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How kids’ TV tamed sex kitten Gail

Not so long ago, gorgeous Gail McKenna was one of Britain’s leading glamour models, with millions of men ogling at her topless figure each day in the nation’s tackier newspapers.

But now the bubbly blonde is every inch a family favourite – a working mum with two kids and nearly a million young fans.

For the 29-year-old is one of our top children’s TV presenters, and hosts the wildlife series Brilliant Creatures with animal expert Terry Nutkins.

So how did the former grammar school girl go from naked poses to nature programmes?

According to Gail, life as a high-profile glamour model was simply too BORING!

She explains: “I enjoyed it for a year and then thought – get a grip. You’ve got to do something more worthwhile with your life.

“Sure, I did have a real scream as a model. There was independence and I was earning reasonable money.

“Somebody else pays for you to go to the Caribbean, sit on the beach and have your picture taken. It is not a bad life, really!”

But those days are in the past now for Gail – and in the past they will remain.

“I’m a working mother now,” she says proudly. “When I’m out shopping with my two kids and wearing the minimum of make-up, I can sometimes look pretty haggard.

“But now the kids in the street have started to recognise me from Brilliant Creatures, which is very nice.

“It makes quite a change from lager louts shouting `Get yer kit off’.”

TV bosses adore Gail because of her bubbly personality, which comes across well on the small screen. She is a telly “natural”. But the conversion hasn’t been an easy one.

“The prejudice against the glam thing is getting less and less, I’m happy to note,” she says.

“I thought I’d never work for the BBC because of that. People get very snooty and holier-than-thou when they get wind of my topless model days.

“But I am actually doing a presenting job soon for the new BBC digital launch night.”

The youngest daughter of a machine fitter who scraped the money together for her private schooling, Gail managed eight O-levels at Liverpool Grammar.

She was about to take Classics and History at A-level when she decided to take a year off – and began modelling skimpy underwear.

She made the move on the advice of a friend who worked with a modelling agency.

“I was always a bit of a show-off,” she says. “I always wanted to perform.”

But Gail’s choice disappointed her devout Catholic parents.

She says: “I think they are proud of me now. They don’t actually say it – you are meant to guess it.

“They are more happy that I’m sort of settled and more proud of the kids.”

Like her career, Gail’s love life has been full of headlines, occasional heartbreak and, presently, blissful happiness.

She was linked to pop star Mike Nocito of the group Johnny Hates Jazz. Then, in 1990, Gail met up with long-standing friend Tony Potter at a Billy Graham rally.

They were soon walking hand-in-hand to church – but the marriage didn’t last.

Today, her knight in shining armour is restaurateur James Rhodes. They have been married for nearly two years and live in London with James, 6, and Jack, 12 months.

Having her own children rekindled the spiritual beliefs Gail had been investigating at that Billy Graham rally all those years ago. She says: “The minute your children are born, the awe hits you.

“There is absolutely no doubt at all that there is a God. Babies are living proof of it. The church was always a part of my life. Then I got to the point where I was investigating a lot deeper.

“I did get quite engrossed for a while. It is still very important to me but I must admit I am guilty of not being quite as committed as I once was.

“I hate to start making excuses for it but I haven’t been to church for a while.

“I do beat myself up over that. I have got a very strong faith. My belief in Christianity is still very important to me.”

And being a mother has given Gail plenty of insight for working with the kids who join her in the studio for Brilliant Creatures.

“I got the job on the programme because they were looking for someone who found it easy to talk to children and wasn’t afraid to speak.

“Also, I am an animal lover… within reason. I haven’t got anything bizarre or exotic at home. Just a dog and a couple of cats.”

Gail remains ambitious to go further – but knows she’s fortunate to be working at all in television.

“There was no particular plan for it – that’s the strange thing,” she recalls. “I didn’t actually set out to be a TV star. I just sort of stumbled into it.

“I began by working with L!VE TV after they spotted me in pantomime. I was just glad to get a job in telly.

“Since then, the offers have kept coming. I do have to pinch myself sometimes and I still think I’m going to get found out one of these days.”

Having been one of Barry Grant’s many conquests on Brookside, plus a sports presenter on Channel 5, satellite and cable TV, Gail’s now too busy to worry where her next job is coming from. But that wasn’t always the case.

“When I was a model, I worried more than anything,” she says. “Now I tell myself that if this is my last job, or I don’t get another job for six months, it is not the end of the world.

“That’s not because I’m so loaded – far from it. But the really important things are that you are healthy and that your kids are healthy.

“I really mean that. I’m not trying to sound all syrupy. I’ve got so much – two great kids and a lovely husband. I don’t need to expend energy getting worried about work.”

She does worry for her children, though – especially when they are growing up in the face of danger from the booming drugs culture.

Gail says: “I actually worry about drugs more than anything else. The drugs culture these days is so enormous. It horrifies me.

“You think, even if I educate my kids and tell them about the dangers, I’ll have less control when they become teenagers.

“If they want to do it, they will do it. What I worry about more than anything is that they go and harm themselves.

“I mean, I have seen it all. You don’t have to look too hard around here to find someone who is taking something. Personally, I never got into trouble with it.

“At 16, I think I was a bit too grown up for my own good. I thought, I am not being told what to do any more, I’m 16 and I shall leave home if I want to. And I did.

“I’m from a working-class family. My mum and dad worked their backsides off to send me to a private school. So I think they were more concerned about all their effort and money going down the tubes – not that I ended up going topless.

“I don’t have any regrets about those days. I managed to avoid all the pitfalls. It didn’t actually take that long for me to get fed up with it all anyway.”

In fact, Gail is astonished by the number of girls who DON’T get fed up with the glamour game after a year or so.

She says: “I’m not going to name names but there are girls doing it now who started out when I was on the go.

“It just amazes me. I don’t know whether it is to do with IQ levels or not, but how could you be happy in life earning your living for 12 or 15 years taking your clothes off and getting your picture taken?

“I felt completely brain dead after a couple of years so I had to knock it on the head.”

Television, she insists, is her future. “There’s a lot cooking. since I went back after having Jack, I’ve not been out of work.”

And as ratings for Gail’s wildlife show nudge ever upwards, the future is looking bright for this beautiful creature!

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