He’s all talk – meet Skavlan
Lives: Oslo and Stockholm
Family: Partner of actress Maria Bonnevie, two children with her (aged 3 and 1), three adult children from a previous marriage
Education: IT course in the 1980s and 24-hour career in the Armed Forces
Occupation: Presenter of Skavlan, Scandinavia’s most popular talk show
Career: Journalist and cartoonist at Morgenbladet, Aftenposten and Dagbladet. TV presenter for NRK since 1996. Commentator for the TV broadcast of the Norwegian crown prince’s wedding in 2001. Has published several books and illustrated Unni Lundell’s Nifse Nella books.
Fredrik Skavlan arrives at the Gullmarsstrand Hotel, on Sweden’s west coast archipelago, unshaven and in sneakers that are near soundless on the smooth rocks. His hair is stiff with seawater. It has acquired the same coloring as his faithful companion Bruno, a Spinone Italiano. Skavlan, from Norway, is currently the biggest TV personality in Scandinavia. His talk show, Skavlan, sees Sweden and Norway merge into one at the start of the weekend, when viewers in both countries tune in. The show is recorded in front of live audiences in Stockholm and London studios.
And this fall, Skavlan is heading to New York where he will record three episodes of the talk show in a TV studio in Manhattan. The London set, and Charles & Ray Eames designer chairs, are packed and ready to be shipped across the Atlantic. Every detail is important when you want to attract a viewing audience of three million. The coffee cups. The questions. The timing. The chemistry.
Have you invited Donald Trump?
“I can’t answer that,” Skavlan says with a wry smile. “We never name names until the week itself.”
He has met Trump before. Skavlan interviewed him in his office on Fifth Avenue, New York, at the top of Trump Tower. It was when he was presenting Først og sist (First and Last) on Norwegian television (NRK), and Trump said things like “I love beautiful women and beautiful women love me.”
“It was wonderful to see his office,” Skavlan remembers. “It was like the Oslo-Kiel ferry in the 1980s, loads of smoked glass and brass.”
Skavlan orders the fish of the day, haddock, with fried cabbage and new potatoes from a smiling, sun-tanned waiter at the Gullmarsstrand Hotel. The entire Swedish west coast archipelago was a war zone hundreds of years ago. It now looks like avScandinavian idyll. Dominating the sea view is the granite Lysekil Cathedral, whose hill top location is a west coast landmark. At one time, this area belonged to Norway. The earliest Norwegian kings were often based here.
Today, it is TV King Fredrik who rules Sweden and Norway. Not bad for a self-taught guy next door who grills politicians one minute and sings Norwegian folk songs to Adele the next.
“My lullaby wasn’t planned,” he says. “We were hoping Adele would sing something but she caught me off guard by asking me to sing a lullaby instead.”
Skavlan rises with the sun and his children, and even sometimes before sunrise. On holiday, each day follows the same pattern. He makes coffee, plans the meals for the day, completes a few DIY projects, mows the lawn, trims the hedge, guts a mackerel and checks for ripe tomatoes in the greenhouse. “I can go weeks without speaking to anyone other than Maria and the kids,” he says.
Skavlan is a workhorse with a 24/7 mindset who struggles to separate work and home life. However, he is learning to take some downtime. “This is an entirely new side to me that I didn’t even know I possessed. It all changed when we bought a place here in the archipelago. Maria and I had been talking about it for a long time. We both dreamed of having a place on the Swedish coast where we could be entirely in a world of our own. This is our sixth summer here. They have taken very good care of the archipelago, and it mostly looks the same as it did 50 years ago.
"We didn’t even have Internet access for the first few years we lived here.”
Maria is Norwegian-Swedish actress, Maria Bonnevie. They met eight years ago when she was a guest on Først og sist. “Maria and I didn’t get together until about a year after she came on the show for the first time. We purposely maintained a professional distance,” Skavlan says.
Bonnevie says she fell for Skavlan because of “His presence,” adding, “Fredrik has a genuine self-belief that makes him uncompromising and true to himself. It’s so easy to want to be all things to all men and then become blurred round the edges. Fredrik is definitely not that.”
When he is not on the archipelago, Skavlan travels almost non-stop. He commutes each week between his office and homes in Stockholm and Oslo – and the TV studio in London. There are two reasons why he and Maria have two homes.
“It’s because of our work and because Maria is as much Swedish as she is Norwegian,” he says. “If we want to be together, that’s the way it has to be. I am always very happy with city living in Stockholm. Having said that, I feel most at home when I arrive in Oslo, where my other children and the rest of my family live.”
Skavlan loves to finish his working week with dry martinis in a New York bar. With a touch of irony, Skavlan is nicknamed Mr. Sharp by his work colleagues. Maybe you’ve seen him at Stockholm Airport, with an ultra thin MacBook under his arm and wearing a cellphone headset. He listens to podcasts of future guests while he rushes through security control, as the check-in personnel are about to close the gate. Rumor has it that he’s turned it into a game to see how late he can arrive at the airport and still make the flight.
I’ve heard that there’s an inherent need in the Skavlan family to get involved in as much as possible to preserve the peace?
“It’s my mother who says that runs in the family. I don’t think I’ve inherited that gene, not at work in any case. At work, I’ve been accused both of being too easygoing and far too tough. So that must be about right, then. Whatever I am, I’m not afraid of asking questions.”
As a child, Skavlan spent his summers in a white timber house in Ny-Hellesund, part of a beautiful archipelago in the south of Norway, with his mother, textile designer Kari Skavlan, father Per, and siblings Petter, Jørgen, Guri and Fredrik. They came each year from Oslo in his father’s yellow Triumph. “It felt like we’d been on the road for three days. Dad smoked cigars all the way,” Skavlan remembers.
As the youngest in the family, Skavlan learned at an early age the need to stand up for himself. And he learned his listening skills from his father, who, in a talkative family was the one who had mastered the art of listening.
Skavlan had a pale, freckly complexion that turned red very quickly. He often got a heat rash, and his older siblings spitefully called him “little fatty.” While his brothers lay in the sun, smothered in peanut oil, Skavlan played in his pretend clinic as a therapist. The clinic was a cramped and clammy tent.
“My father died when I was 23. Suddenly, almost overnight, I became obsessed with having children. I had never even thought about it before. It came out of a clear thought that you can’t die alone, without descendants. So, my girlfriend and I had a baby. After the birth, my mother said we had to get married, so we did.”
Skavlan has five children, two of which are with Bonnevie. “My three year old bosses me around,” he says. “She’s very verbose and we have some animated discussions. Full of beans is how I usually describe her. Her little brother on the other hand, is a much calmer personality. I often wonder who I would have been without children. Many parents argue that being a parent is the only thing meaningful in life. I don’t agree. However, for some people, a child can make them grow up. I wonder if that also applies to me. It was a definite turning point.”
“That’s when the worrying starts,” says the photographer clearing his throat. “Do you think so?” Skavlan asks, turning towards him. “Until you have your own children, you only think of saving yourself in a life threatening situation. Once you have children, just saving yourself goes out of the window,” Skavlan says.
He pushes his cutlery to one side. The neighboring table is all ears. “They are an anchor and an important counterweight to a lot of what I experience in my day job. I’m an ordinary dad who also has to go grocery shopping and fix a leaking WC. I think that if I didn’t have children I could easily have had a mid-life crisis. Who knows, bought an open top sports car and leather pants.”
But you have a personal trainer?
“Yes, as a once-a-week experiment. I tell him ‘your job is to keep me upright.’ It’s a fact of life that your shoulders want to drop at my age. Your body wants to close itself, like a flower does at night.”
A couple of weekly jogs in Oslo’s Nordmarka forest, four or five expensive designer suits and regular get-togethers with his best friends are Skavlan’s anti-aging recipe. He doesn’t know how he would cope without his regular lunches with old friends from the Norwegian Broadcasting Company, such as comedians Harald Eia, Bård Tufte Johansen and Thomas Giertsen.
“We try to meet in Grünerløkka in Oslo every other Saturday. That’s my social life. Nothing more. That’s the price I pay for this job. When we meet, whoever comes always has something new to talk about that they have read or thought about. We don’t really talk about ourselves in particular. I can get in the car afterwards and realize I forgot to ask about something important, such as what so and so’s youngest child is called – and what are they going to do this summer.”
Skavlan needs challenges. He’s restless. But as a 50-year old with over 30 years in the media, he often feels like a bit of a dinosaur, clinging on as hard as he can. “There are so many new and exciting things happening in our industry, and so many challenges,” he says. “For example, I don’t know who I should be in social media. I’m used to everything having to be properly thought through and proofread before publication. Nowadays, people say so much so quickly – and publish it straightaway. People reveal so much. That’s something I’m not comfortable with. We applaud gut feelings in today’s society, but intuition is not always that good. People don’t think things through any more. We’re going to pay a price for this.”
Did you know there’s a Facebook page Boycott Skavlan, with over 13,000 followers?
“Is there really? That’s the way it is. The first thing I had to forget about as a TV presenter was the need to be liked by everyone.”
Skavlan began his TV career 20 years ago. It was his 30th birthday, and he made a stammering start on Norwegian TV, with a big gap between his trouser bottoms and shoes and far too short socks. The journalist, who had shone for years with his words and cartoons in Norwegian daily newspaper Dagbladet, sat bent forward in a chair wearing what looked like an old fashioned brown confirmation suit that had room for him to grow into.
What lessons have you learned since then?
“To be more in the moment and be less preoccupied with what I had planned. I also think more about what kinds of question work, what gets a discussion going. It’s important for me that everyone can have a proper sense of leaving the TV studio and recognizing themselves when they watch the program. Plus, I now know I need to wear longer socks.”
Skavlan stands up, goes to shake hands but then ends with a hug. He’s going to take his boat out, drive fast, stand tall and feel the wind in his hair. Maybe he’ll think more about the opportunities that could open up from his upcoming visit to New York. “If you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere,” he sings, Sinatra-like. He casts off – and soon becomes a white dot on the horizon.
Text: Kristin M. Hauge
Published: January 12, 2017