Seated on a bar stool, waiting for my blind date to join me before we headed to our dinner table, my stomach churned with nervous anticipation.
If it hadn’t been for the stiff drink in my hand, and the kind hotel bartender who kept me talking, I think I’d have bolted.
This was my first date in 15 years. After 18 turbulent months, my husband had only recently moved out. Now, the words ‘What were you thinking, Ulrika?’ played on a loop inside my head as I wondered why I’d agreed to this date.
Ulrika Jonsson met Paul (right) at the First Dates hotel in Naples following her third divorce
Sitting my teenage daughters down at the kitchen table a month before to ask how they’d feel about me doing this had been nerve-racking enough — and not just because I was worried about a negative reaction.
My divorce from their father, Brian Monet, had yet to be finalised. But there was no going back. My feelings — and those of all four of my children, who loved him dearly — were incredibly raw.
What’s more, news of the end of my third marriage had only just been made public. Naturally, I couldn’t help but wonder what people might think about my role in its demise.
But I was single now and, therefore, free to go out with whoever I chose. However, as any woman in my position will attest, getting back in the dating saddle after any long-term relationship ends never feels quite that simple.
Husband number one: Ukrika Jonsson married cameraman John Turnbull in 1990. The pair divorced after five years of marriage in 1995. Pictured at the premiere for Wayne’s World 2
I still had a married woman’s mindset: faithful to the family Brian and I created. It would take more than divorce papers to free me of that.
What’s more, my 52nd birthday was looming and my confidence was at rock-bottom. I felt too old, too emotionally battered, for all the dressing-up and putting on a show — the very things I’d enjoyed about it in my youth — that dating inevitably entails.
This low ebb manifested itself in fairly predictable ways. I wasn’t sleeping well and I’d lost all interest in my appearance.
Schlepping around the house, always in the same frumpy uniform of leggings, vest top and loose, long-sleeved cardigan — all black — I didn’t feel remotely attractive. So why on earth might anyone else see me that way?
Meanwhile, my sense of self, not just as a person, but also as a sensuous being, was non-existent. ‘Sex, how do you spell that?’ I’d joke with friends, having done the deed only once in the past eight years.
Picturing myself across a restaurant table with someone new for the first time in 15 years, waiting to see if any sexual energy might ignite between us, felt beyond daunting. The thought of emotionally and physically interacting with another man in order to have sex with him filled me with terror.
Why, then, you might reasonably ask, was I putting myself through the stress of even considering a date — and a blind one at that, something I’d never contemplated before — in the first place?
Husband number two: Lance Gerrard Wright and Ulrika Jonsson married in Sweden on August 16, 2003
Actually, it was on the cards only because of my TV work. Recently, the producers of one of my favourite programmes, Channel 4’s First Dates Hotel, had been in touch to ask if I’d consider taking part.
My first instinct had been to laugh it off: ‘I’m getting divorced for the third time and you’re asking me if I want to find someone new? Don’t you see the irony?’
But this was a celebrity version, part of the station’s Stand Up To Cancer campaign. My fee would go to a brilliant cause, and maybe I’d meet someone nice and we’d have some fun in the process.
If you’re unfamiliar with the format, the show takes people from all walks of life and attempts to match them on a perfect blind date.
I’m an incurable romantic and always find it delightful to watch. You feel a part of it all when some tiny (or big) flame is lit and hope tugs at the heart.
And, of course, you also see the awkward moments when you just know things won’t go anywhere.
First Dates is set inside a UK restaurant and First Dates Hotel — the version I was invited on — outside Naples. As a viewer, it’s like you’re sitting at the next table, and no one minds you gawping.
So you can see why I was tempted. But, like any mother, my children’s emotional needs came first.
I had to give Bo, 18, and 15-year-old Martha the opportunity to say: ‘Sorry, Mum, but we’re not ready for you to do something like this.’ Perhaps even for them to tell me: ‘We don’t think you’re ready for it, either.’ Gosh, what a brilliant get-out that would have been.
But they said nothing of the sort. It was, the girls told me, a brilliant idea, a treat I deserved and needed. ‘Just promise me something,’ said Martha, her tone deadly serious. ‘You’ll dress up, no black, and you’ll wear your hair down.’
‘And Mum,’ added Bo, ‘please put on some make-up.’ This wasn’t what I had expected to hear, but actually, it was just what I needed. Even so, I was shocked by their obvious excitement.
I think they’d seen their mum so sad over the past 18 months that they hoped this would be a nice change; that I’d get away for a couple of nights and have fun.
Their enthusiasm buoyed me. In truth, it was far too soon even to think about looking for anyone new. I didn’t feel remotely hopeful that I’d find the next great love of my life.
But maybe it was time for me to start moving forwards — to do something outside of my comfort zone that might help me feel a bit better about myself.
My eldest son, Cameron, agreed with his sisters. I didn’t talk it through with 11-year-old Malcolm, though — not least because the whole thing was top-secret and he can’t keep his mouth shut.
When I was going on Celebrity MasterChef, he blurted it out to a stranger at the checkout in Waitrose long before the line-up had been made public.
Husband number three: Ulrika married Brian Monet in 2008. Pictured together in 2011
More important, he had been deeply affected by mine and Brian’s split and I didn’t want him to start worrying that I had plans to replace his daddy. As far as he was concerned, I simply had to go away for work.
Which, in theory, is all this was. But the reality of talking to the show’s researchers about what I was looking for in a man made me realise I don’t actually have a type.
Their questions — age, personality — stumped me. The men in my life have been so different: various ages, professions and looks.
All the relationships started from chance meetings or professional engagements. I met my first two husbands through work and Brian through friends in Sweden.
Also, I’ve never signed up to any kind of dating agency or even been on a blind date before. That’s largely due to shyness and a romantic notion of letting serendipity play its part — that when love, or even uncomplicated sex, is meant to be, then it will somehow find you.
I imagine that’s how many women of my generation feel about modern dating, with first introductions so often taking place on the internet.
And, while I don’t usually play the celebrity card, for someone like me, that’s an even harder landscape to navigate.
Think about the practicalities of signing up for online dating when you’re in the public eye. You can’t put your real name, but using a false one would mean starting off any potential relationship with a lie.
Anyway, imagine if I put up a real photo of me and the responses came back telling me I looked like an old has-been off the telly! Imagine the awkward explanations that would follow.
But then, I do have lots of friends who’ve met their other halves through online dating — maybe it was worth taking a more calculated approach. There certainly wasn’t going to be another chance to do it in such a protected environment.
Pushed for some guidance, on age range at least, I said: ‘Oh, 25 to 50,’ realising immediately that meant I could end up on a date with someone the same age as my oldest child. I needed to remember how old I was. But then, if I raised the age bar, they might set me up with someone in his 60s — horrifyingly, that would be more age-appropriate, but I just don’t feel that old.
It could also make for a sensible and boring date, which was the last thing I needed. At least if they put me with someone super-young and inappropriate, it might be fun.
First Dates’ host Fred Sirieix in front of the Naple’s hotel’s sign. First Dates is set inside a UK restaurant and First Dates Hotel — the version I was invited on — outside Naples. As a viewer, it’s like you’re sitting at the next table, and no one minds you gawping
That’s when it hit me that a sense of fun was what the breakdown of my marriage had taken from me. So I made another request: ‘Please could I have someone funny?’
I hadn’t shared a sense of humour with my ex-husband. Humour had been missing from my life for so long — I just wanted an evening of laughs. Oh, and if he could have an accent . . . that would be great.
Why? Because I love an accent on anyone. It starts the story of where you’re from as soon as you speak. And, since they were pushing me for some prerequisites, I thought I might as well ask.
These conversations took place in April. I flew to Italy the following month.
During the build-up, there was no time for nerves. I was too busy making arrangements to ensure everyone was OK at home. ‘We’ll be fine!’ shrieked Bo when she caught me writing yet more instructions.
Only when I sat at my hotel room dressing table, my evening outfit hanging from the wardrobe door (a black dress, sorry Martha . . .) and the contents of my rarely used make-up bag spilling out in front of me, did the reality of what I was about to do hit me.
Physically, I wasn’t feeling great. I had arrived with a sinus infection and now the nerves were kicking in.
In an hour, I would meet a complete stranger for dinner at a point in my life when I felt emotionally worn down.
I’d felt incredibly negative and hopeless for so long, with no idea about who or what might make me happy again. It occurred to me that I couldn’t visualise myself with anyone else again.
That wasn’t because I was still in love with my now ex-husband — I’m not. It was more that I’d been so concerned with looking after the children and helping them acclimatise to our new family status that I hadn’t given my own happiness a second thought.
Ending my marriage was what was needed to remove the misery from my life — but I hadn’t yet worked out how to fill the space that had created.
If it hadn’t been for the fact that, along with my date, there was a film crew waiting for me I think I’d have caught the next flight home.
But that wasn’t an option, so — although I’m not really a drinker — there was only one thing for it: a large rum and coke. And then I got ready for the date.
You’ll have to watch the programme on Thursday night to find out how it went.
What I will say is that his name is Paul, he’s a few years younger than me, he has a lovely accent and we laughed like a pair of leaky drains all night. It was the most fun I’ve had in a very long time.
He did a double take as he walked over. I offered him my cheek and introduced myself, and he laughed, saying: ‘I know who you are.’
But I didn’t know his name, and I was on such pins and needles that I didn’t dare ask for ages.
Thankfully, he seemed almost as nervous as I was, which helped.
Did sparks fly? Did we meet each other again? You’ll have to see for yourself.
But I’m proud of myself for getting into the swing of the evening. Maybe it was down to the rum, but I soon managed to let go of all the angst and enjoy Paul’s company.
There’s no way I would have found myself on a blind date so soon if it wasn’t for the show, and I’m grateful for the way it gave me an unexpected kick up the bum.
I hope any woman in a similar position will take heart from what I did. It’s challenging, putting yourself out there again, but, as long as you don’t have ridiculously high expectations, then dating again can be a really positive experience.
Whatever the future holds, I’ll never deliberately go looking for someone to ‘complete’ me. I feel strongly that my life is rich and full: I have my children, my friends and my dogs.
But, as the kids grow up, I will inevitably find myself alone. And, as I was reminded in Italy, it really is lovely to have someone to eat and laugh with.
- Celebrity First Dates Hotel For SU2C airs on Channel 4 on Thursday at 9pm.
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