Steph McGovern: ‘I Got My Muff Out On Telly So Nothing Can Be Really Embarrassing’
“My god, that was a moment, wasn’t it?”
Steph McGovern is recalling her recent night out at the launch of ABBA’s Voyage live show and is being typically down-to-earth about the fact she was considered a VIP guest.
“I felt quite honoured actually. I was like ‘how did I manage to blag this?’”
It’s this genuine “she’s-one-of-us” charm that has helped the Middlesbrough native go from the Beeb’s business reporter to hosting her own daily Channel 4 show. Since its launch in September 2020, the show has gradually won over more and more viewers thanks to its mix of real issues, real people and lots of laughs, and earned a Bafta nomination in the process.
“I always wanted it to be a place where… I kind of liken it to a blended family,” Steph explains. “Slightly dysfunctional and you’re not necessarily going to like all of us all of the time and you might find one or two of us irritating, but you liken them to your annoying auntie who you still wouldn’t throw out of your family even if you don’t agree with them.”
“Fundamentally at our core is just people who like having a laugh and who are nice to each other.”
Steph helms the show, but is joined by a rotating cast of her celeb mates that includes Bake Off and Strictly star John Whaite, TV presenter Denise Van Outen, former rugby player Gareth Thomas, ex footballer Chris Kamara, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi and Reverend Kate Bottley.
“Fundamentally at our core is just people who like having a laugh and who are nice to each other,” she says of her “gang”, a quality she feels is sorely missed from a lot of what’s on the box these days.
“You might think on paper that’ll make for boring telly, because everyone seems to be obsessed with people fighting and controversy and people going up against each other with opposing views, but that’s not my style at all.
“I don’t really like confrontation and I’ve had to do a fair bit of it when I’ve interviewed politicians in the past, but for me it’s just about learning from people who have had different life experiences.”
Despite leaving the notoriously bureaucratic BBC in 2020 after 13 years, Steph hasn’t got a bad word to say about her former employer.
“I absolutely loved my time at the BBC,” she insists. “I think the difference doing Channel 4… it’s a bit more freeing in the sense of it’s my own show. But I didn’t feel like I was ever silenced or censored at the BBC.”
That said, we can’t imagine the Beeb ever signing off on her having a smear test done on live TV, and she’s typically candid about doing just that on Packed Lunch.
“I’ve literally got my muff out on the telly so once you’ve done that I don’t think there is anything that can be really embarrassing,” she laughs.
“Because I’ve always done live telly, there’s been loads of things over the years,” she adds. “When I was on BBC Breakfast my dress once split down the whole back of it and we had to do a camera angle where someone could gaffer tape it to stop it from totally exposing me.
“I was talking about really serious stuff as well like the economy and I’m nearly flashing me boobs. But anything that happens on Packed Lunch I can normally just have a laugh about it.”
And we love her all the more for it: whether it’s cold water swimming in Leeds dock with Kate Bottley (“What is fun about this Kate?”) or almost decorating the Packed Lunch kitchen after trying one of chef Simon Rimmer’s more unusual lunches (“He made me eat his sardines with beans and sausages in a tin and that was vile. I don’t like to criticise people but that genuinely made me hurl.”)
As well as being up for almost anything on her show (“I’m not an animal person”), Steph has been juggling the success of Packed Lunch with being a first-time mum.
It was only when she announced her pregnancy that the outside world discovered she was a gay woman.
“I was never asked if I’m honest,” Steph says about her sexuality. “I think because I didn’t necessarily look like a gay woman I don’t think people ever bothered to ask me.
“And so my kind of coming out was being pregnant, because obviously everyone then asked questions. Also, I grew up in the era where, although there weren’t that many gay women on telly, I felt like there were loads around me in my social setting, so I didn’t feel like I needed to do a big thing of ‘hello I am gay’.”
Despite being out to her friends and living in an era where someone’s sexuality – regardless of their fame – is usually about as interesting as what they had for their (packed) lunch, Steph admits she was still “anxious” about the story breaking.
“A paper found out and they wanted to publish that I was pregnant and I managed to bat it off for a while,” she recalls. “And then eventually I couldn’t, and so me and my partner didn’t know how it was going to go down because I had another friend – she’s high-profile – when she came out she did get a bit of abuse.
“I just thought for my unborn child, I’m already really protective of her and I’m really super protective of my partner as well, and so I thought ‘right, let’s just take ourselves away and escape what madness might come from this’. And so we went to a place I love in Wensleydale, a really quiet country hotel.”
That decision proved to the presenter and her partner that they really had nothing much to worry about – apart from their unborn child.
“We were there for a night and the next morning we knew the story was going to be in the papers and when we came into breakfast this little old couple sat opposite us and I thought they’d recognised me and they just lent over to both myself and my partner and said congratulations to both of us,” Steph recalls.
“I get emotional because that made everything alright, because it was a couple you could have easily assumed would have frowned upon it, but the way they were so inclusive to say that to both myself and my partner instantly made us feel that actually this is a brilliant world for our little girl to be born into.”
“Our job as happy, confident gay women is to tell people and make them aware of where they’ve got it wrong, because it’s not malicious.”
That said, Steph acknowledges that despite being “amazing at tag-teaming” with her partner in the care of their two-year-old, there will be unique challenges ahead as same-sex parents but sees it as “our job as happy, confident gay women to tell people and make them aware of where they’ve got it wrong, because it’s not malicious”.
She adds: “We don’t do it in a big ranty way, it’s just reminding people. And I’m really lucky that I’ve lots of friends who have done it before us and paved the way. It’s not as scary as you might think.”
Although she’d be too modest to say it herself, Steph is blazing a trail of her own, simply by being her own authentic self on a primetime daily show and being a role model for young queer people in the process.
“On telly and stuff [growing up] it didn’t really feel like there were many gay women who looked like me because you know, I’m quite girly and love my hair and make-up and stuff.
“Of course I love people like Sue Perkins and Clare Balding and Sandi Toksvig but I didn’t really feel like them. Like I think they’re amazing and I guess they are role models for gay women but they’re older than me and I didn’t feel like they represented me.”
So what does the future hold for the star? Right now she’s got her hands full with a five-day-a-week show and a toddler, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t fancy following in the footsteps of her Packed Lunch mates John Whaite, Denise Van Outen and Gemma Atkinson by taking to the Strictly dance floor.
“I love the show and so many of my mates have been on it and they’ve all loved it,” she says.
“If I do it I want to totally commit to it and as things stand, it would be near on impossible. I would worry about my little girl and not seeing her for so long. It’s interesting because the very first time I was asked to do it was probably when I should have done it, but then I had a baby. I’ll always say never say never but I’d just want to give it my all if I ever do it.”
Finally, I remind her that after Boris Johnson once described former Prime Minister David Cameron as a “girly swot”, she responded by telling the PM: “I am a girly swot and I’m proud of it. Let’s see who’s in their job the longest.”
I ask why she thinks he’s managed to survive for so long.
“No comment,” she laughs. “Well, you know, I work for Channel 4 so it’s not in my interest to go to war with the man who’s deciding whether we get privatised or not. I learned from the past.”
Steph’s Packed Lunch airs Monday to Friday at 12.30pm on Channel 4 and All4.
Steph’s Packed Lunch Pride Special – Friday 1 July, 11.30am, Channel 4 & All 4.This episode of Steph’s Packed Lunch is part of Channel 4′s season of landmark programmes and specials marking 50 years of Pride in the UK, reflecting on the incredible achievements and challenges of advancing LGBTQ+ rights and visibility over the last half century.