‘People often ring me up asking for my opinions,’ says Kirstie Allsopp. ‘Someone phoned the other day to ask what I thought about transgender children. I said, “Why would you think it’s my place to comment on that?”’
The answer, of course, is that Allsopp has a reputation for being a woman with strong views – some of which have been known to land her in hot water. But she’s horrified to think anyone might view her as part of the new breed of professional contrarians, selling inflammatory opinions for clicks.
‘I have been accused of being a controversialist, and I was quite stung by that,’ she tells Weekend. ‘I think I’m frank and honest, and if there’s a topic I feel passionately about, I won’t shy away from talking about it. But I fail to say something far more often than I say something.’
Three years ago, the TV presenter and property guru provoked a backlash for stating, only half-jokingly, that if she had a daughter, she’d advise her against going to university and ‘find a nice boyfriend’ instead. A more recent spell in the stocks followed her comment on Twitter that it was ‘disgusting’ to keep a washing machine in the kitchen, prompting many to point out that, unlike the Honourable Kirstie Allsopp (her father, Charles, is the 6th Baron Hindlip), most people don’t have the luxury of a separate laundry room.
‘People said, “it’s proof she doesn’t know what a real home is like”,’ she sighs. ‘And I was upset about that, because obviously I do.’ Indeed, while her business interests, like her home search company Kirmir, have largely focused on high-end properties, as presenter of hundreds of editions of Channel 4’s enduringly popular house hunting show Location, Location, Location, it’s fair to say she’s seen inside more ‘real homes’ than most.
‘Nobody imagines for a second that I know what it feels like to wake up every day, sick to the pit of your stomach with worry about electricity bills or feeding the children – of course I don’t,’ she says. ‘Any money worries I’ve had, like when I was in negative equity, have been tempered by the fact I could have sold the flat and gone home. I wouldn’t have been on the street. But it doesn’t mean I don’t understand it.’
Is there perhaps a sense in which people think they can say anything they want to her, because she’s a) a strong, opinionated woman and b) posh?
‘Yes, and they have every right to think that,’ she says. ‘It’s true that I am quite robust. But what’s interesting is there’s actually very rarely an actual Twitter backlash. Twitter backlashes tend to be made up by – mostly female – newspaper columnists.’
The Allsopp kitchen, sans washing machine, is also the focus of the 46-year-old’s latest venture, a cookbook in which she combines her favourite recipes with war stories from the frontline of family mealtimes. As the title suggests, Kirstie’s Real Kitchen eschews intimidating, Heston levels of gastronomic expertise in favour of relatable, day-to-day dishes from someone whose culinary education came relatively late in life.
‘I wasn’t brought up in a foodie family,’ she says. ‘My mother thought it was the most extraordinary thing in the world to read recipe books. She was a good cook, she just didn’t enjoy cooking – or eating. But I wanted to learn to do it for my family, for my friends. I wanted to know what was going into the food we were eating.’
She’s been fortunate, she admits, to have benefited from a fair amount of professional help while making foodie, artsy crafty TV shows like Kirstie’s Handmade Treasures and Kirstie’s Homemade Christmas (she is Kath Kidston’s cousin, after all). ‘Most people learn to cook and then go on telly, they don’t tend to learn on the telly,’ she laughs.
One family member who did influence her cooking was her great-great grandmother Minnie, Lady Hindlip, who published her own recipe collection in 1933. ‘I knew vaguely about it, but it wasn’t until I read it that I realised there’s a little, tiny bit of it in my blood,’ says Allsopp. ‘I don’t think Minnie cooked many of the recipes herself, though – it was a book to give to other people’s cooks. It’s extraordinary, and very much of its time. There’s a section on how to deal with a dead body – if your cooking kills anyone, this is what you do!’
In keeping with the ‘real’ theme, the Allsopp brood figure prominently in her book, and she’s honest about her dinner table battles with sons Bay, nine, and Oscar, seven, and teenage stepchildren Hal and Orion.
The latter, she says, was particularly tricky territory to negotiate. ‘The problem was, if it all came to blows with my children, I’d say “fine, don’t eat it” and walk away. But you can’t send your stepchildren home hungry. Starving your stepson into submission isn't really an option.’
Away from the kitchen, though, she largely managed to avoid being cast as the wicked stepmother when she first got together with her partner, property developer Ben Andersen.
‘I was incredibly lucky. The boys were five and two, and they were brilliant. We do talk about what it was like when they were little, and how difficult it was. Their mum and I are very different people, who mind about very different things, which could have been difficult for them. But they were great.
‘The boys are all very close – they’re a bit of a team, who tend to gang up on me. I very much live in a house where there’s them and me. Luckily, Ben is 99% on my side. He rarely disagrees with me. Though he says I take some of the children’s political views too literally – sometimes if my stepson and I are rowing about politics [Allsopp is a high-profile supporter of the Conservatives] he’ll say “Right, I’m taking you out for a drink.”
Despite the disruption caused by attending no fewer than 10 different schools, Allsopp admits her own childhood was ‘in many, many ways, very idyllic’.
‘I think I was aware from quite an early age of how lucky we were,’ she says. ‘My parents had a housekeeper called Mrs Davison, who had worked for 30 years in a factory in Manchester, putting the stuffing inside padded jackets. She used to say to me, “I didn’t know people lived in houses like this, or had lives like yours”. She was very clear with us about how lucky we were.’
In 2014, Allsopp’s mother, Lady Fiona Hindlip, died aged 66, following a 25-year battle with breast cancer. Her illness must have cast a long shadow across the family’s ‘idyllic’ life.
‘It did,’ she agrees. ‘I don’t say that. If you hadn’t asked me, I wouldn’t say it. But it’s not easy being 17 and having a two-year-old sister and a seven-year-old sister to look after. My dad was at work, our housekeeper at the time walked out after three days, and my grandmother was too old to help, even if she’d been inclined to. I don't come from that sort of close family where the older generation rallies round.
‘So it wasn’t ideal. When I passed my driving test, the first thing I did was drive to Shepherd’s Bush to pick up some equipment for my mum, because she’d had a mastectomy. But none of that happened under the shadow of poverty. And that’s what I have to remember: a lot of those things happen to people who also have to worry about putting food on the table.
’It’s not Raqqa, is it?’ she adds. ‘I think that’s probably quite a British attitude. There’s an element of it that is probably character-building. Every life needs life and shade.’
Last month, Allsopp and her TV husband Phil Spencer returned for a new series of Location, Location, Location – the 30th since 2000 (to say nothing of its numerous spin-offs). What does she puts the show’s durability down to?
‘It’s not just about property, it’s about human stories,’ she says. ‘It’s about what makes people and families tick. It’s about aspirations and desires and ambitions.’
And, let’s be honest, for many viewers, it’s also about the smouldering sexual tension – real or imagined – between her and Spencer.
‘Once, we’d been filming a travel show and were sitting at the airport in the Maldives, which is obviously quite a romantic place,’ she recalls. ‘This British couple walked past, and she turned to him and said’ – here she affects a loud stage whisper – '“I told you!”
‘But there is, and never has been, a smouldering sexual tension, I’m sorry to say. It’s probably better in people’s imaginations anyway.’
Most of Allsopp’s work falls under the ‘aspirational’ umbrella. Does she see any danger in selling these dreams of Agas and nannies and second homes in the country – all things she has herself – to audiences for whom such lifestyles are mostly unattainable?
‘I think we do have to be very careful about making anyone feel inadequate,’ she considers. ‘It’s a window into something that’s fun, but life isn’t really like that. Nobody’s life is perfect. I’ll be honest, there are times when I’m slightly fighting against it. It’s difficult, because I am very fortunate, and I do have a very nice life and enormous privilege, but I try to show as many of the sharp corners as possible.’
And besides, we all need a bit of aspiration – a sprinkling of stardust – in our lives, don’t we? It can’t all be grim reality.
‘No,’ she agrees. ‘But then I think people would be very hard-pressed to accept grim reality from me, don’t you?’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, September 14, 2017
(c) Waitrose Weekend