Book: Louise Minchin on braving shark-infested waters and her battles for equality at work
Former BBC Breakfast presenter Louise Minchin talks to Hannah Stephenson about her love of adventure and celebrating trailblazing women...
TV PRESENTER and journalist Louise Minchin has swum in shark-infested waters, braced freezing conditions to free-dive under ice and plumbed the depths of dark, wild caves, all in the name of adventure.
But it was a professional challenge which sparked her latest book – Fearless – in which she takes on adventures with extraordinary women.
The book celebrates the bravery of these women of all backgrounds, religions, ages, shapes and sizes as she joins them in everything from wild caving in the Mendip Hills to diving into a 1m cut-out hole in the centre of a frozen lake in Finland – to emerge out of another ice hole 15m away. Many of the adventures are terrifying, some are painful, all are ultimately exhilarating.
“It's important because we all need heroes who look like us, who we can relate to, because that inspires us to go and do our own things,” the broadcaster (54), says.
“If you see it you can be it – that was a fundamental driver in all of this.”
The backstory to the book, though, is the years she has spent fighting for equality during her TV career – for equal pay for women, for ensuring women presenting BBC Breakfast were allowed to lead the programme occasionally, and for making sure that the fearless endeavours stories covered at the end of the show were as equally focused on women as they were on men.
“There were a few things going on that over the years I had been having battles with. The first one was equal pay, which is well documented. Some time after that, I noticed that I was always the second person to speak (on BBC Breakfast). Invariably, my male presenter sitting next to me would be the person who read the first headline, did the first intro, said hello first, did the first interview.
“I'd been there for years. What does this tell the female audience when I'm always the second person to speak? I started trying to change it.”
When she complained, Minchin says she was told that this was the way they'd always done it, so for the next three months she took notes of dates and times, who did which interview and when. When she went back to her boss armed with this information, changes were made.
“I don't know if they saw me as a troublemaker. I'm not into confrontation. I'd work out the whys and then go and change it. The battle about reading the headlines first was really important, because I think what you see in front of you matters to you and your value and your place,” she continues.
While things have changed over the past 30 years, there is still plenty of room for a shake-up, she adds.
“I think it's really important, if you can see where things are not equal and fair, to [take a] stand and say, can we change things? In the UK, hopefully we are at this point on the right trajectory, but I think it's incumbent on all of us to notice when things are not equal and fair and do something about it if we can.”
When she realised that almost every story at the end of the show about a bold or brave adventure was centred on a man, she set out on a mission to find the women who were fearless – and their 17 stories, from swimming to the San Francisco mainland from Alcatraz, to cycling across Argentina, form the heart of hew new book.
The sporty presenter – Minchin took up triathlon at the age of 45 and ended up representing her age-group in the World and European Championships – did the challenges with them, starting in 2021 and finishing almost a year later.
She left BBC Breakfast in September 2021, but it wasn't to do with her work battles. It was the early mornings, she reflects now. Getting up at 3.40am over the course of 20 years was taking its toll.
She had also suffered huge distress from a stalker who, in December of that year, admitted causing alarm or distress to both Minchin and her daughter in July 2020 by posting intimidating comments on Instagram, and was sentenced to two years and eight months in jail.
Today, she says of the episode: “It was really shocking at the time. And the key thing for me, the reason only ever to talk about it, is that this happens to lots of people. You don't have to be in the public eye for it to happen to you. People can get access to help. But it was really shocking.”
She came off social media for a while but is now back on it.
“Without social media, this book wouldn't have happened because I got through to about 90 per cent of the women through social media,” she says.
The mix of trailblazing women she found for the book is deliberately diverse. “It's more than I really dreamed of. I wanted it to be diverse in what I did, who I met, the kind of adventures we went on and the stories we told.”
She writes about jumping off a boat into the San Francisco Bay just off Alcatraz, when she felt something in the water brush against her leg. Fearing initially it may have been a shark, other swimmers said it was more likely to have been a sea lion.
“If you got the currents wrong, they could kill you or drag you miles down the coast, so it was very nerve-wracking going in. About 200 of us were swimming and I managed to lose them all in the first two minutes.
“Then I felt this gentle caress on the back of my calf, which I presumed was another swimmer, but when I stopped to look back, there was no one there. That was a very frightening moment. I thought I'll just have to swim faster.”
Ice diving in the dark was also terrifying, she recalls. The ice, which was 1m thick, was cut in two places for entry and exit – but when Minchin got underwater, she was so buoyant that she got pressed against the ice ceiling and couldn't swim.
She had to think quickly, turning herself round and using her fingers to scale the length of the icy path before reaching the exit hole.
“I had catastrophic thoughts for a couple of moments, but then I came out the other side and laughed my head off and went and did it again.
“I like adrenaline and had a massive rush – it was only 25 seconds but it was huge.”
When not pursuing extreme adventure, she lives in Chester, Cheshire, with her husband, David, who is used to her dangerous pursuits, she says.
“When he married me I didn't do much exercise, but he and the girls (they have two daughters, Mia, 21 and Scarlett, 18) have all been on this journey with me. They think I'm nuts but they are incredibly supportive.”
She ran the London Marathon this year with Mia, so clearly is passing on her love of sport.
“I've learned that I'm capable of more than I think I am. I'm very lucky because my body works with me,” she says.
“A lot of it is about resilience and about being able to persuade yourself that you can keep going.”
There's little doubt Minchin thrives on challenges.
“I'd love to do Fearless mark two – but I'm not sure that right now I've got the energy.”
Fearless: Adventures With Extraordinary Women by Louise Minchin is published by Bloomsbury Sport, priced £18.99. Available now.