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Interview: Celia Walden

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Celia Walden lives behind the big navy blue door of a very impressive house in Holland Park, the exclusive area of London that’s home to multimillionaires such as Richard Branson and Simon Cowell. It’s a four-storey house – the sort that I could never dream to own on a journalist’s salary – unless I also authored a couple of books, became a regular fixture on morning television (for Daybreak) and married one of the highest-paid journalists in the world – namely Piers Morgan.

As much a surprise to herself as anybody, the woman who made her name as a celebrity gossip columnist gathering scoops about the rich and famous at star-studded parties for The Daily Telegraph from 2004 – she still writes for them and other high-profile publications – has become almost as well-known as some of the famed names she interviews. Celia has no qualms in admitting that her profile has been bolstered in part by her relationship with Piers and the A-list lifestyle that goes with it but she’s no WAG; Celia has her own impressive career in journalism and is about to release her second book, Babysitting George, which is published next week.

A memoir about Celia’s time with George Best (‘babysitting’ being a journalistic term for effectively minding a celebrity and preventing them from selling their story to a rival newspaper), it covers a pre-Piers period in 2003 when she was sent out to Malta by the Mail On Sunday for three months to accompany the footballer at the height of his alcoholism. Both sad and astounding, the tale is a testament to her talents as a writer and a journalist.

Knowing that Celia is privy to all the tricks of the journalism trade, interviewing her is slightly unnerving but instead of expertly tiptoeing around my questions, Celia offers colourful and frank anecdotes (there is even one point where she asks me if there is anything juicier she can give me). Making me comfortable in her living room, we talk through everything from the books on her shelves to her career ambitions and “very weird” first year of marriage. Owing to the fact that Piers has relocated to Los Angeles to fulfil a reported $25million contract anchoring his own CNN show and judging America’s Got Talent, the couple have been long distance for the last 12 months. But, as she reveals, that’s all about to change this July, when Celia heads out to join him permanently…

Let’s start with the book – how old were you when you were sent out to ‘babysit’ George Best?

I was 25 and a rookie journalist and had absolutely no knowledge of what ‘babysitting’ was. The red tops still do it – send people out to make sure mistresses and whistleblowers selling their stories to them don’t talk to any other press. George was the weekly columnist for the Mail On Sunday so everyone was really interested in him, and obviously there was this huge soap opera with the liver transplant and his wife leaving him. He started boozing again that summer and that’s why I was sent out because he was a total liability. He was at the stage where he didn’t care and would speak to anyone standing beside him at the bar really.

When you came away, did you have any sort of affection for him?

I think I found it sad that such an intelligent man had just been completely eaten up by his celebrity. I’ve never met a footballer since who has been as remotely clever as him. He read Hemingway and Oscar Wilde, not what you would expect. What I found interesting was how you can become addicted to celebrity – he kept saying that he wanted to be left alone but then he would do things that would suggest that he didn’t. Now you see all these car crashes like Charlie Sheen and they’re the same kind of thing. I think I hoped that he would change but I think he had decided that was his future well before I met him.

What I found interesting was how you can become addicted to celebrity. Now you see all these car crashes like Charlie Sheen and they’re the same kind of thing

You moved on to the gossip column Spy at The Daily Telegraph for four years. Did the lifestyle take its toll?

The lifestyle was crazy. During that time the only things in my fridge were miniature bottles of vodka and truffles that you got in goody bags. You think your friends will love going places with you and at first they do, but then after a while they’re not bothered about meeting Mariah Carey, they just want to go to the pub. It’s quite a lonely existence really.

It feels odd to be interviewing a journalist. Does it feel odd to be an interviewee?

Yes absolutely, it really does. And I think I’m about to realise that although you know all the ruses to use when interviewing people, it doesn’t mean you won’t fall into the traps yourself!

We interviewed Piers once and he was rather helpful in giving us the anecdotes we were after…

[Laughs] I can imagine. Yes, Piers is good like that. And Simon Cowell is also good. They know what a journalist is after and try to give them what they need, which I think is very professional.

As a journalist, do you see press intrusion into your life as fair game?

I don’t think you can whinge about it. When we first started going out quite a few people would come up and say, “You’re a wanker mate,” and that was a bit like, “Woah! How often does that happen?” But I think if you’re with someone who’s well known there’s always going to be a certain amount of bad stuff. With someone like Piers you inherit quite a few of their enemies [laughs].

Do you find it easy to laugh along with the public caricature of Piers as something of a pantomime villain?

I don’t do it so much but the great thing with Piers is that he’s so thickskinned. He sort of enjoys feuds – there’s him and [Jeremy] Clarkson, who I’m actually friends with, and his bromance with Alan Sugar on Twitter… We laugh about the fact that everybody makes him out to be awful and me out be wonderful in comparison to him – they say things like “His poor, lovely wife,” which is quite funny.

Has his success in America affected the power balance in the relationship?

You know it has a little bit. Let me think of an example… I quite often get emails from his PA instead of him asking whether I’m around on a certain date. It’s “Celia, what are your plans for this evening?” And I’m like, “Jesus, I don’t even have the luxury of a direct line to my husband anymore.” It’s ridiculous.

You said earlier that it has been a “very weird” first year of marriage. Did you have certain expectations?

We’d literally just got back from our honeymoon when Piers got offered the job in America and I think the last thing any new bride expects is for her husband to be like, “See ya!” I did feel a bit conned, especially because I’ve been home on my own and every time I turn on the telly I’ve got his mug staring back at me. This last year has definitely felt testing, not of the strength of our relationship, but in the sense that it’s just felt wrong for both of us. It’s been a bit of an unnecessary hurdle really.

When did you make the decision to finally move to LA?

It was getting to the point where the time difference was a problem. The only time Piers is able to call me is first thing in the morning in LA, which is the evening in the UK and we’re often in different frames of minds; he’ll have just woken up and I’ll be in the pub after work. We’ll do that thing where we’re both really polite and going, “No sorry, you go first.”

I quite often get emails from his PA instead of him asking whether I’m around on a certain date. I’m like, Jesus, I don’t even have the luxury of a direct line to my husband anymore. It’s ridiculous.

Were there any other classic signs that you’d reached breaking point?

Yes, Slingbox [laughs]. It’s this thing that lets Piers beam programmes on our TV to his laptop. He gets very homesick for British TV, so if you want to watch EastEnders you just log in and start watching. But neither of us realised that if I’m watching something it will change to what he’s watching. So we started having these little wrangles where I’d be watching America’s Next Top Model and he’d switch it to BBC Parliament. One night it occurred to me this was the closest I was getting to being with my husband.

Will you have to compromise your own career to be with him?

People immediately assume you’re going to drop everything but I’m going to be able to carry on working for the Telegraph over there, which is great, and there have been various offers of TV work and magazine jobs. I think it’ll be fine.

It’s a modern malady, to contend with a long-distance marriage…

It is. And I think it’s difficult nowadays because people get married so late. Women have been independent all their lives then suddenly they get married and there’s this pressure to do the wifey thing. But I think one mistake women often make is digging their heels in. Marriage is about the fact you can’t be completely selfish and I think I’m going to enjoy being a bit of a Stepford wife in some ways. It’s so exciting to be part of what Piers is doing too – he’s interviewing all these politicians. I’m so proud of him.

As fellow journalists, how often do you discuss work?

I always tell Piers who I think he should have on his shows and he has always given me great advice. But we can also be competitive. There have been situations where we’ve been interviewing the same person around the same time and we won’t discuss our questions. I won’t tell him about it either because I don’t trust him!

Are you saying that your husband would steal your material?

Yes, exactly. If someone tells me something quite juicy I won’t tell him because he’ll probably put it in his own interview and ruin things for me. He can get quite jealous as well… The other day I told him I was interviewing Cheryl [Cole] for the Telegraph, and he was very frustrated that I’d got her.

There has been a Brit invasion in LA recently. It must be nice to know you have friends out there already?

It is. Piers has been living in a hotel since he’s been out there so we’ve had a few cocktail parties on his balcony – there was one where Cheryl and Derek [Hough] came along. But Piers is always meeting new friends. The other day he rang me and asked if we could invite Lindsay Lohan round for tea. You find yourself in these surreal positions. The other week I had Annette Bening going on at me to get pregnant. She was telling me how she’d give up work tomorrow for her kids.

If someone tells me something quite juicy I won't tell Piers because he'll probably put it in his own interview

Would you like children?

Yes definitely, Piers wants millions. And the great thing about being with someone who has kids is you know they’re going to be a wonderful father.

How do you like to spend a weekend together when you’re not working?

We like going for dinner, and we’re both very into wine. I’m slightly more cultured than Piers and always try and take him to as many exhibitions as possible, which his mum likes because she paints. My mother restored paintings so I love picking up pieces from markets, and at home we read – at the moment it’s Esther Freud’s new novel but I grew up in France so I read a lot of books in French. Piers is more into biographies but they’re not allowed on my book shelves!

Who is work more important to?

I think both of us are equally into our careers, which is good, because I don’t think you could understand why your partner is answering an email at midnight if you aren’t. Piers is more driven than me, and he’s very good at pushing for what he’s worth when it comes to pay and position. He’s always telling me off when it comes to things like that, but I think it’s hard for women to be as single-minded as men about that kind of stuff. We have other stuff to juggle, like babies, and I think we’re still playing catch-up in terms of salary.

What’s in your career plan?

All sorts of things. I’ve never really had a plan. I’m glad I did the gossip columnist thing because it put me in a position where I had to make a habit of going up to celebrities and asking outrageous questions. You get very used to them telling you to f**k off, and once you’ve experienced that nothing else is quite as daunting!

Did your father [George Walden, a Conservative Minister for Education and a part-time journalist] approve of your foray into celebrity journalism?

I do always wonder if he was faintly horrified actually. I don’t think it’s what he had in mind for me when I was at Cambridge University [Celia studied French and Italian Literature in 1999]. I also remember a time a few years back when I did a photo shoot for GQ in Agent Provocateur lingerie – that’s how I met Piers – and he just flicked through it silently. But you know, I think he finds it funny now. He’s been a mentor to me.

Will you write more books?

Yes I think Piers and I both will. We enjoy writing at the same time. When I was writing Babysitting George and Piers was writing his book about his time in the US, we were in the Maldives… We were writing these books outside a little beach hut we’d rented. We loved it but to everyone else it must have looked bizarre. There were probably people lounging on the beach thinking, “My god, those two must have really s**t holidays.”

Babysitting George by Celia Walden is out 23 May (£16.99, Bloomsbury)

See Celia talk about her experiences with George Best and explain why she chose to write the book in this YouTube video from Bloomsbury, publishers of Babysitting George:

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