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Gemma Cairney at the Radio 1 offices in central London, 6 March 2012. Photograph: Richard Saker for the Observer
Get a show on Radio 1, which emanates from an ageing BBC outpost in central London, and you work in the basement. Get a show on Radio 1's sister station 1Xtra and you work from a studio on the third floor – nicer, with windows, but a strict no-eating policy. Daylight or lunch: these are the luxuries presenters trade when they switch between the stations, as Gemma Cairney is about to do.
"When I first came to work in the building I was expecting showbiz," the Birmingham-born 26-year-old says. "I got mildew."
After a jolly year presenting an afternoon show on 1Xtra, next month Cairney moves to take up the weekend breakfast slot on Radio 1, a promotion, she'll have to remind herself, as she trudges to the cellar every day. "The toilets down there are just wrong," she says, daydreaming, like most of the building's residents, about October's move to the new BBC HQ beside Oxford Circus. "It's snazzy, it's what you want. It doesn't seem right, here, that someone as big as Madonna can come in and have to use our disgusting loos."
Wearing a colourful dress, copper curls piled high, Cairney has that radio presenter's trick of laughing dementedly while talking without getting breathless or incoherent. "I went to drama school, the Brit School, which explains why I'm so precocious and annoying," she says. Cairney attended the noted fame farm after reading about it in Bliss magazine, enrolling a few years before Adele and a few after Amy Winehouse. What happens to kids there? What magic fame serum do they inject?
"Sometimes, even I get a bit eye-rolly about it," she says. "But when I was there the really famous Briterati hadn't come through. Just a couple of members of Another Level." And with the memory of that long-defunct boy band she loses it, finally, to the laughter that has been threatening. Poor Another Level.
Between the Brit and the BBC, Cairney dithered professionally. First, the dream was "really serious acting. I was going to study at Rada or Guildhall or nothing. I didn't get in". She tried being a fashion stylist – "The problem, I decided, was that I was never gonna get a mortgage doing it and I was finding it all too funny" – and then she did a bursary-funded radio course at an east London college.
"So skint it was disgusting", Cairney took a job as a tequila girl, "going around the stinky men in Canary Wharf, trying to get them to buy shots". Looking back, she sees it as weirdly useful training for the radio career (which started, in 2007, with stints for Channel 4 Radio and Kiss FM). "I was never sleazy about it, selling tequila, I just enjoy chatting to people. Like radio, it's a social job." Her new show, she hopes, will be "a massive conversation" with listeners.
"There were definitely times in my early 20s when I didn't have any money, didn't have a TV, never had any credit on my phone – but I did have radio. Radio should be warm and should be your friend."