Dame Esther Rantzen: I wouldn’t be pretty enough to make it now

Esther Rantzen and Lauren LaverneImage copyright
BBC/Amanda Benson

Dame Esther Rantzen has said her broadcasting career would not be as successful if she joined the industry now as a young woman because she would not be “pretty enough”.

The former That’s Life! presenter and producer, 78, was a trailblazer for female broadcasters.

The TV series, which began in 1973, regularly attracted 20 million viewers.

Dame Esther told BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs she was “very lucky” to have launched her career when she did.

“A few generations earlier, I don’t think I could have done it,” she told presenter Lauren Laverne.

“A few generations later, I wasn’t nearly pretty enough.”

She said it was “taken for granted” earlier in her career that she would not be promoted because of her sex.

After getting her job on That’s Life! she said she was conscious that “women weren’t given this responsibility before”.

“I was aware that if I didn’t do a job well, preferably better than a man would, then I would make it much harder for the next generation of women,” she said.

The BBC One TV series featured light-hearted items alongside serious investigations, including reports on child abuse.

Image caption

Dame Esther with fellow That’s Life! presenters Howard Leader, Kevin Devine, and Gavin Campbell in 1993

In 1986 Dame Esther set up Childline – a charity offering support to young people.

She told Desert Island Discs the need for the counselling service – which has helped nearly five million children – is as great today as ever.

When it started calls were mainly about “horrible things people were doing to children, physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, bullying”, she said.

“Now so much of it is about unhappiness, anxiety, self-harm, eating disorders. And bullying has changed and become cyber bullying that you can’t escape from.”

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Dame Esther also spoke about the sexual abuse she suffered as a teenager, which she revealed for the first time in 2011.

Speaking about her abuser she said: “I can see him to this day. He used to call me ‘bright eyes’. He had one of these creepy smiles and he took me out to buy me a present.

“He found a way of getting me alone and he sexually abused me, not the most serious assault but still horrible.”

However, she said her “lovely” mother “didn’t really believe me” when she told her about the abuse.

“My mum, like many parents, cared about the social circle she moved in, cared about not making problems, and in a way wanted me to carry on meeting him and I said, ‘Under no circumstance.'”

She did not speak publicly about the abuse until long after she founded Childline.

“Whether I blocked it or whether I chose to forget it, is that the same thing maybe?

“It really didn’t occur to me, even after we set up Childline, even after those children were talking to me about terrible things that had happened to them. But then someone asked me the question and the answer was, ‘Yes I have been.'”

Dame Esther also set up The Silverline helpline for older people in 2013, after writing about loneliness following the death of her husband in 2000.

Speaking about her marriage to Desmond Wilcox, who was married to someone else when they began their relationship, she said: “Our marriage lasted and we have three wonderful children so I don’t regret it.

“But I wish it had happened differently.”

Desert Island Discs is on BBC Sounds and BBC Radio 4 on Sunday at 11:15 BST.