I had the pleasure of spending Monday evening in the Chelsea Brasserie in Cheltenham, a rather swish venue so typical of this fashionable Regency town, where I had arranged to meet Sophie Lydia Smith, winner of the culinary TV show ‘Come Dine With Me’ and current Miss Cheltenham, for a dinner date.
Don’t worry, Wordpretzels, Lady Barton St Mary was in attendance, since this particular dinner was a charity do in aid of The Hollie Gazzard Trust*.
You see, I used to work with Sophie’s mum Sonia many years ago, in a team that had few restrictions and were let loose on the general public to create fun events without any guidance. Fortunately, Sonia was good at organising and I was good at looking supremely confident when not having a clue what I was doing, which meant that most of the time we managed to appear competent, which was a complete lie. It did set us up for our later careers, realising that the majority of people have no idea what they’re doing, but get away with it by pretending they do.
I’d seen the invitation on my Faceache page a couple of weeks earlier, posted by Sophie’s dad Chris. I really wanted to attend for the following reasons: I wanted to catch up with Sonia and Chris and also support Sophie’s meal. It was based around Sophie’s winning menu from the TV programme ‘Come Dine With Me’, where four or five people from a particular region cook meals for each other in their homes and are scored 1-10 accordingly. There was a possibility that Sophie’s losing competitors would attend, including an eccentric millionaire whose personal styling could best be described as Catweasel meets Peter Stringfellow, a female rugby player with an aversion to underwear and another woman who I can’t remember at all but was nice to Sophie. None of them made an appearance.
We arrived early; in fact, at the same time as the hostess and her mother, which meant that we hid in a corner of the restaurant whilst everything was set up. Sophie somehow managed to have plenty of time for everybody, a real natural, not what you would expect from your stereotypical beauty queen, which shouldn’t have been a surprise. You see, she’s not your typical beauty queen, like the ones I remembered on TV when I was a kid and beauty contests were run by Eric and Julia Morley. The girls were vapid creatures that were easy on the eye but lacked any substance. Most of them wanted world peace, a good husband and loved animals and children, but weren’t particularly interested in a career. Sophie, however, was using her position to promote women in business. Being in construction and being a chartered surveyor, she is very passionate about showing women are capable of doing jobs that have been considered a ‘male’ occupation.
I’d first become aware of this a few months ago when I turned on my TV on a Friday night. It was tuned to BBC 1’s ‘The One Show’, a light entertainment/current affairs show that I never watch. They had an article on beauty pageants and there in a crowd of tiaraed beauties was Sophie. After the pre-recorded article, there she was sitting on the sofa next to guest Louis Theroux, who gave a micro version of the ‘Louis Theroux meets’ treatment. Then, Louis Theroux was invited to finish the show singing karaoke whilst Sophie dutifully danced in the background. It was like a surreal dream and I texted her mum to tell her so.
After a short time, Sonia explained that we had allocated places to sit – she’s always been frighteningly organised. Our names were not on the list. She was mortified and employed the old team tactic of blaming somebody else.
“It’s Sophie’s fault”, she explained, but we were philosophical about it. We’d booked at the last minute, we could sit anywhere. As it turned out, we hit the jackpot, getting to sit with Chris (Mr Cheltenham) who is in the running for nicest man in the world, although I don’t think a tiara would suit him.
Meantime, Sonia realised that she needed to sell raffle tickets. I volunteered, going about my newly found duty with enthusiasm. Everybody bought tickets and I got to know the name of everybody in the restaurant, as well as having some time to have a good chat with Sonia (Mrs Cheltenham) as we folded the freshly sold tickets. It felt like old times.
The meal was very tasty – crab starter, lemon and thyme chicken for main and a chocolate pudding dessert. Entertainment was provided by internet sensation Ellie Higgs, friend of Hollie.
The raffle was entertaining just for the fact that Miss Cheltenham had consumed a couple of glasses of wine and was rather relaxed. I had this image of her, microphone in hand, Tiara on the side of her head, sash around her ankles, singing “Dontcha” to a bemused collection of diners, but she didn’t, reserving herself well enough to deny giving her long suffering brother £50 of John Lewis vouchers even though he had the winning ticket.
Then it was time to go, saying our farewells to the hosts and all the people I’d befriended whilst taking their money for raffle tickets. As we disappeared into the mild midsummer evening, I was reminded that all this beauty queen stuff wasn’t new to me. After all, I am married to Miss Staunton Village 1976…
*Hollie was the victim of a knife attack by her former boyfriend in a hair salon where she worked. Her family have set up The Hollie Gazzard Trust to help trainee hairdressers and victims of domestic violence. To find out more, go to: