She was a TV favourite, the original reality show star who seemed never to be off our screens.
But 10 years on from her Changing Rooms heyday, Carol Smillie is beginning to feel frozen out from the industry.
Carol turned 50 in December and, like many other older female presenters before her, is finding out the tough way that ageism is alive and well in showbusiness.
The famous smile that once regularly warmed 12 million viewers disappears as Carol hits out at what she calls the “dark side” of the business.
“TV is crazy... it’s not the real world. It’s such a fickle, shallow world sometimes,” she says.
“I was young, fresh-faced and in demand… and now I’m older and I don’t get so much work. Well, quelle surprise! There’s ageism in TV and there always has been. There’s a dark side to the industry that’s not attractive.”
Carol is by no means the first woman in her profession to speak out. Last week on Desert Island Discs, ex-newsreader Anna Ford, 68, slammed BBC bosses for not doing enough to put older women on screen.
And last year sacked Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly, 54, won an age discrimination case against the Beeb. In 2009 Arlene Phillips caused a stir when she got the boot from Strictly Come Dancing at 66.
Ironically, Carol reckons the kind of reality TV that made her famous must share some of the blame for the demise of older, more experienced female presenters.
“Reality TV has a lot to answer for... fame is instant,” she says. “I’m sounding really old now, like a dinosaur, but kids don’t wait for anything now.
“Once you had to earn your stripes. But it’s not like that any more. I think it’s sad. We’ve become so used to seeing a pretty young woman co-host with a father figure-type older guy.
“It wouldn’t be acceptable in any other profession. The proof of the pudding is in the eating and these people don’t last because they don’t have any real experience. There’s a lot of back-slapping and people thinking they’re fabulous.”
Carol admits she benefited from ageism herself when she was younger as she climbed the TV career ladder.
Changing Rooms made the Scot one of Britain’s biggest TV stars. It ran for an amazing 15 series, with Carol presenting 10 of them and the BBC selling the format to more than 20 countries worldwide.
But like other presenters from her era, including her close pals Carol Vorderman and Anthea Turner, she says she had to work hard to make her name.
Before hitting the big time in 1996, she spent almost 10 years working her way up the TV career ladder, starting out as a lingerie model during her late teens before becoming a hostess on daytime game show Wheel Of Fortune.
Carol later spent months on end jetting across the world to present Holiday on BBC1 before becoming the main host of the National Lottery Show.
That hunger for work is still there as she enters her 50s. But she reveals her latest attempt to get back on screen fell by the wayside not because of ageism, but because the married mum-of-three is so squeaky-clean.
Carol recently landed an audition to be on the panel of ITV’s Loose Women – but was turned down.
She believes it was feared she wouldn’t connect with the viewers and the other panellists because she didn’t have a marriage breakdown behind her. “I love Loose Women and I wanted so much to do it,” says Carol. “I did go and see them and I said I would love a job – but they weren’t interested. I thought I would have been perfect for it.
“I love the girls on the show. They’re all great, but they’re mostly divorced and I don’t think that’s a balanced view of life.
“I think they were nervous about my so-called squeaky clean image. But I’d been doing The Vagina Monologues play for two years, shouting the C-word at the top of my voice every night on stage. What more did they want?”
Despite being one of the pioneers of reality TV, she’s in no rush to return to the fly-on-the-wall format that made her famous – and spawned a generation of sensationalist shows such as Big Brother and I’m A Celebrity.
“Changing Rooms was massive. The ratings were unbelievable,” she says. “There were definitely times when we exploited some of the people taking part. But they took advantage too... they wanted their 15 minutes of fame and they also wanted their house done up for nothing.”
Apart from Strictly Come Dancing, in which she finished fifth six years ago, Carol insists she’ll never take part in any other reality shows.
“I hate reality TV, though I do watch it,” she says. “It appeals to the lowest common denominator ...it’s a freak show.
“It’s like watching the old-fashioned bearded lady in the circus in the Dark Ages.
“The people who appear on these shows sometimes make me cringe. It’s got so base, and where else can you go with it?
“I did Strictly, which was amazing. You learn a skill and you don’t have to live in a house with cameras watching your every move. But not many shows offer that.
“I think I would know I’d hit rock-bottom if I ever went on something like I’m A Celebrity or Big Brother. I’ve been asked so many times, but I never would.”
Away from the limelight of her 30 years in showbiz, family life is what makes Carol tick. She’s been married to restaurateur Alex Knight, 45, for 21 years and they live in Glasgow with their children Christie, 17, Robbie, 14, and Jodie, 12.
Alex is five years her junior, something Carol says has kept her feeling young.
“I didn’t realise he was younger than me when we first met so it was too late by the time I found out… I was hooked!” she says.
“Sometimes it’s a bit annoying when I’ll mention something like an advert from when I was growing up and he won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. But he keeps me on my toes.”
Not that Carol needs much help to do that. At 50, her trim physique, flawless complexion and that shining smile make her look 10 years younger.
But she insists she’s ready for nature to take its course. “I’m not experiencing hot flushes just yet, but I’m quite looking forward to them because I’m always cold,” she laughs.“I just think, ‘Bring it on, that’ll be really nice!’
“Age is just a number and it comes down to how you choose to live your life.
“When you hit a certain age it doesn’t mean you have to start wearing sensible shoes and having a shampoo and set once a week.
“I used to wear killer heels, and occasionally I still do. But equally you’ve got to be careful not to become mutton dressed as lamb. It’s a fine line.
“A little dress with high heels would be lovely, but I need to watch it’s not too short. I love Victoria Beckham’s look, with the skirts coming to just below the knees. Sexy but classy. There’s a lot to be said for covering up a bit and making the most of your better bits.”
But Carol admits there are times when she longs for the body she had when she modelled lingerie in her late teens. She even considered surgery to help get her post-baby body back to its best, but went back on it at the last minute.
“It makes me smile and think I would kill for that body now,” she says. “Especially the flat stomach and the taut skin.It’s funny because you look back and laugh at the hours you spent worrying about the cellulite you never had.
“I fancied a boob job and had a consultation. But in my head I just couldn’t justify lying on a table and letting someone cut me openand put something alien inside my body.
“The consultant specialised in reconstruction for women who had survived breast cancer. That really sobered me up. I felt like my body wasn’t what it used to be, but I’m never going to be 20 again and I woke up to that fact. Good underwear does the job just as well for me now.”
While TV presenter roles may have dried up, Carol has been trying her hand at acting. Aside from a two-year tour in The Vagina Monologues, she’s recently also toured with a stage show called Hormonal Housewives. It’s all about the perils of women hitting their more senior years... something Carol says she didn’t find too difficult to master.
She adds: “Acting was never something I had planned or even considered but I love being out of my comfort zone and scaring myself... it keeps you alert.”
She’s also starting an online business with a close friend, former tennis star Annabel Croft, due to launch later this year. And she is also the face of a new Lottery called The Player’s Lottery.
And while her era as a prime-time star might be over, Carol couldn’t be happier.
“The most difficult thing about being a working mum is that I was always riddled with guilt when I left the kids,” she says.
“The reality is that they need me more now than they did when they were tiny, so I needn’t have worried so much. I’m very lucky... I have my health, my kids and my husband’s gorgeous... what more could I want?”
Article from the Mirror