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'MY POPULARITY SHOCKS ME' SUNDAY CELEBRITY CHAT; Since wowing us during the 2012 Olympics, Clare Balding is rarely off our TV screens, yet she refuses to be a 'rent-a-gob'.


These are wildly exciting, but also strange and confusing times for Clare Balding. She's the reluctant celebrity who has been elevated to National Treasure status; the humble sports presenter who's become Queen of the Small Screen, and the happily settled private person who's an inspirational role model for gay women.

Clare has barely been off TV or out of media headlines for the past two years, but typically frets that she's overexposed, her millions of fans will get bored sick of her and an inevitable backlash is heading her way.

'Until right now I haven't given an interview all year,' explains Clare, 43. 'I really try to control the amount of times you hear my voice. I don't want to end up being a rent-a-gob, or for people to say, 'Oh, that Balding's on everything now.'

'I remember I was presenting flowers at an athletics ceremony, and I was really scared I was going to get booed. But when my picture came up on the screen, the crowd roared in approval. At another event I almost got as nice a reaction as Ant and Dec! My popularity still shocks and surprises me.'

It's certainly no mystery to the rest of the nation, who took Clare to their collective heart after her effortlessly brilliant coverage of the 2012 London Olympics. It was a magical moment in time for the broadcaster, who started her TV career back in 1995.

'The stars just aligned for me,' beams Clare. 'I try not to be dazzled by it, but in 10 years time I'm going to look back on this period of my life and think, "How did that happen?" The timing was key. I covered the London Olympics for the BBC, the Paralympics for Channel 4, and then my autobiography My Animals and Other Family went to the top of the book charts. I want to prove a point that I can do all the things I'm passionate about.'

Clare has certainly not let herself down so far. This year alone she has appeared on Wimbledon, the Boat Race, the Grand National and now the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, which kick off on Thursday. When Love Sunday meets her at the launch for the Games in Scotland, she is the brightest star in a room full of instantly recognisable television pundits, presenters and gold medal-winning athletes.

Looking happy, healthy and slim - she recently lost a stone and a half after her mum made a remark about her weight - Clare is impressive and enjoyable company. Personable yet professional, open yet guarded, fiercely intelligent but never condescending, we reckon you'd have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch this lady out.

Clare is in a committed long-term relationship with her civil partner Alice Arnold, 51, a former BBC newsreader she met 15 years ago. The couple live in Chiswick, West London, with their Tibetan terrier, Archie. Both active types, their shared passion for sports can sometimes lead to a spot of healthy rivalry.

'Things do get competitive between us, but not dangerously so!' laughs Clare. 'Alice is a very good golfer and when we play on holiday, we keep a running score. It definitely matters!

'We walk Archie together, and Alice is a member of a gym that I visit as her guest. I think I'm fitter now than at any time since I was an amateur race jockey in the late 1980s and early 1990s.' Since coming out as a lesbian in 2003, Clare has been proud to talk about her relationship.

'We both feel very strongly about this,' she adds. 'Alice and I have a chance to make people feel more comfortable if they're gay and want to be public, happy and proud.

'We don't mind talking about it, so long as it doesn't become intrusive. We don't invite Hello! or OK! magazine into our home. But if we go to the BAFTAs or an awards ceremony, of course I'm going to thank Alice in a speech. I think that's a big statement.

'I get lovely letters from gay women saying that I've helped them to come out. One girl said she'd told her father when they were watching TV. He pointed to me on the screen and said, "That's okay, because she's gay and I like her. I'll just tell my mates you're like Clare Balding."'

With her summer diary blocked off by high-profile sporting events, Clare's looking forward to proving her versatility as a presenter on her BBC1 science show, Operation Wild. The series sees her travel around the globe meeting vets who save the lives of animals like rhinos and giant pandas. 'It was fascinating to see how they're saving these precious animals,' Clare says. 'I love making shows that have popular appeal with good intellectual depth.'

And with those last six words, Clare unwittingly describes her own personal recipe for success.

Alice Arnold talks about life with her famous partner...

'We're stuck with each other because we have done that civil partnership thing. It's lovely, but it's a mouthful. "Are you married?" people ask. "I am civilly partnered," I reply. It doesn't exactly slip off the tongue.

'I once had a crush on Cagney & Lacey star Sharon Gless. When Sharon came to England, Clare was asked to help with publicity and had dinner with her. I was not a happy bunny! But Clare charmed Sharon and we all went for a meal together. It was perfect.

'When we get invited to events, we sometimes feel like the only gays in the village. Gay, female national treasures are quite rare, so we have a responsibility to be ourselves and show the world it's okay.

'Clare's fame and fortune has had no impact on our home life. Neither of us really cooks. If I'm out, I can guarantee Clare won't have left me anything tasty in the oven.

'I've often seen Clare surrounded by autograph hunters and chased by hyper-ventilating teenage girls. Perhaps they thought she was Justin Bieber.'

'Gay women often tell me I've helped them come out'


Clare as a jockey in 1997, carrying the Olympic torch in 2012 and in her new series, Operation Wild
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The People (London, England)
Date:Jul 20, 2014
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