In the middle of our interview Ulrika Jonsson’s phone rings. She looks at it, puzzled, before switching it off. “Nobody ever calls me,” she says matter-of-factly.
Nobody ever calls you? But you’re Ulrika. Or as they used to call you in Shooting Stars, Ulri-ka-ka-ka. You were one of Britain’s highest-paid TV personalities, a Swedish sweetheart-next-door whose fresh-faced flirtatiousness and willingness to laugh at yourself was worth £2 million a year in presenting contracts. Among the men spinning in and out of your very public private life were a prince, a gladiator, a footballer and an England football manager. When did the phone stop ringing? Are you living the quiet life now?
“I have always had a quiet life,” she says. “My professional life has always been busy but I haven’t lived in London, I am not part of any showbusiness scene. For me it has always been countryside, dogs, children, cooking. That has always been what my life is about.”
This is not exactly true. Jonsson may have been a country girl but that didn’t stop her from an energetic life off camera that is exhausting just to recall. From the moment she was promoted in 1989 from her secretarial duties at TV-am to become the nation’s favourite weathergirl, Jonsson has made noisy headlines.
In the early days there was a “bit of slap and tickle” with Prince Edward. She married John Turnbull, a cameraman, with whom she has a son, Cameron, 21, but while presenting Gladiators she had a fling with one of the show’s cameramen, then with one of its stars, James Crossley, aka Hunter.
A relationship with the footballer Stan Collymore ended after he beat her up in a Paris bar during the 1998 World Cup. Jonsson had a daughter, Bo, now 15, from a relationship with Markus Kempen, a German hotel manager who left her almost immediately.
It was revealed in 2002 that she had been having an affair for several months with Sven-Göran Eriksson, the England football manager, who was simultaneously in a long-term relationship with Nancy Dell’Olio. Jonsson said later: “Sex with Sven was as ordered and functional as an Ikea instruction manual” and claimed she would probably have enjoyed more satisfaction putting together a Billy bookcase.
She met her second husband, Lance Gerrard-Wright, while hosting a show, Mr Right, in which he was supposed to find a girlfriend among 15 attractive hopefuls. He was more interested in Jonsson; they were married for two years and had a daughter, Martha, now 11.
Jonsson’s 2002 autobiography, Honest, caused a furore with its disclosure that she had been raped early in her career by an anonymous television presenter. The Blue Peter presenter John Leslie was named on television as the alleged perpetrator but he strenuously denied any wrongdoing and Jonsson has always refused to identify her attacker. Charges against Leslie for indecently assaulting another woman who had come forward were dropped, but his career was ruined.
In 2008 Jonsson married her third husband, Brian Monet, an American advertising executive who had no idea of her fame when he met her. They had a son, Malcolm, now seven, and last year Monet adopted Bo, who was born with a heart defect that still requires medication and regular check-ups.
The work front has been quiet recently. Shooting Stars, her regular gig for many years, in which she was the whipping girl for the comedians Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, ended in 2011, the same year that she published her debut novel, which was widely unacclaimed.
Jonsson is 48. So is this a case of another woman over 40 struggling to find TV work? “I have never felt threatened by younger people,” she says. “I feel energised by young people. But it is harder as you get older.”
Partly this is because the media world isn’t only about celebrities and TV presenters and actors. “The world is about people who are not known but are on the internet and are becoming famous. It appears to be sadly a fact of life that for women it does often get harder as you get older.”
A few years ago a colleague of mine who interviewed Jonsson found her looking drawn and alarmingly thin. She was suffering from a degenerative back problem. Today she looks much better but the back condition, by its very nature, “is not going to get better. And I have arthritis in my hips as well.”
She still wants to work in television “if the right thing came along for me. But I don’t know what the right thing would be, to be honest, because TV has changed so much.” She has always been a keen cook. “That’s an oversaturated market,” she says. I’m pretty sure there would still be an audience for At Home With Ulrika, in which she teaches us her meatball recipe and serves heartwarming nosh to minor celebrities. Although she keeps in touch with Reeves and Mortimer (she filmed some sketches for their planned tour before it was delayed by Mortimer’s triple heart bypass operation), she doesn’t hang out with slebs.
The main reason we don’t see her on television these days, she says, is the busyness of family life. “I am very content being a mum. Although they are at school, now is the time that the children really need me. They need to be guided and I feel that being there is of utmost importance.”
Cameron is at university and she lives with Monet and the three younger children in Oxfordshire. Martha has a “great relationship” with her father, Gerrard-Wright, as does Jonsson.
“I don’t think it is particularly different from many other households,” she says of her domestic situation. “It’s just modern life. My life hasn’t been chaotic or crazy. Everyone has an idea of what they think my domestic set-up is and it has never been anything like that. And for my children it has been very calm and normal and more secure than many households where the parents are married and they are living in their little nuclear families.”
Over the years people have written some pretty unkind things about Jonsson and she was given the derogatory nickname “4×4” because she has four children by four fathers. She points out that since Bo was adopted by Monet that nickname no longer applies, but in any case it never bothered her.
“I am aghast when people say certain things but people are perfectly entitled to their opinion and the 4×4 thing was a fact until very recently. I wasn’t hurt or injured by that in the slightest, genuinely. I have four children by four men but that doesn’t necessarily make me a bad person. All my children live with me, I bring them up, I am responsible for them.”
She has emerged from the cocoon of family life to get involved in a project “very close to my heart”: a campaign to promote online safety for children. Internet Matters is encouraging parents to take Christmas present tablet computers and phones out of their packaging and turn on the safety features before handing them over on Christmas Day. She also demonstrates CyberSense, an educational app that parents and children can play together that highlights how to use the internet safely.
A year ago Martha admitted that she had given her name to somebody she had met online. “She said she only did it because the boy said — and it may have been a boy — he was very lonely and wanted to make friends because his mum has cancer.” Jonsson was suspicious but they were unable to establish if the boy was genuine.
“She was so distressed that she couldn’t tell me for about a week and she was in floods of tears and terrified that I was going to be very cross. So some part of the message [about not giving out your name] had got through but like we all do when we are told not to break a rule you push it a bit.”
Bo is at the “roll-her-eyes-and-tut” stage and removes Jonsson’s cheery comments from her social media posts. “You’re such a downer,” says Jonsson, impersonating her daughter. Jonsson tries to impose 20-minute screen limits, but admits to letting them slip to 40 minutes. Sometimes she imposes digital “detox” breaks of up to a week.
Her own childhood was complicated. She grew up in Sweden but her mother left when Jonsson was eight and she had to fend for herself a great deal. Her father worked long hours and brought lots of women back to the house. Jonsson came to Britain to live with her mother when she was 12 but has spoken of having problems with abandonment.
As well as being a womaniser, her father had a library of pornography. Some years ago Jonsson talked to her son about pornography, but she discovered later that he still looked at it. “I felt sad that my message hadn’t got through, but then just like you say, ‘Don’t drink when you go to parties,’ they will always have that first time when they get drunk, puke or whatever. He seems perfectly well adjusted.”
Was she particularly concerned about pornography because of her father’s interest? “Oh, God no. Not at all. Maybe with my father it was a generational thing that they used to go and buy pornography.”
She describes herself as a helicopter parent and I wonder if her childhood made her that way. “My childhood was normal for me, as everyone’s childhood is. It’s not until you are older and you think, ‘Gosh, it’s quite unusual to have your parents living in different countries.’ ”
She traces her abundantly cautious approach to child rearing to Bo’s heart defect. “It has always made me feel that life is very vulnerable. Maybe I overprotect in some respects but that’s why I have a fabulous husband who says, ‘Let them do this.’ But I have to try to be brave and let them do things that I wouldn’t necessarily want them to.”
As far as cyberspace and children are concerned, “we are worked up about the unknown”. She limits her own social media engagement to Instagram, sharing pictures of her children and dogs with family in Sweden. “The kids say: ‘Mummy, you love the dogs more than you love us.’ I say: ‘No I don’t.’ I have to lie sometimes.”
Her children laugh at her because she has only 12 followers. I’ll follow you, I say as we wrap up. But apparently there is only so much Jonsson is prepared to share. “Yeah, good luck with that,” she says as she heads off to have her photograph taken. “I’m a private user.”