The piercing blue eyes, the famously firm handshakes, the big floury hugs of condolence – they’ve all helped turn Paul Hollywood into a true television showstopper as a judge on The Great British Bake Off. So it’s a bit of a bombshell, then, to hear him say he regrets ever signing up in the first place.
A passionate artisan baker by trade, he enjoys being part of TV’s biggest challenge show and is hugely grateful for the financial rewards it’s brought him. But the damage it’s done to his personal life has been colossal.
His fellow judge Prue Leith describes him as like a jam doughnut – soft and squishy in the middle – because beneath the cultivated air of menace and the gimlet-eyed stares he gives the contestants, Paul is clearly more sensitive than you might imagine.
Paul Hollywood, 56, (pictured) reveals the damage that The Great British Bake Off has done to his private life
In 2013 the entire nation watched as he embarked on a mid-life crisis. Paul, then aged 47, had an affair with Marcela Valladolid, his younger co-judge on the American version of Bake Off, leading to a split with his wife Alex, then a short reconciliation before they eventually divorced after nearly 20 years of marriage.
His personal life has been under intense scrutiny ever since, and his relationship with Summer Monteys-Fullam, the barmaid he started seeing after splitting up with Alex, was splashed all over the papers while it lasted.
She dumped him after two years in 2019 when he allegedly asked her to sign a non-disclosure agreement forbidding her from talking about their relationship. She later revealed the talented baker preferred to eat ‘cheap sliced bread’ at home.
Then earlier this year Alex – now a celebrity chef herself – described her marriage as having been ‘too over-seasoned with extra-marital affairs’ in an Instagram post.
Paul’s fellow judge Prue Leith describes him as like a jam doughnut – soft and squishy in the middle – because beneath the cultivated air of menace and the gimlet-eyed stares he gives the contestants, Paul is clearly more sensitive than you might imagine
Today Paul, 56, seems quietly settled in a relationship with Melissa Spalding, landlady of the Chequers Inn in Smarden, Kent, where he’s been known to moonlight as the pizza chef.
‘Would I have done Bake Off if I’d known all this stuff was going to happen, the loss of my private life?’ he says.
‘No, I wouldn’t have done it. The financial benefits are great. It’s a job, and to earn money you have to work hard, but ultimately what matters is your private life and your anonymity.
‘Anything to do with family, you have to be careful. Trying to maintain family relationships is really difficult when they’re in the public domain.
‘It’s hard enough outside the public domain, but to do it in the public domain is impossible.’
When he split up with Alex he moved out of their home in Wingham in Kent, while she and their then 11- year-old son Josh stayed. He later described the affair as ‘the biggest mistake of my life’ and said he’d never forgive himself for the stress he’d put his wife and son through.
I have a few friends I can confide in, but I find it difficult to trust people. Who the hell can you trust?
‘I’m not a politician, I’m a judge on a baking show,’ he says now. ‘The Bake Off job is pretty straightforward, it’s my passion, so to be able to evangelise through the programme is great.
‘But the other stuff that goes with it is brutal and cut me to my core. I’ve had a few friends from childhood I’ve confided in but it’s difficult.
‘I don’t want to worry my mum. I find it difficult to trust people. Who the hell can you trust?’
Prue Leith, to whom he’s grown close since they started working together after she replaced Mary Berry when Bake Off moved to Channel 4 in 2017, is one for starters.
‘She’s brilliant. She says, “Follow your heart.” Ultimately, you’ve got to be truthful to yourself. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s easy.
‘You have to listen to the little voice in the back of your head. I’m thick-skinned now, you’ll never see me rise to anything because it’s pointless. It’s selfpreservation,’ he admits.
Paul pictured with his ex-wife Alex. The pair split after Paul had an affair with Marcela Valladolid, his younger co-judge on the American version of Bake Off
‘I live quite a quiet life in the country. I don’t go out a lot and I tend to keep myself to myself.
‘I go for a walk or for a ride on my motorbike wearing a black visor so nobody knows who I am. Fame brings you these toys, which is great, but there’s a downside.
‘You never fill the gap – the gap is inside you. You have to find an answer.’ Has he found it?
‘No, but I’m getting there. You have to adjust your lifestyle. The stress I’ve felt has been off the scale.
Paul pictured here with chef Marcela Valladolid as judges for The American Baking Competition. His life came under intense scrutiny after the pair had an affair
‘There’s no vent. So I might listen to music, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or something chilled out, and I often go and sit on my own. I’m not afraid of my own company, and I also have two Maine Coon cats who are great company.’
PRUE WAS LIKE A RAINBOW
It still rankles with Paul that he was accused of betraying Bake Off when it moved from the BBC to Channel 4 in 2017, even though it was Mary Berry, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins who jumped ship, while he stayed. He was unprepared for the vitriol levelled against him, saying at the time, ‘Mary will never be a villain. I will always be a villain.’
Today he adds, ‘It was like losing part of the family, as me, Mel, Sue and Mary were all tight. But I didn’t have the same connection to the BBC as they did, maybe because I was northern and they didn’t know where to place me.
‘Even so, I was nervous, but Channel 4 were adamant about getting the right team, and they did – I remember Prue when she walked in, she was like a rainbow.’
Paul describes Prue Leith (right) as a rainbow
One key to finding himself again has been writing a new book called Bake, a collection of his best recipes from cakes and biscuits to breads and pastries, which is published next month (you can find some of these recipes, including Paul’s favourite focaccia and jam doughnuts, on pages 75-78). Writing the book proved to be both the therapy and distraction he needed.
‘During the first lockdown on Bake Off, we were literally in a hotel for seven weeks,’ he recalls. ‘It became my quiet place, so when we finished filming I’d often go back to my room and start writing a few notes as I was still in Bake Off mode.
‘Every time I taste or bake something I learn something new, and I’m inspired to improve and develop my recipes further.
‘Prue, who was also writing a book in her room at the same time, I’ve been accused of not caring on Bake Off, but when people break down I’ll give them a hug I have a few friends I can confide in, but I find it difficult to trust people.
‘Who the hell can you trust? would say, “Are we having dinner?” And I’d say, “Give me an hour, I’m just finishing this chapter.” All my favourite things are in this book, it covers most bakes from a lemon drizzle to a Danish pastry to a flatbread.’
Paul is a third-generation baker, growing up in a flat above his father’s bakery on Merseyside that always smelled of bread. His dad John founded a chain of bakeries called Bread Winner which eventually stretched from Aberdeen to Lincolnshire, and Paul has been baking ever since John offered him £500 to join the business in the 1980s.
It was too good an offer to turn down during a period of high unemployment, so Paul shaved off his long hair, rolled up his sleeves and got stuck into a profession that would become a lifelong passion.
It wasn’t long before he was experimenting with artisan breads, incorporating cheese and even chocolate. A few years later, one creation – the ‘Rolls-Royce of loaves’ made using grade-A flour from a specialist miller – sold in Harrods for a staggering £15.
‘I’ve always made my own bread,’ he says. ‘I make at least three loaves a week, normally two are sandwich breads as I begin every day with two eggs and soldiers. I also make a focaccia most weeks as I love risotto and they go well together.’
After leaving the family business, Paul went on to become head baker at a number of hotels including London’s Dorchester, Cliveden in Buckinghamshire and the Chester Grosvenor And Spa. It was in these high-pressure, high-end kitchens that he developed his craft.
Becoming a celebrity was never part of the plan though, and no one is more surprised by his success than Paul, who describes himself as ‘just a fat bloke from the Wirral’.
Today, Paul, 56, seems quietly settled in a relationship with Melissa Spalding, (right) landlady of the Chequers Inn in Smarden, Kent, where he’s been known to moonlight as the pizza chef
He made his first TV appearances when he was working at a five-star hotel in Cyprus, which is where he met Alex, who was working as a scuba-diving instructor.
He soon became a regular on British TV shows, but his big break came in 2010 when he was chosen to be the judge on what even the producers imagined would only be a niche show on BBC2. But it regularly attracts audiences of up to 9 million each week.
Now everyone wants a slice of Paul’s cake. His Twitter account has become a bible for those looking to perfect their loaves, and even his former fellow judge Mary Berry has sought his counsel on her bread recipes.
‘I find the whole journey weird,’ he says. ‘It’s like something out of a bloody movie because I never set out to do this. I set out to be a decent baker, that’s all. At the first Bake Off audition they emptied a bag of stuff onto the table for me to critique.
I’ve been accused of not caring on Bake Off, but when people break down I’ll give them a hug
‘There were muffins, rolls, pies… it took about ten minutes! Then about four months later we were filming.
‘My mum keeps every single media cutting about me. She sticks them in a scrapbook, and as I’m flicking through I’m thinking, “Why the hell have you cut that out?” It’s a nightmare for me, but she’s very proud.’
For the past few years the line-up has been Paul and Prue as judges with Noel Fielding and Matt Lucas as hosts after Matt took over from Sandi Toksvig in 2020.
‘There’s always a joy going back into the Bake Off marquee because it smells of freshly cut grass, like a massive greenhouse, and there are all the summery plates,’ says Paul. ‘It’s a cosy, happy place. We often get the giggles.
‘Prue might innocently come out with something, like talking about someone’s balls, the dough ones, and I’ll say, “You can’t say that Prue!” A few times Matt, Noel and me have got the giggles so badly I’ve had to leave the marquee.’
The contestants don’t always get the giggles though, and Paul has admitted he toughened up in 2019, leaving all the bakers in tears in the technical challenges, which test their knowledge of classic recipes and methods.
‘I’ve been accused of not caring about them, and people have broken down, but I’ve given them a hug and whispered, “It’s just a game, it doesn’t matter,”’ says Paul. ‘When we’ve finished filming they talk to me and I can say, “I would have done this, this and that…” but I can’t engage with them while we’re filming.’
Naturally his fans melt in front of him, and on his live tours they squeal as if he were a boyband star. But he takes all this in his stride.
‘I don’t think of myself as ugly, but I don’t class myself as good-looking. I’m just a normal guy in an unusual job.
Paul pictured with his Great British Bake Off colleagues Noel Fielding and Prue. He describes the tent as a ‘cosy, happy place’
‘I’ve never dyed my hair because I think once you start doing that you’re in a world of trouble. So I’ll grow old disgracefully. I can be grumpy but I try to wear a smile on my face.’
He’s less sanguine about his waistline and fitness levels, but today he lays to rest the myth that he goes on a diet before filming – or indeed ever.
‘I need to lose some weight, which I’ve started to do, actually. But I think ultimately if you can be healthy that’s the main thing.
‘I’m not a believer in diets as it’s a bit contrary to everything I do, but I do believe in exercise and in cutting down your intake. And in drinking lots of water.’
So if he could remove one thing from his mother’s scrapbook, what would it be? ‘Where do I start?’ he laughs heartily.
‘But I hope this message goes in it – put away your PlayStations and social media and get out a bowl of flour, some eggs and butter, and get baking.’
- Bake: My Best Ever Recipes For The Classics by Paul Hollywood will be published on 9 June by Bloomsbury, £26. See offer p78