Being the proud owner of one of the country’s biggest brains is no mean feat, but it is, usually, pretty lonely – or so Jenny tells us as she enjoys the sunshine on her balcony at home.
‘I never see any of the other Chasers. Ever!’ she exclaims.
‘But now we get to take on the nation as a team, which is so exciting.’
Yep, just when you thought their knowledge couldn’t get any more intimidating, Beat The Chasers is a new show where brave contestants take on not one, but all of the Chasers at once to win huge sums of money.
‘It’s been fun for the audience to see how we interact,’ Jenny says, ‘you see us treading on each other’s toes and saying funny things to amuse the others. And we’re used to working against each other, so it’s lovely for us to be a team.’
Jenny, who joined The Chase in 2015, had some big names to prove herself to. Mark Labbett, Shaun Wallace, Anne Hegerty and Paul Sinha were used to shocking (and scaring) the nation with their no-nonsense style and stern poker faces.
When it’s your job to win, we suspect it must get competitive between them.
‘Oh, backstage, we have a chart of wins,’ Jenny assures us with a laugh. ‘We look at all the stats so we can see who’s best at what topics but it’s only to make sure we all have a good standard.’
Jenny’s rise to quizmaster fame came after she appeared on University Challenge in 2003 and on Mastermind in 2006 (with Buffy The Vampire Slayer as her specialist subject). She became known for being really, really clever, and landed a job writing quiz questions for The Chase pilot back in 2009.
‘Anne (Hegerty, The Governess), recommended me for the job. She was partaking in a huge quiz competition and asked me to be the team captain. I thought, “Don’t be daft!”’ she recalls.
‘But it turns out all four of the Chasers had suggested me to the producers. I don’t think Anne particularly wanted any new Chasers, certainly not a woman. She likes being the “Lady Chaser”,’ she smiles. ‘She said, “If it has got to be another woman, I’d like it to be you.” Now that’s incredibly high praise from Anne, let me tell you!’ she laughs.
Jenny admits she was longing to get the role after the audition process, so much so she was particularly emotional when she found out the good news.
‘I’d actually developed a nervous twitch in my eye waiting for that call,’ she tells us. ‘They said they’d let me know in a week and it ended up being six, so when they told me I burst into tears. Then I called my mum hysterical so she assumed I hadn’t got it,’ she smiles.
‘As for my stepdad, we said we’d go on Pointless together, so he just threw that application form in the bin when he found out. They were all thrilled for me.’
Living in Bolton where she grew up, it’s clear Jenny is an ordinary girl who has a brain that absorbs information like a sponge. During our chat she teaches us things constantly, (for example, her favourite game, Cards Against Humanity, is actually a revamped version of an old family-friendly American game called Apple To Apples which came out in the 90s, and so on and so forth), and it seems she has always had a knack for learning.
‘My Grandad loved his general knowledge and all my family have always enjoyed a good quiz,’ she tells us.
‘Aged nine I decided to run a charity quiz at school. I made up the easiest quiz I could think of and then made it even easier. Only no one got one answer right. That’s when I realised it might be just me who knows this stuff.’
Jenny has one of the best track records on The Chase, having an 80% win rate across her four years on the show, but despite being a professional clever clogs, there are times where her brain goes blank.
‘The human brain has limitations,’ smiles Jenny. ‘It’s upsetting when you get something wrong but it’s best to forget that millions of people have just seen you fail,’ she says sarcastically. ‘Instead, I worry about it when I’m trying to go to sleep!’
Jenny has spoken publicly about her mental health. She was put on antidepressants as a teen, and she has only recently come off them, and now takes a low-level beta blocker for anxiety.
This is why, perhaps, she’s made a conscious decision to keep her personal life as private as possible.
‘It isn’t too bad for me as I don’t have my hair in a beehive in real life, so I can go incognito in my scruffs. But I have learnt that “chase” is the hardest word in the world to whisper,’ she giggles, when demonstrating how people try to be subtle when talking about her.
‘It’s impossible. As for family, friends and partners, it isn’t fair that they be involved in a life I chose for myself. I want to enjoy normality no matter how weird things get,’ she says warmly.
The normality Jenny speaks of is certainly a new kind of normal, where she gets to mingle with all the TV faces she grew up watching. Something she is conscious not to take for granted.
‘I took my sister to an ITV event once and it was good to see everything through her eyes as I had perhaps become slightly jaded,’ she explains. ‘She was so starstruck because Doctor Hilary was sat behind us and Bradley Walsh gave her a kiss on the cheek!'
'Then I realised it was a work event for me, but to her it was hugely glamorous. So now when I get invited to awards do’s I realise how lucky I am and make sure I have lots of fun.’
Of course, we couldn’t chat about The Chase and not mention the brilliant Bradley Walsh, whose quick wit and fits of giggles are a huge hit of the show.
‘Brad is honestly so great, no one would ever be disappointed meeting him,’ she tells us excitedly.
‘He’s a big star but so down-to-earth – since I joined the show he’s been so supportive of me and encouraged me to make my mark. When he saw me singing in Simon Cowell ’s garden he texted me in disbelief. He said he was astonished and so proud of me. He is really, really lovely,’ she says with a smile.
For anyone who missed it, Jenny blew the socks off the nation when she revealed another hidden talent – an impressive set of pipes. Starring in last year’s The X Factor : Celebrity, she performed for Simon Cowell at his Hollywood mansion alongside the likes of Martin Bashir, Vinnie Jones and talk show host Ricki Lake.
‘It feels unreal that I actually did it,’ she tells us, clearly feeling very proud. ‘It helped me hugely with having confidence in myself. People saw me for Jenny and liked me. It was a wave of love that came out after my audition.’
Despite the appreciation from the public, Simon Cowell chose to not put Jenny through to the live shows, a decision that caused a huge backlash, resulting in him calling her up and asking her back.
‘That was an amazing feeling,’ she says sweetly, ‘I wanted to spread some nice messages about acceptance. I got to sing with all these drag queens on one show and it was so joyous,’ she beams.
‘I wanted everyone to know it’s ok to be different and extraordinary, and you don’t have to be the same as everyone else to do what brings you joy. I don’t look like a pop star but I was a pop star for a few weeks. I’m proof anyone can do it.’
As Jenny gets ready to enjoy the sunshine on her daily Government-approved walk, we ask her what’s next, now she’s proved she’s a pro at wearing so many hats.
‘I have so many dreams and what’s amazing is that now they’re possible!’ she exclaims. ‘I’d love to perform in the West End so I’m reading a big book about musicals at the moment, I do my research,’ she says cheekily.
‘If you’d have told nine-year-old Jenny what would happen she wouldn’t have believed it. I think she’d be very impressed,’ she pauses. ‘And you know what? I’m pretty impressed with myself too.’
How do you spend your Sunday?
■ Lie-in or early riser?
I love a lie-in but I’ve been waking up earlier in the lockdown because I’ve finally created a bit of a sleep pattern. But I’ll lie in bed once awake and listen to a podcast.
■ Fry-up or healthy breakfast?
I’m bad and never have breakfast! If I’m away at a hotel I’d have Eggs Benedict, but at home I just grab an apple.
■ Chores or relaxing?
I like to potter around and I’m getting odd jobs done. I love sorting out the sock drawer. I organised all my Lego last week and that was an epic task.
■ Roast at home?
I’d usually go to my mum’s for a roast as she loves cooking it and I love eating it. Bless her, she misses her weekends at the hair salon so much she just rings the hairdresser for a chat!
■ TV or papers?
I love to watch a film in the evening but my friends have been doing a lot of online pub quizzes. But people struggle to write good questions. They’ve stopped asking me as I complain they haven’t checked the answers!
■ Walk outside or stay at home?
My stepdad likes bird watching so I’d normally go with him. But I’m happy at the moment sat on the balcony listening to the birds.
– Beat The Chasers airs Monday 27 April to Friday 1 May at 9pm on ITV