Steph McGovern in the press room at the Virgin TV British Academy Television Awards 2018 (Image: Ian West/PA Archive/PA Images)
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Chatty and friendly are the order of the day, something that pervades her successful daily Packed Lunch on Channel 4. And yet, the world might never have got to know her. “I come from Middlesbrough and I went to a college that was very much focused on the needs of the local area which is rooted in heavy industry,” she explains. “We spent a lot of time getting input from companies like British Steel and ICI. I was pretty good at science so I saw my future in engineering.”
“I certainly had no connection with the media although, as it happens, we had our own TV studio at school and I ended up presenting the college news every week.”
The two worlds collided when Steph, aged 19, was awarded Young Engineer for Britain. During a gap year, she worked as a junior member of Black & Decker’s Six Sigma team in Spennymoor, near Durham, ultimately saving the company £150,000 a year by improving production techniques on their Leaf Hog.
Ironically, the result of all this success was a string of TV, radio and press interviews.
“At one point, I went to BBC Television Centre to be interviewed and I immediately thought how much I’d like to work there. So I sort of stalked one of the team on Radio 4 and landed a bit of work experience.”
Tugged in two directions, Steph was eventually offered both a full-time job at the BBC or the opportunity to do a Master’s degree at Cambridge. She opted for the former on the grounds that she could always pick up on an academic career later but she was unlikely to be given a second chance at making a go of it in the media.
Happily, she was put under no pressure from her parents.
“I’m an only child and they’ve always been supportive, never pushy. They were just happy for me to do the thing that most appealed to me. Anyway, I’m not sure I’d have listened. I’ve always been headstrong.”
At the BBC, she initially worked in the current affairs department.
teph talking about her pregnancy with fellow-presenter Jon Kay (Image: BBC)
And then she managed to get some work on Tomorrow’s World before moving to the Today programme where she eventually became the main producer for daily financial news. Latterly, she was appointed senior economics and business producer on the 10 O’Clock News. And still, she was only in her mid-20s.
“But no one was bothered about my age. They were only bothered about whether I could do the job.”
And that strong Yorkshire accent? “No one even mentioned it. In fact, it may even have helped me,” she admits. “I’d be asked my opinion on the grounds I was more like normal people than most of the middleclass colleagues I worked alongside.”
When she was asked to fill in on Radio 2 for the indisposed Business presenter, the boss of BBC Breakfast happened to catch her and asked if she’d audition for the show. After two weeks, she was offered the job of presenting the Business news, where she remained for eight years.
My philosophy – and this goes back to my school days – was: Have a go! What’s the worst that could happen? On the final 10-second countdown to my first broadcast, Susanna Reid lent across and said, ‘Good luck. You’ll be fine. You’ve done live telly before.’ I said I hadn’t. I can still hear her gasp.”
She graduated to often being the main presenter on BBC Breakfast.
‘No ever my accent. asked on the was like “But I got to the point when I wanted to have a child with my partner.”
Steph lives with a female TV executive whose name she has never revealed.
“That wasn’t going to be compatible with breakfast TV: I was getting up at 3.30 in the morning.”
Carol Kirkwood, Sally Nugent and Steph McGovern attending the National Television Awards 2016 (Image: Doug Peters/PA Images)
“So I got pregnant, gave birth to my daughter” – she won’t reveal what she’s called, either – “in November 2019 and considered what to do next. I knew I wanted to move back to the North-east to be nearer my family. Then, coincidentally, Channel 4 was looking to launch a daytime show based in Leeds and approached me.”
Unbeknown to everyone, of course, a pandemic was just around the corner which meant having to present Steph’s Packed Lunch from her own kitchen for the first six weeks with her baby daughter in the next room. “It was quite stressful.”
Not any more. The only drawback these days, she says, is if she has to do a harrowing interview with someone who’s lost a loved one. “I won’t read the brief the evening before because I suffer from night terrors and I won’t get any sleep. But my life is much more ordered.”
Back in the day, she might have dropped everything at a moment’s notice.
“There was the time I was at a party and I got a call telling me I’d be interviewing Prime Minister Gordon Brown the next day in Downing Street.”
Donald Trump tried to wrong-foot Steph by praising her looks when she interviewed him for BBC in 201 (Image: BBC)
There was also the occasion in 2012 when she found herself grilling Donald Trump for breakfast TV during a trip to London before he became President.
“I’d heard he had a way of treating females. He’d make a number of comments about how they looked with the intention of disarming them and giving him the upper hand.”
“He walked into the room where I was waiting and he went into this whole routine of ‘Wow! You’re so beautiful. If we do this interview now, everyone will be staring at you and not listening to me. I’m going to have to leave the room and come in again.’
“It was meant to wrong-foot me but it just made me laugh. I said I was a girl from Middlesbrough and that I’d heard better lines than that down Club Bongo. He didn’t take offence. As a matter of fact, he behaved as though I was asking him out on a date. But he left the room like he said he was going to and re-entered.”
“Annoyingly, I have to admit he had a definite aura about him. When he walked into a room, he certainly held it. But he was a creep,” she chuckles, “a creep with an aura.”
One other surprising fact about this most surprising woman is that she’s a champion Irish dancer. “My dad’s family are Irish. I was sent to dance classes as a child. I got to travel round the country and then went to the World Championships in Ireland. Even today, you’ll see me do a routine from Riverdance on St Patrick’s Day. But I haven’t got the energy I once had.”
She’ll be 40 in May. Does she mind? “I still feel like I’m in my late 20s although I do think it’s harder to stay healthy as you get older.”
She certainly has a lot of respect for older people. In fact, she and her father, Eamonn, have just embarked on an initiative with Specsavers called #GenerationWOW campaign – it stands for wonderful older wisdom – from Specsavers Home Visits, together with the University of the Third Age. It’s intended to give older people a platform to pass on their skills and life experience.
“Dad is a professional artist and he’s been teaching me some of the tricks of the trade. I always thought you either had the talent or you didn’t. But it seems you can acquire quite a few rudimentary skills.”
“When you’re in the public eye, it’s nice to relax with a hobby that keeps you grounded. And, with Dad’s help, I’ve now painted one landscape that’s good enough to hang on my wall at home.”
There are other classes available – flower arranging, laughter yoga – bringing old and young together.
Contentment comes off Steph in almost palpable waves.
“I honestly think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. I’ve got an amazing partner, a beautiful daughter, strong friends and family and a job I love.”
“I know that probably sounds really cheesy but I don’t take it for granted. I have a lovely life. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”
- For more info visit specsavers.co.uk/generation-wow
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