Charlie Webster: Breaking taboo of domestic violence

Sport is TV presenter Charlie Webster’s life. But now she tells Catherine Scott why she is using her celebrity status to raise awareness of domestic violence.

Presenter Charlie Webster met Barnsley boss Danny Wilson on her Big Challenge charity run for Womens Aid.
Presenter Charlie Webster met Barnsley boss Danny Wilson on her Big Challenge charity run for Womens Aid.

It has been a busy year for Charlie Webster. The television presenter started 2014 running 250 miles in seven days, visiting 40 football clubs across England. The challenge raised more than £90,000 for Women’s Aid, and encouraged football clubs, players and fans to unite in the fight against domestic violence.

In April, the 31-year-old from Sheffield made sporting history when she became the first woman to present coverage of a world title boxing bout when she hosted Eurosport’s broadcast of Wladimir Klitschko’s heavyweight title defence against Samoan challenger Alex Leapai in Oberhausen, Germany. In the same month the endurance runner also completed the London Marathon and is now about to take part in the Great Yorkshire Run.

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Webster is heading up the Blade Runners a team of made up of Sheffield United FC First Team/Academy staff and young players who are running the 10k for Yorkshire charity Roundabout.This year has also seen the former Sky Sports presenter go freelance, a decision she believes will bring her even more opportunities in the presenting world, although sport remains her first love.

Presenter Charlie Webster met Barnsley boss Danny Wilson on her Big Challenge charity run for Womens Aid.

However it has also been a year when she revealed for the first time that she had suffered sexual abuse when she was 15 at the hands of one of her coaches. The man was eventually jailed when another victim spoke out. Waiving her right to anonymity Webster says she decided to go public in the hope it would help break the taboo about abuse and domestic violence.

“I did try to deal with it myself and put it behind me a long time ago, but it did affect my self-esteem. To me, confidence is everything. I see domestic abuse and sexual abuse as very similar. They are done by somebody you know and often it is the victim who is left shouldering the blame. I want to break that taboo.I decided to talk about what happened to me really to focus attention on all types of abuse and get people thinking about how we as a society can tackle it.”

She also believes that sport has a huge part to play in helping young people gain confidence. Coming from a sporty family, Charlie went to her first Sheffield United match when she was just four.

“I loved it. I was a tomboy and the atmosphere of the matches were amazing,” she says. Her talent for athletics became clear from an early age. I was always into sport and when I was at school, I was the sporty one, especially running, football and karate.”

At 12, she was scouted by a British Athletics Federation coach and went on to become an 800m athlete by the time she turned 13. Shortly thereafter she started competing as a 400m runner. Around this time Charlie combined her love of sports with a new enthusiasm for martial arts – karate and boxing – initially taken up to improve her strength as a runner.

“I am very competitive in everything I do – probably too competitive.”

After her A-levels Charlie decided to try something completely different, embarking on a degree in English and linguistics at Newcastle University. But there was no way this workaholic was just going to sit back and study. While at university she qualified as a personal trainer and a coach, as well as studying nutrition and biomechanics.

“I am a believer in researching what you do and learning as much about your subject as possible. I have a lot of energy and I am very good at balancing my time.”

As if that wasn’t enough, during her time at university, she was spotted by a modelling scout and was given a number of modelling contracts which she developed further when she left college, moved to London and joined a modelling agency. Jobs flooded in including assignments in New York and Milan. Although it was tempting to concentrate on modelling, ambitious Charlie Webster never took her eye off her main goal.

“While I was at university, I decided that I wanted to go into the media and become a television presenter. Although I loved modelling, I wanted to prove that there was more to me than that. I always wanted more.”

The modelling funded more courses, this time in performing arts, television presenting, and screen work. Her first presenting job was for MTV in England and then Germany, before presenting a similar programme in America. But her first love was still sport and within a year she had landed her dream job, working for Real Madrid TV in Spain.

“I believe you make your own luck,” she says. “I worked every second of the day. It was my personality, skill and knowledge of football that got me the job.” Her year at Real Madrid was like a dream, she says, working alongside the likes of David Beckham and Ronaldo; she even dated former Leeds United star Jonathan Woodgate.

They are just ordinary people doing a job,” she says. “They made me so welcome. The lifestyle was amazing. It was the best year of my life, but I knew it had to come to an end.”

Presenting football in Singapore for ESPN brought with it a whole new set of challenges for Charlie.

“ESPN took a massive risk,” she says. “I was the first female sports presenter in Asia. There are big cultural differences over there. Everyone I worked with was a man. The only women there were secretaries or PAs.”

She admits that in the first few months she wondered if she’d made the right choice. “I did feel uncomfortable being blonde, white and a woman, but I’m glad I stayed. I really had to prove myself and after a month they started to respect me. I learnt so much and am so grateful to all the people who helped me.”

Returning to the UK she had a number of sports presenting jobs but eventually her big break came in 2009 when she landed the Sky Sports job soon become a regular face on Sky Sports News. While television presenting if definitely her day job, Webster is almost as famous for her dedication off the screen than on it. She is a vocal supporter of Women’s Aid as her endurance event earlier this year shows.

“I don’t think I realised just how hard it was going to be both physically and mentally,” she says. “For me while the raising money bit was pretty amazing and meant that Women’s Aid could run for another year, for me it was much more than that. I wanted to try to get people thinking and to try to stop domestic abuse.

“I had no idea what reaction I would get by visiting football grounds, but I wanted to make the men think that they had mothers, daughters and sisters who could be victims and we have a collective responsibility to stop it happening. I did worry about what would happen if people didn’t get behind me, especially at the end when I went onto the pitch at West Ham at halftime. Everyone applauded me and then everyone went silent and listened to what I had to say. It was amazing.”

Due to her commitment to good causes she had been nominated as one of three people shortlisted for Celebrity Fund-raiser of the Year, although some have questioned her motives on Twitter.

“I try not to take any notice of what they say. Would I have put myself through a week of hell raising the profile of Women’s Aid if I was just about promoting myself? I know the truth and so do my close friends and family and that is all that really matter to me. Of course I would love to win, but not just for me, it will mean more people will be talking about domestic abuse as a result and raising more money for the charity.”

The challenge also took its toll physically.

“I didn’t eat a full meal for five days and I was so exhausted afterwards. It took me four months before I could run again,” says the fitness mad presenter. “I ran through the pain but I didn’t want to let people down.” This year may have been a mad one for Charlie Webster but you get the feeling she never really slows down.

Now dating Downton Abbey actor Allen Leech (chauffeur Branson) it seems that she has never been happier both professionally and personally.