NewnhamWrites … Gossip Girl
Not in the least bit shy to voice her opinion, Celia Walden (NC1995) on life as a gossip columnist, babysitting footballer, George Best and marriage to a certain TV personality. And just why she didn’t warm to her childhood hero, David Attenborough.
Celia Walden is an author, journalist and columnist for the Daily Telegraph who also writes for Glamour magazine, GQ, Elle, Porter Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar, Net-a-Porter’s The Edit, Standpoint, The Spectator, Russian Vogue and Point de Vue in France – and is a regular contributor to ITV’s Lorraine. She began her journalism career at publications including the Evening Standard and Daily Mail. Born and raised in Paris, Celia has a degree in French and Italian Literature from Cambridge, is fluent in French, Italian and Russian and known for her articles, opinions and commentaries on women’s issues, social etiquette, health, beauty, cars and fashion – as well as her wry views on the vagaries of modern life.
Her first book, Harm’s Way – described by Grazia as “a subtle, sensual, absorbing tale” and the Observer as a “gripping debut” – was published in 2008 and translated into four languages and her second book, Babysitting George, was BBC Radio 4’s Book of the Week and nominated for the William Hill 2011 Sportsbook of the Year prize.
Having spent the last five years living and working in LA, she, her husband, Piers Morgan, and daughter now divide their time between LA and London.
What made you decide to become a journalist?
I wrote a couple of features for the Evening Standard shortly after leaving Newnham and loved it. I always knew I wanted to write, but it took a while to realize that opinion columns and interviewing was the area I wanted to be in.
You moved into celebrity gossip, editing The Telegraph’s Spy column. Why did you do it? Wasn’t it knackering after a while, hitting all those parties? What were the highs, the lows?
Talk about a baptism by fire. Gossip columns look so easy and frivolous but going up to famous people and politicians, cold, and asking them a (fairly provocative) question remains one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Some would tell you to f*ck off (thanks Peter Mandelson), others would tell you some wonderfully scandalous anecdote (too many to list), but after that nothing was daunting. That said, it turns out that subsisting entirely off canapés and champagne (sparkling wine once the hospitality industry imploded) actually does get boring. All it takes is a chance sighting of a vol-au-vent now and I come out in hives …
In 2003 one of your first reporting assignments was to babysit George Best in Malta to ensure he didn’t unwittingly give a scoop to a rival newspaper. You subsequently wrote a book about your experience, Babysitting George, charting his drunken decline and the people that floated in and out of his life. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently during your time with him? Was writing the book cathartic? At the time of writing it, did you think of it as a treatise on celebrity culture?
As weird as it was at the time to find yourself shacked up with one of the most famous sportsmen of all time, appearing in the tabloids as his “mystery blonde” and witnessing first hand what was basically an extended suicide, the experience did give me this extraordinary glimpse into both celebrity and addiction – and I’m grateful for that. As for what I would have done differently, well, like so many who even spent half an hour with the man, I would have loved to ‘save’ George, but of course that was impossible by then. I always thought I’d write about it but it took a good few years for me to feel ready to revisit it. And when I eventually did, it did feel cathartic, but I wasn’t prepared for the reaction to the book. People don’t like to see their idols torn down, and some people thought that was what I did, even though in my eyes at least, there was a lot of tenderness there.
Why did you transition away from gossip?
Gossip was really just a way in, a way of honing my chops. And I don’t regret doing it but five years might have been a little too long …
What do you think of celebrity journalism? Has it gone too far?
I think it’s very simple: either you sell your soul to the devil, or you don’t. So if you sell your wedding, your child’s christening, your family holidays or your privacy on social media by posting pictures of yourself semi-naked on a Sunday morning, then you’ve opened the door. If, however, you do none of those things, then you are absolutely entitled to your privacy. I’ve seen some of the biggest stars on the planet – Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder –wandering down the street in LA or quietly drinking a cup of coffee. They’ve never bought into all that, and they’re not being hounded.
You’ve written about keeping your daughter away from social media for as long as possible. But how do you marry that with a husband (Piers Morgan) who’s a constant on social media?
How do you marry that? is the question, isn’t it? Well I married Piers but I couldn’t be more divorced from some of his habits – namely the Tweeting. He’ll say I’m just as bad on eBay, but of course I’m not bidding on handbags while we’re having supper. Social media will have developed so much by the time my daughter’s a teenager (she’s only four and I’m secretly hoping fatigue will have set in by then) so of course it’ll be unavoidable in terms of getting news, etc., but I think living your life out in public the way teenagers do, and the pretence of this perfect life is deeply damaging – particularly for girls, or anyone with a little sensitivity. All I can do is make her aware of the dangers, I suppose?
Speaking of your husband, he is opinionated and a bit like Marmite. How do you deal with the public perception of him and the person you’re married to?
I remember on our first date a man coming over to our restaurant table and announcing himself with the words: ‘I’ve always thought you were a total w**ker.’ Funny thing about TV personalities: people feel they’re allowed to say whatever they like either to Piers’ face or to me. And I’m clearly not going to agree on account of the fact I’m married to him. People often ask: ‘What’s Piers like behind all that bravado?’ And I’ll say, ‘I’m afraid there’s just still more bravado.’ The man doesn’t have an insecure bone in his body and let me tell you that’s a joy to live with.
Who’s your favourite interviewee and your worst and why?
David Attenborough was one of the must unpleasant people I’ve ever interviewed. Sorry! I asked him which is the one moment he would relive if he could – in terms of the sighting that touched him beyond all others, and he replied, ‘That’s the kind of question a child would ask.’ And yet I noticed he answered the same question quite cheerily on TV a few months later (it was the moment he first saw the Bird of Paradise, apparently). I know he’s a national treasure and all that but I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. Maybe he was having a bad day.
Barbra Streisand was one of my favourites. What a dame: clever, funny and warm. She even took me downstairs to where she keeps her huge doll collection. I was pregnant when I interviewed her and as it turns out people tell pregnant women everything!
You split your time between London and LA. What are the things you love about LA and dislike? Where is home?
Home sometimes seems to be LAX, which is where I spend an unhealthy amount of time, but I basically don’t spend more than six weeks in either London or LA at a time. I like to keep both cities on their toes. What I love about LA is the can-do attitude. Everything is possible – if you’re paying for it. And the lack of cynicism. Cynicism is so boring, so adolescent, and it hits you in the face the second you’re back in Britain.
You’ve also written a novel – Harm’s Way. What prompted you to write it? Are you working on another story?
Living in Paris was what prompted me to write it, and reading it now is difficult. Harm’s Way feels personal in the way that a first novel probably always does. It’s like looking at an old photo of yourself: you’re embarrassed because you can see what you were trying to be before you were fully formed. There’s so much I would do differently, but as a writer you can only keep writing (and keep reading) and learn as you go. I’m trying to finish my third book, but writing books was quicker before having a child. Who knew? I plan to have it finished next year. It’s set in Hollywood, because I felt like it would have been such a waste of the past five years in LA not to write about the curious universe I’ve been living in.
Talk about your experience at Newnham? Did you get pooled or did you apply there? What was the most defining memory of the place?
I applied. I came and saw the gardens and couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than lazing around, semi-revising, in those all year. And also because I was at Westminster, a boy’s school before, and I have two older brothers, so a little break from men didn’t seem like such a bad thing … And for anyone worried about the lack of men, there generally seemed to be more men around than in any other college.
As for my defining memory, I think rampaging around the college kitchens in the middle of the night, hopped up on very bad white wine, and stealing other people’s carefully tupperwared food is pretty high up there. Yes, it was me.
What springs to mind when you think of Newnham?
The thing that springs to mind is ‘peace’ I think. It felt like a real haven away from the frantic pace of the rest of Cambridge somehow …
NewnhamWrites will resume in the New Year. Wishing you all the best for Christmas and the New Year. Amna x