She'll soon return as 'Queen of Mean' on The Weakest Link, but behind the scenes, Gabrielle Fagan finds Anne Robinson is a self-confessed 'softie'

SHE'S been through her fair share of personal turmoil - alcoholism led to her losing custody of her two-year-old daughter - but Anne Robinson believes surviving and recovering from those challenges gave her a "fearlessness" that's helped her succeed.

The TV presenter found fame during the Nineties as the tenacious presenter of consumer affairs show Watchdog on BBC One, and then The Weakest Link, which spawned one of the nation's favourite catchphrases, "You are the Weakest Link! Goodbye!" Her brutal dismissal of contestants led to her being dubbed the 'Queen of Mean'.

Loading article content

In November she'll reprise her iconic role hosting The Weakest Link for a special celebrity edition for BBC One's Children In Need.

But despite the on-screen snow queen persona, in person, Anne, 72, who describes herself as "someone who can be stern, but quite funny, and who's always thought rules were a bit unnecessary" is warm, friendly and forthright.

"I've been quite lucky," she says when asked about her career success. "After having my drink problem [Anne gave up alcohol in 1978 after hitting "rock bottom"] you think nothing's ever going to be so bad. You have a sense of fearlessness after that.

"Also, I was always a journalist first - I was never the person with the pretty face and great legs - I had other tricks, like being able to write a script, so that helps give you longevity."

Clearly relishing her return to The Weakest Link - she's still "considering" an offer to present a new celebrity version of the series next year - she promises to be "meaner than ever. Age hasn't mellowed me at all. Ironically, I was originally hired for the show because they thought I'd be 'sympathetic enough to soften the blow' when contestants got voted off. I quickly realised it was much more fun to be tough, rude and acerbic, rather than cheesy".

Today, she's speaking about another role, as an eye health ambassador for the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Specsavers - which has just released a report revealing that half the cases of sight loss in the UK could be avoided by us all having eye checks every two years.

"My father Bernard inspired my involvement. He was a wonderful teacher, always given charge of the no-hopers class, and worked so hard for them. He was very proud of me and watched all my programmes until, in his seventies, he admitted he couldn't see anything without a magnifying glass. It turned out he had cataracts, which were removed after a 10-minute procedure, but for far too long he'd suffered a limited life and fear of going blind because he hadn't had regular eye tests which could have discovered them."

Her zeal for the campaign is heightened because she's a grandmother - the report recommends children have regular eye tests from the age of three. She's close to her only child, Emma, from her first marriage to Charlie Wilson, a former editor of The Times, and devoted to grandsons Hudson, eight, and Parker, seven.

"I'm a very good granny, far better at that than I was a mother, and regard our relationship as a wonderful second chance for me. I babysit them, take them on holiday and adore their company. Our generation don't want to be thought of as 'grannies' which doesn't seem to fit our image, so they call me 'Nonni' the Italian word for grandparent," she says with a fond smile. "Round them I'm a real softie, but I'm not allowed to spoil them - mothers today are so serious and hardcore with charts for everything, from poo to meals - but I do occasionally let them have TV and warn them not to let on to Mummy."

Ten years ago, after 27 years of marriage, she divorced her second husband, journalist John Penrose. She swats away questions about romance. "All I'll say is, I think it's nice to have a playmate, but I don't want to get married again or live under the same roof as someone else seven days a week. Anyway, I like my life and don't want to fiddle with it."

Glamorous and slim, she declares the only time she feels old is when she's conscious she's hard of hearing - she wears a hearing aid. "I'm not trying to look young, but I care about how I look. Appearance is crucial in this TV business because there's a huge prejudice against fat women. Not only do television producers not hire fat women, women don't like looking at fat women on TV," she declares. "I had a facelift in 2004 and I don't smoke, don't drink, or eat sugar."

She says she has "no regrets about my life - the bits that weren't very nice are part of the whole picture of where I am now", but has one as yet unfulfilled ambition, brought into sharp focus by the recent outcry over women's pay at the BBC. "I'd like to go out and teach women how to negotiate their pay. I'm constantly in despair that, generally, women are hopeless at it. Young women have a belief that they have to say 'yes' to the first thing that's offered. In fact, that's just the start of the game," says Anne.

"I come from a trading family where we talked money all the time, so I'm not embarrassed by it. I'd be much more embarrassed not to drive for a good deal. You have to have a poker face, take it slowly, and have a bit of nerve," she adds - and this is clearly her motto for life.

Anne Robinson is ambassador for the Royal National Institute of Blind People and Specsavers' Transforming Eye Health campaign. Visit specsavers.co.uk/eye-health/RNIB