SOMETIMES little preconceptions are carried into interviews, and that's perhaps inevitable.

But having read Coast presenter Tessa Dunlop's new book, To Romania With Love, the shoulders feel as though they are lugging sandbags.

Why? It's hard not to be judgmental when the upper-middle-class granddaughter of Sir Derrick Dunlop, who lived in a castle, writes about a gap year working in a Romanian psychiatric hospital. It's even harder when a woman with catwalk model looks retraces her love story with a boy who was just 12 when they first met (she was 19).

And how can you not question her reasons for travelling to Eastern Europe when you discover Dunlop played out Pygmalion for real, when she brought the boy back home to hone him into a fine young gent?

Come on, Tessa. Come clean. Back in 1993 when you set off aged 18 with your Prada backpack and AmEx card in your back pocket, did you think for a moment you could really make a difference to the abandoned Ceausescu regime kids? Had you even been introduced to the concept of altruism at that point in your life?

In the BBC canteen in Glasgow, the blue-eyed cropped blonde takes a long sip of orange juice before answering.

"Altruism? Probably not," she says smiling, in the husky posh voice that's been heard on a range of radio stations, from LBC to Five Live.

"The Romanian trip was all about me getting into Oxford University and showing some life experience. I think we do what we do and if some good appears, then so be it. So you're right. It wasn't about the orphans.

"And it's fair to say it could have been about control for me. Yes, I was the tall, public school-superior, confident blonde girl from the west and I felt a bit omnipotent over there. It was like Sharon Stone arriving in Grimsby. So I got something from this really intoxicating experience. Wouldn't you have?"

Dunlop's honesty is immensely disarming. Is this a performance? Is she selling herself as well as the book? Next question: what about this love story between you and the 12-year-old?

"Well ... yes," she says, stuttering. "I knew to get the book published I had to talk about the romance. But I also wrote about it because I'm honest."

Dunlop, now 38, left Romania, went on to Oxford to study modern history but the following summer travelled to Siret in northern Romania for a teaching stint. Why return? She says she'd fallen in love with Romania. It had given her a fresh outlook on her very privileged life. This time around she met Vlad (not his real name), a brother of one of her students.

"Things have been written suggesting ... but look, the truth is I didn't fancy him then," she says in animated voice. "I was 19 for God's sake. It wasn't sordid. But I think what I liked about him as a child was the other kids were all over this big-noise Westerner whereas Vlad didn't give a monkey's. He was always an old soul. And very bright."

Dunlop brought her very bright but sullen husband-to-be to Scotland, where she'd organised a scholarship at her former school, Strathallan in Perthshire. She returned to Oxford but he soon returned, homesick, to Romania. After graduating, Dunlop chased a media career, landing work at LBC and on regional TV and aged 27 returned to Romania to visit Vlad's family.

"And I fell in love with a teenager who was just so different, almost depressive, someone who'd had to grow up very quickly," she recalls. "I guess he was a challenge. And we're complete opposites. But perhaps that's why it works."

Conversation with Dunlop reveals distinct character traits. She's very tactile, she's flirty, but without sexual overtones, yet seems fragile when teased or reproved. She's also astonishingly open, prepared to let the outsider in. "Yes, I want people to like me," she admits when quizzed. No, that doesn't ring true. You want people to love you. And perhaps Vlad's failure to be impressed really impressed her?

"Yes, you're right," she admits.

But where does this need to be loved emanate from? It's not hard to work out. Dunlop grew up in an eccentric family. Her late dad, a big, booming English character in Rannoch, Perthshire, became a shepherd, but retained certain old money values. Her mum was also non-conformist, Home Counties –and also larger than life. Dunlop has two confident, outgoing brothers and it seems she'd have shrivelled up had she too not grown cojones.

"I had to stand up to be counted," she admits. "And living in Rannoch was isolating. I grew up on Scottish Farmer and Radio 4 and we didn't even have a telly. So I guess it was hard for me being in a small place. And I (initially) went to Pitlochry High School while my brothers went to public school, for odd reasons, so I was called posh. Scots you see are obsessed with accent (and class). My life was hell. I've discovered it's better to have an Eastern European accent in Scotland than a posh one. Scotland needs to get over that."

She adds, grinning: "I guess all that made me what I am – almost as rude as my father. My big brother calls me a social hand grenade; lob me in and watch me explode."

So going to Romania, initially, was also an exercise in non-conformity? "I guess. Just doing something different."

But she's clearly in love with the country and while it's taken 10 years to learn Romanian she can now pass for a native. The country, it seems, has given her a sense of identity. And a purpose? To love the place and write/talk about it? Dunlop is soon to present Crossing Continents on Radio Four, on Romania.

"It gives you a great comparison, I do have a good understanding of life there, and it puts life in Britain in perspective. For example, I've got a passport, I can go where I like but Romanians can't. But the irony is Vlad (they married in 2005) doesn't feel the same way about Romania now. He's happy in London. He sees Romania as being about corruption and the family he's left behind while I think of it as romantic. But I understand where he's coming from."

Does Vlad feel he's been moulded, Pygmalion-processed, brought to Britain as a boy and then again as her husband? "Probably," she admits in serious voice. "And the book, for him, has been part of that, and such a bad thing for our relationship. He doesn't like being exposed in this way, telling how I met him when he was 12. Did I make a mistake revealing that? I guess. But it's what I do. I'm controlling. And that scares people. It certainly scares Vlad."

Her tone moves up a beat: "His family and my family are cool with it, but he's the laid-back, quiet type who doesn't compete while I go through life at 100mph – and sometimes hit a brick wall."

It's no surprise to discover Dunlop, now writing her Masters on Queen Marie of Romania (also the subject of her next book) has worked immensely hard to build a media career. She's an out-front, determined character. It's also no surprise to learn her character has created a few problems along the way. "I've been hauled before the Press Complaints Commission a few times, but always cleared," she says, grinning. "Schumacher spins a few times – but he knows where the end of the track is."

Some track spins? "The Vagina Monologues was running in London at the time and I did an on-air tease; 'What does your partner call yours?' Just a bit of fun, but it caused a little stir."

But where single-minded career bent often indicates a shallowness, Dunlop doesn't fit that mould. Yes, she does what she can to gain attention and she used Romania. Yet, she's entirely open about it and since has put more back than she's taken out. And she could certainly have chosen a path less blistering.

Yes, she's an unashamed extrovert, but her self-deprecation, sense of humour and vulnerability makes her entirely endearing.

"Will you write a piece my dad would have liked?" she says, during the taxi ride back to the city centre. Mmm. Hope so.

"Will you keep in touch?" she adds, holding hands for longer than the set Scottish standard time. Sure Tessa. You're bright and funny and far too open and honest not to. The sandbags are empty.

To Romania with Love is published by Quarter Books, priced £12.

tessa dunlop TV and radio presenter