Towards the end of the long, hot summer of 2009, I bumped into Holly Willoughby in a rather unlikely place.
Back then, the future star of daytime TV was far from a household name. Just 28, she still wore her hair in long blonde ringlets rather than the shorter tresses she prefers today. Nor was she dressed head-to-toe in her now-trademark designer frocks.
This more informal style perhaps explains why, when we met in the queue for the ladies’ at the now-defunct V music festival in Chelmsford, Essex, Holly was surprisingly candid: she revealed she’d ‘almost fainted’ when she was offered the chance to present Britain’s most high-profile breakfast show alongside veteran broadcaster Phillip Schofield.
Sian Welby hosting This Morning on Thursday at the end of her four-day ‘trial’ stint
She also admitted she was still ‘in shock’ and that she ‘hadn’t seen it coming’.
There is no doubt it was a huge promotion: barring a stint on children’s television, presenting The X-tra Factor (a spin-off from Simon Cowell’s hit The X Factor) and a couple of series of Dancing On Ice alongside Schofield, she had little broadcasting experience.
Eight days after our meeting, Holly took her place alongside Schofield – and the rest, as they say, is history.
My memory of meeting her all those years ago came rushing back to me on Monday this week, when I switched on my TV – and did a double-take.
ITV bosses are desperate to find a successor to Holly Willoughby as a host on the show
There on ITV’s flagship daytime show was new presenter Sian Welby, carefully stepping into Holly’s LK Bennett shoes for the first episode of a four-day ‘trial’ stint at the helm of This Morning.
Dressed in a £120 denim jumpsuit from high-street chain And Other Stories, and smiling from ear to ear, Sian humbly introduced herself – and it was almost as if Holly was back.
In her approachable Midlands accent, Sian – who looks much younger than her 37 years – shared a deeply personal story about her father who lives with dementia, while co-host Dermot O’Leary (a huge fan, I’m told) watched on proudly.
On X, formerly known as Twitter, viewers called the rising star ‘a breath of fresh air’ who ‘makes the show so fun to watch’.
And behind the scenes, the upper echelons of ITV were just as thrilled – with Martin Frizell, This Morning’s editor and the Svengali of daytime television, especially smitten.
One insider on the show later told me I wasn’t alone, saying: ‘Sian reminds us all of early Holly. She was totally relatable and lovable. No airs and graces.’
This makes her a great relief to ITV bosses, who finally have something to smile about almost four months after the embattled Holly sensationally quit This Morning amid an alleged plot to kidnap and murder her.
Viewers said Ms Welby, 37, was ‘a breath of fresh air’ who ‘makes the show so fun to watch’
For Frizell and his lower-profile boss, ITV Daytime Managing Director Emma Gormley, it has been a torrid year. Last March, the show was thrown into turmoil when Holly and Phil, once the best of friends, fell out spectacularly.
After quitting the show in May last year, Schofield admitted he had conducted an ‘unwise but not illegal’ affair with a male colleague decades his junior – and, even worse, lied about it.
Finally, last October, Holly herself departed – leaving the future of This Morning in jeopardy.
Dressed in a £120 denim jumpsuit from high-street chain And Other Stories, the new host smiled from ear to ear as she introduced herself
Ms Willoughby in her early days presenting This Morning in 2011
I’m told that, for a time, ITV executives had hoped to tempt Cat Deeley, 47, to the sofa, but her commitments in America – she is the star of the popular talent show So You Think You Can Dance – put paid to that, although some at ITV remain in Deeley’s camp.
Now many at the network have concluded that it would be better to sign Sian instead, and let her make the show her own.
Although ITV bosses appreciate O’Leary as a seasoned presenter for Friday’s show, I’m told they hope to sign Ben Shephard to sit in the more coveted Monday-Thursday slot once occupied by the disgraced Schofield. If Shephard, 49, agrees, it would be like 2009 all over again.
When we met in that queue all those years ago, the young Holly breathlessly told me: ‘There were so many other talented presenters in the frame, I never thought I’d have a chance!’
Words, presumably, that Sian would echo today – as a glittering future awaits her.