The Former TV Presenter Talks Wheels, Weddings and Women

Gill Sherry

Glasgow-born Carol Smillie first graced our TV screens in 1989 as the hostess on the game show, Wheel of Fortune. Surprisingly, though, she hadn’t planned for a career in television.

“It wasn’t a big break I was aware I was going for,” she explains. “It wasn’t my game plan to get into television but an opportunity presented itself so I went for it. That’s really how it all started.”

After leaving school, Carol attended Glasgow School of Art but only stayed for one year.

“I wasn’t good enough to be a proper artist, if I’m honest. It was more something I loved doing rather than something I was fantastic at. So I started modelling to make some money. I’m quite small for a model, but I did all kinds of jobs… exhibitions, promotions in supermarkets, you name it. I had a mortgage when I was 21 so I had to work.”

She describes that period of her life as “character building” believing she gained life skills that she wouldn’t have picked up anywhere else.

“I spent quite a few years doing that, and then the job on Wheel of Fortune came up. They were looking for models who perhaps might fit the bill… and were not too tall because the host, Nicky Campbell, was a normal sized guy.”

The fact that Carol wouldn’t tower above the host in her high heels obviously worked in her favour and, having secured the role, she remained on the show for five years.

“It’s hard because when you’re a game show hostess, people don’t think you’re capable of doing much else, or they didn’t then… but I made a decision to try and push on with the television work.”
Rather than sounding offended, Carol laughs at the memory of that condescending mindset. Thankfully, it’s not just attitudes that have changed.

“It’s far slicker than it ever was then,” she tells me, referring to the new series of Wheel of Fortune, hosted by Graham Norton. “The original wheel was definitely held together with an elastic band. I kid you not, it broke quite a lot.”

She’s laughing as she recalls that old-fashioned wheel. In fact, her laughter continues throughout our conversation. Carol Smillie is clearly someone who doesn’t take life, or herself, too seriously.

“Times have changed,” she continues, the laughter briefly abating. “Things have moved on for the better. It’s right that there’s no hostess now.”

After moving on from Wheel of Fortune, viewers saw Carol on various TV shows including The Travel Show, Holiday, Changing Rooms, her own morning chat show, Smillie’s People, and Dream Holiday Homes.

I ask which was her favourite.

“Definitely Changing Rooms,” she says without hesitation, “because it was ground-breaking. Game shows and holiday programmes have come and gone. But this was reality TV, we were the first. And none of us knew that’s what we were getting into, which made it even nicer. There was a naivety about it.”

Again, she believes she gained a lot from the experience. Not just the life skills she picked up but the “merry bunch of friends” she made during her seven years on the show. And her skills, it transpires, extend way beyond those of a TV presenter. For example, her book, The Working Mum’s Handbook, was published in 2007, she tried her hand at stage acting in The Vagina Monologues and Hormonal Housewives, and she set up her own business in 2012.

“I’ve dabbled in all of these things, but I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered any of them!”

There’s that laughter again.

“I’ve always kept the mantra that if someone offers you something, what’s the worst that can happen? You do it and it’s not your thing? That’s okay but at least you had fun having a go!”

Her book was written when she was pregnant with her third child but she’s quick to admit she had a lot of help with it.

“I had a ghost writer… I won’t take the credit for doing the whole thing because I’m not an author.”

It’s a refreshing admission, and one that most other ‘celebrities’ prefer not to make.

“I don’t know why,” Carol says. “I can’t do everything. I had stories, advice and experience – I’d had three children within quick succession – but there’s no shame that I didn’t put pen to paper.”

She can take full credit for her stage acting, though, even if it didn’t come naturally.

“I’ve discovered I like scaring myself witless every so often! When life gets predictable I think, that’ll be a laugh. And then I find myself about to go on stage and my stomach drops and I think, what am I doing? But I survived. I did it a few times so it can’t have been that bad!”

More laughter, but she’s serious when she talks about her business venture.

“By the time I reached 50, I realised that television was not going to last forever and that I should probably look at doing something else. So I started a business making leak-proof underwear… the market initially being young girls who had heavy periods. I did that as an entrepreneur for eight years.”

The brand, DiaryDoll, was launched at a time when periods (among other things) were still very much a taboo subject.

“Exactly!” says Carol. “But we wouldn’t exist if women didn’t have periods so can we all just be a bit more grown up about this and talk about it sensibly? That’s why young girls suffer, because we lower our voice and talk about things like that as though it’s shameful, but it’s perfectly normal.”

Carol eventually sold the business, again believing she had learned something about herself. This time that she was stronger than she thought she was.

So what next for the multi-talented Carol Smillie?

“I became a Celebrant!”

Let’s be honest, it’s not the most obvious career move. So what led to this next chapter in her life?

“It ticked a lot of boxes for the skills that I had amassed over the years – speaking in public, writing scripts – and I love really interesting people and their stories. I knew after the business was gone that I’d have to do something else. I wasn’t going back into television… so I investigated what the training was and got in touch with Humanist Society Scotland.”

Carol then trained to conduct baby naming ceremonies, funerals, and weddings, and is now in her sixth year of being a fully qualified Humanist Celebrant.

“When I first started doing funerals, I thought… going into someone’s house when they’re really broken, is this going to throw them? But, in many ways, they felt like they knew me, so it was a positive thing. They opened up to me very quickly, which was lovely.”

She now conducts between 50 and 60 weddings a year and has nothing but praise for Humanist Society Scotland.

“They’re an amazing organisation because although I’m working alone, I’m never really alone. I just find them to be an incredibly kind and supportive group of people. I never found that in television… it didn’t matter about your experience, it only mattered that you were en vogue at the time. What I find being a Celebrant is… it no longer matters how old I am or how thin I am. It doesn’t matter, which is lovely.”

That said, Carol’s modelling background means she still feels comfortable in front of the camera. She also continues to host or appear at events. At the time of our conversation, she’s looking forward to appearing at The Ayrshire Hospice Ladies Day on 8th March. The event is a celebration of International Women’s Day and adopts the style of television’s Loose Women. Other panellists include Jackie Brambles, Jane McGarry and Jennifer Reoch.

“I’m obviously the grandam of the panel!” she laughs. “But I love positivity in women. One thing I discovered when I had the business is how women support other women. Some women were so helpful to me to get the business off the ground and I think… if the opportunity arises, pay it back.”

That was one reason for Carol agreeing to take part. And the other reason?

“Any Hospice Association has got a really tough job as far as awareness is concerned. I’m very much involved in the Prince & Princess of Wales Hospice. I know that word ‘hospice’, it’s a tough marketing tool. People just have visions of something awful and it’s not awful. We need to get over that. So If I can help, I will help.”

She admits she has no idea what to expect but is looking forward to it nonetheless.
“I’m sure the topic of age will come up! But the panellists are all positive women and they all look naturally fantastic, so I’m looking forward to what subjects are going to come up!”

One thing is definitely guaranteed – laughter!