Dragons’ Den – Kelly Hoppen on becoming one of the ‘Fearsome Five’

Changes are afoot in the new series of Dragons’ Den, and Jewish-Irish design guru Kelly Hoppen is one of them. She tells Susan Griffin about becoming one of the fearsome five and why she has a soft spot for fresh-faced start-ups.

When you’re named one of the new Dragons on Dragons’ Den, it’s not going to be long before well-meant mickey-taking begins, as design industry icon Kelly Hoppen discovered.

It was recently announced that the Irish-Jewish wheeler dealer, along with cloud computing pioneer Piers Linney, was joining the show’s stalwarts Duncan Bannatyne, Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden.

“Sienna [Miller, Hoppen's stepdaughter from a previous marriage] calls me her ‘Little Dragon’ and, of course, I’ve had all the jokes. The boyfriend says, ‘I sleep with the Dragon’, my daughter Natasha goes, ‘My mother the Dragon’, and so it goes on…”

Kelly Hoppen full

Born in Cape Town, Hoppen moved to London with her family when she was two years old

Hoppen, looking striking in a fitted black dress and with an abundance of coiffured blonde curls, couldn’t be happier to be joining the show, which opens its doors for an eleventh series.

“I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Dragons’ Den,” says the luminous 54-year-old in a low, polished voice. “It’s an iconic show and I’m flattered to be involved in it.”

She admits that she momentarily hesitated before signing up, though.

“I did, because I run a big business and I didn’t want to fail at something. I wanted to succeed,” explains the multi-millionaire who’s famed for using a neutral colour palette in her designs. “I’m also investing in other people’s lives and dreams, so I want to put enough time into it. I did think about it, but it didn’t take long to say yes.”

When we meet, the Dragons are in the last week of filming at the BBC studios in Salford.

“It’s been fantastic, but it’s full-on,” says Hoppen. “We’ve done about 76 pitches so far and some last an hour, 90 minutes, but it’s fascinating.

“You forget there are five cameras on you because you’re so engrossed with what people are telling you, and then you’re trying to work out whether it’s a business deal and whether you want to do it, while listening to the other Dragons.”

For the most part, she’s used her woman’s intuition when choosing who to invest in. “And then something will happen and you’ll think, ‘Was I right, was I wrong?’” she adds.

Hoppen isn’t going to ruin the surprise and divulge who she’s gone into business with, but she does reveal they’re not creative ventures.

“I’ve invested in things I know about and am interested in, but have nothing to do with lampshades,” she says, laughing.

As tough as the Dragons are with each other on screen, she reveals that Meaden, Bannatyne and Jones couldn’t have been more welcoming.

“I know Peter and Duncan from before and Deborah’s fantastic, as is Piers. It’s like one big family living together, essentially.”

Bur as with any family, arguments can be rife.

“Yeah, but what happens in the Den stays in the Den,” Hoppen says, smiling. “That’s what business is about. You’ve got five very strong, opinionated people sitting on those chairs, so everyone’s going to have something to say.”

Through publicising her various business ventures over the years, Hoppen’s become accustomed to television cameras, so didn’t feel nervous on her first day.

“I was excited and had adrenaline,” she says. “I asked the other Dragons how I came across and they said I just fell into it. That was great, because you want to ease your way into a very famous show. You don’t want to stand out.” Unlike Hoppen’s predecessor, perhaps, the shoulder-padded, husky-voiced Hilary Devey, who, along with Theo Paphitis, bid adieu to the show at the end of series 10.

Dragon's Den

Kelly lines up with her fellow Dragons

It’s not just the Dragons that have changed – so has the Den. Now the top floor is only accessible via a lift, meaning the budding entrepreneurs sweat it out like never before on their way to pitch their businesses – and viewers get to watch every painful moment.

“The lift opens and people come in. They’re looking at you and you’re looking at them, they want to sell you something and have to try and engage you,” Hoppen explains.

“That’s the key thing. People don’t realise how difficult it is to engage five different entrepreneurs in front of the camera.”

She readily admits the biggest turn-off is when hopefuls begin to reel off memorised spiel during their presentation. “If people come in and they’ve learned their pitch from a piece of paper, you’re bored. But if someone comes in and they’re like, ‘Oh, I’m so excited’, you get drawn in.”

During the first episode, a total of £875,000 is sought in the Den by budding entrepreneurs, who include a former male stripper who breaks down after trying to cook under pressure, and two British expats who flew halfway round the world to win investment for their Aussie tanning range. But will anyone walk away with the cash?

“If I’m going to work with somebody, I have to get on with them, so the personality and passion is absolutely important, but there has to be a deal,” says Hoppen. “I want to make money out of it – it’s business, you know?”

If she’s learnt anything over weeks of filming, it’s that she’s drawn to young entrepreneurs, she reveals.

“I love working with young people starting up,” says Hoppen, who’s an ambassador for The Prince’s Trust. “It’s obviously more of a passion than I thought before I started doing this.”

It’s the “unscripted way they talk and pitch” which endears them to her.

“There’s naivety but at the same time not, it’s quite extraordinary.”

Born in Cape Town, Hoppen moved to London with her family when she was two years old. At school, she was bullied for her dyslexia, but that didn’t deter her. In fact, it spurred her on, and at 16 she embarked on her own business.

Almost 40 years later, Hoppen’s an author, presenter, award-winning designer with high profile clientele including the Beckhams, and the founder of the Kelly Hoppen Design School. In 2009 she was awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours List.

Given her experience, she could have gone into the Den with a game plan – and indeed she considered it.

“But,” she says, “that goes out the window after the first five minutes, and you’re just very much yourself.”

  • Corky

    I thought she was Jewish, but wasn’t sure.