Rachel Annabelle Riley
11 January 1986
|Alma mater||Oriel College, Oxford|
|Employer||Channel 4, Sky Sports|
Jamie Gilbert (m. 2012–2013)
Pasha Kovalev (m. 2019)
Rachel Annabelle Riley (born 11 January 1986) is a British television presenter and mathematician. She co-presents the Channel 4 daytime puzzle show Countdown and its comedy spin-off 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown. A mathematics graduate, her television debut came when she joined Countdown aged 22. With an interest in popularising mathematics and the sciences, she has since co-presented The Gadget Show on Channel 5 (2013-14) and It's Not Rocket Science on ITV (2016). She was also a contestant on the BBC celebrity dance show Strictly Come Dancing in 2013.
Born in Rochford, Essex, she identifies as Jewish, saying: "My family came over in the pogroms." Riley was raised in the Thorpe Bay area of Southend-on-Sea and was educated at the independent Thorpe Hall School, and Southend High School for Girls, a grammar school, where she obtained four As at A-Level. She then studied mathematics at Oriel College, Oxford, gaining an upper second-class honours degree.
During a university vacation, Riley considered a career in the financial sector, and completed an internship at Deutsche Bank in the City of London. The experience put her off; she found the extreme behaviour of city traders wearing, and she disliked the early morning train commute.
Riley's television debut came in January 2009, when at the age of 22 she joined the Channel 4 letters and numbers game show Countdown. Riley had received no training for working in television and had no other experience with the media industry, leading to descriptions of her landing this role as a baptism of fire, given its status as a "jewel in the broadcasting crown", according to one media commentator.
She later branched out into other roles, co-presenting 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown and The Gadget Show, although her profile was significantly boosted by her appearance as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancing, which "catapulted [Riley] onto the A-list" and opened up the doors for new television roles, according to another commentator. In 2014, two years before her role on It's Not Rocket Science, she said, "I'd love to present a popular science programme because it's something I feel very passionate about."
On Countdown, Riley replaced the long-serving Carol Vorderman. Like Vorderman, Riley's role is to handle the placement of tiles on the board for the letters and numbers rounds and to find an exact solution in the numbers rounds if the contestants are unable to do so.
Riley's appointment to Countdown was announced at the same time as the announcement of a new main host, Jeff Stelling, replacing Des O'Connor; the duo of Stelling and Riley was in place for the new series beginning in January 2009. Although she had no ambition to be a television presenter, she was encouraged to apply by her mother, and decided to do so because she was interested in the numbers part of the game. Having beaten 1,000 applicants for the role, she commented, "There's only one cool maths job around and I was lucky enough to get it so I'm absolutely thrilled".
Riley takes the role of solving the numbers round so seriously that if she cannot solve it on the show, she takes it away with her to finish, commenting "I'm really OCD about it. I have to get it. I like puzzles - that's what I do, that's why I applied for the job, that's why I used to watch Countdown when I was younger. I like solving stuff." She has attributed this compulsion to a nervy and flustered start in the role which resulted in her making some errors, although she says she has since got the hang of it and the task is now a matter of routine. In contrast, on account of her "really immature sense of humour" she has some difficulty in maintaining her composure during the words round whenever rude words appear.
Riley frequently encounters close media and public scrutiny of what she wears on the show, with her wardrobe choices attracting intense social media comment on Twitter and YouTube and even national headlines. Working with a wardrobe consultant, she obtains most of the clothes from High Street stores, although some are purchased from a small boutique near her home in Southend. While trying to please everybody with varied choices, she nonetheless takes a phlegmatic approach to the attention, commenting, "even with the same outfit you'll get polar-opposite views, so you can't win. You've just got to learn that you can't please everyone all of the time". The number of episodes means wearing some outfits more than once is inevitable--she donates items she no longer requires to charity, some being auctioned by her mother.
Since it was first broadcast on 2 January 2012, Riley has also performed her Countdown role on the comedy crossover spin-off version, 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, alongside comedian Jimmy Carr as host. While Countdown is seen as a straight light entertainment show, in explaining the difference between the two, Riley sees Countdown as the role she is happy for her grandmother to see, while Cats Does Countdown is the more risqué, cheeky role which she shows to her friends. Some of the running gags used on the show are made by Carr at Riley's expense, aimed at her lack of dancing ability and a supposed frosty relationship with Vorderman, while in return Riley is often given jokes which mock Carr's supposed desires on herself and his tax avoidance. Due to scheduling conflicts with filming for It's Not Rocket Science, Riley was replaced by Claudia Winkleman for two episodes in series nine (broadcast 3 and 10 March 2016).
From September 2013, Riley appeared in the eleventh series of the BBC One ballroom dancing programme Strictly Come Dancing with professional dancing partner Pasha Kovalev. She was eliminated in week 6 of the show, on 3 November, after losing out in the dance-off against Abbey Clancy and Alja? ?korjanec, who went on to win the series.
According to Riley she lacked a natural talent for performing, so instead sought to frame each dance as that of a character. For the first five weeks, Riley suffered from stage fright, commenting that "As soon as the music would start, I would have a fuzzy brain and it was like an out-of-body experience"; after seeing a cognitive behavioural therapist she was able to control her breathing, and so was only able to truly enjoy the show for what proved to be her final appearance.
In 2016, Riley was part of the three-person presenting team for ITV's six-part series, It's Not Rocket Science, billed by the network as an entertainment series celebrating science. Her co-presenters, Ben Miller and Romesh Ranganathan, similarly had a background in science and maths. Explaining the purpose of the show as popularising science and making it seem less intimidating, she said "It's showing that you can't separate the world of science from the world we live in". She added that while her background is in mathematics, "You can't separate them either. Maths is the language of science." A key part of the show was a weekly challenge where one of the presenters "risked their lives" to prove a scientific theory - in Riley's case she cycled on a tightrope and zip-lined through a ring of fire.
In August 2016, it was announced that Riley would join Sky Sports to present Friday Night Football alongside her former Countdown co-presenter Jeff Stelling and Fantasy Football Club with Max Rushden and Paul Merson. She left Friday Night Football in 2017.
In August 2012, Riley married Jamie Gilbert, whom she had met while they were both studying at the University of Oxford. It was announced in November 2013 that they were separating. The split has been cited as an example of the Strictly curse. She began dating her Strictly dance partner, Pasha Kovalev, soon after the show ended in December 2013. In May 2019, Riley announced that she was pregnant with the couple's first child. In June 2019, Riley and Kovalev married in Las Vegas. On 15 December 2019, Riley gave birth to a daughter and gave her the Jewish names of Maven Aria.
Riley is a keen supporter of Manchester United, like her father who was originally from Salford. In October 2010, Riley presented a programme on the club's television channel, MUTV, featuring a tour of their Trafford Training Centre in Carrington. She has also hosted episodes of An Audience with... on the channel. To mark her 1,000th episode of Countdown (aired on 25 June 2013), United player Ryan Giggs presented her with a signed team shirt, Giggs himself having celebrated his 1,000th game for the club the same year. In her appearance as a contestant on the BBC quiz show Celebrity Mastermind, broadcast on 4 January 2012, her specialist subject was a limited (13 year) history of the club; she eventually finished in joint second place.
Riley identifies herself as of Jewish heritage and as an atheist. Since 2018, she has campaigned against the way the Labour Party has handled allegations of antisemitism. She said she decided to speak out after seeing Israel is a racist endeavour posters on London bus stops. In September 2018, after criticising Jeremy Corbyn over the ongoing antisemitism row, she stated she did not have "any party loyalties". In January 2019, Riley made a speech at a Westminster reception for the Holocaust Educational Trust and addressed what she described as the "hideous abuse" she had received.
In Jewish News, Riley was quoted:
In the name of Labour I've been called a hypocrite, lying propagandist, a tits-teeth-and-arse clothes horse dolly bird, weaponiser of anti-Semitism, fascist, right-wing extremist, Nazi sympathiser, Twitter cancer, thick Tory, brainwashed, an anti-Semite, white supremacist, hate preacher, Zio political trollster, not a real Jew, a child bully, conspiracy theorist, a paedo-protector minion puppet who my dead grandfather would be disgusted by.
In February 2019, Riley and fellow campaigner Tracy Ann Oberman instructed a lawyer to take action against 70 individuals for libel or harassment. In the same month, it was reported that she had been involved in talks to set up a breakaway Labour party. According to Jewish News in April 2019, Riley backed the Stop Funding Fake News campaign.
In July 2019, the Durham Miners' Association called a tweet from Riley "damaging" after she said that playing an Israeli folk song, "Hava Nagila", at the Durham Miners' Gala was "as tasteful as showing Black Panther at a Klan rally." According to the association, the tune had been played by a community brass band at the gala for many years. They said she had caused "great hurt to good people" with her comments.
In November 2019, Riley posted an image on Twitter of herself wearing a shirt with a doctored image of Jeremy Corbyn carrying a sign bearing the caption "Jeremy Corbyn is a racist endeavour". The tweet was condemned for erasing the struggle against the racist apartheid regime in South Africa, the original subject of the sign, to make a political point, with some users calling for Riley to be fired. The professional photographer who took the original shot, Rob Scott, also publicly declared his displeasure, stating she had "illegally manipulated and printed" the picture to "cynically promote her agenda", adding "I am appalled by the abuse of property, moral rights and change of anti-racist message to anti-Corbyn one."
Riley's mathematics background and love of football has seen her assist bookmakers in preparing betting odds for football tournaments; based on her analysis she predicted Chile would win the 2014 FIFA World Cup, despite appreciating fans would see it as an unlikely outcome (Chile was ultimately knocked out in the Round of 16).
Riley has visited schools to enthuse pupils on the "joys of applied maths, quantum mechanics and time travel and so on". A blog, written by University of Surrey academic Julia Percival and hosted by The Guardian, which argued that Riley's looks and figure would work against any aim to increase female participation in the sciences, was described by The Daily Telegraph as unfair and a case of Riley being damned if she did and damned if she didn't.
|2009-present||Countdown||Channel 4||Co-presenter||With Jeff Stelling (2009-2011) and Nick Hewer (2012-present)|
|2012-present||8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown||Co-presenter||With Jimmy Carr|
|2010||The IT Crowd||Herself||Cameo in in-show countdown|
|2013-2014||The Gadget Show||Channel 5||Co-presenter||With Jason Bradbury|
|2013||Strictly Come Dancing||BBC One||Participant||5th celebrity to be eliminated|
|2016||It's Not Rocket Science||ITV||Co-presenter||With Ben Miller and Romesh Ranganathan|
|2016-2017||Friday Night Football||Sky Sports||Co-presenter||With Jeff Stelling|
|Fantasy Football Club||Co-presenter||With Max Rushden and Paul Merson|
|2019||Celebrity Countdown||More4||Co-presenter||With Nick Hewer|
Studies published in 2013 by Diana E. Betz and Denise Sekaquaptewa looked at the impact of different types of female role models on girls' opinion of their own ability to succeed at a Stem subject. They found that typically feminine Stem role models not only decreased girls' interest in Stem subjects, but also decreased their belief in their own ability to succeed at those subjects - and the likelihood of studying them. ... I can sympathise with these students. Rachel Riley, the mathematician who appears on Countdown, is a great Stem ambassador, but even someone like me, with a first degree and PhD in chemistry, feels like a failure in comparison to her, because she is slim and pretty - and I'm not.