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INTERVIEW: A Place in the Sun’s Jean Johansson shares her journey from council estate to globetrotting TV star

© Andrew CawleyJean Johansson
Jean Johansson

Some people have a natural ability to light up a room, simply by walking through the door – and Jean Johansson is one of them.

Arriving for her P.S. cover shoot at The Ivy in the heart of Glasgow, the popular television presenter greets everyone with a hug, rather than a handshake, and her infectious smile quickly leads to laughter and jokes throughout the morning.

And later, when we sit down to chat about everything from motherhood to Meghan Markle, speaking to Jean feels more like having lunch with an old friend than interviewing a famous face.

Known for her warmth and charm, the 39-year-old’s easy, down-to-earth nature is perhaps why she’s set to become one of the country’s biggest daytime TV stars. But from helping couples find their dream home while presenting Channel Four’s A Place in the Sun to reporting for The One Show, Jean admits getting back to her journalistic roots is really what makes her job the best in the world.

Jean during the cover shoot at The Ivy in Glasgow (Pictures: Andrew Cawley; Make-up: Kirsty E Martin)

“When people ask what my job is I always say that it’s about connecting with people, that’s really what my presenting career has always been about,” explained Jean, who lives in Glasgow with her husband, former footballer Jonatan Johansson, and their son, Junior, nine.

“With A Place in the Sun, it’s my dream job because I love to travel, but hanging out with the house hunters is really the best part.

“Off camera, we take the time to get to know the couples, and when they buy a house they love, I fly home feeling amazing. Whether it’s a holiday home they’ll use six weeks a year or a permanent move abroad, it’s nice to think you’ve had a hand in changing someone’s life.

“I suppose that’s how I’ve made the show my own, by having a real relationship with the house hunters, as well as finding the properties and helping them get to know the area. Connecting with the couples is the thing I really enjoy most.”

© Wattie Cheung
Jean with husband Jonatan

Born in Kenya and raised in Port Glasgow, Jean started her presenting career after winning a nationwide search to work in children’s television, and later began hosting STV weather bulletins while studying journalism at the University of the West of Scotland.

In 2018 the mum of one also appeared on Celebrity Masterchef, which she described as a huge career highlight, having managed to survive the critical gaze of judges John Torode and Greg Wallace (“You start questioning your ability to even peel a potato!) and showing more of her personality off-script.

With lots of new projects on the cards, including fronting the prime-time Channel 5 series Is It A Con? which continues later this year, Jean is also relishing her role not just as a presenter, but also as one of the personalities helping to shake up the status quo and bring more diversity to television.

She said: “People now are really responding to people that look and sound like them. There aren’t many people on telly that sound like me. Well, apart from Lorraine Kelly, who is a stalwart!

“There still aren’t enough regional accents, and I remember saying that in interviews 20 years ago.

“So, it’s been in the back of my mind that people are looking to me for that. I didn’t have those people to look up to when I was younger, so the more I’m present and out there on TV, the better.

“I don’t like to think of myself as a role model. I’m not perfect and I still make loads of mistakes. But in terms of coming from a working-class background and achieving what you want to achieve, yes, I hope when people see that I’ve done it, they believe they can too.

“I hope there are young kids in Scotland, maybe sitting in housing schemes like I was, who can see me as an inspiration.

“The older I get, the more important I think it is to set an example.”

Jean fronting hit travel show A Place In The Sun

She added: “Telly is still very white, still very middle class, and still very London-based. But lots of steps are being taken now to diversify, and not just in terms of race. I think we are now going to start seeing a shift and that’s great for people who are working their way up.”

Although she works in an industry often overly obsessed with youth, beauty and how women look – especially under the scrutiny of social media – Jean says achieving success later, in her 30s, has helped to ensure she focuses on what’s important, not letting the online world control her life.

“I can’t be too invested in social media. It’s there, I dip in and out when I want to and I’m very in control of that,” she explained.

“And I want to keep it that way. I can’t imagine what it’s like when you lose that control. I think I’m just the type of person that would step away. If I’m being honest, I like to be liked – I’ve always been like that since I was a kid. So, when people don’t like me, it gets to me. I don’t care if people criticise what I’m wearing, but when people come for you as a person, or dislike you for who you are, that does get to me.

“If more focus comes on me and my personal life as my career grows, I would have to step away from social media more. I’m not willing to go down that path. It’s dangerous.

“I’m glad success has come to me at the age I am now. If I was 20 I don’t think I could cope with cyber-bullying, judgement, nastiness. I don’t know how I would have navigated that, I really don’t. Now, I see it for what it is – it only exists in a handset, that’s what I have to remind myself.”

© Andrew Cawley
Jean Johansson

As well as making strides in her work life, the coming months will also see Jean focus on her health and wellbeing – she has ditched meat for Veganuary – and making the most of the last year of her 30s.

“Health and wellbeing is going to be big for me this year. The last two years has been a lot of parties, drinking, mingling, and going up and down to London, so I’ve not been looking after myself properly because I haven’t had time,” she explained.

“I find my mental health is so much better when I feel good physically. When I give myself an hour at the gym, it’s a bit like meditating because it’s the place where I can switch off.

“Running is the thing that focuses me, and a half-marathon before I’m 40 would be another item ticked off my bucket list.

“We’re all full of good intentions in January but it’s the last year of my 30s so it’s the perfect time to do it. I want to go into my 40s thinking, ‘I’ve got this’.

“In the past I probably wouldn’t have told someone in an interview that I was going to be 40 – I would have been too scared. But, now? I’m good with it. I’m in a good place and I really just want to have so much fun in the last year of my 30s.

“I’ve got years and experience behind me now, and that’s a good thing.”

Meghan ‘hounded out UK’

As a fellow woman in the public eye, Jean has been an outspoken critic of how parts of the media treated Meghan Markle, and defends her decision to move abroad with husband Harry and son Archie.

The presenter says social media scrutiny of the Duchess of Sussex was just the tip of the iceberg.

“The treatment of Megan is a huge mirror to our society and it speaks for itself. We ran her out of the country,” said Jean.

“Hopefully this big message from Meghan and Harry will make all of us think about how we talk about women and people of colour.”

She added: “We should all just take a moment to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else, whether it’s on the street, your neighbour or anyone.

“I would like to think for my son’s generation a lot of that prejudice would be in the past, and it’s rearing its ugly head again and it’s very sad to see.”

Jean is proud to speak out against injustices, and says she would find it difficult to front a programme that would require her to remain impartial.

She said: “I feel so strongly about things like racism, homophobia, islamophobia — all the ‘isms’ that seem to be rearing their ugly head. I can’t stay quiet because I’m living it and people are looking to me to speak up for people who don’t have a voice.”

A Place in the Sun, Channel 4, weekdays, 3pm