Countdown’s Rachel Riley wasn’t fazed by giving birth standing up in her bathroom 

Rachel Riley is nothing if not impressive. For a start, the Countdown star is formidably bright, with a master’s degree in applied mathematics from Oxford.

On top of that, her marriage to Siberian-born former Strictly star Pasha Kovalev, 41, means she is fast becoming fluent in Russian — especially important since Pasha’s mum, who is a doting granny to their one-year-old daughter Maven, speaks no English.

‘I did an online course which taught me Russian phrases such as, “I opened the window with a crowbar” but now the kind of stuff I say all the time is, “She’s pooed!” ’ Rachel says, laughing.

But even more than that, I admire Rachel, 35, for having the guts to stand up to relentless online abuse with her vocal stand against anti-Semitism, particularly in the Labour Party, to the point where she was given extra security on Countdown for her own protection.

Rachel Riley, 35, (pictured) who lives in Central London, was inundated with vile racist and sexist abuse after voicing concerns about anti-Semitism on Twitter

It is not a path anyone might have expected from Rachel, who started on the show 12 years ago, having applied on a whim after university. Initially, she was known as much for her pretty frocks as for her sum-solving ability or quips on the spin-off comedy show 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown.

Although her family is Jewish, she is not particularly observant, having grown up eating pepperoni pizza and not going to the synagogue.

But then, three years ago, she became aware of the anti-Semitism in Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. When she voiced her concerns on Twitter, she was inundated with vile racist and sexist abuse.

‘In the name of Labour I’ve been called a hypocrite, a lying propagandist, a t**s-teeth-and-a*** clothes-horse dolly bird, a weaponiser of anti-Semitism, a fascist, a Right-wing extremist and a Nazi sympathiser . . . who my dead grandfather would be disgusted by,’ she said two years ago at the Holocaust Memorial Trust annual event.

That same year, she and actress Tracy-Ann Oberman began legal action against 70 ‘mainly Labour supporters’ in response to what she called ‘horrendous abuse, libel and harassment’.

This year, she won a libel case against a Corbyn supporter who accused her of encouraging an online campaign of abuse of a 16-year-old with whom she had debated anti-Semitism, with the judge ruling that their tweets had been a ‘straightforward, rational and respectful exchange of views’.

Rachel who started on TV's Countdown 12 years ago, revealed in her position it's important to be a role model. Pictured: Rachel with Pasha and baby Maven

Rachel who started on TV’s Countdown 12 years ago, revealed in her position it’s important to be a role model. Pictured: Rachel with Pasha and baby Maven

Stress, at one point, led to her baby stopping kicking for two days, so she decided to block more than 1,500 people from communicating with her on Twitter.

‘They were so abusive,’ she tells me. ‘I’ve developed a thick skin but now I never see a lot of things, even nice stuff, which is a shame because I used to use Twitter to help children with maths homework.’

Rachel won’t go into detail about the legal cases or about Labour, now that Jeremy Corbyn has been replaced by Sir Keir Starmer. Yet she makes it clear she will still be speaking out and that, in doing so, she has found her calling.

‘In my position, you have to be a role model,’ she says. ‘I needed to find my self-esteem from something within me, rather than from people telling me I’m wearing a nice dress.’

I was locked down with my mother-in-law for six months. She doesn’t speak English, which probably helped… 

This outspokenness is helped by the fact that she has long had to hold her own in male-dominated surroundings. The daughter of an auditor and a stay-at-home mum from Southend, Essex, she attended an all-girls grammar school.

‘There it was never mentioned that there was any difference between girls and boys. It didn’t occur to me,’ she says.

Even so, Rachel was the only girl in her year to take further maths at A-level, and, at her Oxford college, she was the only woman in a group of seven studying the subject.

So what gave her the nerve to thrive in a minority? ‘I was just always really good at maths, so I had confidence,’ she says.

Rachel is promoting the #FuelHerFuture initiative by Always to deliver sports programmes nationwide for teenage girls. Pictured: Rachel and Pasha on Strictly

Rachel is promoting the #FuelHerFuture initiative by Always to deliver sports programmes nationwide for teenage girls. Pictured: Rachel and Pasha on Strictly 

Yet she hated the summer she spent doing work experience for a big City bank.

‘I found it a boys’ club, a really macho environment,’ she says. ‘One idiot told me they’d only hired me because I was pretty, when I’d just got a First at the end of my second year at Oxford! It wasn’t for me.’

We are talking in mid-morning, with Rachel looking pretty much like any young mum, slumped on the sofa of her Central London home, nursing a mug of tea. Occasionally there is a background squawk from Maven (whose name means ‘one who understands’).

At first, Rachel comes across as slightly weary but, discussing her passion for girls’ education, she grows more and more animated.

She is promoting the #FuelHerFuture initiative by the sanitary protection brand Always to deliver sports programmes nationwide for teenage girls, after research showed nearly one in three stops playing sports during puberty, with 28 per cent saying they don’t think they are good enough and 25 per cent saying they are not encouraged enough.

Rachel was a sporty type at school. ‘I played hockey, netball, I was on the athletics and rounders teams. That kept me out of trouble because my friends and I wanted to be in good shape, so we looked after ourselves,’ she says.

At Oxford she played netball and football. ‘With football, they teach you about being really vocal — if you don’t call for the ball and somebody else doesn’t call and you both go for a header, you clash heads: I saw it happen to two girls.

Rachel's mother-in-law Galina arrived to visit Maven just days before the first lockdown and was 'really' helpful. Pictured: Rachel on Countdown in 2009

Rachel’s mother-in-law Galina arrived to visit Maven just days before the first lockdown and was ‘really’ helpful. Pictured: Rachel on Countdown in 2009

‘Now, when I’m in an environment like 8 Out Of 10 Cats where there’s a bunch of comedians talking, it can be intimidating but I know I can speak up when I need to.

‘It’s the same with the trolling,’ she continues. ‘Sport has taught me resilience and given me the confidence to be assertive.’

Rachel is determined to pass her feminist values on to Maven. And while she is keen to bring her up in as ‘gender-neutral’ an environment as possible, she has found her intentions sometimes scuppered by well-meaning relations.

‘I loved building things when I was young, so I was buying toys like that — but then Mum bought her a Hoover,’ she says, laughing. ‘And my mother-in-law bought her a doll — which was good actually, as it had never occurred to me.

‘Pasha bought Mave a book in Russian about vehicles. She wasn’t interested and Pasha’s mum said, “She’s a girl, she doesn’t like cars!” But, in Russia, there are different expectations of women and men. Every aspect of life is different.’

Rachel has had plenty of time to absorb those differences, since her mother-in-law Galina, who brought Pasha up single-handedly, arrived to visit her baby granddaughter just days before the first lockdown. Soon all borders were shut and flights were grounded, so she ended up staying with the couple for six months.

‘It was interesting,’ Rachel says diplomatically. ‘She was really helpful and it was great for Mave to spend so much time with her grandmother. The fact she doesn’t speak English probably eliminated a lot of the frictions we might have had if we could have understood everything the other was saying.’

Rachel said the midwives got to her home just 20 minutes before Maven was born. Pictured: Rachel at the Dominion Theatre in 2019

Rachel said the midwives got to her home just 20 minutes before Maven was born. Pictured: Rachel at the Dominion Theatre in 2019

Maven’s first 15 months have certainly been eventful. She was born in the couple’s bathroom just six hours after Rachel felt her first labour twinge, leaving her no time to get to hospital.

She says: ‘The midwives got here 20 minutes before she was born. I was standing up — there’s a video of the midwife catching her.

‘I wasn’t scared, I was more like, “This is happening. Get it out!” ’

After just three months, the first lockdown began.

‘Mave has just not been socialised with other children,’ Rachel says. ‘When it was allowed, a friend came over with her little girl and the baby tried to touch Mave’s toy. Oh my God!’

On the positive side, Rachel has relished having Pasha on hand.

After three months of maternity leave, Rachel returned to Countdown, where host Nick Hewer recently announced he was standing down, to be replaced by Anne Robinson. ‘Normally, Pash would have been on tour but now he looks after her when I’m at work, and that has been great.’

The union of the self-described ‘Essex girl maths geek’ and the Russian dancer may seem unlikely, yet to judge from how Rachel beams every time she mentions her husband, they are a top team.

They met when they were partnered together in 2013’s Strictly Come Dancing. Just days after being booted off the show in week five, Rachel announced that she was splitting from her husband of 15 months Jamie Gilbert, whom she had been with since Oxford.

Rachel and Pasha (pictured) met when they were partnered together in 2013’s Strictly Come Dancing

Rachel and Pasha (pictured) met when they were partnered together in 2013’s Strictly Come Dancing

Less than a year later, she announced that she and Pasha were a couple. Last June, they married in Las Vegas.

‘For a long time, Pash and I weren’t bothered about marrying. I’d had the big wedding once before but that wasn’t the right relationship. This was the right relationship,’ she says.

They changed their minds partly because they were worried about potential future visa issues for Pasha, who became a U.S. citizen when he was starring in the American show So You Think You Can Dance. ‘The last thing you want when you’re having a baby is for your husband to be chucked out of the country,’ says Rachel.

But they didn’t want to marry in the UK, as publishing the banns could have alerted the world to plans they wanted to keep private. ‘We were going to Vegas anyway to see Robbie Williams perform and thought “Why don’t we just do it?”. I bought a dress the day before, Pash booked the limo on the morning. We had one friend there from Manchester and one from LA.

‘At the chapel they said, “We’re just going to marry you down here by the cash register quickly, then we’ll go upstairs and we’ll do the ceremony” so it was like, “Do you take him? Do you take her? OK, that’s it!” — it was pretty funny.’

Weren’t their mums gutted not to be invited?

‘We were at the airport when my mum sent me a joking message, “If you get married in Vegas without us, I’ll come back and haunt you.” But they understood.’

You would be pressed to imagine a more delightful couple — but that doesn’t stop the online haters. When Rachel posted a sweet family snap last summer to mark their first wedding anniversary, it was greeted by a torrent of vitriol, much of it from pro-Palestinian supporters.

Does Rachel fear for Maven growing up in this angry, social media-dominated world? ‘Definitely,’ she says. ‘Especially with her being Jewish, you worry about what generations have been through before — you don’t know what will happen. Do we keep our heads down? Or do we fight?’

With a mother like Rachel, I’m pretty sure I know what Maven will choose to do.