I’m a bit shocked that I’m still here – who would have thought?”, a thick northern accent chuckles down the phone. “The pedigree that I’ve come from – you know, reality TV – I should have gone long ago,” she giggles loudly again.
It’s infectious, and I find myself laughing too. Because this is Jane McDonald, who is exactly as she appears on TV – self-deprecating, entirely down to earth and with a Yorkshire accent as strong as when she was first introduced to the British public 19 years ago as the star of the BBC show The Cruise – a programme that regularly attracted around 14 million viewers.
We’ve only been chatting for a few minutes and somehow we’ve reached the topic of underwear. “I used to talk about my M&S knickers [on The Cruise] but it was nice because people said, ‘she’s just like me’. “I’m still buying my M&S knickers today,” she adds as an afterthought. Real difference We’re discussing the disparities between McDonald’s experiences filming The Cruise, (which followed her life as a singer onboard Celebrity Cruises’ ship, Galaxy) and the reality TV shows of today. The key difference, she says, is that in the 1990s (The Cruise first aired in 1998) the emphasis was on “reality”, meaning McDonald’s role was entirely unscripted.
“It was more a docu-soap – it was every day life, doing the jobs that we did and loved. It was a bit scary,” she admits, “but it was just our lives.”
There must have been embarrassing moments though? “Oh yes,” she laughs. “Like when the cameras followed me coming home and bringing my then fiance [Henrik Brixen, who she met onboard the ship but later separated from] home to meet my mum. She didn’t have time to take the washing down so she had her pants laid out all along the radiator – people still joke about that with her now.”
We’re chatting ahead of McDonald’s appearance in a live Q&A at The Global Travel Group’s Conference in La Manga, Spain. It’s a timely choice – it might be almost 20 years since she shot to fame in The Cruise (“I can’t believe it’s so long ago!”) but McDonald is still warming hearts across the UK – both with her singing (this year’s Making Memories tour has already been extended after selling out, and a new self-penned album is set for release next year), as well as with her numerous TV appearances, which more recently included of course, Cruising with Jane McDonald.
The Channel 5 show propelled cruise – and McDonald – back into the living rooms of the UK. In the four-episode mini-series, she sampled new lines, new destinations, and new forms of cruising – an impressive feat for the self-confessed cruise addict, who reveals she still sails every year; albeit for holidays rather than work.
Yet despite her love for the sector, prior to the Channel 5 show McDonald had only ever experienced three lines. The two she worked for – Fred Olsen, Chandris (later renamed Celebrity Cruises when it was acquired by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd in 1997), and another line she consistently holidayed with when her career moved onto dry land – although McDonald remains tightlipped as to which line this is.
This meant that she found herself encountering entirely new cruising experiences on the Channel 5 show. “It really opened my eyes – I was blown away,” she says.
“Alaska [which she sailed to with Holland America Line] was just incredible. I used to think that a holiday was only a holiday if it was in a hot country.” She confesses ruefully that she used to disembark the ships she worked on before they sailed their Alaska itineraries.
“Never in a million years did I think I would love Alaska. But then I did it with HAL and I thought to myself – you idiot!
“It was incredible! The sights and scenery were just amazing – I wanted to get that across to viewers that are in their 50s and 60s, they should be doing these adventure cruises while they’re still young.”
And what about river cruising (in one episode McDonald sailed the Danube on Uniworld’s Maria Theresa)? How easy was it to convert the self-confessed ocean fan? “I thought I would be bored,” McDonald admits, “but I wasn’t bored once, I loved it. It’s completely different to ocean – you’re watching the whole world go by. You’re up early because you’re doing activities and then you’re so tired in the evening you don’t want the big entertainment shows you get on ocean ships.”
“My favourite itinerary when I was working on the ships was New York to Bermuda – when we were in port, we had so much fun. Those beautiful pink sands!”
Cruising with Jane McDonald was significant because it didn’t just open McDonald’s eyes – it also attracted soaring interest from consumers in the sector. Uniworld alone reported 40,000 visits to its website the weekend following the show, and 1,000 enquiries from customers.
So what advice does McDonald have for those all-important new-to-cruise customers? Before I have finished my sentence, she interrupts with two words: “Travel agents!”
“I would tell anyone wanting to go on a cruise – especially for the first time – that they must use a travel agent,” she says emphatically. “They will give you invaluable advice. I really do believe that there is a cruise for everyone, and agents will be able to choose the right one for you.”
True to her word, McDonald swears by her own travel agent, Linda Young (from Birmingham-based independent Four Oaks Travel) who she met – of course – on a cruise. “She was hosting a group of her customers and we got chatting, now I use her all the time. Having someone that I can ring at any time, who can sort out anything, is just brilliant. I love having that personal connection.”
“I always thought I would end up back on the ships. I’ve never taken anything for granted – my career has been a total dream.”
Given her love of the high seas, one could assume there must be few countries McDonald hasn’t yet visited. But despite her passion for travel (“I get itchy feet if I’m at home for too long”) McDonald says there are still many destinations on her bucket list.
“My favourite itinerary when I was working on the ships was New York to Bermuda – when we were in port, we had so much fun. Those beautiful pink sands!” she sighs wistfully.
“But I would love to cruise to Australia and New Zealand; and South America – I would love to do that too. And Asia, I’ve never been there.”
With the next three years already booked up with her tour, the new album, and the possibility of another TV show (although McDonald insists her lips are sealed on this), it seems her bucket list destinations may have to wait. McDonald though, who started out performing summer seasons in Skegness, is more than content with her lot.
“I loved it [performing] then and I still do now,” she says, And despite having enjoyed 20 years of showbiz, she is quite accepting of the idea that her success could evaporate overnight. In which case, McDonald smiles, she would hope to return to where it all started. “I always thought I would end up back on the ships,” she grins. “I’ve never taken anything for granted – my career has been a total dream.” It’s a dream that seems likely to remain alive for a while yet.