Carol Vorderman is one of the most famous presenters in British television, both much-loved and much-hated. Whether you consider her an example of a woman succeeding through intelligence rather than looks, or a woman of little presenting talent whose main motives are ambition and money, her career is an archetypal example of how television in the UK creates stars almost at random, throws formats and money at them, but seldom produces anything you'd want to watch even when facing death by boredom.
Vorderman has been working in television for 20 years and despite some atrocious career moves seems set for success for some time to come. She was born on December 24, 1960, to a Dutch father and Welsh mother, and raised in North Wales, attending the Blessed Edward Jones Catholic High School in Rhyl. She graduated from Cambridge University aged 20 with a third class honours degree (the lowest non-fail award) in Engineering, and possesses an I.Q. score of 154. Her skill with numbers, her intelligent-yet-approachable demeanour, and her pleasant appearance made her an ideal figure for much television work.
She began her television career as one of the hostesses on the tv quiz show Countdown (1982-present). Her mother sent in the application without telling her, and forged Carol's signature at the bottom1. She was initially billed as Carol Mather, the name of her first husband. Countdown was the first show ever to be broadcast on the alternative, minority, experimental network Channel 4, and she was arguably the first woman to appear on the channel (though the debate is vicious). Countdown was designed as a test of the contestant's abilities at anagrams and mental arithmetic, but it was Vorderman whose skills eclipsed most of the competitors. Traditionally scheduled at 4.30pm but more recently at 4.15pm, the show rapidly became hugely popular with the elderly, students, and almost anyone else who was at home that time of day.
While main presenter Richard Whiteley introduced everyone, handled the scores, and guided the contestants through the word and number rounds, Carol had two distinct jobs. In classic Wheel of Fortune style, she was required to place letters on a board as instructed by the competitors, whilst looking pretty and hiding any pain caused by Whiteley's often-dismal punnery. In the other rounds, she had to place numbers rather than letters on the board, and then press a big round button, which would cause the show's computer CECIL to reveal a random three-digit number. Contestants then competed to get as close as possible to the random number by performing basic arithmetic operations on the numbers on the board. But if neither competitor could reach the exact total, Carol would commonly leap in and show them how it should be done, demonstrating not merely a familiarity with the 75 times table, but a wider grasp of arithmetic and numerical creativity.
At first Vorderman shared duties with a number of other women - Linda Barrett, Beverley Isherwood and Kathy Hytner - none of whom went onto lasting fame. But in time, she took over all their duties and became as big a star as Whiteley, indeed coming to eclipse his possibly meagre talents. The time was right for the move from daytime to evening television.
Carol's first major primetime role was as presenter of Tomorrow's World, the BBC's long-running science magazine program. The kid-friendly show was perhaps past its heyday, regularly shunted around the schedules, and far too prone to promoting products of dubious value with little actual scientific content. However, it remains one of the BBC's best known brands, and a considerable honour for any presenter.
There then followed the first of her career wrong turns. Taking advantage, not for the last time, of her image as the acceptable, non-geeky face of science, she appeared in television advertisements for Unilever's Persil Power washing detergent whilst co-presenting Tomorrow's World. In addition to claims that the detergent could rot certain clothes2, the similarity of the advertisements to the format of Tomorrow's World led to the BBC sacking her from that show3 because her impartiality was compromised. The following year, Persil Power was withdrawn from the market.
This barely made her pause for thought, and Vorderman immediately decamped to rival channel ITV where she found herself in an ever-increasing number of shows. What happened then was the common blight of any moderately-talented and personable TV host: overexposure. Vorderman fronted a series of boring and derivative shows, sometimes with a vaguely science/engineering theme, but often the sort of bland human interest that is of no interest to anyone.
Some, such as the adult education show Computers Don't Byte, were worthy but dull. Others were shallow and valueless: Mysteries with Carol Vorderman offered an unscientific, supermarket-tabloid account of Fortean phenomena. Stars and their Lives was a rip-off of long-running show This is Your Life and revealed Vorderman as a cold and unempathetic interviewer, while Carol Vorderman's Better Gardens attempted to cash in on the success of BBC garden makeover show Ground Force. The desperation of TV producers to match tired format to familiar face saw her present not only gardening programs, but shows about antiques and inheritances, in addition to a steady stream of techology-related shows (see full list at end).
In addition to television presenting, she has been busy in a variety of media. She has written columns in the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror newspapers, and penned a number of books: Dirty Loud and Brilliant, How Mathematics Works, and Carol Vorderman's Guide To The Internet. She has spoken out against European political integration and the European single currency in the Daily Telegraph4. She has also lent a semblance of scientific authority to advertising products including Benecol Margarine (a margarine with dubious health benefits, that claims to lower cholesterol, but is perhaps less effective than not eating margarine at all) and Carphone Warehouse.
Television guest appearences include The Mrs Merton Show, 1994, in which she was interviewed by Caroline Aherne's fake granny, Shooting Stars in 1993, Fantasy World Cup in 1998, Celebrity Who Wants To Be A Millionaire in 1998, and numerous spots as a guest on shows such as GMTV and This Morning. On Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, she failed at the 250 000 GBP point by failing to know that Sir Toby Belch was a character in William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Proving herself a sore loser, Vorderman declared that she always though Shakespeare was "dull as ditchwater"; the eminent academic John Sutherland commented that she thereby earned "eternal fame in the dictionary of great philistinism".5
In 2000, she separated from her second husband Patrick King, the father of her daughter Katie, and as their ten-year marriage fell apart, the newly-single Vorderman pulled off a striking image change, not only losing weight, but appearing in a variety of bizarre and revealing dresses on television shows and sporting a series of haircuts that might have been better fitted to a teenage pop idol.
More seriously, she has campaigned for protection of children from paedophiles on the internet. However, it is arguable whether her call for greater regulation and censorship is the best way to protect children in what is inescapably an adult world. To her credit, unlike many media personalities, she proved her intelligence by refusing to be tricked into appearing on Brass Eye, Chris Morris's satire of media hysteria on the subject of paedophilia. She said that she would not appear without knowing more about his spurious campaigning organisation.6 She is also popular as an after-dinner and motivational speaker, and you can hire her for corporate engagements via her agency Speakers UK.
Another of her money-making schemes is that standard product of female TV stars of a certain age, the celebrity diet: Carol Vorderman's Detox Plan is a book and video designed to cleanse the body of toxins and promote weight loss. As someone who appears as an expert on science, you would have expected Vorderman to be aware of the dubious scientific validity of detox diets: Vincent F. Cordaro, M.D., an FDA medical officer, commented of such plans "A person who retained wastes and toxins would be very ill and could die if not treated. The whole concept is irrational and unscientific."7.
In 2000, she received an MBE for services to broadcasting. Although widely derided for her over-exposure on television, she remains an icon of successful intelligent womanhood to many people. Arguably any moderately clever woman with even the unexceptional presenting skills that Vorderman possesses will stand out in the vacuity of primetime British television, but it is clear that her success is due to more than just mathematical skills and niceness. At the time of writing (October 2002), Vorderman continues to work with Whiteley on Countdown, and her controversially high salary of 2 000 000 GBP a year makes her the 20th-highest paid woman in Britain8.
Major TV presenting roles (as of 2002)
Thanks to spiregrain for information about her application to appear on Countdown.