Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Look At me Now’ by Simone Goodman
Look At Me Now
‘Oops!’ Rushing into the television station where I work, escaping the demonic gale that’s sweeping across London this morning, I slide delicately across the wet tiles inside the entrance.
I say delicately. But it’s more hope that I look like an accomplished ice skater as I clumsily regain my balance. Being a healthy size 14 – I don’t consider myself fat, I’m just not reed thin – there’s a risk I’ve come off more like a comedian on a banana skin. Thankfully, no one other than Mitzi, our receptionist, is here to hold me accountable.
‘Golly, Gracie, are you okay?’ Mitzi calls from across the foyer, where she’s sitting behind the front desk, most likely reading a script.
‘I’m okay, Mitzi.’ By all accounts, my near miss looked distinctly less than elegant. Laughing, I steady myself on the death-tiles. It could have been worse. I could have toppled right over my own feet.
It’s only a short few hundred metres dash from Oxford Circus Tube station to my workplace, our studios located in a narrow but deceptively cavernous Georgian building on Soho Square. My umbrella blowing inside-out against the pelting rain and wind this morning, I covered the distance as quickly as possible. My dash best described as a nippy jog, it’s the most exercise I’ve done in months. It’s early January, the time for New Year resolutions. Possibly, it wouldn’t be the worst idea for me to consider joining a gym?
‘I’ve been warning someone will break their bones on those tiles,’ Mitzi says.
‘We could do with a non-slip mat here,’ I agree.
‘We could do with a lot of things around here,’ Mitzi sighs.
She reminds me of Daisy Lowe, the model. Dark hair. Doe eyes. Cherry-red lips. Though her role is to welcome visitors, Mitzi looks the part for television. Like many people who work here, she yearns to be in front of the camera.
I have my own show. But it troubles me, more and more lately, that I don’t look like I belong. This isn’t to say I don’t have my finer points. Pragmatically speaking, we all do. What can I tell you? My eyes are sometimes so blue as to appear violet. Almond-shaped, they’re generously framed with oodles of long, thick lashes. My dark locks cascade to below my shoulders and, at thirty-three years of age, I’ve not got a single grey hair on my head. My complexion is creamy, free of lines and, generally, spots. But before you picture me as some uber-glamourous cross between a young Elizabeth Taylor and a brunette Katy Perry, bear in mind I’m the more robustly packaged (sometimes size 14 plus) version. Some days, I fear I’m veering more into the territory of a Dawn French and Melissa McCarthy lovechild – without their comedy vehicles for kicks. But surely no one likes a thin chef?
I host my own daily cookery show, Gracie Porter’s Gourmet Get-Together.
The title is a bit of a misnomer. It’s impossible to prepare gourmet meals, haute cuisine of several aesthetically balanced and rich courses of food, within a short thirty minutes allotment of air time. Notwithstanding that with preparation of the set, the ingredients and me, it takes almost a full day to pre-record every show that then airs across the whole of England, Scotland and Wales at 10.30 a.m. the following week. Also, there isn’t much ‘getting together’ with my format. I like to think I’m always engaging with my audience as they tune in to connect with me from the comforts of their own homes, but the original concept had me hosting the occasional special guest: other chefs, celebrities and perhaps the more interesting politician. With none of us, including my producer, Robin, moving in celebrity circles, with Westminster MPs otherwise occupied with their scandals, solicitations and squabbling and me reasoning that any chef who wants to be on television would surely want their own show, we failed to deliver. When no one pushed us, we let it slide. We don’t even have a live audience. It’s pretty much me and the crew who chow down after a recording finishes. On this basis, my cookery show has aired daily for almost a year and a half.
Previously, I worked as a normal chef. I prepared mouth-watering meals in lovely places where people came to eat. When it comes to food, I’m a consummate professional. As far as television goes, I’m still cutting my teeth.
From the beginning, both investment and expectation of our little cookery show has been low. Being at the bottom end of a long list of hot shows and hotter stars left me below the radar – and this has suited me fine. Things changed late last year after Titan Media, the US entertainment giant, acquired a large chunk of our relatively tiny UK operations. This afternoon, at 3 p.m., I have a meeting with the American executives who now run things to discuss my ‘future services to the company’. It hasn’t escaped me that not everyone summoned to such meetings returned from their New Year breaks. People have been literally disappearing from the studios in droves. And I know my ratings aren’t the best.
I don’t disagree with Mitzi that things around here could be better. However, today is a day for putting the best, most confident and upbeat version of me forward.
‘I’m sure things will settle down and everything will be fine again soon,’ I assure her. I put my wet umbrella inside a cotton shopping bag.
Behind me, the front doors burst open. I turn to look. Shadowing the doorway, wearing her long, spectral black-hooded cape, stands Zelda the Magnificent, our resident daytime television psychic.
‘Gracie,’ Zelda declares on seeing me. ‘Dahling.’ Her voice is deep and melodic. Her accent is old Budapest enchantment. She’s like a darker, earthier Zsa Zsa Gabor. ‘Please, stop for Zelda,’ she implores in her dulcet tones. ‘I have, for you, a vision.’
Pushing the hood from her head, Zelda releases a mass of black curls to topple down and over her shoulders. The curls are part of a voluminous wig. Rumours abound that, underneath, Zelda is completely bald. Rumours also abound that Zelda isn’t merely old but ancient, a hundred years and counting. Because these conjectures add to her mysticism, Zelda does little to quash such blather. Having once shared a dressing room, I know from my own eyes that her scalp is in fact covered with a short mop of white-grey ringlets and, by the birthday card she received last summer, that she isn’t more than eighty years young.
Closing the few steps between us, Zelda clasps my frigidly cold hands within her un-seasonally hot fingers. She smells of sage, vanilla and cloves. I breathe in her aroma. My mind drifts to thoughts of crispy sage in a burnt butter sauce, drizzled through ribbons of pasta. Of vanilla pods in pots of clotted custard. Of melt-in-your-mouth hot salt beef, boiled with cloves and juniper berries and served thickly cut with mustard on rye. Shutting her eyes, Zelda’s face wrinkles with whatever wizardry she’s conjuring.
‘Um, Zelda, I’d rather—’ I begin to protest.
‘My child, I see a gathering of dark clouds.’ Ignoring my attempt to dissuade her, Zelda begins her psychic vision. ‘I see a storm is brewing…’
I don’t need divine intervention to inform me of this. There are the pressures at work. At home, things aren’t much better. This morning, I endured another cold flannel wash at the bathroom basin after my boyfriend, Jordan, again used all of the hot water in our flat. During, I should add, another of his suspiciously long showers – by his indifference towards me lately, Jordan could better be described as my supposed boyfriend. To fill you in a little bit, we met the same night I won the contract for the show. After a whirlwind courtship of the best sex I’d ever had, eighteen months on, our physical connection has fallen by the wayside. All less of him no longer being my hunk-a-hunk-of-burning-love and more Jordan no longer seeing me as his mi amore. On top of which, although we live together, we barely talk. Whatever friendship we shared has flatlined alongside my boyfriend’s libido. There’s the excuse that Jordan works ridiculous hours as an advertising executive. But things are so distant between us, we haven’t properly discussed what is – or, more to the point, isn’t – going on in our relationship. Let alone my professional challenges.
‘Ach… so much rain,’ Zelda clucks her tongue and shakes her head sadly. Over her closed eyelids is a poorly applied, pale purple eyeshadow. I don’t believe in clairvoyants, but I love a character – I adore Zelda. Whenever I cook anything like a Hungarian goulash or a sweet baklava pastry, Eastern European dishes that I know she’ll enjoy, I set aside a plate for Zelda.
Outside, lightning flashes, followed by a thunderous crack. A gust of wind slams the front doors shut. Zelda’s emerald eyes pop open.
I sigh my relief that we appear done. Holding up a bejewelled finger, Zelda begs of me a moment more.
She fumbles amongst the pockets of her cape and then inside her patchwork bag, her charm bracelets tinkling. Eventually, she withdraws her hands and slips a small, pink crystal into my open palm.
‘To help you little bit,’ she says. With a warm expression, Zelda shrugs.
I clasp the stone, smooth and surprisingly warm, inside my hand.
‘Quieten the storm.’ Zelda gently taps my chest with her bony finger. ‘Quieten the storm inside,’ she murmurs. ‘Then, all will be well.’
And with that, Zelda the Magnificent, resplendent in her sweeping satin cape and semi-precious trinkets, sweeps across the reception and disappears into the labyrinth of recording studios and meeting rooms beyond.
‘Can I see?’ Mitzi begs, intrigued.
I walk over and show her the small, smooth crystal. Pale pink, with ribbons of milky-white.
‘Gracie, this is a rose quartz,’ Mitzi exclaims, seemingly knowledgeable about such things. ‘It’s to attract romance and unconditional love.’
‘That wasn’t quite how Zelda put it,’ I admit.
A deluge of rain lashes the floor-to-ceiling windows. Aside from my scepticism, I don’t wish to believe there’s a karmic storm brewing over my personal fate. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got enough challenges in the here and now.
Mitzi returns the stone to me. I drop it inside the pocket of my coat.
‘Did you hear about Howard?’ she whispers, changing the topic.
According to the station grapevine, Howard is the latest person to be axed on Titan’s chopping block. A cantankerous, borderline alcoholic whose show, Nature’s Best, had, admittedly, seen better days, Howard is nonetheless something of an industry legend, having once jived around a live-to-air set as a – thankfully – tamed carpet snake chased a lively white mouse up and down inside his corduroy trousers. All of it was filmed in front of an audience of delightedly squealing schoolchildren, and no less a VIP than the highly amused HRH Prince Philip, consort to our lovely Queen. Legend has it Howard overdid his habitual morning vodka before taking to his small stage filled with animals. The mouse escaped the cage, the snake escaped Howard’s clutches, the ensuing chase became TV gold at the time. Today, Howard Gladstone is something of a YouTube sensation for generations too young to have seen it first pass. When I first got the job at SC6, he was the only person Jordan asked about me meeting.
‘He’s gone,’ Mitzi confirms. ‘Howard. Who’d been here for, like, ever.’
I glance around the foyer where, under fluorescent accent lighting, posters of our most popular stars jockey for position. In pride of place, on the magenta wall opposite the entrance, hangs a full-body shot of Sonya Sokolov, a Russian bombshell in silver spandex who hosts, of all things, our children’s cartoon programme. There are multiple pictures of the pale-faced and bushy-eyebrowed youths who present our various music video shows. I’m grateful the promo for my show is positioned down in the basement, outside the studio where we film. One bonus of working at the less illustrious end of this business is that I don’t have to see my face, ten times enlarged and beaming over a bowl of whipped cream, up here on display. In the picture, I’m sporting a stupendously high-peaked white chef’s hat I’ve never once been forced to wear on camera. Not one to play the shrinking violet, here in reception, on the back wall in an ornately gilded frame, hangs a life-sized oil painting of Zelda. Painted as nude as the day she was born, she’s wearing only her gold hoop earrings and a strategically draped plum-coloured silk sheet. In the far corner are black and white photographs of the news crew and of Suzi Sunshine, the latest in a long line of attractive weathergirls – I’m not making up the name, though Suzi might be. Beside Suzi is a patch of canary yellow paint that’s conspicuously brighter than the rest of the wall: the place where Howard’s promo hung for a great many years, until today.
‘Howard may have been a crotchety old goat, but isn’t that what television is all about – personalities?’ Mitzi proposes.
It seems to me profound wisdom for someone reluctantly stuck sitting behind a front desk. ‘I’ll miss the old goat nicking my cooking sherry,’ I say, pricked by an unexpected pang of nostalgia. I will miss chasing Howard out of my studio, him plonking the bottle of fortified wine wherever it lands and cursing me for denying him a drop as I mock-threaten him with my rolling-pin. I will miss it all.
Not to mention that the forced exit of an industry legend doesn’t bode well for my inexperience on a flagging cookery show. A storm is brewing indeed.
‘Drinks are from six tonight at The White Horse,’ Mitzi says.
‘I’ll pop by,’ I say.
‘One last tipple for Howie.’
‘Old trouser snake!’ shouts a baby-faced production assistant, as he crosses the room.Page Break
From reception, I head directly to the first-floor dressing room. Here, Brendan and Brenda, who ordinarily work for the newsroom, also attend to my hair and make-up each morning – the end result being that I arrive on my cookery set looking like I too should be shoved into a suit, shunted behind a desk and forced to read autocues about breaking headlines.
As usual, Brendan begins with my tresses. Forgoing a dampening spritz of water – the rain took care of that this morning – he blow-dries my locks with an assortment of brushes. Flicking my long hair up and out, he sets it all with an abomination of holding spray, bouffant style. Meanwhile, I’m browsing recent reports from marketing, hoping to discover something that may cement my success in today’s big meeting. So far, there’s no silver bullet.
Next up is Brenda, who layers on primer, concealer and foundation to my face until I’m slightly tangerine in colour (‘Bronzed, Gracie,’ Brenda insists) and then more ‘highlighter’ on my cheekbones, nose and forehead. Brenda is also favouring a pale-coral lipstick that blends in so well with my newly applied skin tone that my respectably plump lips are barely visible (I’ve been sneakily replacing it with a generous smear of my French Kiss pink lip stain before filming commences). On my mobile, I google what the proper celebrity chefs are up to lately. There’s not much help to be gleaned from out there either. It’s all restaurant chains and marriages going bust. Not for the first time, I wonder if being a commercially successful television chef isn’t more about being in some sort of personal spotlight, the worse the better, and less about food than it ought to be.
After about an hour of such pampering, preparing me for the bright lights, I’m sent on my way to my studio in the basement.
Unlike the explosion of colour on me personally, the room where we record Gracie Porter’s Gourmet Get–Together is painted dull grey and holds only the necessary equipment. There are two cameras and a boom microphone, a laptop and monitor on a table, some other equipment I’m still unfamiliar with, plus a few foldaway chairs. The floor is littered with lengths of looped-up wiring and cables and spotlights are anchored on the floor and dangle from the ceiling above. The kitchen set itself is dated cream laminate with pine panelling – resurrected after a long hiatus in cookery programmes when I joined. I inherited the electric oven, gas hob and a refrigerator prone to hissy-fitting. Only the microwave was purchased new for me. Here in the basement, there are no windows and, save for a ducted fan above the stove, precious little ventilation. The air becomes stifling once the big lights come on for filming.
Working in television is not as glamorous as I once envisioned. But our set is friendly. I very much want to keep my job.
I cross the floor towards my assistant, Poppy. Nobody else is here yet.
There are two things to notice immediately about Poppy. The first is that she looks like a fairy. Small, delicate frame. Disarmingly large hazel eyes. Wispy bleach-blonde locks – the only aberration being Poppy’s naturally dark roots. (Poppy’s mother is Thai, her father unknown but allegedly Korean; though Poppy insists her only parent is her mother’s second husband, Darcy, an Englishman of independent means, who kindly extended parental care after her mother upped and left them both when Poppy was a tender fourteen years old.) Anyway, Poppy, sweetly dispositioned, and seemingly unscarred by such events, also has a penchant for dressing in frilly layers of clothing – and her love of glitter would shame a toddler. The second thing to notice about my assistant is that her vernacular has a tendency towards the same, shall we say, ‘exuberance’.
‘Morning, Miss Gracie,’ Poppy chirrups, looking up from where she’s wiping the bench clean, preparing for the shoot. ‘Ooh. I see Brenda’s using the coral on your lips again. Like you’re a mermaid? I could call you Ariel!’
‘Morning, Poppy. Please, don’t call me Ariel.’ I wipe my lips on the back of my hand.
Poppy’s eyes twinkle mischievously.
I also inherited Poppy. She was working an internship when I joined. One hundred per cent reliable and thoroughly committed, fresh out of college, my assistant has a fine diploma in home economics to accompany her sparkly personality. That her stepfather would happily provide so that she’d never have to work at all makes her dedication all the more admirable. If ever Poppy’s childish vigour annoys me – her silly garble and excess enthusiasm can wear thin some days – I remind myself I’m lucky to have her.
I dump my coat and bags onto a chair.
To protect my clothes before filming begins – a personal uniform of black trousers and white shirt – I don my white chef’s apron. My outfit isn’t flashy, but given no one at SC6 has ever offered to provide my clothes or advise me on what to wear otherwise, it removes the stress of me having to think about what I ought to be wearing for the camera on a daily basis.
I wash my hands thoroughly. Before I forget, I retrieve and apply the pink stain to my lips and that’s when I remember – my new shoes.
From the bottom of my tote, I pull out a felt bag containing a brand-new pair of Jimmy Choo designer heels. Removing layers of tissue paper, I place the shoes lovingly on the floor in front of me. They are, without doubt, the finest things I’ve ever owned. Silver metallic nappa leather, one hundred millimetres high at the heel, closed back with elegant straps of silver-inlaid crystals that crisscross over the foot and across the toes: these shoes were a rare splurge of luxury, purchased by me at the end-of-year sale at Selfridges last weekend. I have them with me today because my plan is to have them gently worn in, stumble-free and blister-proof, before the big reveal on Valentine’s Day. I’m hoping to lose a Christmas pound or two before I shop for a dress.
Removing my winter boots and black woolly socks, I slip my bare feet into ultimate designer luxury.
‘Va-va-voom,’ Poppy croons at my first, tentative steps.
‘Why, thank you, Poppy,’ I reply, practising my walk over the concrete floor. The heels are thinner and higher than I’ve ever worn. ‘That is the plan. A bit of va-va-voom.’
‘For the show today?’ Poppy appears confused, as well she might be.
‘No, for Valentine’s Day, for a do at Jordan’s work,’ I say. ‘I thought it best to wear them in first.’ My left ankle takes a small dive, but I recover neatly. ‘It seems only sensible…’
On February 14, the advertising agency where Jordan works is hosting a Sweetheart’s Valentine’s Day Ball, sponsored by clients in the businesses of selling jewellery, chocolates, perfumes and the like: gifts that lovers like to exchange on the day. Although Jordan hasn’t mentioned it – it is absurd how little we communicate these days – an invitation appeared on our kitchen table last Friday, prompting my shopping spree while he was working at his office on some big commercial shoot. I have exactly five weeks to perfect my shimmy in these heels. Presently, I’m walking like a drunk on stilts.
If Poppy finds it unromantic that I’ll be spending Valentine’s Day with my boyfriend’s colleagues, she doesn’t say.
‘I need to tell you something that happened on set last night,’ she says instead. ‘Something bad…’ Smiling awkwardly, Poppy reveals a diamanté stuck to her front tooth.
Today, she’s wearing black overalls cut off into short shorts over white woollen tights, with a white top, a pink bolero jacket and Doc Marten boots imprinted with panda bear motifs. Her make-up is a hybrid of Dita von Teese and Tinker Bell: heavy eyeliner, rosy cheeks and sparkles galore. Her lips are cherubic with nothing but Vaseline smear.
There is a funny odour on set. I smelled it the moment I entered.
We begin filming in roughly an hour. The crew will arrive at any moment.
The stench is dank and salty, with a hint of bleach.
Poppy is still pulling her funny face.
‘Poppy, has something happened to the seafood?’
For today’s show, I’d sourced a special order of scallops and monkfish from the same supplier to legendary seafood restaurant J Sheekey. As we were wrapping up yesterday, Poppy and I resolved that the ice-packed delivery box ought to make better overnight storage than our clunky old refrigerator. The label guaranteed ‘Ocean Fresh for 24 hours from Delivery’. Now that we’re discussing it, I don’t see the box.
‘The ice melted,’ Poppy informs me. ‘Apparently, the cleaners did some sort of steam-cleaning last night. I don’t really know what happened. But when I got in this morning, there was stinky, rotten fishy water everywhere.’
‘I’ve bleached the entire room.’
‘Poppy, thank you.’
‘I had to throw it all into the big bin out the back.’
‘Right.’ It’s too late to order more seafood, and I’d rather not have to nip out to the Tesco on Dean Street in this weather. ‘Time for Plan B.’
‘What’s plan B?’ Poppy asks, with more excitement than it deserves.
‘We cobble together whatever ingredients we have to hand, whatever that might be, and then we wing it.’
The challenge – and by the look on Poppy’s face, she sees it too – is that our on-premise supplies are perilously low. We only came back to work from the holiday break last week. And recent cost-cutting has started to bite. Our purchase orders aren’t always approved. I don’t mind buying the odd bits here and there. But whoever heard of a cookery show without any ingredients?
That’s how it’s been since Titan landed on us late last year, with their no expense spent policy. On top of which, our diary has been cleared of all off-site filming commitments. Last year, we grilled sole with lemon and capers down in Hastings, cooked a lamb roast on a big spit in the Welsh countryside, trekked all the way to Scotland and made properly done haggis, mixed entrails and all. We barbequed organic free-range pork sausages and quinoa vegan burgers across London, everywhere from the Leyton Mills B&Q car park to Richmond Park. None of it was haute cuisine. But it was lovely to connect with people who were right there in front of me as I cooked, rather than having to picture them following me in a future time and a different space via whatever device they happen to be watching on. More often than not, our ratings improved slightly in the weeks we ventured out of our studio. When we returned on set last week, the first instruction we received was that all future out-of-house activities were suspended until further notice. Our marketing cupboard, once filled with nifty kitchen gadgets to give away, is empty and my inaugural recipe book is on hold.
However, when it comes to kitchen emergencies, I consider myself a pro. Catering a wedding banquet in Norfolk, I once stretched half of the smoked chicken appetisers into a main meal of poultry with julienne vegetables, after the rib of beef was snatched by the groom’s ridiculously short-legged dachshund. In a food crisis, I can excel.
‘What have we got to hand, Poppy?’
Poppy opens the freezer. ‘We have frozen prawns.’
I peek into the brown paper bag that the boys from Science Lab judiciously left for us yesterday. Inside are genetically modified chillies that will no doubt blow our heads off if we dare to eat them. ‘We have chillies.’
‘They’ll be far too hot to eat!’ Poppy objects.
I remind her that we cook for TV. Nobody has to eat them. ‘Poppy, tell me we have rice?’
Poppy ducks her head into the food cupboard.
‘We have rice. And tomato sauce. Tapioca flour. A can of butter beans. Some crushed garlic, rice flour, preserved lemons, coconut milk.’ I hear Poppy scraping tins and jars around.
I open the fridge. We still have the spinach, cream and sweet potatoes I had planned to serve with the medley of glazed scallops with chilli jam for starters and oven-baked monkfish for the main.
‘Pass me the rice, the butter beans and the garlic, please, Poppy. And the tomato sauce.’ That’s what I’ve been left to work with: staples.
With my hand, I guide Poppy to get out of the cupboard without banging her head
I do another memory check of dishes I’ve tried, tested and mastered over the years.
‘Okay. How about we form some vegan-scallopy-things out of these butter beans, and for the main, we’ll coat the prawns in these chillies, tomato sauce and garlic for a dish I call Cheating Hot Sticky Prawns?’
Poppy looks aghast. ‘Cheating, Miss Gracie?’
‘Because it’s easy, Poppy. Only we’ll be wiser.’
‘Well then, it sounds perfect.’
It’s hardly perfect. The frozen prawns are i) frozen and ii) not of the size or plumpness I’d prefer. The dishes are especially not what I’d have chosen for what may yet be my swansong on the small screen, depending how the day pans out. But it will pass as a seafood-ish extravaganza, as I’d promised viewers on the closing of our last recorded episode – and anything vegan is more popular by the day. Given the time we have, it will do.
From down the corridor, I hear the crew making their way towards our studio.
‘Let’s go for it, Poppy.’
‘The show must go on!’
Poppy flashes her diamanté smile.
I beam my pearly whites.
‘Fake it ’til you make it,’ I concede, I hope charmingly.
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