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Monday, May 23, 2022

‘I never needed people to like me’: Dragons’ Den star Deborah Meaden on snobbery, fame and her 40-year marriage | Dragons’ Den

As Deborah Meaden gears up for her 17th series of Dragons’ Den, which she joined in 2006, she meets me at the Guardian’s offices. She is maybe 90 seconds late and does this lightning three-act apology – that she is sorry; why it happened (taxi driver didn’t know the way); how we could move on (he was actually a very nice guy) – which transmitted, in a tiny but meaningful way, what she always puts across on screen. Here is a woman who will sort things, who will take responsibility, who means what she says, who will not overreact, who doesn’t make the same mistake twice.

Since she joined Twitter in 2011, and ever more so since Brexit, Meaden has added common sense and trenchancy to traits visible in her public persona. She always came across, in the Den, as having a rich bass note of kindness and generosity. All the guys are so hard-charging and alpha, full of phrases like “I don’t see what’s in it for me”, offering half the investment asked for, for five times the stake. Meaden has always stood out – I mean, she’s not running a charity, as the business people like to say, but she doesn’t go in bristling with ego, looking for the win at every turn, and this seems to play well for her decision process since all but a handful of her businesses are still active (If you ever have a slow moment, you can go through the episodes to see which investor has the best hit rate. It’s quite fun, like the end-of-the-year roundup of the racing tips from Radio 4’s Today programme.)

In short, if Carlsberg did business people, they would probably be Meaden, hard-boiled but humane, single-minded but rounded, confident but modest – well, not modest exactly, simply not that interested in her own qualities, since that’s not what she’s selling.

She was born in Taunton in Somerset in 1959, to a formidable mother – “she never looked for sympathy. She never looked for help” – with whom she shares that toughness but, she says, very little else. “She must look at me sometimes and think, ‘how did I spawn this child?’ I’ve never seen her without her makeup. She’s 84; they have a social life which exhausts me to even hear about.”

“They” is her mother and mother’s third husband, who Meaden considers her father: “He’s the person who was there’; I don’t think anybody else has the right to call themselves that”. She did meet her “real” father (she always puts the “real” in airquotes) at 15, but says: “I didn’t, honestly, at that point, feel anything for him. He was a stranger to me. He could have been anybody in the street.”

Meaden is always in a hurry, but never more than when she’s racing to tell you why everything was fine, actually. She’ll acknowledge a difficult situation – her mother was divorced twice by the time Meaden was two, and had two small girls to look after in a really unhelpful decade – but only to explain why it’s best to just get on with it. She went to a number of boarding schools, hating them all, but insists: “You know what? My life is my responsibility. There were people who loved boarding school, so it can’t have been the schools. It was me, in the schools. It was not right for me.”

She really prizes self-sufficiency, but the accent is all on the sufficiency rather than the self – she tells me a sweet story about being in an airport where the announcements had stopped working, and arranging the queues so professionally that people started to complain to her, thinking she worked for the airline. “My husband died a thousand deaths.” Her robustness, the total absence of anxiety or self-pity, she puts down to the fact that “nothing awful has ever happened”, which I guess she would.

It’s hard to place her class, because her upbringing was fluid – she’d be at boarding school in the term, and then spend the holidays at Butlin’s, where her mother had a concession. “I was lucky. You meet this amazing range of people, and you learn how to work in different environments. I never needed people to like me, to prove I fitted in. I was happy being me. And there was no point me trying to pretend to be terribly posh. Or not posh.” Her early years were precarious, but in her early 20s she joined her family’s thriving holiday park business, which she later bought from her parents for undisclosed millions. She loathes snobbery above all things. “I can’t stand it because it’s always founded on the wrong thing. It’s founded on money, or education. It’s never founded on, ‘that’s a good person’, or ‘they’re in a difficult situation’.”

And whether or not she cares about money – realistically, she must a bit, she has an estimated net worth of £40m – she did not go a bundle on education, taking a vocational course at Brighton technical college (as was) instead of A-levels. She didn’t do any work. She really loved funk. She loves to dance – everyone who’s ever been on Strictly Come Dancing, as she was in 2013, eventually makes that claim, but in her case it seems to be true. She’s only ever had one non-entrepreneurial ambition, which was to be a showjumper, “but I was absolutely rubbish. I’m not an idiot. I could see I was rubbish.” Her life story, if she were allowed to tell it uninterrupted, would leap from one business venture to another, from her first import business as a teenager, bringing in glass and ceramics from Italy and cutting deals with department stores. And even that she won’t admit was in any way unusual, that she might have been particularly intrepid or had a good eye. “Driving backwards and forwards to Italy, what’s the worst that could happen?” And as for the ceramics, “I like creativity. I like different. I like that in a person, too. But it’s my eye, isn’t it? I can’t say that’s good taste or bad taste. It’s just my taste.”

Meaden with her husband, Paul.
Meaden with her husband, Paul. Photograph: Richard Young/Shutterstock

Meaden had a brief period in textiles before joining the family business in the early 80s. She did their bingo calling, and there’s still a slight theatricality to her gestures. She sometimes reminds me of Liza Minnelli in the Cabaret years. And that must have come from the bingo, because on the Den, she’s extremely, well, businesslike. “I am rubbish at what makes good entertainment. I just turn up, sit in a seat, I do what I do and they turn it into a bit of magic. I’m not an actor. I can’t do stuff I don’t want to do. I can’t pretend I’m interested if I’m bored. I’m not seeking fame. I do it because it’s the thing that I do anyway.”

While calling the numbers, in either 1984 or 85, she met her husband, Paul, who’s “the most competent man in the world. He’s a fantastic cook. He grows all our own vegetables. He’s in touch with the earth. He’s not interested in doing what I do, but he still wants me to do what I do, and I want Paul to do what he does. We’re just two people who found each other, and filled in the gaps.” Perhaps I’d expected more flowery language than “competent” of a nearly 40-year relationship, but she talks about marriage like your classic, 70s bloke. If someone were to play her in a movie, it would be Michael Caine. “It just works. Listen, everybody goes through ups and downs. But there was never a point at which … no, that’s not true. We split up before we got married. He wanted to get married and I absolutely didn’t. We used to have those circular arguments, him saying, ‘but why won’t you get married?’ And me saying, ‘what’s the point, we’re gonna stay together for the rest of our lives?’– ‘if that’s right then Deborah, why don’t we just get married?’ You know, we’d go round and round in circles. I still say to this day, he made me, he forced me. I was literally standing there outside the church, saying, ‘I’m doing this for Paul’. He knows this! But I also say, and he knows this, too, that it’s the best thing I ever did.”

Dragons’ Den came calling in its third season, and she initially refused, “because I was very concerned that I would lose control of the nice life that I’d built. Once you step out into the limelight, you can get knocked off course.” In fact, none of the things you’d worry about, being in the public eye, ever transpired (much) – when people approach her in the street, “they’re talking about my subject. They’ve often got an idea. It might be rubbish, but honestly, people who complain about getting approached on the street, get off television.” It has a lot more upsides than down. “It opens doors that I used to have to work so hard for. I find myself saying ‘no’ to things and thinking, blimey, if you’d told me in my bingo calling days I would have been too busy for that. If I call somebody, pretty much anyone will pick up the phone.”

Deborah Meaden in the latest series of Dragons’ Den.
Deborah Meaden in the latest series of Dragons’ Den. Photograph: -Screen Grab/BBC Studios

In recent years, let’s say the past five, Meaden has been known as the businesswoman who will say the things that no one else in business would – that Brexit was an act of self-sabotage, that politicians should tell the truth, that children shouldn’t be going hungry in the holidays or, indeed, ever. The echoing silence coming from industry over political decisions that will, sooner or later, have a massive industrial impact has been really peculiar, I think. It’s a long time since Boris Johnson said “fuck business”; how come business people never say “fuck Boris”?

“Oh they do. Maybe not to the papers. I think the media has got a part to play in that. They wouldn’t have to look very hard to find somebody who was prepared to say it. But Boris is a weird one. He says stuff, and people say “Oh that’s just Boris.” No, that is not just Boris. He is our prime minister. What he says counts. You can’t just shrug your shoulders.”

She came out very strongly against Brexit, but has a great deal of sympathy for business peers who didn’t. “I’m an investor, and I can say what I like. A lot of businesses have shareholders, and half of them will probably be pro Brexit, half of them would have been against Brexit. I’m not actually defending it. Because it was such an important thing. I think we had a responsibility to point out what was actually going on. But I do understand why I was in a much stronger position.”

Determinedly politically un-affiliated, she has voted every which way in her life, she says. Labour, the Lib Dems … she’d vote Tory if they got their act together. “I’m a true floating voter. I have to agree with most of what a party is promising, and I have to believe that they’re going to deliver it. I never used to have to think about, do I believe you?”

She seems to me to be a shoo-in for Labour’s celebrity-bench, but I’d chosen the wrong dragon to canvass, and I’d also reckoned without her environmental commitment. She’s more likely to vote Green. The one piece of work she did do at Brighton technical college was a dissertation on climate change (this was unbelievably prescient, in the 70s), and she won her first environmental award in business 30 years ago. “When I was first in Dragons’ Den, they used to call me Swampy.” Her new radio show is called The Big Green Money Show and well, the clue’s in the name: she is dedicated to interrogating businesses, nascent, established, small and large, about exactly what their intentions are towards the planet. “I have a very sensitive nose to greenwash. But at least businesses understand now that it matters to the consumer, and if it matters to the consumer, it matters to the business. The consumer has all the power. If we want things to change, buy differently. Put your pension somewhere else, don’t put it in fossil fuels.”

If you’re a bit sceptical that consumers really are the answer, well, she’d have time for that point of view but wouldn’t, I don’t think, lose sleep over it. Since her first business venture, selling flowers aged seven, she’s been finding the thing she could do, and doing it.

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