I meet Dame Prue Leith at Kream in Midrand. Arriving first, I settled into a quiet table in the corner, purposefully choosing the first floor so as not to make an 83-year-old woman in the midst of a busy publicity tour shlep upstairs. A few minutes later I spot Prue Leith in one of her trademark bold glasses and colorful outfits, trailed by her husband John and Mpumi from Jonathan Ball, march right up those stairs I was nervous about.
At 83 Prue Leith has more going on than most people half her age. A new cookbook, new range of bone china dinnerware, a one woman show ‘Nothing in Moderation’ and a summer of filming Bakeoff. She is what you hope to be in your 30s let alone 80s – energetic, active, full of life and curious. When I tell her this, she tells me she never intended on being the posterchild of aging well, ‘I never thought when I was younger, I’m going to be a model of how to age well, but I am now’.
‘I never thought when I was younger, I’m going to be a model of how to age well, but I am now’.
And while she understands why that is and how inspiring it is for other women to see that life doesn’t end when you hit middle age, and that you can wear bold colors no matter your age, it’s not all she wants to be known for.
For starters, as anyone who read her autobiography, I’ll Try Anything Once now knows, Prue Leith has always had zest for life and a willingness to try new things. ‘Greedy’ she calls it, explaining, “It’s not like that awful Wallstreet greed is good. I don’t mean that. The first edition of my autobiography was called Relish and I like the word Relish for the same reason. I mean it in a sense of relishing life and love and people.”
She’s also always loved business and is a natural tradeswoman who sees business opportunity where others see hobby. Like her latest cookbook, Bliss on Toast which was conceived during lockdown when her husband told her to take pictures of the toast dinners she was making and post them to Instagram because ‘they look nice’. Spotting an opportunity she sold those images as loose recipes to a magazine, later pitching the idea to her publisher and turning it into a hardcover recipe book with 75 toast recipes.
That’s another thing about Prue, she isn’t afraid of asking for what she wants, putting herself out there and selling her talents. As a lover of art, she often talks to art students and artists and doesn’t agree with their sentiment of ‘art for art’s sake’. Instead, she says, “If you want to be able to enjoy your art, you need to be able to make a living. Do some marketing and get yourself out there. You better start thinking about it as a business.”
While she acknowledges that self-promotion and marketing come much easier to confident and outgoing people, like herself, she’s also quick to point out that it requires effort to keep up with new technologies, ways of doing business and marketing. “I didn’t at first want to do anything on Instagram or Twitter – it’s not my generation. And I’m only just now going to go onto Tiktok. I force myself to keep up with these things. If you’re going to be in business doing something, you might as well do your best to make it work.” She adds, “There’s no point in having a range of specs if you only sell a few of them,” referencing her collection of bright and bold specs.
While many 80-year-olds are winding down, Prue tells me that she’s still thinking of things she’d like do. Like create a really successful brand that when she’s no longer, her children can own, and it can carry on. She’s proof that dreams, plans and ambitions don’t have the age limit we are so often made to believe.
When asked where this relentless drive comes from, she credits her mom, a well-known actress who owned a theatre company as well as her own curiosity. “I’m very curious and always like the next idea around the corner.” What she says next sticks with me, “I don’t grieve over things that don’t work. I tend to think forward not backwards.” It’s that outlook which encourages risk taking and stepping outside of one’s comfort zones, the mindset that has allowed her to enjoy a second career into her 80s.
“I don’t grieve over things that don’t work. I tend to think forward not backwards.”
It’s an attitude she says stems from her childhood, “I attribute it to a happy childhood. I grew up in a happy family. I had two brothers. My parents were nothing but encouraging to all of us. Really loving. Nobody ever said you can’t do that because you’re a girl”.
It has allowed her to fearlessly try her hand at different interests, like acting and dancing which failed but led her to cooking and writing and one of her biggest accomplishments – The Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. A project which has nothing to do with her biggest career moments in food or writing but rather her love of art.
It’s easy to look at someone like Prue Leith, a naturally positive person (more serotonin levels in my brain, she says) who believes in life and people and love and put her success down to luck. But that would be seeing the icecap and not the iceberg. “A lot of it is hard work and a lot of it is doggedness”, she tells me, “It’s not giving up. I do work very hard and I’m very determined. I’ll keep at something until I’ve done it. I don’t often give up.”
When reflecting on her best decade she says it was her forties. “I loved my forties. By then you’re quite confident. You’re at ease with yourself. I was very happily married. My children were at a divine age. They weren’t little babies in nappies, and they weren’t yet stroppy teenagers. It is when I opened my restaurant, it was doing well, and the school and the catering business was all doing well. We moved into a new house in the country. It was just heaven”.
However, the last ten years have also been memorable she adds, “because I’m doing something new. I always love to do something new and the realization that I missed my business. I never thought I would but then there’s nothing like seeing an opportunity and saying I’ll do that”. Because if there’s one thing about Prue Leith, she’ll try anything once.
If you want to learn more about her remarkable life, pick up her autobiography ‘I’ll try anything once” which is a searingly honest look into her life – warts and all. When I ask if she left any stories out, she says no, nothing that was interesting was left out. On our way out she tells her husband about that question. Without missing a beat John turned to me and said, ‘call me later’.
Ps. Watch Prue’s very first Tiktok here.