Kay Burley has been back at work for only a week after what she calls her ‘hiatus’ — the six-month suspension imposed by her employers, Sky News, for breaching Covid rules — when we meet at her Kensington flat for our chat. Already she’s hitting her stride.
Newly returned from Cornwall, after reporting on the G7 summit from a blustery St Ives harbour, she is, she says, delighted once again to be holding cabinet ministers to account on her morning TV show.
She quizzed Dominic Raab about a travel corridor between the UK and the U.S. — not something that would be ‘happening imminently’, said the Foreign Secretary — then cheekily asked him if he’d be emulating the PM by taking a dip in the sea in Speedos.
‘Actually, off-air, he said he had no interest in swimming in his budgie smugglers,’ says Kay. ‘He’s a very handsome man, isn’t he? Smooth as butter that’s been left out of the fridge. I also find Jeremy Hunt, another former Foreign Secretary, captivating.’
Hmm. What is it about Kay and Foreign Secretaries? ‘Oh, I think it’s just men in powerful positions. Are they powerful because they’re captivating or is it the other way round?’
Newly returned from Cornwall, after reporting on the G7 summit from a blustery St Ives harbour, Kay Burley is, she says, delighted once again to be holding cabinet ministers to account on her morning TV show
In the interests of balance, perhaps, she adds she also finds Manchester’s Labour Mayor Andy Burnham ‘equally captivating’.
‘He has the longest eyelashes I’ve ever seen. I count him as a friend and he and his wife have been to my house for Christmas’.
Does she mind you flirting with her husband? ‘Oh, I hope she sees it as a compliment about how handsome he is,’ says Kay, who is now enumerating the other politicians on her ‘hot list’.
‘In real life, Gordon Brown is very Heathcliff-esque. Sadly, he couldn’t break through the veneer of the TV screen.’
So shall we put him on the list? ‘Yes! Let’s. My taste is eclectic. I also think President Macron is immaculate. I saw a photo of him and [Canadian PM] Justin Trudeau — did you know he can do one-handed press-ups? — among the Bougainvillea at a previous G7 summit. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.’
Boris Johnson does not feature on Kay’s list. ‘Of course, he’s funny, charismatic and entertaining, but I think he reminds me of an over-stuffed teddy bear.’
Early career (from left): TV-am’s Trish Williamson, Gordon Honeycombe, Caroline Righton, Kay Burley, Richard Keys and Lizzie Webb in the 1980s
Off-screen, Kay is fun, warm, approachable; a very different persona from the crisply informed one we see on her eponymous breakfast show on Sky News each morning. Since she joined the channel, one of its founding presenters, from TV-am in 1988, she’s notched up more live TV hours than any other host.
She’d been presenting her morning show for little over a year when, in December, she was photographed by a paparazzo infringing Tier 2 Covid rules with her 60th birthday celebration.
She and eight colleagues and friends dined at a London restaurant, sitting at tables of four and six, before Kay ‘inadvertently’ broke the rules later in the evening as she ‘briefly popped into another restaurant to spend a penny while waiting for a taxi home’.
She has never addressed the accusation that four friends then joined her at her London flat, and she declines to do so today. Nor will she comment on claims that disgruntled junior staffers at Sky, overhearing her making her birthday plans, quietly tipped off the Press.
In an exclusive first interview since her suspension, she says: ‘I thought I was Covid-compliant. I wasn’t. I made a mistake.
‘I was an idiot and I let myself and my viewers down. I’m sorry for what I did and for any heartache I caused the loyal friends with me at the time. I was appropriately sanctioned.’ She was taken off-air for six months on full pay and resumed her job on June 7, when, sharply dressed in a powder-blue trouser suit, her only allusion to her absence was a crisp one-liner: ‘It’s great to be back.’
‘I paid for my mistake; quite rightly, too,’ she says now. ‘My viewers told me how frustrated they were with me and they were right to do so. With time, the mood music changed and my viewers wanted me back.’
She has never addressed the accusation that four friends then joined her at her London flat, and she declines to do so today. Pictured, Burley with friends on her birthday
During her period off the air she volunteered, unobtrusively, at a food bank in Harrow.
‘We fed 15,000 people a week. I was incredibly busy.’ She also did a four-month stint at a vaccine hub.
She was rarely recognised, wearing ‘sweat pants and a high-vis jacket, with no make-up on and grey roots showing.’ Although at the vaccine centre one elderly lady did look at her quizzically and declare: ‘You look just like Kay Burley.’ To which she replied: ‘How very reassuring.’
I ask if the volunteering was a form of atonement. ‘It was a way of keeping my brain busy,’ she says.
‘I’ve been working since I was 17 and I knew I could only do so many paint-by-numbers animals at home.’ Seriously? ‘I did a fantastic lion. It’s there on the wall!’ She shows me.
She did not advertise her presence at the food bank, but a video found its way on to Facebook and then on to newspaper front pages, ‘which actually turned out to be helpful’. Donations followed; the food bank became better known.
She made new friends among the volunteers and when I call her to fix our chat, she’s throwing a barbecue for them.
It’s all a counter to the claims that in her professional life she can be grand and imperious.
‘At the vaccine hub one job was to help 80-year-olds reverse-park in the snow. It was one of life’s challenges I never thought I’d experience,’ she laughs.
Today she greets me in stockinged feet, in a chic, cherry red Michael Kors dress she wore for her morning show. She’s tiny, her face (lifted ten years ago) still as unlined as a laundered sheet. We settle on to bar stools by an open window which looks out on to a leafy square.
Princess Diana’s (pictured) death, the September 11 attacks, the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla: Kay was there for all of them, charting the events that have made history. I wonder what she’d have asked if she’d been Oprah, interviewing Harry and Meghan
This is Kay’s Central London pied-a-terre. She has two other homes: the Arts and Crafts house in Harrow where she raised her son, Alexander, 28, which she’s steeling herself to sell, and a modern lakeside house in the Cotswolds. ‘A great party house,’ she says. Quite something for a girl from a Wigan council estate who left school at 17 to join her local paper. Propelled by ambition, talent and a remorseless work ethic, she has been at the vanguard of world events, covering them for Sky for three decades.
Princess Diana’s death, the September 11 attacks, the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla: Kay was there for all of them, charting the events that have made history. I wonder what she’d have asked if she’d been Oprah, interviewing Harry and Meghan.
‘When Meghan said a member of the Royal Family had asked what colour their baby’s skin would be, I’d have pushed harder on that. I’d have wanted to know the context.
‘What was Harry’s interpretation of the comment? Was the person challenged? It opened the door to speculation about which member of the Royal Family it was.
‘And yes, I’d certainly like to interview Harry and Meghan myself.’
Protocol has never hindered Kay in her quest to speak to the Royals. She’s famous among colleagues, she tells me, for having the audacity to ‘door-step’ the Queen.
She explains how, during the Golden Jubilee in 2002, she secured a coup for Sky. ‘All the broadcasters had been invited to Buckingham Palace and Her Majesty was planning to mingle. Sky was in the first room, the Music Room, and we’d just launched Sky Digital.
‘Our engineers had set up screens with gold leaf frames. All very fabulous. Her Majesty was going to walk through the Music Room then go on to the next room where ITV and BBC were waiting.
‘Her courtiers said she wouldn’t have time to talk to Sky, but I thought: “She certainly will if I can possibly convince her.”
‘So I stood in her eye line, made a deep curtsy and said: “Hello Your Majesty. I believe this is the room where you met Nelson Mandela and Prince William was christened?” She said I was quite right.
Burley is back on Sky News. During Kay’s spell off-air her friend Piers Morgan was ‘kind and supportive’. She, in turn, defends him for storming off the set of Good Morning Britain in a spat with a colleague over his comments about the Duchess of Sussex
‘Then I said: “We have a little demonstration of Sky Digital if you’d like to come and see.” And she said she’d be delighted. Her courtiers were not impressed.’
During Kay’s spell off-air her friend Piers Morgan was ‘kind and supportive’. She, in turn, defends him for storming off the set of Good Morning Britain in a spat with a colleague over his comments about the Duchess of Sussex.
‘He’s a very loyal, decent man and he’s convinced his view of Harry and Meghan is appropriate. He stood up for his beliefs and it’s cost him his job. But whoever bags him next will be very lucky as he will take his audience with him.’
You’d want her in your corner in a fight — I’m certain she’d be a fearless assailant against injustice — but she’s also been called ‘gaffe-prone’. How does she plead?
‘Sure! It’s the risk with live telly. People make mistakes.
‘I always say lawyers lock theirs up, doctors bury theirs and TV presenters broadcast theirs. It’s not the mistake but the way you recover that’s important.’
She admits she was a ‘daft bint’ for commenting that Joe Biden (then U.S. vice-president) looked as if he’d ‘walked into a door’.
In fact, it was Ash Wednesday, and Biden, a devout Catholic, had been to mass where the priest made the sign of the cross in ashes on his forehead, as is customary.
‘I was mortified about that,’ says Kay now. ‘It was stupid. I’m a lapsed Catholic. I should have known better. My dear mother would have turned in her grave.’
She’s voluble on just about everything except her personal life. She’s been married and divorced twice and had her son with her second husband, former football agent Steve Kutner. A long relationship with former political editor turned PR-man George Pascoe-Watson ended in 2009.
‘So what’s sex like now you’re over 60?’ I blurt, trying to wrong-foot her. ‘I’ve no idea!’ she parries, laughing.
She loves a drink and a party (Covid restrictions permitting, of course). She’s been known to dance on tables. ‘Much to my son’s chagrin. He doesn’t drink and is often rolling his eyes and saying: “Oh, Mum!”
‘The other day I said: “Just remember who the adult is in this relationship.” And he replied: “Why don’t you act like it then?” But we have a very strong bond. You couldn’t get a fag-wrapper between us.’
She describes Alexander, who ‘sources and sells classic and supercars for people with lots of money’ as her ‘gatekeeper’, who chases off undesirables.
‘I’ve had stalkers. I’ve had security 24/7 in the past. I was sent a gun in the post when Alexander was little. I was on a jihadi hit-list and when my head of news asked how I felt about that I said: “I’d be devastated if I wasn’t, given the calibre of the people on it.” ’
She’s relentlessly upbeat and energetic, wringing every drop of joy out of life; she says it’s because her mum died of breast cancer when she was just 59.
She gets up at 3.17am every weekday for work, climbs mountains — Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon all in 24 hours — in her spare time and parties like a teenager.
Having had her facelift, she’s always up for other age-defying treatments. ‘It matters to me what I look like,’ she says. ‘It’s always great if you can keep Mother Nature from mugging you off.’
So here she is, still on TV at 60, setting a cracking pace for the younger women who follow in her wake. Like broadcaster Barbara Walters in the U.S., she doesn’t rule out working into her 80s.
And much as she applauds the ‘exciting and challenging’ new GB News (launched last Sunday by her old Sky colleague Andrew Neil) she doesn’t covet a job there and won’t be leaving Sky.
She seems both hedonistic and possessed of iron discipline. She’s intent on losing the 7 lb she put on during lockdown. But she’ll also demolish a family pack of midget gems if she fancies them.
She loves to entertain and is an accomplished cook. Any specialities? ‘Beef Wellington and venison casserole — or ‘Bambi stew as my son unkindly calls it’.
Eton Mess is her go-to dessert. ‘I call it Brexit pudding,’ she says. It’s one of her (rare) political jokes.
‘The UK hasn’t got long to resolve the problem of Northern Ireland before the EU threatens to take us to court,’ she says. ‘It is a mess, isn’t it? Perhaps the boys from Eton can sort it out.’
With that, it’s time to go. As I leap down from my bar stool I almost trample on an elegant ornamental hare which sits serenely on the floor behind me.
‘Oh he’s called Keir,’ says Kay. ‘After Keir Starmer because he sits there quietly and thoughtfully.’
Ah, Keir. Is he on your hot list? Kay smiles. ‘I’ve never actually thought about it,’ she says. ‘So it obviously means he isn’t.’