The Bewitching Wonder of Claudia Winkleman

The Traitors would be nothing without its presenter.

Claudia Winkleman The Traitors Series 2
Photo: BBC/Studio Lambert/Mark Mainz

It’s almost time for Claudia Winkleman to return to her cool, damp burrow, where she’ll remain, out of sight, for the remaining winter months. When her twitching nose smells summer, Winkleman will emerge refreshed, gorge on a pawful of hazelnuts from the forest floor to nourish her glossy coat, and begin the long journey to Scotland to film a third series of The Traitors.

That’s ridiculous, sorry. Claudia Winkleman isn’t a forest creature; she’s a human person, equal parts knitwear and eyeliner. Her oversized jumpers aren’t self-woven in an underground den; she buys them. From monks. Who knit them out of rainclouds and sin.

Apologies. Again. It’s hard not to tip into fantasy when it comes to Claudia Winkleman, because as a creation she is fantastical. A kohl-rimmed alien. She’s funny and weird and distinctive, with a way of speaking that’s all her own: the delivery of a 1940s newsman and the words of a… 1940s newsman with a cockatoo on his shoulder, a glint in his eye and nothing to lose.

Winkleman is untrammelled. Have you seen her on a promotional circuit? Book her on This Morning to plug her new tour and she’ll derail it by talking exclusively about risotto. Perch her on The One Show sofa to tease The Traitors finale and she’ll turn up looking like a Fifth Beatle, make several noises in the manner of an unnerved horse, and leave them with an innuendo involving a puppy and a blanket.

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Book Winkleman on a food podcast and she’ll spend the whole thing explaining the evils of an overly wet mouth. She once made S Club 7 storm out of an interview. Her Would I Lie to You yarns are (the ultimate accolade) almost the equal of Bob Mortimer’s. Get her on a quiz show, and when she fails to get the answer right and loses a member of the public the prize fund she was hoping to spend on a wedding dress, Winkleman buys that member of the public a wedding dress.

On The Traitors, Winkleman speaks. deliberately. and. emphatically. with. pauses. where. nobody. else. would. pause. It draws the players towards her. She gives them proud aunt while her eyes dance with flames fed by the chaos she wreaks. She’s both their big sis and their tormenter, a fairy godmother who’d conjure Cinderella the pumpkin coach and then push her in front of it and wink to camera.

Winkleman’s style isn’t just androgynous, it’s cross-species. When she was asked to collaborate on a make-up range for Boots, she named it “Full Panda” and explained the goal: orange skin, black eyes, white mouth (“If Tippex made a lipstick, I’d wear it”), done. Her M&S eyeliner was called “Use More, Literally Loads.” She bases her look on Steve Tyler from Aerosmith, on Elvis Presley, on zoo creatures, on – probably – Boober from The Fraggles.

And it all works. It works because Winkleman is clever (an MA in Art History from Cambridge University, thank you very much) and doesn’t appear to take anything – especially herself – too seriously.

She’s a beautiful, mischievous goblin who’s hijacked the prime-est of prime time presenting gigs, places usually filled by dead-eyed professionals reading their every off-the-cuff remark from an autocue. In the world of bland TV presenters, she glows like radiation, and it’s not just her spray tan.

As The Traitors concludes another series then, a salute to Winkleman – to the fringe, to the fingerless gloves, to the stupid jokes and my God, to the spark of her. It wouldn’t be the same with anybody else.

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The Traitors series two finale airs tonight on BBC One at 9pm. The series is available to watch on BBC iPlayer in the UK and on Peacock in the US.