On a sunny afternoon in rural Kent, Alex Hollywood is laying out delicious-looking plates of food she has just ‘thrown together’, having spent the last few hours being photographed for the cover of a magazine. She’s a blur of activity as she dashes around her kitchen, crushing olives for a tapenade; warming honey and mint to drizzle over feta cheese; pulling freshly baked breads from the Aga.

“Relax, Alex… sit down,” I beg. She stops mid-whisk of an asparagus vinaigrette. “But this is me relaxing. This is what I love to do. Having my picture taken is completely nerve-racking for me; cooking is my relief.”

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These last 18 months have been the toughest of her life. Not only is she heading for a high-profile divorce from TV star Paul Hollywood, but she has also had to deal with the death of her older brother, Simon, while raising a 17-year-old son, Josh (who took GCSEs last summer), all within an endless swirl of screaming tabloid headlines about her former partner’s relationship with a young barmaid. Food has become her therapy.

Alex is the soon-to-be ex-wife of Great British Bake Off judge Paul, who, thanks to his straightforward Scouse manner and blokey way with bread and batter, quickly rose to fame following the launch of the show in 2010.

The son of a baker, Paul, along with fellow stars Mary Berry, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, enjoyed a heady rise on the back of the BBC’s biggest-ever food programme.

By the end of the first series, the now 53-year-old, who’d spent years earning a modest living as a head baker in hotels, followed by small parts on cooking shows, was one of television’s biggest celebrities with an estimated net worth of £10m, earned from book deals and TV spin-offs such as Paul Hollywood’s Pies & Puds.

Then, in 2013, it all went pear-shaped. Paul went off to America to front a US version of the baking show and promptly had a somewhat blatant affair with his 34-year-old co-judge, Marcela Valladolid. Amid his public protestations that it had been “the biggest mistake” of his life, Alex took him back. But then, in 2017, he became close to a 22-year-old barmaid called Summer Monteys-Fullam, whom he met in his local pub – which he’d booked for Alex’s birthday party. Mary Berry has reportedly given him the cold shoulder ever since.

Today he is in a relationship with Summer, whose family is in the tattoo-removal business, while Alex remains in the family home with their son.

Excruciatingly, Paul, Summer and Alex all live within a mile of each other in the same small village. Their £10m divorce goes to court in the next few weeks – Alex alleges adultery but Paul denies that his new relationship began before his marriage was effectively over – and she is stoically prepared to do battle and face the inevitable headlines. “Life goes on,” she says.

Alex Hollywood is a fighter and now she is preparing to launch herself as a serious contender on the food front, too.

During their marriage she was, she says, happy to put her husband’s career first, because she felt it would work best for the family. But time has proved her wrong. “When you get married and have children, it’s easy to lose yourself,” she says. “I’m not complaining because I was happy, but then someone else rips everything up and it wakes you up to who you are and what you have become and what sacrifices you’ve made…” She drifts into silence.

We talk about her discovery of her husband’s affair in 2013 and her decision to take him back. She was thinking foremost, she says, of her son. “I stand by that decision,” she says. “I believed in my marriage, I wanted to make it work.” After her first successful book (My Busy Kitchen), she failed to promote her second, Cooking Tonight, “because I was worried about the fact I would inevitably be asked about my marriage, so I let the opportunity go… That was a mistake”.

When she became concerned about Paul’s relationship with Summer in 2017, there was no doubt in her mind.

“It was over,” she says. “I didn’t have to make a decision, that was it. The only decisions for me then were about my son, about my future. I mean, that is a lot. Divorce is tough, very tough. You don’t expect it, you are in shock, and all of a sudden you are on your own.”

She looks at me directly. “I don’t want to come across in any way as sad,” she says. “I’m not going to lie and say it hasn’t been difficult, but I’m not broken. Divorce hurts. I was married for 20 years. But you keep going. I’ve had some very dark times – even very recently – but you live with it and you find out who you are now, who you want to be and where you want to be.”

In January, her older brother, Simon Moores, was killed in an aeroplane crash in Spain. The father-of-two, who ran an aircraft banner business, died alongside his co-pilot David Hockings when their plane went down in fog. Months on she is still too devastated to talk about it. “I just can’t,” she says.

We repair to the comfy living room to chat. Like the rest of the house, it was decorated by Alex, and is full of quirky pieces. There are books scattered around and family photos on the wall, including a black-and-white portrait of her grandmother, Vanda Greville (nee Vangen), a legendary half-Norwegian, half-Scottish actress who was as famous for her bohemian banquets as she was for her Garbo-esque looks, and who heroically helped Charles de Gaulle smuggle intellectuals out of France during the war.

It’s clear Alex has something of her grandmother’s guts and grace. Convent-school educated, she is elegant and cultured. She speaks French (she has French blood on her mother’s side) and has a good command of both Spanish and Greek.

Dressed in jeans, a cashmere sweater and Converse trainers, she is both stylish and understated. With the assurance of a woman used to a certain level of comfort, but who would never be flash, there’s a vulnerability to her, revealed in her desire to seem completely in control.

She apologises for the delay in bringing me my tea because she had to sort through her collection of sloganed mugs to make sure I wasn’t given an offensive (if jokey) message. “I’ve always been a people-pleaser,” she says. “It’s one thing I’m trying to change but it’s hard undoing patterns.”

Alex grew up with her younger sister Liz, now 50, and late brother Simon in Kent, where the family led a comfortable middle-class life.

“We lived by the sea and I just remember a sense of freedom, the doors to our house open to our friends, and my mum constantly cooking delicious meals, including pissaladiere, a French version of pizza, covered in caramelised onions and anchovies. And I still make her fruit cake, which reminds me of sitting in her rose garden. All my mum’s recipes came from my grandmother who got them from her mother, passed on daughter to daughter. I had an incredibly happy childhood.”

Life is not so simple now. But since Paul moved out she has been buoyed by a wave of support from those who admire dignified, ballsy women. With two of her own cookery books under her belt, she is building a steady following on Instagram, mixing recipes with inspirational messages (“Behind every successful woman is herself”).

She is planning more books and would love her own TV show (“If it happens, it would be lovely, if not, I am relishing what I am doing.”)

She is also an ambassador for Love British Food, as well as a judge for the Great Taste Awards.

Last week she was appearing on stage at the BBC Good Food Show, cooking, answering questions about the perfect tartiflette (one of her most-requested recipes) and “being bloody grateful to be there because I want to make food my future”.

Rather thrillingly, Alex was given her ex-partner’s slot at the show when he became unavailable. “I don’t know anything about that,” she says. “I just got a call from the organisers who I’ve worked with several times before. I’m not nervous because I love it – the atmosphere and people sharing their food experiences or concerns.”

Perhaps one reason why Alex feels so confident is that she has the blessing of many eminent chefs and food writers, from Mary Berry to Tom Kerridge and Michel Roux Jr. “The food industry is a small world and I’ve been a part of it for a long time,” she says. “It’s just now I want to concentrate fully on making it my career.”

Her life now is that of a 55-year-old working single mother – albeit one who is attempting to navigate a career while sheltering her teenage son from fevered tabloid speculation about her marriage.

But why has she chosen to compete within the same arena as her former husband?

“I have never not been in this game,” she says firmly. “In this house, while he was the baker, I was always the cook.

“We did all our food businesses together because we would discuss everything and I’d come up with ideas. And I’ve been writing recipes and helping with his television career right from the off. In fact, it was me who got Paul into television. I was working in PR when we were living in Cyprus, and a TV company wanted to do a segment with a Cypriot baker. I said, ‘the person you want is my husband’.”

That was the start of him doing lots of little shows and then in 2010 along came Bake Off, which I knew would be massive.’

After leaving school Alex opted not to go to university but to travel; throughout her childhood her parents had travelled extensively with their children.

“My parents were foodies. My mum spent a lot of her childhood in France and my dad spent a lot of his in Spain. Our holidays revolved around going to those countries and eating the best food.” She learnt to ski as a toddler. By 18, she was an expert skier and had fallen in love with the idea of moving from country to country “finding out about life, different people, different foods”. In winter she worked as a chalet girl in the French Alps and in summer she worked as a diving instructor.

Her attitude to food is influenced by her days rustling up hearty meals for up to 14 ski guests.

“I had to budget, buy ingredients and make something simple, quick and hearty. I relied on the recipes my mum taught me – cassoulet, potatoes dauphinoise, aligot [a potato-based cheese fondue]. I’d often be on the phone from the Alps to my mum, saying, ‘I want to do the chicory wrapped in ham with creme fraiche – how long does it need in the oven?'”

She is not a trained cook, unlike her husband, who was the baker at the Cypriot hotel where they met in 1996. They bonded over food and, after marrying in 1998, Alex found a job doing PR for the luxury Annabelle Hotel. “We were very happy in Cyprus. We had a simple life.” They returned to the UK after their son was born in 2001 but focused on Paul’s career.

“It worked for both of us. I was always a huge foodie. My great-grandmother was a chef, my grandmother, Vanda, was an extraordinary cook. Food has always been in my blood. I like simple, easy, good-quality food. Real food – my recipes are never precious. I am a mum cook. I think of the mum coming in from work and just putting things together from stuff she has in her fridge and cupboards.” A mother’s concerns for a teenage son are funnelled into her daily food regime. Her son calls several times during the day and it’s clear – although she won’t discuss him – how close they are.

I ask Alex how she has coped in recent months. “Good food, good friends – my circle is made up of my school friends, my mum friends from my son’s school, people from the village and my family, along with my great friend Honor [Marks], who runs Maison De La Roche in Languedoc. I made an instinctive decision not to fall apart but to look after myself, so I could look after my son [who’s now studying for his A-levels]. I made sure to eat a good and proper meal every day. Even if I was eating on my own. I’m not talking comfort food or overeating, I mean cherishing food such as tartiflette or a beautiful fresh salad. The better you eat, the better you feel.”

For a woman obsessed with food, she looks very trim. “Because I eat like a Frenchwoman,” she says. “I don’t snack. I eat at a table. I deny myself nothing but I stop when I’m full.” She does an hour of cardio and core exercises every day at a local class and has enviably fresh, Botox-free looks (she swears by CACI ‘non-surgical facelifts’).

“I’m very proud to be a woman in my 50s,” she says. “I don’t try to pretend to be younger than I am, because I’ve amassed wisdom, experience, good memories and friends in my lifetime.”

Has she dated since Paul? For the first time she looks taken aback.

“I couldn’t even think about that. I have a divorce to get through. Maybe after my divorce. I don’t always want to be on my own but the dating thing has changed so much now, hasn’t it? I haven’t even started to get my head around that.”

Most recently there was an alleged spat between Alex and Paul’s new partner Summer in their local Marks & Spencer, which prompted a toe-curling video on Instagram from Summer’s mother Sabina, who simultaneously accused Alex of verbally abusing her daughter and said she felt sorry for her in light of the divorce.

Alex shakes her head. “It’s the only time I have ever spoken out. There was no verbal spat and anyone who knows me knows the words that were attributed to me would never have come out of my mouth. I just do not speak that language. It is beyond me.”

She looks at the picture of Vanda. “Women are made of strong stuff,” she says. “We don’t give up, we carry on, we try to do something good and we survive.”

Paul Hollywood hasn’t only lost a wife, he has gained a very worthy rival.

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