hardest dances and if you and me tried it we’d look like we were having a mid-life crisis on air,” she laughs.
As it turned out the couple never had to dance the samba and it was the tangos and ballroom dances that became Katie’s favourites. “I think it was inevitable,” she says. “Because Anton is so good at those dances, he teaches them really well and it rubbed off on me. The whole show was a wonderful experience and I was delighted, although surprised, that we made it to the final.”
As a fitting memento to her time on the programme, Katie decided to buy three of her dresses (Jive, American Smooth and Rumba) both as souvenirs and for her girls, who are both keen dancers themselves. Having said that, the end of the show wasn’t quite the last dance, as Katie presented and danced for the Strictly Come Dancing theme night, during the BBC Proms 2016, this time dancing with Aljaz Skorjanec, “not exactly a hardship,” she grins.
A talented violinist and classical music enthusiast, Katie has been the BBC’s chief presenter of the Proms since 2010, a job she describes as “a complete dream.” In fact, with over 20 years in the media, Katie has managed to steer her career to reflect her musical interests, having presented the Classical Brit Awards, the Hall of Fame Concert on Classic FM and Radio 3’s, Afternoon on 3 and has become a mainstay of classical music broadcasting.
However, it took a while for Katie to get her career off the ground. After graduating from Cambridge with a degree in Economics she moved to London, working in a series of dead end jobs to pay the rent, including one which involved cleaning the apartment for her fellow flat mates. It was 1991, there was a recession and a shortage of jobs, but Katie continued to apply until eventually landing a secretarial job at the BBC, which led to her first break as a researcher on Radio 4’s Money Box. This in turn led to a job as a presenter on Radio Five Live’s Moneycheck, which then paved the way for a move from the airwaves to the screen, as Katie’s next job was as a reporter for Barry Norman on Film 96 and 97.
In 1998, she joined ITN as Media and Arts Editor for ITN News and at the age of 27 became the youngest newscaster on British national television, a job she held for 12 years. During 2008, Katie learned to conduct orchestral, choral and operatic music for the BBC Two talent show, Maestro, before returning to the BBC full time in 2010, as the face of the Proms and a presenter on Radio 3.
At face value Katie appears to have enjoyed a somewhat charmed and meteoric rise to professional success, but having met her it is clear this has been built on a strong work ethic, intelligent considered opinions and an engaging charm. So, what advice would she give to young people starting out today?
“I think kids today are under an enormous amount of pressure to get straight A’s and A*s and anything less than that is failure. That’s insane and worries me greatly. I say to my girls what my mum said to me, it’s about working hard, being polite, being kind and building confidence. If you’re nice and easy to work with, that’s how you build a good reputation and then people want to work with you.”
Katie also believes that knock backs have to be taken in your stride. “You have to try hard not to worry about rejection and appreciate that failure is a normal part of life. But what’s important is that you never think I can’t do something, or you’re bad at something, just because you didn’t get a perfect grade. There’s no one route to success and I tell my girls that it’s important to try lots of different things to find what you love, because when you do, it won’t even feel like work.”
Katie admits to having the benefit of some excellent professional role models including Anna Ford, Jane Garvey and Kirsty Wark, explaining how important it is to rise above media accusations of the ‘autocutie’ variety. “I’ve always wanted to do a good job, set a good example for my girls and earn my jobs on merit, not contacts or anything more superficial,” she tells me.
Having worked hard to build such a satisfying career, Katie is now enjoying the fruits of her labour. “As my mum said, work hard now and make your choices later and I now have a very happy work routine, with a great balance between radio and TV work and my home life,” she explains.
Since moving to Mid Sussex the family have become part of the local community and Katie is delighted to have been asked to become a patron of St Peter & St James Hospice. “They are wonderful and are doing so much work at the moment to develop and update the services they offer. I go down there whenever possible and do what I can for them and marvel at the work they do with the families, as well as the patients themselves.”
While Katie’s perfect day would be spent in the garden hanging out with her family, a good book and a glass of rosé, she’s excited about her new role presenting All Together Now: The Great Orchestra Challenge. The eventual winners will play at the last night of the Proms in the Park. When we meet, Katie is fresh from filming the final performances of the first challenge and the first orchestra leaving. “The whole amateur music scene is amazing and the quality of the people is incredible. But it was awful when the final verdict was delivered, I had a complete Strictly flashback and knew exactly how they were feeling.”
As President of the Burgess Hill Symphony Orchestra, Katie still enjoys making music. “I was a real extra curricular kid and always did lots of music and orchestra and loved it. Mum always made sure we practised and it trained me to be disciplined. I’m a great fan of group music making, as I always had such a laugh.”
While Katie’s mum sadly passed away thirteen years ago, it is clear that her spirit lives on in her daughter and through Katie, her grandchildren – work hard, be kind, be polite and be easy to get on with and while your path to success may not be paved with gold, it will be considerably easier and more enjoyable.