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

The TV presenter stars on Desert Island Discs to discuss her career and personal life.

Dame Esther Rantzen has said her broadcasting career would not reach the same heights 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 and her TV show attracted 20 million viewers.

But she told BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs that she is “very lucky” to have launched her career when she did – before there was so much competition.

She said: “A few generations earlier, I don’t think I could have done it.

“A few generations later, I wasn’t nearly pretty enough, so I think I’ve been very lucky.”

The broadcaster also told the programme the need for Childline – the counselling service she set up in 1986 which has helped nearly five million children – is as great today as ever.

Calls then 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.

“So I think the need is great as ever… I reckon that we are going to have to be there forever.”

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

She said of her abuser: “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.

“Then he told me not to tell anyone and I told my lovely mum and she didn’t really believe me, so that was educational.

“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’.

“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’. So didn’t when I was 18. I did up to then.”

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

Dame Esther Rantzen and Lauren Laverne on Desert Island Discs
Dame Esther with host Lauren Laverne on Desert Island Discs (BBC Radio 4/Amanda Benson)

She said that after getting her job on That’s Life!: “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.

“I did know that women weren’t given this responsibility before,” she said.

The broadcaster, who set up The Silver Line helpline for older people in 2013, also spoke about her marriage to Desmond Wilcox, who was wed 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 11.15am.

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