Get down,” Kay Burley tells me, in the same commanding tone she uses to grill Cabinet ministers on her Sky News breakfast show. I obediently lie on the floor and she talks me through a “stand up”, the exercise she repeats 100 times a day, getting up without using her hands. I can barely manage one. But then Burley has a reputation for being tough — she’s nicknamed “the high-heeled hellcat from Hounslow”. She turns 60 at Christmas and claims to have more hours of live TV under her belt than anyone else. As the country divides over whether circuit-breaker lockdowns are the solution to rising Covid cases, Burley is holding the Government to account. “It can be interpreted as giving people a hard time but my job is to get answers,” she says. “People have lost loved ones, their lives have been decimated, their careers destroyed. They are frightened, unsure of what is going to happen next and might be screaming at the telly going ‘ask them this!’ Of all the stories I have covered in my 40 years, Covid is way up there and it continues.”
In February she spent three days in bed with the virus, knocked out by high blood pressure and “a headache that felt like a band tightening around my head”. “Even now, sometimes I’m really tired. I don’t know if that’s the after-effects of Covid.” She sounds flat when she talks about this year and how it has scuppered her plans. “I was going to have a big party for my 60th birthday but I can’t do that so I was going to go sit with elephants in Africa, then I was going to hire a villa in Ibiza, then it was a castle in Ireland, now I think it is only two households allowed to mix. So I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m not saying woe is me at all, I understand that I’m in a privileged position, but I am still allowed to say I’ll be glad when 2020 is over.”
Burley has just come off air; she’s changed out of the pink shift dress she was wearing on TV, into black flared leggings and a purple cowl neck top and is barefoot with red nail varnish and her grandmother’s wedding ring worn on her second toe. Off-air, she sounds softer and is tiny, perched on the edge of her office swivel chair like a sparrow, hugging her knees and resting her head on them in a childlike way.
She has seen a step-change in the media. When she started out as a reporter on the Wigan Post aged 17, she was the only woman. “Women get a lot more respect now,” she says. In fact, it’s female broadcasters such as Burley and her Sky colleague Beth Rigby who are putting the difficult questions to the (mostly male) Cabinet. She’s close to Rigby, who is also in the studio — Burley brushes the lint off her friend’s dress and tells her how great she looks.
Burley’s superpower is to deftly interrogate, smiling as she asks the tricky questions. When Matt Hancock came on her breakfast show last month, Burley made him squirm, pressing him to clarify the new lockdown restrictions and how they affected casual sex. She is offended by the idea that she was flirty with the Health Secretary, although he did text after the interview “to say it was fun”. “That’s ridiculous. I don’t think Matt Hancock would have thought I was flirting with him.”
Much as she likes Hancock, she says it is notable how few female ministers there are compared with a year ago. “You look at people like Amber Rudd, she was a formidable character, Nicky Morgan was another one who I would certainly have to make sure I’d done my homework with. There aren’t enough women on the front benches in either party. I’d urge any women who want to become involved to do so now.”
She’s friendly with politicians — two Cabinet members were on her lockdown quiz team, though she is coy about which ones, along with musician Pete Townshend, who “wafted in and left when the questions were hard”. Former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre is another friend — she knows him through Les Hinton, the ex-News International executive. If Dacre gets the job he is tipped for as chair of Ofcom “he will be hands-on, but it’s such a big organisation he won’t be able to change it that much”.
It’s just the PM she can’t pin down. Burley has been interviewed by Boris Johnson and wants him to return the favour. “This is an open invitation for me to interview you,” she says into my Dictaphone. We are interrupted by the make-up artist returning a Dyson heated brush to Burley, who greets her with: “Hello superstar, big hugs, love you loads.” Despite saying she’s knackered, she looks in remarkable shape, although she claims her bottom is large and she doesn’t like it: “My grandfather used to tease me about it.”
She insists that she tries to look good “for myself, not because I’m on telly…It’s true that women are held to a different standard but that is changing.” On her 50th birthday, she got a facelift, a reported £10,000 procedure. Would she have another? “Never say no to more plastic surgery. I’m a convert to needling at the moment. Mother nature is not going to mug me off. I work hard for my money, I’ll spend it how I like thank you very much.”
Her diet is strict: a banana and a cereal bar for breakfast, lunch, “and then that’s me done for the rest of the day”. “The danger of doing a breakfast show is there are so many opportunities to eat”. “Before Covid I said that I kept fit because I like to be able to go out and party for as long as I could. I am so missing that part of my life. I can understand why it is causing mental health challenges for people. It’s good to let off steam.” Rigby used to join her on nights out, as did a pilot called Jonny who was often reported to be close to Burley. She insisted there was nothing romantic between them. How is he? “Which pilot? Oh, well I haven’t seen Jonny for ages.” She won’t be drawn on whether she is seeing anyone: “You wouldn’t ask a man; good effort, I’ve been a journalist for a long time too.”
Burley has one son, Alexander “Wolfie”, 28, who helps her out with some PR although his main job is “sourcing cars for people with too much money and taking brilliant photographs of them”. His father is football agent Steve Kutner. They divorced when Alexander was a baby (Burley took the diamonds from the ring he gave her for their first wedding anniversary and turned them into a belly-button piercing).
When she had her son, there was no maternity leave as such, “just six and a half weeks’ pay after your week of confinement, such a ridiculous term”. She went back to work after three months. “Not least because I am not an earth mother. But that hasn’t affected my relationship with my son, you can’t get a fag paper between us. Although he likes to remind me of how at his 11th birthday I got a call to say, can you go to Spain now and interview Rebecca Loos?
“I had his little friends in the garden, bouncy castle, the whole thing, and I had to go. He uses that, saying you left me under the stairs with dry bread and no water. But he knows how important my job is to me and it’s given us a good life. He’s funny. If I’m not on air, I’ll get a text from him asking if I’m alright.”
He need not worry — Burley has just signed a five-year contract to stay at Sky. “Who would have thought it? I never thought about when I’d retire when I started out… It feels like yesterday that Rupert Murdoch said to me, fancy coming over and joining us, and I had to go to the library to figure out what Sky was because I didn’t have the internet.”
Talking about pay is still “difficult”, she says. “If I do ask for a pay rise, I tend to ask my boss ‘can we discuss the grubby subject of money’ so he laughs and it breaks the ice. I think I get paid what I deserve and I don’t like asking for money but sometimes you have to.”
Are some people such as Gary Lineker, who just took a pay cut from the BBC, on too much? “If he was working in the football industry he would be paid double that. It’s market forces. But it’s about time that the pay disparity between men and women is evening out though.” Burley says she is “a manly saver and a girly spender”, adding: “I don’t want to go back ever to a situation like when I was little and there was no money in the house, but at the same time I work hard for my money and my mother was dead before she was my age, so I enjoy my life.”
Her parents worked in a cardboard factory and her voice cracks when she talks about how her mother, who died of breast cancer aged 59, never got to see her son. Her father died shortly afterwards. “He was a feminist and taught my sister and I from an early age to have a healthy disregard for the impossible and to realise our place in the world was equal to that of men.”
That meant when a man “stroked his finger down my spine at a party and I was a victim of sexual harassment, I had the confidence to turn around and say ‘If you do that again mate I am going to punch your fucking lights out.’ He got the message. I appreciate that not all women can do what I did”.
Next, she’s off to the US to cover the election. She’s interviewed Trump before and if they meet again will start by asking what he would have done differently. When she returns, she will do the show from her home in Hounslow for two weeks, “with my two Irish Setters — they’ll be like, what are you doing, mum, we want to be part of the action.” They will have their work cut out if they want to upstage Burley.