Monday November 27th 2000
Issue No. 2,012
She dreams of executions. She has implants in her ears. She says she has more shoes than Imelda Marcos. Donna Air – actress, singer, Big Breakfast presenter and company director – talks to Nigel Farndale
In an intimate Hampstead restaurant on a drizzly November afternoon, Donna Air is dismantling a mobile phone so small the imagination can barely cope with it. ‘It’s supposed to be state-of-the-art,’ she says, with a slow blink of her large green eyes, ‘but it keeps cutting out on me.’ She holds a tiny circuit board up to the light and purses her lips. ‘I can usually get it going…’
The tip of her tongue emerges from the corner of her mouth as she concentrates on sliding the cover back on ‘…again.’ She tries dialling. It’s still broken. ‘Oh, who am I kidding? I like to think I can do the single girl thing, fix my TV and car and everything, but I’m hopeless really. I can’t even work my Palm Pilot. And I’ve got an iMac at home, but I always end up jotting things down on scraps of paper. I wake up in the night and have to write things down, otherwise I can’t sleep.’
Sleep is important to this rangy 21-year-old, especially on mornings when she has to rise at 3.30am because she is co-presenting The Big Breakfast on Channel 4. What does she write down? ‘Dreams, whatever.’ And what does she dream about – pretty things, no doubt, chasing butterflies through woodland creamy with meadowsweet? ‘Actually, I dream I’m watching all these people being hanged and beheaded on Blackfriars Bridge. I think it must have been something I witnessed in a previous life. It’s, like, I’m always drawn to period stuff. Old fabrics, you know.’
Bill please, waiter. ‘No, no!’ Donna Air says with a soft laugh and a shake of her golden curls. ‘I’m not really like that. In fact, I was brought up a Catholic. It’s just I feel comfortable in certain new environments, as if I’m already familiar with them. And I know instantly whether I like someone or not. It’s a sixth sense.’ Holding her knife and fork as though they were pens, Air cuts up a slice of grilled chicken breast in hoisin sauce. She finishes her mouthful, takes a sip of chablis and rubs her right ear. She has implants in them, she explains, to help her cut down on smoking.
‘I think I had too strong a dosage today, though, because I’m getting a weird sensation all over my body.’ There’s a Chinese herbalist she sees who administers the dosage and also gives her acupuncture. ‘It’s to help me sleep well and get my body back in balance. Did you know your body is split up into your right meridian and your left, and that in entertainment you are always giving out with your right side and you need to nourish your left side?’ No, I can’t say I did. ‘Well, it is. Anyway, I’m all for sleep.’ She squares her shoulders. ‘If you don’t get your sleep, everything falls apart. I always make a policy of never opening bills or taking calls that will stress me late at night. It’s, like, if my mum rings, I go, “Mum, let’s talk about this in the morning.”‘
The eldest of three children, Donna Air was born and raised in Newcastle upon Tyne. From the age of 11 to 15 she appeared in Byker Grove, a Newcastle-based children’s drama on BBC television, and a nursery for such talents as Ant and Dec. After this she joined a band, Crush, as the singer, toured America, and enjoyed chart success with the singles ‘Jellyhead’ and ‘Luv’d Up’. At 18 she joined MTV and presented Select, a daily, two-hour music request show, on which she was required to deal sympathetically with faltering, lovestruck pubescents. She has played a prostitute in Lynda La Plante’s television drama Supply and Demand, a Dutch hitch-hiker in Still Crazy (starring Billy Connolly), and is about to present an edition of TFI Friday with Huey from Fun Lovin’ Criminals.
But it is for her work on The Big Breakfast that she is chiefly known. Female presenters of the show need to be easy on the eye, with a breezy, bubbly disposition and an ability to cope with hecklers and the quickfire banter of Johnny Vaughan, the male presenter (it was this last that did for Kelly Brook), as well as a willingness to get up unfeasibly early (which eventually proved too much for Liza Tarbuck).
To put herself in a sunny mood for the show she plays music loudly: ‘It really gets me up for it. I have a good old dance around make-up and really get my energy levels going. Really charged. I’m a fidget anyway and can’t sit still for long, but often I’m dancing across the studio and the make-up artist is following me.’ After primary school in Newcastle, Air went to a convent in the city, where her nickname was Lego Legs. ‘It was because my feet clicked. They don’t now that I exercise and I’m well oiled up.’ She left at 15: ‘Can’t remember what I got in my GCSEs, a handful of Bs and Cs, I think.’
Although she once asked the Corrs, a band consisting of three sisters and a brother, how they met, jokes about her supposedly mean intelligence are largely to do with her surname (which is not a stage name, incidentally). Even her best friend, Natalie Appleton (of the band All Saints), calls her Airhead. And, taking it in good part, Donna Air has called the small company she recently founded with Francis Ridley (a former head of programming for MTV) Airhead and Money. She is an engaging conversationalist and uses her intelligence benevolently, to make others feel better about themselves for being brighter than she is. ‘The art of being clever is to pretend to be stupid,’ she says. But does she regret not having gone to university?
‘I never thought, and this is probably just my way of justifying my laziness to myself, there was much point, because I knew exactly what I wanted to do and I didn’t need academic qualifications to do it. But, yes, there are things I would love to study now if I had the time. I love history. I love learning.’ Were other girls jealous of her at school? ‘There was a bit of a vibe when I went through a difficult big-headed stage but I probably deserved it. My family was always around to keep me grounded.
To take the piss. It’s a Geordie thing. No one gets away with taking themselves too seriously. Everything is defused with a joke. That’s why I love Mike Leigh films – that dark, northern humour. And I’m good at taking the piss out of myself, too. I’m a nerd really.’ Donna Air’s parents have just turned 40. Her mother, Marie, works for BT; her father, Trevor, is a mechanical engineer and a drummer in his spare time. Air doesn’t think her parents were pushy. ‘I was an only child for the first eight years’ – her brother is eight, her sister 13 – ‘so I had lots of attention. My mum used to send me to dance classes and acting classes, but only because I was hyperactive and she wanted to get me out of the house. That stuff in orange juice, I couldn’t have it. I was a bit of a madam as a girl – me, me, me. Very attention-seeking. I would come into a room and force everyone to watch my dance routines.’
In turn, Donna Air used to watch Madonna and Kylie Minogue on MTV. ‘Deep down, and I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, I knew that I would be doing the sort of thing they did one day, too. Throughout my career there have been key jobs that I’ve, like, predicted. Maybe I’m psychic. Like I know now what I will be doing in five years time.’ She does? ‘Yes, acting. I’ve tried all the classes, because I thought if I didn’t I wouldn’t be taken seriously, but I just got stuck with lots of unemployed actors who were very bitter. I thought, “F- it!” No point agonising about what direction to take, just get on and act and be good at it. I’m confident I will be.’
What a gal. She’s packed so much into her 21 years – several careers, founding her own company – and seems to take it all for granted. Doesn’t she ever have any self-doubt? ‘Maybe I’ll get it wrong, like, but I’m an optimist. That said, I am a bit of a worrier about things I don’t need to worry about. I think it’s Catholic guilt. That’s why I never do anything bad, because if I did the guilt would give me away. I stole a pound when I was seven and got found out straight away because I looked guilty. I can blag really well but I can’t lie. I’m open about most things. It’s easier. You reap what you sow. I’m a big believer in all that karma stuff.’
But doesn’t a belief in reincarnation sit uneasily with her Catholicism? ‘I think we should draw lessons from all religions, don’t you?’ Well, quite. Does her Catholic guilt come to the fore when people talk about dumbing down on television? ‘I don’t look into the politics of why certain shows get commissioned too much, because what I do in the morning is very shallow.’ She laughs. ‘We’ve never denied it!’ Does Donna Air ever feel she is just a product being exploited by an army of agents, managers, PRs, lawyers and accountants? ‘No, I wouldn’t do anything I didn’t want to do. I’ve had some bad deals, mind. I was 15 when I signed my first record deal. The record men, they go up North and take all these kids from working-class backgrounds, and when they offer them a £5,000 deal, the kids think, “Oh my God, that’s so much money!” But you end up signing your life away, touring the world for peanuts.’
What about all those bikini shoots she does for calendars and lad mags such as Loaded, Esquire and FHM? Doesn’t she worry that they will compromise her credibility as an actor? Air pushes her plate away, lights up a Marlboro and takes a drag before answering. ‘I did go through a phase of blitzing it, but I’m quite chilled out now. I pace things. I don’t need everyone to love me any more.’ Isn’t it a bit creepy, knowing that thousands of men have sexual fantasises about her? ‘I don’t even think about it, you know. I’m not one of these people who worries about the pictures after a photo shoot. I just go home, have a fag and cup of tea and pay my bills.’
She has, I can’t help noticing, an over-active left eyebrow – it keeps arching. ‘I can’t help it!’ she laughs. ‘Photographers keep asking me to control it but I can’t. It does it of its own accord.’ The independent eyebrow is just one of Air’s charms. She has the sort of willowy figure and epicene face which appeals to both men and women. And she seems friendly, funny and well adjusted. Her smoky lilting accent also contributes. ‘Everyone up North always talks from the back of their throats, so when you get tired it gets croaky. I’d never lose my accent, but it has been diluted a bit. I have to articulate more, make my diction clearer on TV, because people in Cornwall aren’t going to be able to understand a word I say otherwise. And I’ve started voice-training for my acting and can do standard RP and standard American now.’
There is something written in coloured beads across her top which has been distracting me. ‘It’s Chinese, I think,’ she says lighting another Marlboro with the butt of the last one. She has had serious boyfriends in the past but she has also had a reputation as a hard-drinking, hard-partying laddette who seems to enjoy the single life. Would she like to get married at some point? ‘A date would be a step in the right direction. These early mornings ruin my love life. Actually, I would like to skip the dating stage and get to that serious relationship stage where you can doss about in your sweatpants and watch videos.’ She numbers among her close friends the Gallagher brothers, Noel and Liam, who have both recently divorced, shortly after their wives had babies. Does that put her off marriage? ‘Yeah, it’s awful. I think it’s such a shame when any family is torn apart, having seen it happen to my own. You know, my mum and dad have just got divorced. I’ve never been able to understand why, because they didn’t have an unhappy marriage, and I’m not just saying that because I’m in denial.’
She feels protective towards her mother, whom she describes as a bit naive, and also towards her sister. ‘My sister is so cool and blasé. When she came to stay with me in London recently I thought she would be really impressed if we went for dinner with Natalie and the others, and she said with a yawn, “I’d rather go to bed, actually.” She is more sensitive than me. I was quite tough at her age. I’m really impressed with the way my sister deals with my mum, you know. She just says, “Yeah, yeah, mum, whatever.” Even my mum has to laugh. I used to scream at my mum.’
An awkward teenager? Donna Air draws on her cigarette, and taps her lighter against the tablecloth. ‘Yeah, I was a brat. I was awful, especially to my mum.’ She has a couple of large bags by her chair. Is she on her way to the laundry? ‘No,’ she says unzipping one and rummaging around, scattering clothes on the floor. ‘I have three changes of clothes in here. Hats. Diaries.’ Is she messy at home? ‘I used to be so anal as a child. It’s all going the other way now because I’m so tired when I get home I can’t face tidying my clothes. I need a nice big house. I hate shopping. But I do get sent things to wear on the show so I don’t really need to do much. I spend a lot of money on shoes and handbags, though.’
I notice her Rolex. Was that a freebie too? She mouths the word ‘no’. ‘I’m less materialistic now than I used to be. I’ve got all the shoes I need. In fact I’ve probably got more than Imelda.’ Today she is wearing gold trainers. ‘My old flat in Blackheath is still full of boxes of them. Many unopened. I’ve got shoes all over London, come to think of it.’ It is nearly 4pm, time for her to go home and get some sleep. Though it is November, she is in the middle of recording the Christmas Day edition of The Big Breakfast, and says she has to try and enter into the festive spirit ready for filming tomorrow.
In late December she will also be appearing in a costume drama, A Dinner of Herbs by Catherine Cookson. ‘It’s set in the 1840s, and I spent six weeks in a field in Durham filming it. All corsets, high collars and ringlets. But my hair is naturally curly so I didn’t have to do nothing. And I had this trick of breathing out when the costume department came to fit me every morning because they weren’t interested in whether I could breathe, just whether I looked good.’
Would she like to have lived in that period? ‘I think I did,’ she muses dreamily, ‘because I’m very old-fashioned. Very drawn to that era. I would be happy in the country, I think, living in a mill-house, churning the butter.’ Well, as a reincarnation, it’s an improvement on the grisly scene at Blackfriars Bridge.