With a hard-hitting documentary about obesity coming up, Esther Rantzen’s daughter Rebecca Wilcox reveals how piling on the pounds after her father’s death shattered her self-esteem
Rebecca Wilcox is cringing. She’s talking about her mother Esther Rantzen’s passion for dancing naked in the garden. Well, not completely naked. Apparently, she always wears a hat. Esther likes hats. She likes big weddings too. Rebecca, a TV presenter, is marrying her boyfriend, Jim Moss, in the autumn. They’d wanted 120 guests maximum, but Esther’s upped it by 30. Hopefully, she’ll put a frock on for the ceremony.
‘You know Mum,’ she says, rolling her eyes skywards. ‘She’s a bit of an extrovert.’ A bit? Since the death of her husband, celebrated documentary maker Desmond Wilcox, nine years ago, Esther has posed provocatively for a newspaper in fishnets and stilettos, flirted outrageously with Joe Swash, a former East-Enders actor young enough to be her grandson, on I’m A Celebrity… and discussed losing her virginity on national TV.
Losing control: Rachel says grief meant she piled on the pounds after the death of her father Desmond, to whom she was extremely close
Mention this and Rebecca, 28, rolls her eyes, much as one would while discussing a naughty child. ‘ Obviously, no one wants to think about their parents having sex, let alone with somebody else,’ she says. ‘If she has had other partners, she hasn’t told us. The problem is that men her age are boring. In general, the men who are interested in going out with her are either coat-tail grabbers or slightly barmy.
‘Mum likes to have fun. She’s very at one with her body. She just likes to get naked – although not so much any more. She used to dance around the lawn on our farm in the New Forest. But the more we’d say, “Oh, Mum, stop doing that”, the more she’d do it, because she thinks it’s hilarious when her kids are embarrassed by what she does.’
Needless to say, Rebecca, a softer, prettier version of Esther, does not always see eye-to-eye with her mother, particularly over Esther’s decision to stand as an independent MP for Luton South.
‘There are so many things Mum and I disagree on, but this is a big one,’ she says. ‘I think Luton is a very nice place; and I know she’ll be brilliant at it, but I also think it’s a challenge beyond comprehension.
‘No one ever wants to see someone they love put themselves up for a hell of a lot of criticism. As soon as she even mentioned the idea, there were more harsh words voiced in her direction than I’d heard in years.
‘But Mum likes to be needed. It’s what she’s made for. Mum’s a different person since Dad died. They were an absolute partnership and depended upon each other in equal measure. I worry about her being alone and vulnerable.’
Desmond’s death from heart disease at the age of 69 has deeply affected not just Esther, but Rebecca too. The middle child between Emily, 31, and Josh, 27, she was extraordinarily close to her father and says ‘the world turned on its head’ the day he died.
Rebecca was a student at Oxford when she learned her father had been admitted to St Mary’s Hospital in London ‘s Paddington. ‘I was just about to go on a trip to Zanzibar in Africa , and a group of us were driving back to Oxford, a little the worse for wear after a party, when I got two phone calls,’ she says.
‘The first was a voicemail from Dad, saying he’d read an article about a journalist swimming with dolphins off the coast of Zanzibar. He knew one of my greatest ambitions was to swim with dolphins. I remember thinking, “Oh, cool. I’ll phone him back later.” Then I got a call from Mum’s PA saying, “Desmond’s had a heart attack. Come back to London as soon as you can.” I was trying to ask questions, but she hung up because she was obviously doing the rounds.
Close family: Rachel Wilcox with her father, Desmond, and mother, Esther Rantzen, on the day the couple renewed their wedding vows in 1999
‘I remember sitting on a slow train to Paddington, just rocking in floods of tears, thinking, “This is not good. This is not good. I need to be there.” When I finally got to the hospital, he was drifting in and out of consciousness, and on a lot of painkillers because he was in agony. My brother had been staying in Cornwall with friends, so he was the last to get there. When he arrived, Dad woke up, looked round at us all and told us he loved us.’
Early in the morning of 6 September, Desmond took a turn for the worse. ‘We were all lying in bed with him when he passed away. He wasn’t alone for a second – we were all there. But it’s not a gentle death. It’s quite a revolting memory to try and get over. For so long, you’ve got that as your last memory of him, and you need to remember the stuff before it. We always said the most difficult thing to get over in our lives was that we had pretty perfect childhoods, so the rest of life doesn’t really compare.’
Rebecca says of her childhood, ‘It was always loud and crazy. Whenever the three of us kids had an argument, it would have to be rational or funny, and Mum would be the umpire. I was the thick one. My sister was the intelligent, mysterious brunette, while I was blonde, bubbly, and not so bright, and my brother was obviously the boy prince. I was always aware that Dad was older than most of my friends’ fathers, so I always felt it was my duty to get as much information out of him as I possibly could. In the car as we drove to and from our home in London to the one in the New Forest, I’d sit in the front with him and ask questions.’
Rebecca was five when Desmond suffered his first heart attack. He had a second attack when she was studying for her A-levels and when her older sister was wheelchair-bound with ME (chronic fatigue syndrome). It was Rebecca who found him in their country cottage in the early hours of the morning.
‘I heard this groaning and thought, “What’s that?” It went on and on, so I got out of bed to find Dad clutching his heart. He had this look of pure agony on his face. It was terrifying.
‘He was being sick and it was awful,’ she pauses. ‘I don’t know how much I should say, because it is a memory I don’t want my family to have because they didn’t see it, but it was horrible. He was flailing about. I held him for a bit, then ran to ring for an ambulance.
‘Mum went in the back of the ambulance with Dad and I followed in my car, which could only do 60mph. Dad was on the stretcher, trying to look out, saying, “Is she still with us? Is she okay?” Because I was the only one of us kids who could drive, I took on an adult role, driving between the hospital and home.
‘Mum was with Dad or Emily, and Josh was a bit younger. I remember finding it all exhausting and thinking, “How do people do it?” I was revising for my A-levels, so I’d be sitting at his bedside trying to read Death Of A Salesman, which is a depressing play anyway.’
Despite all the trauma, Rebecca passed her A-levels and, after a gap year at drama school, decided to study English literature on her father’s insistence. ‘I really wanted to act,’ she says. ‘But Dad said, “Ninety-nine per cent of actors are out of work. Get a degree as a backup. You can think about acting afterwards.”‘
Rebecca’s father died just after she’d completed her first year at Oxford. Desperately miserable, she cut off her long, blonde hair and dyed it brown. And she began piling on weight, going from a size ten to a 14.
‘I couldn’t fit into my clothes, but I didn’t care,’ she says. ‘I just bought baggy clothes. I couldn’t be bothered to deny myself anything. I wanted to be comforted. Food was something Dad really loved, so going out to meals was a family tradition and I just ate. I remember Mum didn’t eat at all – she couldn’t.
‘After a couple of months, I remember going back to university and people were quite surprised. I’d always had really long, blonde hair, but was sick of it. I changed it so much I didn’t look like myself any more – I looked like a little chubby boy. I’d put on all this weight and I just felt gross. I thought no man would ever fancy me again, but none of it mattered.’
She says it was her fiancé, Jim, who ‘put her back together again’. They started dating within a few months of her father’s death. ‘He’s an auditor, but he hates me saying that because it sounds so boring,’ she says. ‘He skydives and scuba dives, so he says, “Can’t you tell people I’m an adventure sports person?” But he’s very good at what he does. He’s got a proper job with clients, whereas I’m a mess.’
After realising she ‘wasn’t the world’s best actress’, she began working as a researcher at ITV, soon rising to assistant producer on programmes such as Hell’s Kitchen and Trust Me, I’m A Holiday Rep. She is now working for the BBC, and is a co-presenter of Mischief, a six-part series which looks at the issues facing young people, including the nation’s obesity epidemic.
‘I’d always wanted to be a presenter like Mum,’ she says. ‘But, after working towards that goal for four years, I decided I wanted to be like Dad instead. I was going to be this Bafta award-winning documentary filmmaker – which is when I got my first TV presenting job.
It’s when you give up your dream that you then get it. Mum always says you get what you want, but so long after you stopped wanting it, you don’t remember why you wanted it in the first place.’
So, what does she want now? ‘For it to be sunny on my wedding day,’ she says, quick as a flash. ‘It’s all outside in the New Forest where Dad’s ashes are scattered, so he’ll be very much with us.
‘Dad died in September, but it’s not too close to his anniversary, and in the past five years we have had the most wonderful Indian summers. And that’s what I’m hoping for – a wonderful hot day.’