‘To me Bruce has always been a young guy’: Wilnelia Forsyth on being married to national treasure Sir Bruce

When former Miss World WILNELIA FORSYTH met national treasure Bruce, nobody thought it would last. Nearly four decades on, she tells Margarette Driscoll how their marriage has thrived in spite of the 29-year age gap

Wilnelia, who has been married to Bruce Forsyth for nearly four decades, is a former Miss World

Wilnelia, Lady Forsyth, leads a curious double life. At home, on Surrey’s opulent Wentworth Estate, she is a glossy but ordinary housewife; Sir Bruce, her husband, is very much the star. But in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean island where she was born, it’s a different story. 

When Wilnelia (née Merced) was crowned Miss World in 1975, she became Puerto Rico’s uncrowned queen – and since Bruce got his knighthood five years ago she has been its unofficial first lady, too. ‘Nobody there really understands what it’s about, but they love the idea that I am a lady,’ she says.

Winning Miss World may not generate much press in the UK, but in Puerto Rico, ‘it’s everything’. Like a latter-day Princess Diana, Wilnelia is fêted for her charity work, and recognised everywhere she goes. Bruce, who is known out there as ‘Señor Mundo’ (Mr World) is, frankly, a bit of a nobody: ‘It’s embarrassing sometimes. They introduce me and forget him. He could be a beachcomber, nobody really cares, but he handles it well.’

Wilnelia has just been back to Puerto Rico to collect an award recognising the work her foundation does for underprivileged children, and picked up a copy of Destiny (a self-help book by T D Jakes) at the airport to read on the plane. ‘It has really made me think about my life,’ she says. ‘If ever there was anyone for whom Destiny was written, it is me.

So many unlikely things have happened! I nearly didn’t make it to Miss World. If I hadn’t won, I would never have met Bruce. It was chance that brought me from Puerto Rico to England, yet it feels as though it was meant to be.’

The day after her return, having visited the Sala Lady Merced Forsyth – an activities centre in her hometown of Caguas named in her honour – Wilnelia turns up at our studio with barely a trace of jet-lag, accompanied by Teresa, once her chaperone during Miss World. (After 40 years, they are still friends.) Wilnelia’s eyes are bright, her manner easy. She laughs a lot. Her curled black hair looks natural, with a few grey flecks.

Wilnelia with husband Bruce at the Baftas, 2013

She wears minimal make-up – just a slick of kohl around her eyes and bright orange lipstick that matches her silk shirt – but she is strict about her diet, wondering how many calories there are in the (small) chicken salad we each have for lunch. Wilnelia turned 59 as she was leaving Puerto Rico – a milestone most beauty queens would dread – but age has never bothered her, she says: ‘In Latin cultures, we never think about it.’ When she got home to Surrey, ‘there were balloons everywhere and flowers and presents’ to celebrate. ‘Bruce is very romantic…’

A year ago this week, she was wondering if he would survive the night. Medical tests after a fall at home showed that Bruce, now 88, had two life-threatening aneurysms – blood-filled swellings on his major arteries – which, if ruptured, could prove fatal. Surgery was also risky. Wilnelia says she was ‘petrified’ as he was taken to theatre, and some of her fears have proved justified. Though Bruce survived, this has been the most difficult year of their lives. 

The primetime colossus, who dominated Strictly Come Dancing for 11 years and defined an era of popular TV with The Generation Game, has not fully recovered and struggles to walk. ‘The operation took his energy because of his age, there’s no question about it,’ says Wilnelia. ‘Some days are better than others. On the not-so-good days, he tries to rest.’

Inevitably, they’ve had to talk about the future. He tells her she’s strong and will make a life without him. Wilnelia is not so sure: ‘I don’t think about it too much. I hope I’ll be prepared somehow, but it doesn’t feel real. He’s the man I fell in love with because his brain is there. He has a bit of a problem moving, but we still laugh and talk. I pray, I believe. The main thing is that he’s doing well. The pain is more emotional; sometimes we cry, but mostly we laugh.’

Her main concern is keeping him entertained. ‘Thank God he’s a TV freak,’ she says. ‘During the summer he followed the Olympics. Now we have The Apprentice. He enjoys watching Question Time, we do puzzles and he loves the internet. I used to go to a zumba class to keep fit; now I do it at home in front of him. The children come to stay all the time, so there’s plenty of love around.

'If I hadn't won Miss World, I would never have met Bruce. It feels as though it was meant to be,' says Wilnelia

‘We eat well – lots of vegetables, white meat and fish – and he’s working really hard with the physio. He’s in incredible shape mentally but he gets very tired. He doesn’t want to do anything publicly until he’s 100 per cent well. I respect that.’

After 36 years together, she speaks of her husband with warmth – though when they met (as judges at the 1980 Miss World final), no one expected it to last. ‘But I knew that if our marriage lasted one year, I would be happy, because he was perfect and he treated me like a queen.’

She was 23 when they met, Bruce, 52, with two failed marriages behind him and five daughters, two older than her – all of which he explained as they took to the dancefloor for the first time after the Miss World dinner. ‘I thought, “Surely, if you want to see me again that’s the last thing you should mention!” But I appreciated his honesty,’ she says.

When people kept coming up to him saying, ‘Nice to see you, to see you nice’, she didn’t know it was a catchphrase, and thought it was sweet he had so many friends. ‘I had no idea who he was. You couldn’t Google anyone back then.’

For two years, they had a glamorous, transatlantic romance, meeting mostly in New York, where Wilnelia worked as a model. When Bruce proposed at the Turnberry golf club in Scotland (now owned by Donald Trump), she accepted immediately: ‘To me he’s always been a young guy, which was how I sold it to my mother.’

Wilnelia and Bruce after receiving his knighthood, with their son JJ and Bruce’s daughters Laura (left) and Charlotte

Bruce won Wilnelia’s mother Delia’s approval, though on their wedding day she gave him a book called Ancient Secret of the Fountain of Youth by Peter Kelder, and a letter detailing how she expected him to look after her daughter. ‘I told him if he was taking me he was marrying two women,’ Wilnelia laughs. 

Her mother has always been her ‘inspiration’, she says. A poorly educated but ambitious beautician, when Delia discovered the Miss World franchise holder did not have enough money to send Wilnelia to London for the final, she borrowed to buy the ticket, staking everything she had on her daughter’s future.

‘One of the most satisfying parts of winning was that I was able to give her the money to buy the beauty parlour where she worked, so she became the boss,’ says Wilnelia. Her mother then took over the Miss World franchise in Puerto Rico, which she still holds, retaining Wilnelia as an adviser. They will both be travelling to Washington for this year’s final next month.

Beauty contests are now widely regarded in Britain as outdated, irrelevant and sexist. But Wilnelia argues that Miss World is a powerhouse that has raised more than £360 million through its charitable arm Beauty with a Purpose: ‘You might think Miss World is frivolous, but it does amazing work and the girls have to be so talented now. You have to swim, be sporty, be giving. It’s hard to win.’

Wilnelia and Bruce dancing at the Cannes Film Festival, 2011

It was an incident soon after she won the title that inspired her to found her own charity, the Wilnelia Merced Forsyth Foundation. ‘I did a fashion show in South Africa and I saw this man crying because his child was sick and he had no money. It shocked me because although I don’t come from a wealthy family, I had never seen poverty the way I saw it there,’ she recalls. ‘I called Julia Morley [chairwoman of the Miss World Organisation] and she arranged for his son to have an operation in England. I realised that I could use being Miss World for good.’

For many years, she and Bruce split their time between England and Puerto Rico, spending three or four months of the winter at their house on Dorado Beach, next to the island’s best golf course. He would play while she perfected plans for her candle range, inspired by the warm, tropical scents of her childhood in the Caribbean and making use of her talent for art. 


On a night out you’d find me... Having dinner at the Marbella Club [in Málaga, Spain]. It’s filled with candles and is so romantic.

Must-have accessory? Lipstick.

The secret to a happy relationship? Work at it all the time and try to remember how you fell in love in the beginning.

Most treasured possession? I met Pope Benedict XVI and he blessed a rosary. I carry it with me when I travel.

Favourite luxury item? Flowers – if you call flowers a luxury – and a ‘Celebration’ candle from my collection (below).

Celebration candle, £55, wilneliaforsyth.com

In three words I’m… Happy, positive, grateful.

Earliest memory? Playing silly games with my brother Enrique under the mango trees in our garden.

Motto? Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today. Life is short, you need to do as much as you can.

What are you reading? Anything inspiring, such as Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography. I have always loved to learn.

But just as everything was coming to fruition, Bruce’s illness struck. The very day that Wilnelia was presenting the candles to Fortnum & Mason (where they are now stocked), she got the message that Bruce had fallen and been taken to hospital. She rushed there to find him shaken, his face terribly bruised. A show he was to present had to be cancelled: ‘No amount of make-up would cover the damage.’

A full-body scan then showed the aneurysms. They had to decide whether he should undergo an operation: ‘It was difficult but we were due to fly to Puerto Rico for New Year and if anything happened on the plane, I would never forgive myself.’ At Halloween, the family celebrated Christmas early, just in case. 

On 12 November, he went into surgery. ‘After they’d taken him in, I sat alone in his room, then suddenly the door opened and there were the children [their son JJ and Bruce’s daughters]. Bruce had asked me to keep them away from the hospital as he didn’t want them to worry, but I knew they would come. Over the past few months they’ve been my rock.’

Her closeness to Bruce’s children is almost as surprising as the longevity of her marriage. Bruce says she is the one who has kept the family together – a tricky feat for any stepmother, let alone one so young and with two families to contend with. Wilnelia credits her easygoing, Latin upbringing: ‘Family is everything to me,’ she says.

The day she met Bruce’s elder daughters (he has Debbie, Julie and Laura by his first wife Penny Calvert, whom he married in 1953, and two younger daughters, Charlotte and Louisa, with his 1970s Generation Game co-star and second wife Anthea Redfern), she was very nervous. ‘I couldn’t sleep the night before. I changed my clothes 100 times; I put my hair up, then took it down, I wanted to look older. [My friend] Teresa said, “Just be yourself – they know how old you are.”

‘The girls welcomed me so quickly. I feel that when you give love you get love back – it’s as simple as that – and I have loved them from the start. Charlotte and Louisa were only four and five when we met. All credit to their mothers for the way they raised them. The girls have been my friends.’

No one imagined Bruce would still be unwell when it came to the launch party for Wilnelia’s candles at Fortnum & Mason in June: ‘I didn’t want to go without him but he said, “It’s showbusiness, my darling: the show must go on,” so I went alone. On the way the driver gave me a card from Bruce to read to the dinner guests. It said, “My darling girl, I wish you all the very best of luck and thank everybody who is helping you,” and in brackets, “What time are you coming home? Don’t forget to feed the cat.” So his sense of humour is there no matter what!’

'You might think Miss World is frivolous, but it does amazing work,' says Wilnelia

Wilnelia’s candle collection, comprising five vibrant scents, is based on her childhood. One has the sweet aroma of azucena, a flower that is a symbol of good luck in Puerto Rico, and Wilnelia distinctly remembers her mother putting a few of its petals in her pocket before she flew to the Miss World final in London. Another candle, ‘Jungle Orchid’, reminds her of walks with her father, who worked in the rainforest. ‘Celebration’, created for Christmas, has notes of rose and frankincense. ‘I wanted to capture the scent that lingers in the air after a glamorous party,’ she says. ‘The scent of a woman; complex but exquisite.’ The holders are based on one of Wilnelia’s paintings of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital. The colourful houses glow as the candles burn down.

The business is a family affair: Wilnelia and Bruce’s son JJ, 29, works solely on the candle range and is his mother’s ‘right-hand man’. Bruce has been an enthusiastic supporter – partly, Wilnelia thinks, to distract her from worrying about him and to give her something to focus on. ‘It’s nice to have something to talk about. It makes us both laugh because I say to him, “Now I am the one who has to work to keep you in style.”’

Wilnelia is currently preparing for Christmas, when all the family – ‘around 30 of us, all the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren’ – will gather at her and Bruce’s home. The tradition is that the children get up one by one and say a few words as they collect their presents: ‘Some sing a little song, some say what they’ve done at school. But I always get a kiss. It’s special,’ she says. ‘We’ll be drinking champagne, eating lovely food… To me, that is what life is about, celebrating with people you love.’

As for what next year will bring – who knows? They were planning to spend New Year in Puerto Rico but that trip has been postponed until later in January, providing Bruce gets the all-clear to fly.

Will he perform again? ‘I really hope so.’

Wilnelia winning Miss World in 1975


Wilnelia on her diet…

Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day; I always have at least one cup of Puerto Rican coffee and make porridge for my husband and me with soya milk, coconut oil, oat bran, honey, cinnamon and raisins. 

Lunch is a bigger meal: we might have a paella, or rice and beans, which is what we eat in Puerto Rico. Bruce loves black or red beans.

At about 4pm we have a cup of tea and a biscuit. I used to complain about tea, but now I love it – I think high tea is an amazing tradition. We have a light supper at 7pm. I make vegetable soups, or we might have fish or shrimp with avocado.

We keep crunchy vegetables such as carrots and broccoli in the fridge for snacks, but I also love oaty biscuits. We buy a whole box for the car from Costco and if I get stuck in a traffic jam I’ll have one of those.

It’s all about moderation. You can’t be on a diet all the time – life is too short! On Sundays I bake croissants. I’ll have a one and Bruce will have two, and later on we always have a roast.

Wilnelia on her beauty secrets…

I learned a lot from my mother (a beautician), such as how to look after my hair. She used to give me hair masks made of avocado with mayonnaise. I have a little spoonful of coconut oil when I’m cleaning my teeth because it whitens them. My best advice is to moisturise. Bruce says to me, ‘You’re always in cream!’ because I cover my face, hands and legs with moisturiser. For me, wearing sunscreen is the most important thing.

Wilnelia on her fitness routine…

I like to go for fast walks around our estate with friends. I’ll take the stairs, and I even park the car further away from where I need to be so I have to walk further.

The candles cost from £48 each and are available from wilneliaforsyth.com and Fortnum & Mason


The comments below have not been moderated.

The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.

By posting your comment you agree to our house rules.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now