Rock bottom, for Anne Hegerty, came some time in 2008. Her work – as a freelance copy editor and proofreader – had dried up. “I had become completely undependable,” she says. “Publishing books, you need people to hit the deadline. I wasn’t doing that, so understandably people weren’t giving me work any more.”
She had been struggling with day-to-day life and debt; she was behind on the rent on her flat in Manchester and wasn’t answering the phone. “The housing association lady came round, rang the doorbell. I very carefully peeked round the door and she kind of shoved it open, walked across piles of unopened mail and said: ‘Right, we’re going to fix this.’”
And they did. Hegerty was assigned a social worker, Jeff McKenzie. “J-E-double-F,” she tells me; she doesn’t want it spelt wrong. He was brilliant. He knew what to do, that the water company had a secret fund for people who can’t pay the bill. He helped her to get back on disability benefit and housing benefit. She finally got herself a usable bank account.
Fast-forward a decade and Anne Hegerty was getting £95,000 to appear on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here!. Now, a couple of days after meeting me for a cup of coffee outside a cafe in a park in Watford, she is jetting off to Australia again, to take part in another television show.
Even after getting back on her feet in the late 00s, Hegerty still wasn’t doing a lot of socialising; she has always spent most of her time on her own. But she was going to the Mastermind Club, a group of former contestants of the storied BBC quizshow who met in a pub once a month. Hegerty had been on Mastermind in the late 80s, but didn’t do very well. Through the club, she got involved in a national circuit that organised a big quiz once a month. She started to do well in that and attracted attention. Then, at a World Quizzing Championship event in Ludlow, Shropshire, she met “the largest man I’ve ever seen in my life”, who introduced himself as Mark Labbett. He told her about a new ITV quizshow on which he was appearing. He said she should watch it.
She did – and she liked it. When she heard they were hiring more quizzers, she applied. That is how Hegerty became the Governess on The Chase. (Labbett is the Beast; the other professional quizzers, or “chasers”, are Sean “the Dark Destroyer” Wallace, Paul “the Sinnerman” Sinha, Jenny “the Vixen” Ryan, and Darragh “The Menace” Ennis.) The chasers’ job is to try to prevent contestants from winning cash prizes.
Originally, Hegerty was going to be known as the Headmistress, but the show’s host, Bradley Walsh, started calling her the Governess. “I don’t know, he just saw something governessy in me,” she says. She is happy with it. “She can basically do what she likes, whereas a headmistress has a board of governors she has to report to.” It fits with the shtick: she is in charge, she is a bit scary and she knows everything.
The Chase soon became ITV’s most popular teatime programme; it now gets between 3 million and 5 million viewers an episode. There are two spin-offs, The Chase Australia and Beat the Chasers, in which Hegerty stars. She also presents Britain’s Brightest Family, and the celebrity version, on ITV.
The success of The Chase did not surprise her. “I didn’t realise how unlikely it was that it would be a hit, that most gameshows aren’t,” she says. “I just thought: this is going to be a hit, of course we’re going to become famous. I was slightly surprised how long it took … more out of naivety than arrogance.”
Is that what she wanted, to be famous? “Yeah. It’s awful of me, but I spent my childhood thinking: one day I’ll be famous and then they’ll be sorry,” she says. “I didn’t actually think it was going to take that long.” She left it fashionably late, until her 50s. She is now 62.
Hegerty had assumed she would be a famous writer. After studying linguistics at university, she did a journalism course and worked for various local papers. But it never quite happened; she turned to copy editing and proofreading. She talks about the time, a couple of years before The Chase, when she applied for a full-time proofreading job in the civil service. “Do you remember a song in the 1970s, by a bloke called Kevin Smith, called Rock and Roll (I Gave You the Best Years of My Life)? It’s about a guy who is always chasing fame – and the bit right at the end, when he’s got this girlfriend …” Hegerty starts singing to me: “And she followed me through London, through 100 hotel rooms / Through 100 record companies who didn’t like my tunes / And she followed me when finally I sold my old guitar / And she tried to help me understand I’d never be a star.”
She is word perfect: the only thing she gets wrong, surprisingly, is the name of the singer. (It is Kevin Johnson. No, I didn’t know that.) Anyway, Hegerty says: “It kept reverberating with me, that if I take this job I’ll never be a star,” she says. “And the rest of my brain is going: you’ll never be a star anyway, what are you talking about, just take the bloody job.”
She didn’t get the job. This was around the time that things started to get bad. When she talks about the bad times, she does so matter-of-factly, without self-pity. At this point, it is necessary to go a little further back, to another significant event in Hegerty’s life.
It was 2003 and she was watching television. “I can’t remember her name; she was a woman who had three sons, all of whom were autistic. I think one of them was called George. They were quite little boys. And something just kind of twanged my brain. It was the way one of the children squealed: it just sounded like me when I was feeling utterly exasperated with the world and thinking: why can’t people understand what the problem is?”
She started to research autism and Asperger syndrome. She drew up tables – what she did, what she had done as a child, what her dad had done – “because I thought that might be relevant”.
Could the lists be symptomatic in themselves? “That’s what my doctor said: ‘The fact you’ve drawn up these tables is kind of tipping me to the fact you might have it.’ He was very sympathetic and supportive.” But it still took a couple of years to get an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis. When it came, it was a relief. “It kind of helped me just reframe everything,” she says. “I suddenly found myself more sympathetic to others: oh, I see why people expected me to do that, why that little girl said that, why my mum thought this.’”
Ninety minutes with Hegerty in the sunshine in Watford (she moved here to be nearer Elstree Studios, where The Chase is filmed) is an eye-opener. As well as being fascinating and open about autism – maybe because of it – her plain-speaking candour is refreshing and sometimes startling. She rattles through her life story. Childhood in north London suburbia with parents “who really shouldn’t have been allowed in the same county as each other”, then boarding school, where she wasn’t happy, “partly because I was autistic and undiagnosed”.
“I wasn’t clear what the point of friends was,” she says. Again, she isn’t seeking sympathy. “People have jumped on that and misinterpreted it. I’ve had people saying: ‘Anne has talked so movingly about her struggles with loneliness,’ and I’m like: no, I said I didn’t know how to make friends. Maybe I should have added I didn’t know why to make friends.”
Hegerty discovered, at eight or nine, that she could remember things: “I don’t think I have a photographic memory – I have a sticky memory. I come across stuff and it stays with me.” She memorised Shakespeare speeches. “I learned them all; I just liked doing it. To be or not to be; I didn’t really understand what Hamlet was going on about. I realised he was talking about life and death and so on, but I didn’t really understand what was bothering him.”
It was similar with humour. “I remember as a child reading a short story by James Thurber and thinking: ‘I know this is funny. I don’t know why it is funny, but I can see where the jokes are. I can get the rhythm of the humour and one day I will understand why this punchline is a punchline.’”
She appreciates humour now; she is funny. “I’m like Scarlett O’Hara eating a radish: ‘I’ll never be hungry again,’” she says about her days of poverty. She has friends in the quizzing circuit, including Labbett, who helped her on the road to fame and fortune. His son is her godson. Relationships have been trickier. “I think the problem is I find it really difficult to fall in love with real people,” she says. There have been attempts. “I’ve thought: am I in love with this guy? And then we kind of get together and I think: damn it, no, oh dear.”
She would prefer just to have male friends. In general, she prefers men to women. “I’ve never really related to women very much. Again it’s probably to do with being autistic, but women care about stuff that I can’t quite make sense of and they make assumptions about you because you’re female,” she says. “I have never thought of myself as a feminist. People say why and I say: ‘I don’t really like women very much; that’s the brutal truth.’”
Gail, the PR who is sitting with us, doesn’t bat an eyelid; I think she has heard it before. Gail is a Scot; Hegerty doesn’t have much time for them, either (in spite of being one-quarter Scottish), because of the anti-English hostility she experienced at university in Edinburgh. Others who come under fire during out chat: Americans (“When you tell them a joke, you’ve got to warn them”); her dad (“A man who needed ashtrays thrown at his head on a regular basis,” although he was the only one who believed in Hegerty); her grandparents (“They were thoroughly inadequate – a massive disappointment to me”); the waitress here, calling out order numbers (“Shut up” – under her breath, thankfully).
This is not just the Governess persona; it is Hegerty. Again, she doesn’t want leeway; she makes no excuses. “There have been times when I have felt like saying to people: ‘How do you know the diagnosis was right? Maybe I’m not autistic; maybe I’m just obnoxious. Don’t let me get away with stuff.’” On I’m a Celebrity, she was hopeless in the jungle, she says: “And everyone always goes: ‘No, no, no, you were jolly brave.’ I’m like: ‘No, I was pathetic.’”
There is a thumbs-up column, though: the Welsh (“Lovely, just as nice as I expected”); Australians (“They have a sense of humour”); her celebrity campmates in the jungle (“I tried to walk out on the first morning and what kept me in was the people – they were just lovely”). She appreciated the 95K, too (“Yes, that’s why I did it”). Oh, and lockdown, a few months with no social contact or commitments: “Brilliant. I loved lockdown, absolutely adored it.”
But she knows it has been difficult for many. “I’m aware that there are people out there, friends who are close to having breakdowns, and I just say: ‘I understand you need help, but because I can’t actually relate to what you’re saying, I’m trying to stay silent.” Is that empathy? “It’s being aware they’ve got problems I will not be able to relate to, but I’ve learned … Having been in therapy, I understand the sort of questions that therapists ask, so I can switch it on.”
When Hegerty was a child, she thought she would never know how to function as an adult. “I literally used to think I will live with my mother until she dies and then I will become a bag lady. I had no idea how I would function.” She is doing pretty well, I say. “I seem to have done all right,” she agrees. “Thanks to some really lucky coincidences.” With that, she heads into the trees to be photographed.