Ben Fogle crossed the Atlantic in a rowing boat and ran a desert marathon but won’t ride a bike in London. He talks family life and dad bods with Rosamund Urwin.
Prince William — trying to protect his privacy — once pretended to be his friend Ben Fogle. So I ask the adventurer, TV presenter and Duke doppelganger if he’s ever passed himself off as William.
His eyes widen in horror. “No! No! But people have been convinced I’m him overseas. In Chile, the entire paparazzi once turned up.” At school, the 41-year-old was teased for looking like William. “The resemblance is less obvious now,” he notes, diplomatically. Sure, I say, the Fogle hairline is better: “That’s treasonous territory there!”
Back in 2011, Fogle went on safari with William and Harry. “It was fascinating, being in the back of a Land Rover with them. It was very” — Fogle picks his next word carefully — “normal.” Normal? “Africa is a leveller. William has spoken about that. Whoever you are, you’re the same there. You melt into the landscape.”
He adds that the Prince is “very grounded — which is extraordinary for someone in his position. And he’ll be a modern Dad — he’ll have to do his juggling.”
The “juggling” is what Fogle wants to talk about. The father-of-two (his son Ludo is five, his daughter Iona is three) is championing a Notonthehighstreet initiative to help men achieve a better balance between work and family.
There’s something of the Mr Bingley about Fogle. He arrives early — smiley, ultra-polite and eager to please. As we chat, some fluff lands in his hair — and he’s listening so intently that he doesn’t notice. He’s also a little wired, thanks to a cappuccino with three shots: “My son’s ill — I was up all night.”
Happy dad: Ben with his wife Marina and their two children (Picture: Can Nguyen/REX) He confesses that he and his friends struggle with the concept of being a modern father. “We’re a much more touchy-feely, hands-on generation than our fathers but juggling work, family and social life and trying to be romantic and keep yourself fit is really hard. I want to be the perfect dad but you can’t be the perfect dad unless you compromise elsewhere.”
Is that why men develop the “dad bod”? Fogle laughs. “My wife, Marina, definitely wouldn’t say ‘I’d prefer a dad bod than a fit bod’ but it’s a reality because something has to give. In the first four years [of parenthood], the dad bod explodes — sometimes hilariously. Then when the children become more independent, that’s when Mamils start — middle-aged men in lycra.”
There’s a shudder. Fogle is no Mamil: “It’s not a good look, even with the best body. But dads want to prove they’ve still got it, that life doesn’t end after children.”
As a parent, he’s still in the “twilight” period where he can do no wrong: “I’m like a superhero. Poor Marina, because I come back from long trips and they’re like limpets to me. She puts in the hard work and I get the glory.”
Initially, becoming a father made him “uber-cautious” about his adventures but he decided he didn’t want all the exciting stories he tells his children to be in the past. “If I say ‘I’m swimming the Atlantic’, Horrified from Surrey will say: ‘how can you do that? You need to be a responsible father’. But as long as you mitigate the risks, and put enough time in, you shouldn’t change who you are to fit into this jigsaw piece of parenthood.”
Fogle can already imagine the day when he morphs into Embarrassing Dad. His bag was stolen on a recent trip to Canada, so he picked up his children in bush gear and army boots. “I went from the plane to their school to maximise time with them, so I was wearing what I’d been wearing for a week, with Canadian dust. They might think that’s fun now but it’ll become embarrassing.”
Does he also do dad-dancing? He nods. “We’re a fun house — we put music on and dance around. But Marina has absolutely vetoed me doing Strictly Come Dancing. I will embarrass myself forever and never work again; that’s how bad I am.”
He can still recall his adolescent mortification about his own parents. His father Bruce is a vet, so the family house was “like Dr Dolittle’s, with animals racing through, wearing Elizabethan collars.” Bruce was “super Canadian, always wearing lumberjack shirts”, while his mother, the actress Julia Foster, would pick him up from school “as the character she was playing. Suddenly she’d have an Irish accent. And her hair would change daily — red, black, curly, then none. I didn’t even recognise her sometimes.” At his boarding school, Bryanston, he was teased about her topless appearances in films.
Duke’s double: Fogle, left, has been mistaken for his friend Prince William (Picture: Chris Jackson/Getty) Boarding school, though, was the making of Fogle, toughening him up. So would he send his children there? “We’d want them to make the decision, but as a modern father it seems amazing that you would bond, love and nurture your child, then pack them off. And now [boarding school] is a bastion of oligarchs and wealthy overseas students. I don’t want my children growing up in a cosseted, unrealistic cocoon.”
Fogle himself struggled at school, took two gap years, dropped out of one university and “scraped through” a second. He ended up working as a barman at Covent Garden’s Dome: “My parents weren’t especially proud.” Eventually, he got a job at Condé Nast but jacked that in to live on an island for a year in the reality show Castaway. He didn’t know many media types, so he asked Toby Young — an acquaintance of his sister’s — if he should go on. “Toby emailed back: ‘absolutely not’.”
Fogle’s life since then has been eventful. He has run the Marathon des Sables, swam from Alcatraz to San Francisco and survived 49 days in a boat with James Cracknell. He’s had his face eaten by leishmaniasis in Peru, and his drink spiked in a Cotswolds gastropub. The last resulted in his only ever psychotic episode: “I tried to throw myself out of a window. If my friend hadn’t been there, I think I would have killed myself. And I picked up my daughter under the influence — I’ll never forgive whoever did that to me.”
Couple: Fogle with his wife Marina (Picture: Dave Benett) Despite surviving all these ordeals, there’s one thing that still scares him: cycling in the capital. “It’s hideous. I try not to cycle any more in London because it’s become too dangerous. Boris bikes were a brilliant idea but … you see people weaving in and out who are not the finest cyclists.”
Boris is something of a hero to Fogle — “I love all the things he’s done in London” — and he’s not averse to becoming the second blond bombshell in City Hall one day. “Two taxi drivers — and I have my best chats with black- cab drivers — just said they’d back me for Mayor. London really is my city; I was born within a breath of Marble Arch. I know all the quickest exits in Tube stations. I wouldn’t want to go into mainstream, Downing Street politics, though — it’s just too cut-throat. I’ve got quite thin skin.”
Fogle’s main mayoral plan would centre on the Thames. “Visit every other city in the world with a great river running through it, and see how busy those rivers are. We should have black cabs on the Thames — loads of boats, everything off the roads and onto the river.” He’s a Garden Bridge fan too: “I love the concept … why are we not still making lasting legacies like that? The Thames is such a blank canvas — it’s just nothingness.”
The Thames isn’t Fogle’s only congestion fix. “I’d be quite happy if cars were banned from central London. Why are we not using little tuk-tuks rather than big black cabs? Rickshaws and tiny little vehicles are more eco-friendly [than black cabs]. Do taxis — oh, the drivers are going to hate me now — but do they need to be that size?”
And just like that, he has sabotaged his chances with his only known supporters. It’s a brave move — but then, would we expect anything less from our globe-trotting adventurer?