MIRIAM O’REILLY: ‘I spent £20k my hair but now I’m glad to be grey’
‘I spent £20k dyeing my hair but now I’m glad to be grey’: From MIRIAM O’REILLY, the TV star who battled the BBC over ageism, a defiant celebration of her dramatic new look
- Miriam O’Reilly, 62, started going grey in 30s and has spent £20K on dyeing hair
- In 2011 she took BBC to landmark tribunal after being axed from Countryfile slot
- Three judges ruled she had been axed from role of eight years because of age
- When returned to work she was bullied and there was a lack of projects offered
- Allegedly told looked like a transgender TV character while working after case
Miriam O’Reilly has been the victim of multiple cases of mistaken identity since liberating her hair, and herself, from fierce beetle-black dye to delicate natural milky white; mainly from her husband of 30-odd years, Mark.
In the first week of her transformation, she would be woken by panicky yelps from the other side of the marital bed, as her husband would roll over and jump in alarm confronted by the sight on the neighbouring pillow of an alien woman’s shorn scalp.
O’Reilly, never a woman for half measures, had gone to her hairdresser in Birmingham saying she wanted all the black dye stripped out in one fell swoop, and her hair cut exceedingly short.
Miriam O’Reilly, 62, pictured, spent £20K dyeing her hair but said she felt ‘shackled by’ regular visits to the hairdresser to upkeep her locks. The decision to embrace grey was a bold move for the presenter who took the BBC to a landmark tribunal in 2011
This procedure is not for the faint-hearted and looked awful, she admits, to begin with.
‘Mark was so used to my black hair for 30 years that he’d lose me in shops,’ she laughs.
‘One time, some months on, we were in a queue for theatre tickets and I’d gone to the loo. When I came back I squeezed ahead of him and he went “Excuse me!” all indignant thinking I was a queue jumper and when I turned around he said, ‘Oh my God! … I’m still not used to it.’
O’Reilly — now 62, and looking trim and taut in dark jeans and black velvet sneakers —started going grey in her early 30s and reached for the bottle.
‘I thought, “I don’t want to look older than I am — I’m only 32”. Every month I’d go to the hair salon and then I’d touch it up in between. I must have spent more than £20,000 on colouring my hair over the past 25 years.’
Miriam, pictured in January 2011, won her case against the BBC and three judges said she had been axed from TV show Countryfile because of her age
Did you think of it as a tyranny? ‘I was shackled by it, at the end. The colouring went from being my best friend to somebody that I’d got tired of and wished I could cross out of my contacts book — like a bad relationship which I couldn’t get out of.’
The decision to go grey is a bold move in O’Reilly’s case; not only does she make a living in a medium which still demands its presenters (at least if they are female) to look forever young (or never old), but she also achieved notoriety when she took the BBC to a landmark tribunal in 2011, after they axed her because they wanted a younger presenter to take over her Countryfile slot.
At that time, O’Reilly was barely into her 50s and looked great. Most people would have said that she was an attractive, warm, engaging woman in her prime.
After winning her case Miriam, pictured in 2011, wasn’t offered many projects at work and said she was bullied about her looks
She won her case, after a difficult emotional and financial time, amid a maelstrom of headlines and publicity.
But what few people know is that what followed, on her return to the BBC, was almost more shocking, involving lack of projects offered (leaving her at home fully paid but unemployed for three months) and bullying — about her looks — to the point where she could no longer work for the corporation of which she had been a loyal contributor (as reporter, producer and presenter) for 25 years.
All of which makes her decision to go grey now even more courageous and admirable. She recently tweeted photos of herself, taken by her husband: a dark-haired ‘before’ shot, together with an ‘after’ of a blonde-white pixie crop which suits her.
‘I think I look …fabulous now,’ she says with an appealing lack of false modesty. ‘I feel like me.
‘I kept it short and white but started growing it last year — after those pictures were taken — because I want to have long platinum locks and walk across the cliffs with the wind blowing in my hair.
‘I want to have it up, I want to have it down, I want to tie it in a ponytail … anything, something different.’
O’Reilly’s win was a landmark age discrimination case against the BBC when three judges in a tribunal unanimously ruled that she had been axed (from Countryfile, which she had presented for eight years) because of her age and victimised by management after she had launched her case.
The BBC offered her a large out-of-court settlement — believed to be somewhere between £80,000 and £100,000 — that came with a gagging order.
She refused, because: ‘It was wrong. If I walked away, the BBC would get away with discrimination and they could say — still say — “We have a clean record on ageism’”. I had to dig my heels in.’
The presenter, pictured in April 2011, was offered her a large out-of-court settlement by the BBC but it came with a gagging order and she refused the money
The first mistake the BBC made was to underestimate O’Reilly’s QC Heather Williams.
‘They were all “I’m a BBC executive in my designer suit and I’ve got my handmade shoes”, with their sharp-suited lawyers, and Heather comes in wearing a coat that was too big and as she sat down, you almost felt like they were sniggering.
‘But I tell you what — within half an hour of that tribunal starting, as soon as she started cross-examining — everything changed.’
On the day of the verdict, her husband had driven her from their home in Wales to Aberdovey Junction station for the 7.35am train to Birmingham International where she would change for London, Euston. It was a cold, dark January morning and O’Reilly was nervous and more alone than she had felt in her life.
‘If I lost — and I knew I would be ridiculed and destroyed — I was going to say that you can grow old. You can have white hair. And still have value and still be on the top of your game and still be able to do your job.’
It was still dark when her phone rang. It was her lawyer Camilla Palmer to say a letter had arrived with the news that O’Reilly had won her case on ageism and on victimisation (although not sexism, oddly, since the point is older men can appear on the BBC — John Simpson, John Craven et al — but not older women).
After the case Miriam presented the Crimewatch Roadshow. While filming on location one of the cameramen allegedly called her Hayley Cropper, pictured, after the Coronation Street character, as they thought she looked like the transgender character
‘I didn’t mind about that — the reason I brought the case was to show that the BBC was ageist towards older women and the victimisation was important because the BBC withdrew work.’
After phoning her husband and children, the next person she called was Joan Bakewell, ‘because she was such a huge support and she said that she was getting dressed and she jumped up and down and waved her knickers in the air!
‘If I hadn’t been on the train and had a few more minutes to take it in, I would probably have done the same’.
But Dame Joan might not have felt so jubilant had she known what was to follow for her colleague after this historic victory.
One of the most upsetting aspects of her story is the bullying the presenter alleges she suffered on her return to the BBC.
It’s worth noting that over the years O’Reilly has won many professional awards — including a Foreign Press Award, a Royal Television Society Award and a British Environment Media Award — and had also presented prestigious Radio Four programmes such as Costing The Earth and Woman’s Hour, standing in for Jenni Murray when she was away.
Her first big gig, on her return, was working as a location presenter on the Crimewatch Roadshow.
During her career Miriam, pictured in 2011, also presented prestigious Radio Four programmes such as Costing The Earth and Woman’s Hour
She claims that before filming even started, a crew member announced to all that he thought O’Reilly’s win was ‘bull***t’. Her response was to say, ‘Whatever your view of it, I think you should keep it to yourself. Let’s be professional here, I am going to be.’
The next morning, she claims she was about to do her live piece to camera, when she was cued in as ‘Hayley’. O’Reilly was confused.
Since they were about to go on air, she couldn’t ask who ‘Hayley’ was, but a cameraman assured her that she was on next.
Afterwards, she says she enquired, ‘Who is this Hayley?’ and was allegedly told ‘Oh, you look just like the [transgender — from man to woman] character, Hayley [Cropper], in Coronation Street and I just couldn’t stop thinking that, and it was stuck in my head … ”’
O’Reilly said it wasn’t funny, it was unprofessional and she didn’t like it. She claims the response was, ‘Oh, haven’t you got a sense of humour, Miriam?’
The following day, she found a picture of Hayley had been stuck on her sound pack. Isolating tactics she says she endured included having to stay in her hotel room to ‘learn the lines’ rather than join the others for a meal.
When the programme was aired and received very high ratings, she claims she was left out of the congratulatory emails and was cold-shouldered at the wrap.
Miriam, pictured now, left the BBC in 2012 and has since worked for Channel Five on series the Secrets Of The National Trust with Alan Titchmarsh
It is as painful for her to recollect all this as it is to hear it. Although she did write to the then director general, Mark Thompson, she says ‘I didn’t want to be seen as someone who was always complaining.
‘I didn’t want to be the one who was always calling someone else out. And, actually, I had an exemplary record.’
As she points out, her experience was the year before the BBC’s Respect At Work review was set up in 2013 in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal and found that there was ‘a strong undercurrent of fear’ at the BBC around bullying.
Nine hundred people came forward and of the 500 interviewed, more than two-thirds said they had witnessed or encountered bullying at the corporation.
The BBC was going to overhaul its policies to remove contractual gagging clauses to make it easier for staff to talk more openly.
Apart from the Crimewatch Roadshow programme, O’Reilly claims she was contracted to do a number of Radio 4 programmes that were not forthcoming.
When she finally left the BBC, in 2012, Mark Thompson had left and his replacement as director general, George Entwistle, told her that even though it hadn’t worked out, they’d love to work with her again: ‘but of course the phone hasn’t rung in seven years’.
A BBC spokesperson said: ‘Miriam’s views on the BBC are well known. As we’ve said before, she hasn’t been blacklisted, when Miriam left the BBC, she said she had a rewarding time here.
‘The BBC takes allegations of bullying and harassment very seriously and we have processes in place for anyone who wants to raise a concern.’
O’Reilly spent the first four of those seven years doing the things she hadn’t been able to do before: ‘I lived my life.’
Then three years ago, she received an email from a production company saying they were making a series — the Secrets Of The National Trust — with Alan Titchmarsh and they would love her to be a presenter.
‘Well, you could have knocked me down with a feather! I said, “That’s fantastic, let’s talk”.’ Since then, she has had a blast: ‘One of the best times I’ve had working, with a wonderful team — and Channel Five don’t mind strong, older women.’
As she recalls the moment she once again stood in front of the camera, after such a long break, she gets a little emotional: ‘When I did my first opening piece to camera, I was 60 and I had my white hair and my loud and proud wrinkles — and I was myself.
‘This is me, Miriam O’Reilly at 60 — and I think I look great, and I feel good about myself. All in my head obviously! And now I’m going to chat to you about this wonderful National Trust property.
‘I never thought this would happen and it’s kind of what I fought for, for all of us.’
MIRIAM is wearing a magenta satin dress, priced £345, from thefoldlondon.com.
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