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Ten minutes with Karren Brady

18 April 2019

Baroness Brady, author, vice-chairman of West Ham United FC, and star of BBC One’s The Apprentice turned 50 in April. Jane Oddy finds out what makes her tick.

Karren Brady

What was your biggest fashion mistake?

When I was about 20, I bought a pair of ski pants and a lime green checked dogtooth jacket. It was absolutely hideous and I looked like some kind of clown. I don’t know what possessed me to buy it, but I had a tan at the time and maybe it showed it off…But it was an era of fashion nasties. It was the Eighties, and I had a perm and a pair of cowboy boots too! I remember the first time I wore this outfit, a friend said to me in horror: What on earth is that? I took it off, it went straight back in the wardrobe and was never seen again.

What was your childhood ambition?

In my early teens I longed to be a travel agent. I remember my mum taking me into town one Saturday afternoon to book a holiday and we were served by this woman who was immaculately dressed, with beautiful make-up and hair. I recall her very long varnished finger nails as she was flicking through the glossy brochures with us. I thought: That must be the most glamorous job in the world. I didn’t even know what the job entailed, I was just sold on her fabulous manicure. 

What was your worst telling-off for?

As a child, I was enchanted by my parents’ drinks cabinet. When the doors opened, lights came on which was very exciting to me. So when I was about three years old, and left with my grandfather when my mother and grandmother went out shopping, I pulled up a chair, opened up the cabinet, and proceeded to use some tiny liqueur glasses to taste the drink in all these different coloured bottles. When my grandfather caught me, and asked what I was doing, apparently I told him defiantly: ‘This is my house, I’ll do what I want’. By the time my mum got home I was drunk as a skunk and she was absolutely furious and told it would be my fault if I was sick. But I wasn’t and have never been ill with drink since either. The family still laugh about it to this day!

What is your most prized possession?

My health. I had surgery on a brain aneurysm in 2006 and it put a perspective on many things. It was a horrible time and made me realise that life is short and also to see things more in balance. Before it happened, I hadn’t had a holiday in years, I was always working but after the surgery, I was more disciplined about having more time off with my family.

When and where were you happiest?

With my family at a hotel called Le Touessrok in Mauritius when my two children were still quite little. We had our own villa and staff; a butler, a cook, a maid. If I dropped an item of clothing on the floor, barely two seconds later it was washed, ironed and put back in the cupboard. I had never experienced anything like it.  We had fabulous weather, amazing food, and it was so relaxing that I almost cried when we left. I am so capable but it was so wonderful to be looked it after as opposed to me being the one to do it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip.  

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When did you last cry?

At the closing credits rolled on the movie A Star is Born, I was sobbing. I cannot believe it didn’t win an Oscar for Best Film. It’s one of the best I’ve seen in a very long time and is such a sad love story, but inspiring at the same time. I’m not a weepie person, I didn’t cry once when I was diagnosed with my brain aneurysm, but I must confess that I am a sucker for a sentimental chick flick.

Turning 50 means I have that I only have to do the things I want to do.

What us the best thing about being 50?

My financial freedom. When I was growing up I went to a covent boarding school and it was all rules and regulations. I was told when to get up, when to eat, and when to go to bed. So when I left school at 18, I had one ambition in life, and that was to have my total independence. So that I could say what I wanted to do, and when and how I wanted to do it. Turning 50 means I have that. I only have to do the things I want to do as opposed to the things I have to do. That is a real privilege.

How are you celebrating your birthday?

I’ve got friends who have invited me to a mad weekend in Las Vegas! I’ve never been before. Some people have a big expectation of their birthdays but I don’t have any as I have never really celebrated mine particularly. To me, it’s just another day. I feel the pressure from other people saying I should make a fuss. If it were me, I would just let it pass and do nothing. But my friends and family won’t let me!

If you sit in your comfort zone and don’t take risks, you will never truly know what you are capable of.

What’s the best advice you would give?

To have a positive mindset in everything you do, and push boundaries. If you sit in your comfort zone and don’t take risks, you will never truly know what you are capable of.  I always had the approach that I want to make myself the best that I can possibly be. I’m Aries, so I am very determined.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

It came from my grandmother and she always used to say to me: Never look down on someone unless you are helping them up. I was so close to her and I credit her with instilling in me my strong work ethic. She was born in Hackney, east London, and she was a cleaner for most of her life. I used to go to jobs with her when I was young. We would get up at five in the morning and clean offices before they opened. She was so dynamic in her own way, and she loved her family devotedly.

Being called Lady Brady just makes me giggle.

What or who makes you laugh?

Lord Alan Sugar. We have always shared the same sense of humour. There are times when he is so funny with the candidates in The Apprentice that if you look closely you will see me shaking with laughter in the boardroom. I love to laugh and I always do try and see the funny side of life - even with my title Baroness Brady - I think it makes me sound like I’m ancient! But being called Lady Brady just makes me giggle.

Who is your best friend?

She’s called Suzanne who I met when we were both pregnant with our first daughters (Sophia is now 23). Astonishingly both girls ended up going to the at the same school, in the same year, and the same thing happened with both our sons. She’s an interior designer and despite our busy lives, we speak every day on the phone. As she lives in the Midlands, and I live in London, we don’t see each other all the time, but we try and catch up at least once a month. We will to go out for dinner, shopping or have a massage or spa day together. We love the same things and have so many similar priorities. I love to make time for my friends.

What’s your best tip for a happy marriage?

Friendship and respect. And to have both separate, and mutual, interests. Paul and I have been together for 25 years, and the focus for us is our family, but he’s also independent like me. We live in London, and there is so much do there, we like to travel, dine out, see our friends, and go to the theatre and art exhibitions. We are always busy, but we are not in each other’s pockets. He hates opera and musicals, shopping, so I’d never go to them with him, I’d prefer to take a friend. 

What did your parents teach you?

To have self-esteem. I think that is the most valuable gift you can give any child. Growing up in Edmonton, north London, my mum was a housewife and my dad was a successful businessman in the print business and we were a close-knit family. They always instilled confidence in me, to believe in myself and my own ability which is so important to any young person. When my dad’s business took off, they sent me to boarding school. My dad thought that education was everything, because he didn’t have one himself, and so spent money on a good education for my brother and I. It was definitely the best decision he could have made.

What makes your heart sink?

Gender inequality. For every £1 a man makes, a woman makes only 86 p. It’s a shocking statistic and it’s going to take 100 years to close the gap. It starts to occur when women leave work to start a family and they are subsequently prejudiced against because people believe that working mothers run off work to go home early. I am passionate about reducing the gap, but until there is high quality, affordable childcare it is going to continue. We must do something more to help women in the workplace.

Who would you invite to a dinner party, dead or alive?

Sir Winston Churchill. He was a bon viveur so I think he’d be great company, but also, I’d like to bring up him up to date on feminism! He’s been one of the great Prime Minsters of our time, and what he’s done for the country is incredible but I think there were certain gaps in his knowledge that I’d like to fill in! But I’d rather be surrounded by friends at a dinner party. I’d have to be, as they’d need forgive my bad cooking. 

What’s the book that changed your life?

It would have to be Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. The central character Elizabeth Bennett is the ultimate heroine in every way. It was a love story with a very strong woman centre stage. She stood up for herself and got everything she wanted, on her terms. I was 16 when I read it and it made a big impression on me. Most novels seemed to feature a female character who was a somewhat pathetic individual who needed a man to come along and save her, whereas she saved Mr Darcy by being strong and feisty. 

What do you never leave home without?

All the usual things like my Oyster card, mobile phone and my paper diary. I can’t do anything electronic; I like to write down what I’m doing as it helps me remember. Also, my trainers. It’s far easier, and quicker, to get to my office at the West Ham ground in Stratford, East London, and the House of Lords in Westminster on the Underground. I walk to the Tube and I have a pair of high heels to slip into when I get to each place.

What's your biggest worry?

That my children (Sophia, 23, and Paolo, 20) are happy and healthy. My daughter has left university and is working, and my son finishes at university at the end of this year. I want them to find something that they are passionate about and love doing, and do it well. I don’t think there is any given recipe to being a parent. I am certainly not one that interferes in their lives but I like to be kept abreast of what’s going on. I see my daughter most nights - she pops in on the way back from work to say hello, and for food, even though she lives in her own place. I feel very lucky we are so close.

Karren Brady’s Get What You Want is a brand-new platform which aims to give women advice on how to build a career, get a promotion, a pay rise, being assertive, having confidence and self-belief.  

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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