There are few individuals who have generated as much public loathing as Katie Hopkins. The former 'bitch' of The Apprentice appeared on Question Time in January alongside Edwina Currie and claimed, among other things, that women 'don't want' equality and 'couldn't handle it' if they got it. The resulting storm in the media and on Twitter left no doubt as to her ability to divide, and to provoke.
Question Time was just the latest in a series of controversies for the 36-year-old mother of three, beginning with her stint on The Apprentice in 2007, when she became the first contestant to tell Sir Alan Sugar that she did not want a place in the final. This continued with an appearance on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here and a failed quest to be elected as an MEP in 2009. Today, she divides her time between running her management consultancy, speaking on the 'circuit' and media appearances.
A Google search on Hopkins throws up results ranging from pictures of her romping in a field with her then-married partner Mark Cross, to posts on Mumsnet labelling her a 'f*****g bitch'.
It is hard to find anything positive, or even neutral, about her online. Some seem actively to fear her. A piece from Times columnist Janice Turner written in 2007 commends Hopkins for daring to be bad, but also calls her an 'anti-heroine' who is 'unfeminine' and 'hunts down other women's husbands, feasts, then spits out their bare bones'.
In person, Hopkins is certainly feminine, and rake-thin. She laughs frequently, is laugh-out-loud funny, and speaks passionately and with force, and with what appears to be total honesty. She has openly admitted to having affairs in the past, but it is difficult to equate her with the bone-spitting maneater Turner conjures up. She and Cross, who left his wife to be with her, are still together and have a son.
But her love life, as interesting as it may be to some, is not nearly as interesting as Hopkins herself, and the massively divided reactions she appears to create.
She is staunchly right-wing and exceptionally outspoken, and her views are hardly in keeping with the liberal left-wing section of the UK media.
But after a fascinating, entertaining and energising lunch in her company, it is both easy to see but hard to understand why she has been so vilified. Easy to see, because she does not hold particularly populist views, but hard to understand because there seems no malice in Hopkins - just a complete lack of a media-managed, sugar coated persona.
- Your slogan is 'telling it like it is'. Is that a media persona you have invented for yourself to get publicity through being deliberately provocative?
It is not deliberate. You would have to be far cleverer than I am to contrive something such as that. But I am prepared to say things I do recognise would not be the popular stance. They are my views and I believe in what I am saying.
- There are not many people who openly share your views though...
There is so much Myleene Klass out there. So much magnolia. So much niceness -never say anything confrontational, never cause anyone to be upset, never offend anyone. None of us lives like that, none of us is that nice or good.
- You are certainly not magnolia. Do you receive a lot of abuse?
Some people are great. They come up to me in the street and say: 'God, you're annoying.' I like those people because it is their right to have that view and they are upfront about it. I get a lot of emails from people about how I am the most loathed person or they wish I would get run over. But I also get people saying: 'Good on you, at least somebody is talking common sense.'
- You are a mother of three who is based in Exeter but spends a lot of time in London. How do you manage childcare?
I miss out on being with the kids during the week. But I have never been with my children full-time. I have a full-time nanny. I have to pay for my childcare, the same as everybody else does. I choose to work long hours. Many women have to accept they have to invest their salary in childcare if they want to progress their careers.
- Did you ever wonder how you would juggle your career and children when you first became pregnant?
I was interviewing nannies when I was four months pregnant. I worked until the day I went into hospital and then returned to work after four weeks. I have never done maternity leave. I had worked in the US and over there you are expected to go back after six weeks. Being a full-time mum was never an option.
- It would seem you are an exception ...
I know many mothers who are unhappy not working but there is so much pressure on them not to say it. I have had mums come up to me and say: 'I really want to get a job, can you help me with my CV?' But at the school gates they become a vapid gaggle who just want to talk about spaghetti hoops. Work is tough. If you want to work, life is not always about what little Johnny is doing.
- Where do you stand on the idea that there should be quotas of women in boardrooms?
It drives me ballistic. We had milk quotas in the 1980s and cod quotas in the 1990s, and now there's talk of women quotas.
The reason we do not have women in the boardrooms is because they bugger off to have children and do not work the hours that men do. Imagine if you were a woman in a boardroom now, you would be wondering 'did I get that job because I am good or to fill a quota?'
- Why did you apply for The Apprentice?
My husband had just run off with his secretary - it was disappointing enough that he left me, but for his secretary! It could have at least been something more dramatic, such as an elderly gentleman. But I felt I should do something rather different myself. I was on my computer and saw something saying 'apply for The Apprentice'.
- How was it?
It was tough - it is shown over 12 weeks but filmed over six, so I was doing two takes a week. The show is pretty much cast. They want 'characters' and because I was opinionated and usually wore white or cream suits that was my 'character'. I was told I always had to wear white suits.
- Why did you turn down the final place?
The two finalists had to spend six months working in Brentwood with Sir Alan. At the time, one of my daughters needed a hip operation, so it was not possible to have been away for that long.
- Do you regret The Apprentice, considering the pretty blanket negative publicity you received afterwards?
I respect the show; it has millions of viewers and nobody made me do it. If you don't want to get criticised, then do not go on TV. I have no tolerance for any celebrity, not that I would call myself one, who moans about how it is hard being in the public eye. My one regret was the hurt it caused to my family, having people knocking on their door and photographers outside their house.
- After The Apprentice you ran as an independent MEP...
It was around the time of the expenses review and I thought all the main parties were really unpopular, so it would be a good time run as an independent MEP. But I learned party politics exist for a reason. Voters need something they can identify with, clear policies they can actually name. If businesses could communicate like that to their employees, they would be doing a great job. I believe business comms could learn a lot from political comms.
- Not that political comms practitioners always get it right...
There have been gaffes, of course. Andy Coulson might not have been the smartest bit of recruitment ever. But when you consider how many people can identify with political parties, that is massive and that is effective comms.
- Would you like to be a Tory MP?
I would love to, but my past might be a bit too much for the party. I would be a liability in terms of how vociferous I am.
- How do you feel about being compared to the following people or fictional characters? Cruella De Vil?
That's fair. She has got good shoes and a good coat, and people know what she stands for.
A man behind a mask? That is not me.
This is because of my nose.
A large lesbian from the North? No.
I would not put myself in his bracket but in terms of telling it straight, yes.
Oh, yes please. She is formidable.
2011 Appears on BBC Question Time with Edwina Currie
2010 Appears on BBC Question Time with Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt
2009 Runs as independent MEP; is unsuccessful but attracts the second highest number of votes for an independent candidate
2007 Appears on I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here
2007 Stars in The Apprentice, in which she is offered but declines a place in the final