Yippee I’m 76! It’s hard to believe it – where did all those years go? And do you realise it’s been 32 years since the birth of breakfast television – when we the BBC pipped our arch rivals ITV to be the first network to win the early morning TV viewing audience? I was lucky enough to be there on the very first day, a leggy six foot blonde filmed doing a star jump on Waterloo Station in front of a bunch of bleary eyed commuters.
Most of them didn’t have a clue who I was but whilst I continued to put those en route workers through their paces the national press were jamming the BBC switchboard demanding to know who the bird in the shiny bright green leotard was. The PR in charge told them I was Diana, their goddess, because that was their nickname for me. Then as an afterthought he said, ‘our green goddess’ and the name’s stuck ever since!
I was 45 fit as a fiddle and supple as a reed which I put down to my own regime of exercise and healthy eating, completely self taught. The concept of aerobics and formalised exercise regimes simply didn’t exist before I came on the scene and it has been said that I pioneered the idea of structured fitness routines in the UK, at the same time that Jane Fonda was establishing her credentials as the first lady of fitness across the Atlantic in the US. However our approaches couldn’t have been more different. While Jane was ‘going for the burn’ with her hard on the bones high impact aerobics (now considered largely unsafe), I was going for a gentler, kinder on the joints, low impact type of routine. In the early 1980’s there were no health clubs or personal trainers in the UK as we know them today, and only a few fitness classes such as the League of Health and Beauty and the Keep Fit Association.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention and in my case it’s probably true. For me it all started 40 years ago, when I had my ‘first wake up call’ health wise. At 30 I found myself in hospital after it was discovered I had a cluster of lumps on my thyroid. As a result I had a partial thyroidectomy, a pretty major operation at the time. Afterwards, as I was lying in bed I realised I wasn’t as fit as I used to be – I used to run for the county and played a mean game of tennis in my teens but all that went by the by when I had my children, I’d married at 19 and had my first son at 21. So when I came out of hospital I was determined to regain my strength and stamina and find out as much about exercise as I could.’
I was surprised to find there was very little in terms of information. ‘There weren’t the glossy exercise guides or fitness CD’s like we know them today. Eventually I found a book on fitness devised for the Canadian Air force plus a few obscure guides on yoga, then came across The League of Health and Beauty and between all these cobbled together sources I put together a keep fit programme for me.’
I had no intention of taking it further but friends started pestering me to help them get fit too. I was the first to have my babies at 20 and 21 and when my girlfriends started their families years later they came to me asking how to flatten their tums and tighten their bums after the toll of pregnancy, so we got down on the floor in my living room. BBC Radio 1 was always on, playing music in the background, so I struck on the idea of putting the routines to music, making my own tapes.
One thing lead to another. A friend who was a domestic science demonstrator was heading up a publicity campaign for a diet spread called Outline and the makers wanted someone who could devise some exercises to ‘suit your Outline’ and she recommended me. As a result I found myself testing out my exercise regime on a much larger audience – holiday makers at Butlins where Outline were piloting their PR campaign. It blew them away. I remember that first day, striding out onto the ballroom floor in front of a sea of holiday makers – grans, granddads, mums and dads and kids – telling them to get down on the floor, kick off their shoes, loosen their belts and copy my moves. They all loved it. Outline and Butlins were thrilled, so much so that I was asked to replicate the idea at the other Butlin’s camps and within a few months was training up girls to head up fitness classes all over the UK.
But my holiday camp work wasn’t the only thing keeping me busy. After recovering from my thyroid operation I joined BBC Radio Bristol as a contributor (a young Kate Adie was my boss). Prior to that I’d enjoyed a highly successful 10 year career as a model after being spotted at a charity fashion in a Bristol Department store where I had worked full time as a young personnel and welfare officer. I was lucky, my long legs and slender figure were my passport to modelling success all over the world for both catwalk and photographic work.
My TV debut was first as a Continuity Announcer for HTV West and then on a network programme called Here Today made by HTV where I became one of the presenters – at age 40. On Thursdays I’d do my TV stint in Bristol in the morning before changing into my tracksuit and sprinting over to Butlin’s the Barry Island holiday resort in South Wales to do my live exercise classes in red leotard and tights.. Then one day someone suggested I replicated my routines on Here Today.
They asked me to choose a leotard colour I could wear specially for the programme – they didn’t want me in the red I was wearing for my holiday camp work so I suggested yellow. I modelled it for them and they were horrified – they said I looked like Rod Hull’s Emu! Then I tried a sophisticated brown which was rejected because in it I appeared nude on camera. The only leotard colour left that was telegenic and suitable was green, which is how that came about. I introduced the leg warmers to hide the wire leading to my mike pack strapped around my right ankle after I heard one woman commenting on what she thought were my ‘terrible varicose veins’!’
So for the next three years I honed my TV fitness slots on the local HTV station, serving the West Country, before I got the telephone call which was to change my life.
A producer called asking me for an interview – I took down the name and number not realising it was for the new national breakfast TV station, The following day I mentioned it to a friend at work and it was only when I whispered the address that I found out the audition was for the BBC, not ITV, who I’d been working for up until then.
As they say – the rest is history. I got the job and days later was seen doing that famous ‘star’ jump in the air, capturing the birth of breakfast TV ushering in the rest of the team comprising Selina Scott, Frank Bough, Glyn Christian and Russell Grant. Amazingly” The Green Goddess” became famous overnight. But success came at a price.
My marriage to John didn’t survive the heights of my TV career. When I was offered the job presenting a seven minute exercise slot on breakfast TV five days a week I said ‘yes’ on the condition I could film the slots near my home in Bristol. The boys were grown up, but that’s where I had been living with John for 25 years. To be fair the BBC agreed. But when they saw how well my exercise slot was working out on location, it was never going to happen in a studio. And from that moment onwards I lived out of a suitcase – for the next four years I was constantly travelling the length and breadth of the UK performing my slots in schools, old people’s homes, factories, shopping centres, hospitals, you name it.
Things didn’t always go according to plan. Once when I was filming in a health club at Roehampton, my class, who happened to be mostly male that day, were performing deep knee bends. I looked up to camera and with a completely straight face said ‘as you can see it’s not only balls bouncing on the court this morning, its members too!’ I didn’t have a clue that I’d said anything remotely funny, even when half of the class collapsed in fits on the floor. Needless to say I had a call later that day from Esther Rantzen who told me to tune into That’s Life the following Sunday because they’d been inundated with demands to repeat it. I recall sitting on the sofa next to my grown up boys who roared with laughter when they saw their mum drop such a clanger.
My stint on breakfast TV ended after four and a half years when a new Editor arrived with a bref to make the programme ‘more serious’. In came more news and out went the lighter strands like cookery and fitness – it proved disastrous for the viewing figures, but by then I had moved on to front another health and fitness programme, Look Good, Feel Great for Central TV. Ironically, bearing in mind the title of the show, I had my second major ‘wake-up call’ when I was diagnosed soon after with breast cancer.
I’d gone to a clinic to find out about HRT but when they did some routine health checks they also took a mammogram and spotted the cancer. It was a dreadful shock. Everything seemed to be going so well and I suddenly felt cheated. It was 1987, 22 years ago when cancer wasn’t talked about openly – people shuddered at the very mention of ‘the big C’.
By then I was separated from John, a single woman living in London and having to support myself so I didn’t tell anyone about the diagnosis. I underwent what was then a revolutionary procedure, a double mastectomy with immediate reconstruction, and was back on air, in my leotard performing her daily exercise classes three months later.
It was six months before anyone knew I’d even had the breast cancer or such an extreme operation. Life gradually returned to normal but a few years later was a terrible time for all sorts of reasons. I was to discover that my new partner, who I had put my trust in and loved, had been having an affair with a call girl throughout our time together. He left me while I was undergoing further breast cancer treatment and I never saw or heard from him again. It was the ultimate betrayal. I sank into depression but eventually managed to pull myself back from the brink with the news that I was to become a grandmother. All my life I’ve been very good at turning negatives into negatives. It’s a big mantra of mine. I do believe what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.
And here I am celebrating my 76th birthday. I’m still slender and supple and can still perform all the exercises I devised four decades ago which helps me to look and feel good. In fact I have just made another fitness DVD called EASY FIT to be released Jan 2010.
I haven’t had a face lift, Botox or any other type of cosmetic surgery – I’ve had enough surgery for medical reasons to ever contemplate that, I think it’s more about attitude and enthusiasm for life that keeps me young. I’m as active as ever, regularly cycling, I have seven bicycles (to accommodate all sizes and ages of friends and grandchildren) and I walk twelve miles at a time and do masses for charity. I’m patron of the Breast Cancer Campaign and am heavily involved in Breast Cancer Care and Cancer Research UK. I help with charity events including Fun Walks and Treks like the 10k and 20k Ribbon Walks for Breast Cancer Care. I’ve just completed a fitness training video for Cancer Research and regularly work on the cruise ships doing motivational talks and heading up the on board fitness classes. I am a regular guest presenter in two health resorts in the Caribbean. One of my proudest recent achievements was trekking The Great Wall of China last year, covering 25 miles a day at tremendous altitudes. I was the oldest in the group which raised £140,000 for charity.
I can’t imagine ever slowing down. Even my second brush with cancer four years ago when skin cancer was diagnosed, the result of sunbathing 30-40 years ago, hasn’t quenched my zest for life. I noticed a patch of skin on my shin which didn’t seem to heal, I got it checked out and it was diagnosed as a basal cell carcinoma. I had it treated with a special type of scarlet laser but more patches can appear, so I have to be vigilant.
Being 76 was a great excuse for a fantastic party. I invited all my family and friends, those who’ve stuck with me through thick and thin. Women of my age are so lucky. The image of age has totally changed, and at the moment I don’t feel there is anything I can’t do. My boys, Tim who’s 48 and Nick who’s 46, say I’ve lived my life back to front. Here I am doing all the things I wanted to do as a teenager like being able to go off on adventures, like trekking the Great Wall of China, and last year I also sailed down the Amazon. My dad, who was very strict, refused to let me go to college to be a PE instructor when I was young because he said it wasn’t a “proper job” for a young lady. But I ended up becoming the nation’s number one gym mistress so it just goes to show, you can do it. All it takes is the courage and conviction to go out there and get it!