The smart Scottish broadcaster who’s asking all the right questions

Text by Lauren Collins
Portraits by Benjamin Alexander Huseby
Styling by Caroline Newell
Issue n° 10, Autumn & Winter 2014

The Scottish broadcaster Kirsty Young, 46, has a voice like honey and hair to match. She made reading the news modern and glamorous when she started presenting perched on the desk rather than behind it. She went on to turn BBC Radio 4’s stolid Desert Island Discs into a cunningly revealing exploration of her interviewees’ lives.

A straight talker, she’s been known to say she prefers radio to TV for its lack of “make-up cobblers” and that she would prefer her children to have self-worth more than happiness. Though outwardly utterly metropolitan, Kirsty lives in a country house and likes nothing better than a night in with a good cookery book.

Technically, Desert Island Discs is a radio programme, and Kirsty Young is its host. Forty-two Sunday mornings a year on BBC Radio 4, she revisits the lives of the most significant people of our time through a musical selection of their choice. DID debuted in 1942, and its rules have hardly changed since: each guest, or castaway, is invited to name eight pieces of music they’d want with them if they ended up stranded on a desert island (the all-time most popular being Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in D Minor, the Choral), one luxury item (it must be inanimate), and one book (in addition to the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible, the Qur’an or another holy substitute). For its devotees, DID is a sort of secular church. Kirsty, eliciting lessons and cueing hymns, is the nation’s substitute vicar. Three million people listen to DID each week as they wash their cars or baste their roasts – more than attend Church of England services on Christmas Day.

In seven decades, DID has had four hosts. In 2006, Kirsty replaced Sue Lawley, who in 1988 – after Michael Parkinson’s brief interregnum – had succeeded Roy Plomley, the programme’s creator. Under Kirsty’s stewardship, DID has become a place of mystery, grace, catharsis and good humour. “She’s given a new glow to that old programme,” Gillian Reynolds, the radio critic of The Daily Telegraph, said recently. If DID is a church, it’s a broad one. Lynn Barber, the profile writer, recently admitted on the show that at Oxford she’d slept with “probably 50 men”. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband’s voice caught as he discussed his rift with his brother (he also confessed that he hadn’t had a serious girlfriend until after university and went on to dedicate Robbie Williams’s “Angels” to his wife). Morrissey told Kirsty he considered suicide honourable. The comedian David Walliams talked about questioning his sexuality. Ben Helfgott, the Holocaust survivor and weightlifter – he left Theresienstadt in 1945 and represented Britain at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 – said he had never hated anyone, and yet his pain remained as great as it had ever been. DID was conceived as light entertainment, but Kirsty, building on the work of her predecessors, has used it to tap something profound.

Kirsty also presents Crimewatch, the crime-solving television programme, and occasionally hosts Have I Got News for You, a satirical current events quiz, both on BBC One. If Elle Macpherson was the Body, she is the Voice, turning ears with the superiority of her delivery. Writing about her is a little bit like trying to record a painting. Her Scottish brogue has been likened to autumn leaves and expensive tweed. As a metonym, it exemplifies the qualities of warmth and depth that make her so attractive to such a wide audience. “It’s like a wonderful, warm, scented bath,” John Lloyd – producer of TV’s Spitting Image, Blackadder and QI – said recently. If the voice is an instrument, she’s got something like the Stradivarius of larynxes.

Demonstrating her signature desktop position, Kirsty is pictured in the Desert Island Discs recording studio at Broadcasting House in London. Here and in the next image, she wears a navy-and-green wool cardigan by CÉLINE from Joseph, grey wool trousers by PAUL SMITH and a leather-and-brass cuff by CHLOÉ. In the opening image, the black-and-white houndstooth wool jumper is by SPORTMAX and the jewellery is by VANRYCKE from Kabiri.

One afternoon not long ago, Kirsty was taping an episode of DID with Dame Wendy Hall, a computer scientist who’s done pioneering work on something called open hypermedia systems. DID is recorded at Broadcasting House in central London, in a studio consisting of a soundproof room where Kirsty and her guest conduct their interview and an antechamber from which her producers supervise it. The setting might be more of an archipelago than the desert island proposed by the show, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of companionship or material comfort. Sitting there with Hall, Kirsty was like the sun cream (the luxury requested by Annie Lennox), the mosquito net (politician Diane Abbott) and the can of caviar with spoon and opener (writer Thomas Keneally) all in one, maintaining eye contact with her guest as though their rescue depended on it. When I arrived, the session was already in full swing. I learned that Kirsty had contrived for me to get there late, fearing that my presence would distort the process by which she greets and quickly bonds with her guests.

Kirsty sat looking out of the recording booth; Hall faced in. I wasn’t sure how heavily the program would be edited, but their conversation unspooled pretty much just as it would later on the air, save for a few false starts. Kirsty has a round, generous face and tawny highlights. She was wearing a sweater and trousers in a blueberryish colour, a gold cuff on each wrist, and glasses on her nose. A sound engineer played Hall’s chosen music at the appointed intervals in the program, giving the session a festive vibe. During the breaks, Kirsty and Hall kept up their chatter in the overflowing way of old mates so excited to see each other that they haven’t had time to look at the menu. Kirsty said later that she spends at least three days researching each castaway. She puts together a list of subjects she wants to make sure to cover, but the show is essentially a live performance. “Once I’m in there, what I hope is that I’ll abandon at least half of the questions I’ve written down and pursue what they say to me,” she said. “You can judge the heft of someone’s cloth when they’re sitting opposite you.”

When Kirsty landed the DID job, grumps and reactionaries tutted. “How I hate the new presenter,” one listener wrote on a BBC message board. “A nice enough girl but I miss a clear, English accent and Kirsty’s voice is so simpering.” Detractors still surface from time to time – usually to complain about her perceived bias toward showbiz types – but fears that she’d dumb down the franchise now seem silly, even to her early sceptics. Gillian Reynolds, of the Telegraph, initially criticised Kirsty’s eagerness – “She gabbles on, as if to demonstrate she’s done the homework” – but admitted recently that her friendly approach had proven an asset. “She’s brilliant at letting people feel free. She’s a real journalist, and she can contradict people, but first of all, she’s warm and welcoming.” For John Lloyd, the TV producer, Kirsty belongs with David Frost and Melvyn Bragg in the all-time triumvirate of BBC interviewers. Lloyd recalls his own appearance on DID as Kirsty’s 257th castaway, in which he spoke searingly of his depression, as a sort of out-of-body experience in which Kirsty’s words coaxed him into such a relaxed state that he was willing to divulge and discuss things he’d never spoken about with anyone, much less a stranger. “You sort of fall in love with her, and then she’ll ask the killer question and look at you with those huge blue eyes,” he said. “You’ll be flummoxed and put off kilter and ready to reveal something of yourself.”

Kirsty’s role requires a tricky mixture of empathy and aggression: she has to be, at once, a therapist who can push a point and a debating-team captain who can be kind. At the taping I attended, her producer fed a hint into her earpiece every now and then – follow up on this, don’t neglect to bring up that – but she was essentially on her own, segueing among topics with impressive dexterity. At one point, Hall talked at some length about her and her husband’s decision not to have children. Afterwards, as Eric Clapton’s “Layla” spun, she became a little bit teary. Kirsty knew what to say: Music, she told Hall, has an ability to speed-dial emotion. Later, when Kirsty flubbed the difference between the Internet and the Web, she confidently worked her ignorance into the do-over, in the process rendering an arcane topic comprehensible. Her ability to absorb, digest and feed back information suggested an extraordinary intellectual metabolism as the interview cruised on. Every once in a while, Hall flashed Kirsty a thumbs-up sign, as though the scientist were waterskiing behind a very fast boat.

Kirsty’s former colleagues at BBC Scotland once joked to a reporter that she managed to make even fish prices sound sexy – “halibut, herring, cod”. As ichthyological origin stories go, hers rightly begins with Cullen skink. It was the summer of 1986, and Kirsty was 18. A year earlier, she’d left Stirling High School, where, on account of her deep voice, her nickname had been Old Man River. She had no idea what she wanted to do with herself. “I was cursed with a very smart big sister who sailed through everything,” she recalled. “My parents knew I was different. But as long as I was in employment and wasn’t sleeping till midday, they were sort of fine about it.” Her sister, Laura, went to university. Kirsty went to Geneva. There, she worked as an au pair for a family from Stockholm. “We lived in a tiny little village just across the French border,” Kirsty recalled. “I used to practice some Swedish with the dog, but I didn’t learn any French.” Eventually, the family moved to Barcelona, and Kirsty followed. After about a year with them, she returned to Stirling and took a job at a pub called the Foresters Arms, pulling pints and serving soup. Then one day a regular, a cameraman, started talking about his job. She recalled, “He said to me, ‘Well, my runner’s gone sick this weekend, and I need someone to lift cases,’ and I thought, ‘I’d definitely prefer that to working in the pub.’” He hired Kirsty, who showed up and liked the work. “The money was crap, but I was fascinated by it.”

Kirsty wasn’t slotted into her position by wealth or birth. The lack of inevitability to her trajectory is perhaps one reason her explorations of the key junctures of her subjects’ lives – why they took this turn rather than that one, and where the decision led – seem unusually attentive. She was born in East Kilbride, a suburb of Glasgow, in 1968. Her biological father, Joe Jackson, was a police detective; her mother, Catherine, known as Rena, worked secretarial jobs, having married Joe when she was 19. When Kirsty was three weeks old, Joe walked out of the house and her life. (“Due to varying shift patterns,” he wrote in a 2008 tell-all, “I could not see the girls every weekend as I would have liked, and after a while Rena suggested that seeing them irregularly was causing Laura too much heartache, so it might be better if I did not see them again. I reluctantly agreed.”) When Kirsty was 2, her mother married John Young, a trained carpenter who ran a newsagent’s. She unreservedly considers him to be her father. The couple had a son, Iain. “I felt like I was in a nuclear family,” Kirsty said. “Though it wasn’t, that’s what it felt like for me.”

Kirsty’s sister, now Laura Ewing, remembers her as a funny and perceptive child, very much an individual from a young age. “I think she was listening to a slightly different beat,” Laura said. “When we were little, I loved ballet. Kirsty came along to join the class one day. She was two rows behind, and I thought I’d show her the ropes. But instead of watching me, she was off doing some sort of Isadora Duncan impression.” When Kirsty was 8, the family moved to Stirling, in central Scotland. The transition from new town to market town was eye-opening. “If you were to ask my mother, she probably had an entirely different experience of it,” Kirsty says, “but for me, there was incredible freedom in the egalitarian nature of East Kilbride. Everywhere I looked, everybody had the same house. Everybody’s dads drove the same sort of cars – and they were dads, then, that drove the cars. I can see how that would feel constraining and inhibiting and stifling if you were an adult, but there’s a huge degree of comfort in that when you’re a child. So I think when we moved to Stirling I felt a sense of differentiation between people who had more money and less money, and I was suddenly aware of the social mix to a much greater degree.” She left school with five O-levels and two Highers, one in English and the other in art and design: barely enough to progress to university had she wanted to. As studiously gracious as she is, Kirsty still bristles a bit when confronted with breezy middle-class expectations of what a successful life should look like. She told me, “I was given an honorary degree from the University of Stirling, and after the ceremony a journalist said to me, ‘Kirsty, do you feel better now that you’ve gotten a degree?’ And I said, ‘You know what? I think me and John Humphrys have done just fine without one,’” referencing the highly respected host of Radio 4’s breakfast programme Today. “And I thought, What are you talking about? There’s no part of this journey, through all the work I’ve done, that doesn’t make sense.”

After her stint as a cameraman’s assistant, Kirsty worked her way up from production assistant at a company that made adverts to researcher at one specialising in documentaries, and in 1990, she landed a job as a trainee newsreader and announcer at BBC Radio Scotland. Soon she was presenting the news on STV, Scotland’s leading independent channel. Blair Jenkins, her former boss there, remembers her as a popular figure, both with colleagues and with the focus groups the station often consulted. “She could get guys to pay attention, but she worked very well for women, too,” he said. “She probably had a slightly stronger Scottish accent then.” In 1996, Channel 5 hired Kirsty to anchor its flagship evening news show, which launched the following spring. She made her name, and the channel’s, with what was then a revolutionary tweak to the format: she sat on her desk instead of behind it. Soon she was a raging success. ITV poached her away; Channel 5 hired her back (“Young Returns to Channel 5 in Deal Worth £1m”). She wore YSL and Gucci pantsuits, drank wine at lunch with girlfriends, and went on the celebrity-impersonation show Stars in Their Eyes in a Peggy Lee outfit. She got engaged “for about three minutes” to a salesman she met while hosting a show about fanciable men. She dated the Scots rugby star Kenny Logan, who called her a “cracking bird”. Her sense of control was such that somehow, amid the hubbub, she never particularly embarrassed herself. She said of her 20s, “I was sort of in perpetual motion.”

“There’s no part of this journey, through all the work I’ve done, that doesn’t make sense.”

Kirsty met Nick Jones, who would become her husband, at Babington House, a country hotel and private members’ club in Somerset, in 1998. Having gone there in search of a relaxing weekend, she struck up a conversation with him – so legend has it – on the misapprehension that he was the porter, not the proprietor (Jones is co-owner of the Soho House group, whose properties include 12 other clubs in cities from Berlin to Chicago). He was in the midst of a divorce. They were both immediately, profoundly smitten. “It was all over,” she recalled. “I had no say in it. It was absolutely a fait accompli. I was not a romantic – I suppose I thought of myself as being a realist – and then I met Nick and it was hilariously sort of lovebirds and roses everywhere I looked. I fell for him like a ton of bricks.”

Nick and Kirsty married at Babington House in 1999. He wore tartan; she wore a white sheath dress and matching bolero jacket by Amanda Wakeley. Nick already had two children, Natasha (now 21) and Oliver (19). He and Kirsty had two more: Freya (13) and Iona (8), with whom they now live in Oxfordshire. Judging from the way Kirsty speaks about Nick – she prefaces her comments by saying, “I in no way want to sound smug about my marriage,” as though she might jinx their luck – they remain an unusually connected couple. “He’s super-smart and really at home with himself and more than able to handle me,” she said. “We like the same things domestically; we’re happy to sit with a bottle of red wine and watch a movie. We like to cook together, and there are lots of silly little things, like I’ll say, ‘Maybe we could have a filet of beef,’ and he’ll say, ‘I’ve ordered one, because I was thinking we hadn’t had one in a while.’” Nick describes Kirsty as a wit. “There’s a whole list of people she can mimic, and she makes them sound perfect,” he said. (I can vouch for her impression of Dustin Hoffman’s “sort of velociraptor-like LA publicists”.) She sees him as a risk-taker, a man of action who counteracts her tendency to fret. She said, “I worry whether I’m good enough at anything, whether I can make my work interesting to people. Actually, I used to worry about whether I did enough as a mother, but I don’t worry about that anymore – I do enough. I worry about ageing. When you’re on TV you have to come to terms with that. What I do has never been based on my looks, but – ageing on HDTV?”

By the time her 40th birthday arrived, Kirsty had acquired not only the DID job but also the ultimate proof of being a successful woman: a story in the Daily Mail tabloid titled “The Ruthless Rise of Kirsty Young.” (Among her offences were participating in career negotiations during maternity leave and attending parties in Notting Hill.) Her life is now undeniably one of global-scale glamour and influence. She vacations in Miami (recently she alternated between Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle and Tiny Fey’s Bossypants, which she read “sitting on a lounger on the beach with tears running under my sunglasses”) and her work has taken her to Burma (she was so nervous interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi there for DID that she forgot to ask her the format’s final question: Which of the eight tracks would she take to the island?). But she’s the rare celebrity whose claim to being a homebody – one who spends most of her free time in the company of cook books by Yotam Ottolenghi and Simon Hopkinson – carries the ring of believability. “Domesticity is a massive part of my life,” she said. “I’m not a particularly creative person, and at home I can create a nice atmosphere and cook good things and have people round the table, and I like that my kids like it. And, of course, as a woman at my stage in life, I’m getting increasingly obsessed by gardening.”

Despite having lived in England for more than 20 years, Kirsty still thinks of herself as an outsider there. When I asked how important being Scottish was to her, she replied, “It’s absolutely at the core of who I am in a way that I probably am not articulate enough to express. I think a massive part is the humour, and there’s often a little dialogue in my head that’s the Scottish version of what’s going on in the world.” (She failed to make it through a story involving a woman standing in a queue and the words “cannae” and “swally” without dissolving into laughter.) She continued, “You know, I’ve been to 10 Downing Street, I’ve been to Buckingham Palace, I’ve been to Chequers. But when my husband and I moved out of London, people said, ‘You’re moving out of London?’ And I said, ‘I’m a foreigner; it doesn’t matter to me where I live in England. If I’m not in Scotland, I’m in a foreign place, so I’d rather be in foreign place with a nice back garden than one where I’m looking at a lot of concrete.

Kirsty is wearing a cashmere jumper and wool coat, both by BALLY.

“With DID, I’ve probably had a kind of stock cube of human experience,” Kirsty said. Taping had finished, it was a sunny afternoon, and we were drinking mint tea at Little House Mayfair, one of her husband’s clubs. DID is a kind of anthropological survey, a decades-long inquiry into the human condition, at least as experienced by those who have confronted it particularly successfully. I asked Kirsty what her takeaway was from eight years of vicarious introspection. “That very intimate friendships sustain people through the very worst bits of their life,” she answered, her voice growing serious. “That it is much more the norm than we think to fall apart at some point in your life. My grandmother used to make us laugh like drains when she would say, in a very Scottish way, ‘They’re no happy for aw their money.’ It was, ‘Yeah, let’s placate the masses with that thought, Grandma’ – but she was right. You meet people who have everything, and beyond everything. They’ll be in Portofino, and they’re miserable.” She paused for a moment. “You know what’s interesting, actually? I’ve learned a lot about class, and my own preconceptions about class. I’ve met incredibly privileged people – you know, products of great wealth who’ve been educated at the finest schools, whose path in life has been smoothed in so many ways that I suppose, in my earlier life, I would’ve thought: What could I learn from somebody like that?”

Listen to Kirsty for long on the radio and you’ll notice that she’s unfailingly interested in the first stirrings of success. She’s forever wanting to know when a guest had the earliest inkling that he or she might be destined to become someone distinguished. “I hope it’s not hackneyed when I ask people that, but it comes out of a very old-fashioned belief that so much of what happens to us has been laid down early on,” she said. To her mind, it’s the “grit in the oyster” – the hard, formative thing – that often determines character. I asked her if she applied that theory to herself. “You know, I’ve spoken to my sister a bit about this, and I’ve said to her that I would like to think this isn’t the case, because it’s too obvious and really simplistic, but I can’t help thinking how when I was younger I was a bit of a show-off. I think that there was probably a bit of me saying ‘I’m here, I exist!’ because my parents broke up when I was just three weeks old. I’ve never been in psychoanalysis, but I can’t imagine that if I did sit down I wouldn’t have an aha moment where I was like, ‘Shit, OK.’” She added, “That’s an unpleasant thought for me, but if I apply the same rigour to try to find out what got me to start doing what I did as I apply to Discs guests, then that’s going to be one of my conclusions.”

Listen to her for long in person and you’ll notice that she’s an unusually generous interlocutor (after the recorder goes off, she burns the better part of another hour talking about her favourite restaurant – the River Café – and the irresolvable dilemma of how, and when, to have both work and children). Kirsty and the DID team keep a running list of potential guests, but she has veto power, more or less, over who comes on. Her favourite categories of castaway include scientists (“because it’s really far away from where I am in my head”) and people like George Michael or Dustin Hoffman “who’ve been through the white heat of fame a long time ago.” (“The three marriages are behind them,” she elaborates, “and they’ve kind of made up with their kids, and, whatever it is, they have perspective.”) In the spirit of compiling lists, I asked her to name her desert-island Desert Island interviewees. She would only admit that one of her favourites had been Zadie Smith. “It’s tricky when you meet someone you admire,” she said. “It’s a loaded situation, because you’re invested in it; you care too much. But she was one of the most affable, engaged, thoughtful, in-the-moment people I’ve ever interviewed.” I knew what she meant.