Ben Fogle interview 01
Images: Alexander Beer

Ben Fogle: “Politics should be about giving back”

03 Jul 2024 | |By Richard Brown

The Atlantic-rowing, Everest-climbing, Antarctic-trekking original reality-TV star discusses the snares of life in the public eye, feeling like a fraud, and why, despite a desire to give back, he’d struggle to ever get into politics

Ben Fogle, David Gandy and I walk into a bar. Real story, no joke. Johnnie Walker, the whisky people, not the much-loved Sunday-afternoon Radio 2 DJ, had chartered a 1920s-style schooner from Bodrum to London, tethering it to a pier opposite Tower Bridge. Everyone in attendance was gifted a new triple malt, worth about £500, and I managed to leave mine behind. Perhaps that’s the punchline. “I remember that event!” says Fogle, holding my umbrella as we wait, in the morning rain, for another bar to open. “I remember feeling rather inadequate next to David.” Bet you kept hold of your whisky though, didn’t you, old chap?

It’s been more than a decade since the case of the missing triple malt, and 24 years since Fogle first came to public attention as the standout shipwreckee on the experimental, year-long, original reality-TV show, Castaway. Which, you might say, makes Ben Fogle the original reality TV star. (Despite watching “a lot” of television, Fogle wouldn’t necessarily describe himself as a “prolific watcher” of Love Island. Who’d have thought?) 

He’s kept his looks, in that quarter of a century. The mop of blond is holding out, despite the big five-oh rolling around last November (hope for us all, I like to think), and, 18 years after he rowed across the Atlantic in a two-man boat with James Cracknell (Fogle had signed up having not rowed since school), the professional outdoorsman has managed to retain the physique of an Olympic rower. No doubt trekking to the South Pole, a feat accomplished for a Channel 5 documentary last year, helped keep things in check. Weathered, it’s true. Minus 40°C temperatures will do that to a man. But, like a good whisky, a Johnnie Walker triple malt, perhaps, he’s aged well.

Ben Fogle
Hythe jacket, £259, Drawstring trousers, £179, Cuban short sleeve shirt, £189, all Oliver Spencer, oliverspencer.co.uk

As well as an adventurer and author and activist and presenter, Fogle is a one-man show with a 23-gig theatre tour scheduled to kick-off in March 2025. “I feel really flattered that people are willing to pay to come and listen to me.” This afternoon, he’s off to Poole, host of one of next year’s gigs, to give a speech. Tomorrow, it’s Morocco, one of “his favourite countries in the world”, to film the latest episode of New Lives in the Wild, a rampantly successful documentary series that’s now in its 11th year, 18th season, and, testament to Fogle’s daytime appeal, still getting commissioned. It means Fogle will be away from his family, again, something he says he thought would get easier the older he got, but hasn’t. “Partly because it’s like a countdown clock to when they leave, and I realised that my time with them is limited.”

This morning, however, Fogle and I are standing in the rain, under my umbrella, waiting for another bar to open. At least he’s put his shoes and socks back on. Clarity: it’s almost 11am, opening time, and this is the closest dry place we could find to conduct the interview that wasn’t my Ford C-Max or his Volvo 4X4. Fogle had, just moments ago, been standing barefoot in a chalk stream in commuter belt Surrey (hard as it is to believe, these shots were not, in fact, captured in some far-flung jungle) with his trousers rolled up so that we could snap the scholarly adventurer in his natural habitat – which may, or may not, be a council-maintained thicket on the perimeter of a playing field just off the A24. An Englishman in West Ewell.

Born in Westminster, Fogle grew up closer to the centre of town, the son of Julia Foster, an English actress, and Bruce Fogle, a Canadian vet who, for a time, was the go-to animal expert for Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 show. His father, now in his eighties, still runs Marylebone’s London Vet Clinic – one of the few independent veterinary practices left in London – 50 years after he founded it. ‘He has steadfastly turned down big money offers to swallow his clinic into gigantic veterinary portfolios,’ Fogle has written on Instagram. ‘I’m very proud of dad and his independence. He has dedicated his whole career to looking after others ahead of himself. He is my role model and my hero.’

To recap. Castaway was a turn-of-the-millennium reality show that saw a group of 36 men, women and children marooned on an uninhabited Scottish island for a year. There was no voting, no prize money, no winners, except, you might say, Fogle, who emerged as unofficial champion and something of a national heartthrob. Before signing up to the show, Fogle had been working as a picture editor for Tatler magazine, the high-society glossy, sharing an office with titanic columnists Giles Coren and the late, great A.A. Gill.

Since moving into presenting, Fogle has been a near-permanent presence on our screens, fronting (mostly) animal and nature-related shows, including, but not limited to, Animal Park, Crufts, Countryfile, One Man and His Dog, Country Tracks, Extreme Dreams, a slew of one-off adventure documentaries and, to date, those 18 seasons of New Lives in the Wild. As well as rowing the Atlantic, Fogle has climbed Mount Everest, completed the Marathon des Sables, raced across Antarctica, twice, written several books, and, across Twitter and Instagram, amassed more than one million followers. And yet, BAFTA-nominated Fogle (The Endurance: Race to the Pole lost out to Celebrity Race Across the World in the Factual Entertainment category at this year’s awards) still feels like a fraud.

“There is a part of me that feels like I’m just a reality-show celebrity, someone who has managed to eke out their 15 minutes of fame,” he says. “That’s how I think other people see me, anyway.” Which, of course, they do not. But, for Fogle, a naturally introspective heart-on-sleever, who has talked openly about his obsessive tendencies on social media, it’s a feeling from which he’s never truly been able to unshackle himself.

“I care whether people like me. I do. I can’t stop myself.” Fogle brings up something the late Terry Wogan once said to him. “He said, ‘The more people love you, the more there will be a group of people that absolutely despise you because of it.’” That’s how life is, Fogle understands, but that doesn’t stop the haters, on social media especially, from getting to him. “I find that very difficult to cope with. I go through stages; I don’t care, and then things really affect me. I bounce back and forth. But I am controlling it.”

In February, Fogle posted on Instagram about ‘a recent mental health storm’, writing that ‘some aspects of life had become more of a struggle’. After the bar opens, which is more of a pub, really, and our americanos arrive, I ask if he’s comfortable talking about that storm. He says that he is.

“I started noticing I was behaving a bit oddly,” he says. “A bit strangely. I didn’t go searching for a diagnosis, but it came to me after I had a bit of a breakdown. My psychiatrist diagnosed ADHD and OCD, which she described as an unpleasant mix, because the ADHD means I obsess over everything, and the OCD is all about wanting to control things. Of course, working in the public eye, it’s very difficult to have control over anything.”

Fogle doesn’t take medication. Instead, he tries to understand why he’s feeling a certain way. “I think recognising it is the most important thing – and talking about it, so people don’t feel like they are alone.” In typically stoic Fogle fashion, the presenter puts a positive spin on the diagnosis. “I actually think it is something that’s very useful. I don’t want to change it. I see it as part of my character, perhaps part of the reason my 15 minutes has turned into 25 years.”

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Styling as before

Adventurer, author, activist, presenter, sold-out theatre-tour speaker, and, in a more recent, unexpected career move, online crypto guru. “Ha, yes, my big new thing!” Fogle can smile about it now, but he didn’t find the episode very much fun at the time. In March, the presenter was the target of a Martin Lewis-style crypto scam. Digital tricksters used a screengrab of an appearance on This Morning to create a clickbait-y link to a dodgy crypto scheme. “A lot of other celebrities have had the same thing done, and left it.” Not one to turn down a challenge, you may have noticed, Fogle went after the faceless perpetrators, hiring a legal team to track them down – to the US, it turns out – and issuing a cease and desist letter to Meta, parent company to Facebook, Instagram and X (formerly Twitter).

“I got it all taken down, but it was a very costly exercise. And the depressing thing is that as soon as it comes down, it pops straight back up. It’s like Whac-a-Mole.” A win, but a small one, and a victory that Fogle isn’t entirely sure was worth the effort. “Can I just say, hand on my heart, I’ve got massive buyer’s remorse on that one. It cost a huge amount of money; money that you’re literally throwing down the drain. I kind of wish I hadn’t done it.”

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Fogle is less than his usual glass-half-full self on the subject of big tech, and social media in general. “It makes me angry that these giant companies have the power to control things like this; they make enough money to hire people to try and stop people being fooled and exploited, but it’s just not convenient to their profit... unfortunately, I think what happened to me is just a little snapshot of the future.”

Not a day goes past, says Fogle, when he’s not made aware of a fake social media account pretending to be him. “There’s a current one offering the chance to meet me.” Because of his “character traits” and the nature of his job – “lots of travel, lots of alone time, weeks and weeks on trains and planes and buses and cars” – Fogle found himself “obsessing over social media, more than most people might think”. And, while he recognises the potential for doing good – “social media can be such a beautiful way to reach people and share things” – he found his own social media use was having a “distorting effect on my life”. 

“When you deconstruct it, it’s like, okay, what are we using social media for? For bragging and showing off? For escapism? But how are we escaping if the thing we use to escape is making us feel jealous and guilty? That’s the irony, isn’t it?... I used to be able to write a book, genuinely, in weeks. I used to find it really easy. I can’t now. I’ve owed a book for years. Now I get so distracted.” The answer? A self-enforced social media protocol. “I try to be very strict. I try not to consume too much of other people’s lives. And I try to only publish positive content myself.”

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Styling as before

Four years ago, Fogle swapped west London for a village on the Buckinghamshire-Oxfordshire border, close to Henley-on-Thames. He lives with his wife, Marina, the two having met while walking their dogs in Hyde Park. Fogle lost his wedding ring on their wedding day while swimming in a lake, as you do, and wears his second on a chain around his neck. The couple’s first son, Ludo, was born in 2009 and their daughter, Iona, in 2011. Their second son, Willem, was stillborn in 2014; Fogle and Marina are both ardent supporters of Tommy’s, the largest UK charity researching pregnancy and birth complications.

In addition to his charity work, Fogle is an active petitioner. ‘I nearly died yesterday,’ he wrote in his local newspaper back in April, following a close call with a delivery van on the single-track lane outside his home. It prompted the broadcaster to petition his council to the lower the speed limit through his village. So far, despite the petition receiving more than 9,000 signatures, the council has said it deems the current speed limit ‘appropriate’. The day before our miserable morning in West Ewell (the weather, that is, not the company) the Tories had received a kicking at the local elections. I ask Fogle, a long-time environmental activist who’s always had something statesmanlike about him, if he’s ever considered stepping into the political ring proper. 

“Yes, very much so,” he says. “The problem with politics now, is that all the people you don’t want to go into politics, go into politics, and the people you wish would go into politics, don’t, because it’s just become so toxic and polarising. For that reason, I wouldn’t go near it.” Fogle believes that politics shouldn’t be a career, but a “social responsibility”. “It should be about giving back, about dedicating a certain amount of years of your life to making the nation a better place.”

What else, I ask, while the perennially polite presenter is mildly riled up, is currently getting Fogle’s goat? “Ha,” he laughs. “I’ll tell you one thing that gets my goat, when mainstream newspapers take a negative comment from one troll and make that the headline. This whole ‘Ben Fogle divides opinion’ thing, and when you look [at the social media post] they’ve dismissed hundreds and hundreds of positive comments just to make a headline. Instead, they’ll take a negative comment and portray that as the mood of the nation. It’s just another thing that feeds into all this negativity and divisiveness, isn’t it?”

Apart from all the animal and adventure stuff, what other things is Fogle into? “Contrary to popular belief, I don’t just eat bugs and sleep in tents and wear outdoor clothes all the time. I do enjoy the finer things in life. I like collecting folk art. Naive art. Not paintings, but stuff. That’s my weird collection obsession.”

When is he happiest? “With my family. That’s when I’m most comfortable and content.” In which case, he might have picked a more suitable day job, I suggest. “Ha, well, yes. It’s probably a symptom of being away from them so much that I am always so happy when I’m with them... My children love their home and, to be honest, I really love being at home, too.”

And with that, the professional adventurer is off on his next pilgrimage. Which, this afternoon at least, is only as far as Poole.

Ben Fogle’s new show, Wild, runs from March to April 2025, visit ticketmaster.co.uk for details. 

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