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dr miriam stoppard

I ask when she first started moving away from orthodox Judaism. She says she remembers precisely; she was 16, in synagogue, and the rabbi was “preaching about the purity of the race, and I thought, ‘This is nonsense and wrong’.” At 18, she was taken to a Chinese restaurant on a date and ordered a dish which contained “the most delicious little pink things”. Shrimp. She was sick when she was told what they were. Had to rush outside and vomit. “But I still thought it silly to forbid something so delicious.” And then, at 24, she married a Quaker (and, at last, got her oats, I suppose). Yes, her father threw out her possessions, blacked the windows, “tore his shirt and did the ‘my daughter is dead’ thing. It was more than marrying out, I was leaving my programming behind. I remember saying to my mother, ‘I can’t do what you say because now I have someone more important than you.'”
Her voice is still soft and light, but not tinkling. There’s a flinty tone to it now, something quite scary, something almost Thatcher-like. I still don’t get the make-up thing, though. What is it all about? I mean, if she were Jordan instead of distinguished doctor, scientist, businesswoman, Lady Hogg etc, it would be one thing. How do you solve a problem like Miri-am? (Understanding Miriam: 0901 562 8799. I wish!)
Well, certainly, control is a big thing with her. Control of looks, control of health, control of ageing (“You’re in the driving seat when it comes to setting the limit on your own mortality,” she writes in the introduction to Defying Age), control of appetite. Do you have any bad health habits, Dr Stoppard? “I’d have a mountain if I gave into them. I love cake!” When Tom left her after two sons and 20 years of marriage for Felicity Kendal, she was, alas, the model of controlled dignity, never, for example, referring to Miss Kendal as “that evil, dungareed old slag”.
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Yes, she says, she does. Why? So that her now husband (the industrialist Sir Christopher Hogg) doesn’t see her minus cosmetics? “No. My husband is usually asleep by the time I get to bed.” So, why? “Why not?” Because it must feel yukky. Because you’re a dermatologist! “I don’t understand why you are so interested in this,” she says. I say it’s because I don’t know any other woman who goes to bed in full make-up, apart from when they are utterly pissed, of course. She says: “I have very dry skin and make-up helps keep it moisturised. Also, skin cells do not replenish until 8am [I have this image of them all looking at their watches], so why bother taking it off at night?” She adds: “You’re making too much of this. I don’t give it a second thought.”
Is her adult self in some ways a rebuttal of her childhood self? Maybe. But then, I suppose, whose isn’t? Perhaps with Miriam, it’s just more so. Born Miriam Stern, she was brought up in a Jewish working-class family in Newcastle. Her father, Stanley, was a nurse, while her mother Jenny worked for the city’s school-dinners service. The family were ultra, ultra orthodox. Miriam and her younger sister Hazel walked three miles to chayder and then three miles back, every single day after regular school. They were ultra, ultra kosher, too, of course; four sets of everything, which Miriam was always mixing up, and which could then only be purified by burying in the earth. There was always a saucepan handle or two sticking out from the ground out back, she remembers. I ask if she suffered anti-Semitism at school. For sure, she says. In particular, she recalls being cornered by some kids, called a Jesus-killer, and stoned. “I can still see that corner of the brick coming at me now.”
Miriam continued to phone her parents every Friday evening even though, for three years, they hung up at the sound of her voice. This must have been hard for her. But perhaps the need to escape the constraints and oppressions of formal religion was greater than the need to be a good, biddable daughter. Perhaps she was fed up with being controlled, desperately wanted to control. The rift was never fully healed, although some kind of reconciliation was achieved when that first marriage failed and Miriam took up with Tom. Tom was Jewish, first off, plus “my parents absolutely adored him”. I ask if she felt any conflict, turning her back on Judaism. “I think it’s still a conflict. One doesn’t shake that off. It was Yom Kippur a few weeks ago and I didn’t fast, but I did think about fasting, for my father’s sake.”
Her upbringing was repressive, to say the least. Sexually, almost everything was taboo. When Miriam had her first period she thought she had cancer and was going to die. When she and Hazel passed a poster on the street of the actor Jane Russell showing a buxom cleavage for her film The Outlaw, their father put his hands over their eyes. “And I remember going to a Jewish youth club when I was 15, wearing a Yardley lipstick called Natural Rose because all the other girls were wearing it. My father put my face under the tap and scrubbed it off with the soap my mother used to clean the floor, calling me a harlot.” Can this go part way to explaining her later passion for lashings of 24-hour make-up? Also: “I was a fat child and suffered greatly as a result. I was called Dumbo at school and it did make me insecure. These things don’t go away, do they? They are very difficult to slough off. I’ve never been able to see myself as anything but fat since.” She is fair evangelical about exercise: “It controls appetite, so you don’t have any cravings.”
She’s all up for controlling me, asks if she can see the copy before it comes out in the newspaper. No, you bloody can’t, I don’t say, because I’m pathetic. She’s all up for controlling the photographer: “Oh, please, not with my hands all over the place. and don’t make me look educationally subnormal.” Also, I’d arrived with that morning’s Mirror, in which an error meant that, on her page, “pubic lice” had become “public lice” (but not, at least, public pubic lice, which I wouldn’t wish on anybody). I’m not sure why I pointed this out to her, but I did, and when I spoke to Dr Stoppard over the telephone a few days later, she said a full investigation had been launched and sub-editors reprimanded, and a new system was in place so that such “a thing” would not happen again. Yikes. A flibbertigibbet? A will-o’-the-wisp? I don’t think so. And I say this rather admiringly, if not very admiringly. Age cannot wither her, because it wouldn’t bloody dare. She’s magnificent!
I meet Dr Miriam Stoppard – a sort of Joan Collins of childcare advice and do-it-yourself health – in central London, at the offices of Miriam Stoppard Lifetime, her latest business venture selling her own range of toys, books, creams and the Baby Babbleboom layette range, available from Debenhams and selling very well, by all accounts.