Francine said hello to showbiz journalism in her 30s

Hello! magazine writer Francine Cohen talks to John Fisher about flirting with Jose Carreras, the aftermath of suffering a stroke and how to lose weight by eating her potato kugel

Welcome to the world of showbusiness journalist Francine Cohen who, for the last 15 years has had stars in her eyes.

Jose Carreras, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Simon Cowell, Gary Barlow, Terence Stamp and Alan Bennett, pop idols and playwrights, the list is endless.

But rubbing shoulders with A-list celebrities doesn't faze the Hello! magazine writer one jot.

In fact, the Leeds-born lass is often hailed as journalistic royalty mainly because of the number of upmarket weddings she covers.

Francine tells me she's known as 'the confetti queen'.

A journalist for some 23 years, she admits to not being 'star-struck' anymore, despite interviewing a clutch of luminaries.

"When I was young I went through a vague phase of wanting to be an actress because I liked all that glitz and glamour but that didn't last long," she said.

"I don't think I could have coped with the rejection

"At one point I thought I'd like to be a nurse - but that was because I'd just been in hospital.

"But I think probably I always wanted to write. I loved books and was always reading, so the written word was crucial to me."

Francine readily confesses her hatred of school. She was never one to run with the pack and went straight into the workplace, drifting into insurance as a sales training manager.

Writing was always in the background though. With a few published short stories under her belt, it wasn't until her 30s she realised that journalism was her dream.

The turning point came in the late 1980s when Francine attended a concert at Castle Howard and sent a review of what she had seen to a Yorkshire magazine - and they printed it.

She said: "They asked for more reviews and one day the editor called me in and said she was launching a monthly arts page and would that appeal to me as an 'arts journalist'.

"That was a huge crossroad for me. Did I tell her I'm not actually an 'arts journalist' or did I say 'oh, how interesting, what's the format, when do I start'?

"The editor wanted to get television people involved as Emmerdale was filmed on the magazine office's doorstep.

"So we started promoting happenings in the soap. One of the characters was getting married so we did a mock-up wedding shoot for the front cover."

This opened up a whole new world as Francine hungrily obtained more stories for women's magazines and widened her net to include interviews from Coronation Street.

Francine's love affair with Hello! started 15 years ago. An actress friend was getting married and rather fancied the magazine featuring her wedding.

"So I contacted Hello! and they were interested. I was given the assignment and my showbiz writing career was launched."

Interviewing opera superstar Jose Carreras was a standout moment for Francine.

She revealed: "I was nervous and it showed. There I was with my questions scrunched on a piece of paper and not daring to look at him.

"Then I asked how he portrayed sexual desire on the stage. His response was the physical, animal passion he puts into a role, and I nodded my head and said, 'yes, I understood'.

"He looked intensely at me and leaning forward purred in a low voice, 'yes, I know you understand'.

"I thought, 'is he flirting with me?' Quite flustered I moved on to my next question, but later wished I hadn't.

"Silly girl! What a missed opportunity I thought afterwards."

Other household names were to follow, albeit with less innuendo.

Gary Barlow, recently seen as an X Factor judge, made her a cup of coffee and was "a very nice down-to-earth chap".

Veteran actor Terence Stamp was "pleasant and appealing," playwright Alan Bennett was "just lovely" and Eastenders Nina Wadia was "great to interview" -and is now a friend.

For the past seven years Francine has been on the panel of the British Soap Awards.

"What you really look for when choosing a contender in any category is that outstanding moment that can't be replicated anywhere else," she said.

"Some of the time though it's a very level playing field and that causes a lot of arguments around the table."

An only child, Francine is very close to her mum Sadie who is nearly 89, "a fantastic woman' and a 'great inspiration".

Always up for a challenge Francine has now added another string to her bow.

About 18 months ago she joined Slimming World and managed to lost almost four stone.

"Prior to that I'd tried so many tedious slimming diets and joined various groups that had this culture of humiliation and a desire only to sell their products.

"I can tell you that recently I made my version of potato kugel and nobody had any idea it wasn't the real thing."

The classes really worked for her - so much so that she is now taking over as a consultant twice a week.

Francine's life was turned upside down last year when she was involved in a car accident.

For about three days after the crash she felt unwell, but put it down to delayed shock.

"I was continually dizzy and drowsy and felt totally detached," she recalled. "Then I remember vaguely being in an ambulance and somebody asking who I was and I failed to answer - I simply didn't know my name."

Waking up in hospital hearing somebody answer the phone saying 'this is the acute stroke unit' was a terrifying experience for Francine.

The most disturbing part of the stroke, she says, was having a condition known as aphasia, word confusion, and literally forgetting what she was saying half way through a sentence.

"Stroke victims will tell you this is devastating, but for a journalist this was horrendous."

Francine's advice to stroke victims is to face it as soon as possible.

She said: "I went into denial, thought I'd be told they'd got it all wrong and say it was just a bug or something.

"But you have to be realistic, don't despair and take every bit of advice and help that's out there."

With a workload already outlined for this year at Hello! as well as writing a story about her stroke - and a new man in her life - plus the new slimming project about to take off, Francine is already thinking about writing her own memoirs or even a novel.

"The nature of life in this day and age set against the economic climate is that people have to diversify," she said.

"We all have dreams and I'm thankful that one of my dreams turned into reality. Writing is such a joy and comfort to me."

To speak to Francine about her slimming project or for stroke advice, telephone 07885 428979.

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph