Katie Jarvis meets a happy girl with a mixed up mind
She’s vivacious, full of life and bursting with things to say… and yet there’s something ineffably intriguing about her, too. Katie Jarvis meets with the delightfully oxymoronic Bryony Gordon
‘You have done E, right?’ asks James.
My pained silence tells them all they need to know.
‘Just give it a go,’ says James, as if it’s an oyster or an olive. (I never had either until I was twenty-four, now there’s proof of how utterly unprepared for life I am.) ‘If you don’t like it, you don’t ever have to do it again.’
The Wrong Knickers, A decade of chaos, by Bryony Gordon
[In The Wrong Knickers] I wrote about the time a man tried to use Lurpak as a sexual lubricant. I wrote about hooking up with someone in a sexual health clinic. I wrote about catching nits from a barman and having an affair with a married man and flashing my boobs in a pub. But despite all this excessive honesty, I did not write about my periods of depression, my battle with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), or my years with bulimia… I couldn’t. I was too ashamed, too frightened…
Mad Girl, A Happy Life With A Mixed-up Mind, by Bryony Gordon “
The Times?” I exclaim in mock horror, staring at the paper I’ve been unthinkingly reading while waiting for Bryony Gordon. (Rookie error. Should have bought the Telegraph.) “Can’t stand the Times!”
“It’s fine!” she says, all warmth and hugs over formal handshakes. “My husband writes for the Times. Between us, we cover all broadsheet bases beginning with a ‘tuh’.”
“Oh, yes!” I say, twigging. Harry Wilson. The Times’s City editor. Writes grown-up stuff about the global economy.
Harry, whom she acknowledges in both her startling memoirs: “You are not my happy ending. You are my happy beginning,” she writes of him in The Wrong Knickers. And, more simply, “You are everything,” in Mad Girl.
Harry; and Edie, their four-yearold daughter. She’s currently doing phonics with Edie, hence the ‘tuh’.
“I went on a boot-camp-thing a few months ago in Ibiza. All of us [journalists] were in a van, heading for the beach, and I saw a horse and went, ‘Look, everyone! A horsey!’ And they all were like, ‘What the hell?”
She laughs the delicious throaty laugh of someone who looks unfinished without a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other.
“I’ve given up alcohol but replaced it with coffee, which I never had before. I asked for a ‘Flat white – large,’ the other day. Didn’t know they only do one size. There were all these Yummy Mummies listening behind me…
“I’m allowed the odd cigarette, though.”
Two minutes into the conversation and I’m fascinated; mesmerised. Bryony Gordon is startlingly attractive – I don’t just mean luminous eyes and blond locks. (In person, you can well believe the scene in The Wrong Knickers where she’s asked out by a fellow Telegraph worker she bumps into in a sexual health clinic. “You were by far the most beautiful girl in the room,” he emails later. (And, by definition, this has to be a room full of at least passably-attractive people.))
She’s attractive because she’s vivacious. Full of life. Bursting with things to say.
And there’s something ineffably intriguing about her, too. Oxymoronic. She’s friendly and intimate the second we meet. “I’ll talk into this,” she says, helpfully picking up my voice recorder, in knowing fellow-journo-mode.
Yes, she’s genuinely lovely. But you also understand, in your heart of hearts, that you’ll never truly get to know anyone who gives so much so quickly.
People who offer you intimate details about themselves are still putting up a smokescreen. (Such a blindingly intimate smokescreen that you never think to look through it.)
When Bryony Gordon – Daily Telegraph 30-something columnist – wrote her book The Wrong Knickers in 2013, she threw everything at it. Including vast amounts of underwear. It’s a very funny book.
It begins with the infamous Lurpak incident. On the plus side, Josh is not only good-looking but attended both Oxford and Princeton. On the minus side, when he whispers hotly into her ear, “I think we should use this!” what he actually brings out is a pack of salted butter to help “smooth things”. Bryony escapes by claiming lactose intolerance, and leaves wearing a pair of size 8, pink, silky, Agent Provocateur knickers that Josh throws at her in his dash to get her to leave. They’re not even hers.
“This is my first-ever one-night-stand. And these are the wrong knickers.” And this is only the foreword. If you think things are going to get better for Bryony, then don’t read Chapter Four, where a ‘reasonably successful author’ talks to her about a book called Donkey Oatey, before removing a wrap of cocaine from his jeans and asking, “Do you mind if I do a line off your tits.” (She agrees so as not to spoil the mood.)
Or Chapter Five, where she’s forced to relate, for the entertainment of party-goers, being dumped by Russell Brand. His persistent texting stopped so suddenly, she thought he might have died. “…a couple of days later, I opened the Sun and saw him holding hands with Kate Moss.” Or, indeed, most of the other chapters. But the most fascinating thing about this searingly honest book is that it’s not completely honest.
Last year, Bryony Gordon’s Mad Girl – A Happy Life with a Mixed-up Mind – came out. And she came out, too.
Came out as a girl who’s had some pretty serious mental health issues. Alopecia, bulimia, drug dependency.
Mad Girl is The Wrong Knickers with OCD.
Suddenly, instead of being an emblem of a fun life of hangovers and bed-hopping, The Wrong Knickers became a metaphor. A metaphor for a mind garbed in fashionable high-street clothing – so far, so normal – but with distressingly ill-fitting underwear hidden several layers beneath.
Yes, all that she’d related was true. She’d been brought up in a loving, middle-class household; and she did land a fabulous job at the Telegraph, in which she was flown to LA to interview celebs such as Justin Timberlake. And, yes, she did visit an Iranian dentist, who extracted one of her teeth.
But what The Wrong Knickers expunged was the ineluctable progression of mental illness that inexplicably began when Bryony, aged 12, woke from a dream convinced she was dying of AIDS. “I was so scared of blood on my hands that I began to wash them as often as possible, the irony being that they soon started to crack and bleed.”
As she got older, drink and drugs became her prop: she thought nothing of reviewing the papers on Sky News, still drunk from the night before. Of keeping wraps of coke in her bra, along with a card and a rolled up note so she didn’t look suspicious every time she visited the office loo.
She failed to mention, in her amusing dental visit, that her teeth
were falling out not because of sugar but because of bulimia. That she believed, in her OCD nightmare, she had killed someone or might molest a child.
“Isn’t it interesting,” I say to Bryony Gordon, “that it’s easier to write about…”
“A man snorting cocaine off your breasts than it is mental illness?” she interrupts. Exactly. “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she says. “When I wrote The Wrong Knickers four years ago, I didn’t feel I could write about any of the stuff I write about in Mad Girl. So it was like: Hey! I’ve a fun life.
“But I think anyone who read it slightly suspected that there was other stuff going on.”
It was funny – or not funny, depending on how you view it – she says. But there she was, having the time of her life. The Wrong Knickers was in the bestseller chart. “I was married. I had a child. We owned a flat in Clapham. We’d go on holiday to the Cotswolds. I was like, oh my god, my life is perfect and I’ve cured myself of all my mental illness! And then, about six months later, I had a breakdown. And that was the first time I wrote about my OCD.”
What both books have in common is the way so many people relate to them.
“When I wrote The Wrong Knickers, I thought: If one girl reads this and feels like less of a screw-up, then that’s great. Because I spent the whole of my 20s and early 30s
‘I thought that Alien, as in Ridley Scott, would come through the ceiling. I slept under the attic, and I was convinced of that until I was about 14’
thinking, ‘God, I really want a boyfriend! I feel bad about wanting a boyfriend because I’m letting down the sisterhood. And, oh! Isn’t everyone else perfect! And they’re all getting married.’”
Mad Girl also spoke to people, of course. Other people.
There are detractors. There are those, such as Giles Coren, who feel we’ve reached Peak Bonkers. Who feel that the celebrity mental-illness market is so overcrowded that Gwyneth Paltrow has become the new normal.
But, actually, many of us nonfamous folk have been there, too.
And – do you know what? – it’s liberating to admit to spells of madness. Such as my own teenage breakdown, which might seem funny now but was desperately debilitating at the time.
“I was convinced, for about three years, that I would spontaneously human combust,” I tell Bryony Gordon. “That doesn’t sound weird to me.” “It was the era of glitter tights but I couldn’t wear them in case a spark ignited me.” She doesn’t bat an eyelid. “That was probably sensible,” she says. “I used to have a little bell next to my bed in case there was a fire so that I could warn people. And then – when I was 12 or 13 and old enough to know aliens don’t really exist - I thought that Alien, as in Ridley Scott, would come through the ceiling. I slept under the attic, and I was convinced of that until I was about 14. “So I totally get that.” It’s not just me. Thousands of ordinary people have welcomed the insane, tragic, sometimes hilarious revelations in Mad Girl.
“I was at Cheltenham Spa station just now when a girl came up to me, gave me a massive hug and was like, ‘I love your book; I listen to your podcasts’. And that happens quite a lot. It’s really weird because I’m like, ‘Me? I’m a bit of a shambles’.”
And then there are those podcasts at bryonysmadworld.telegraph.co.uk - where she talks to said-celebrities about their mental health struggles. Spice Girl Mel C on her eating disorders and depression. Dame Stephanie Shirley on suicidal thoughts.
And, of course, Bryony’s most headline-catching of them all: Prince Harry, back in April.
All she had to ask him was, “How are you really?” for him to reply, “You know what, I’ve spent most of my life saying I’m fine.” Before explaining that he’s not. That he’d endured two years of total chaos, in his late 20s, while trying to come to terms with the death of his mother. Had they rehearsed the interview? “No, we hadn’t done anything. I didn’t know what he was going to say. I’d met them all a few times – William, Catherine and Harry – and got on with them. Not friends as such; but there was an easy banter.
“They knew about the stuff I was doing with Mental Health Mates [forums for people to talk freely about their mental health struggles] and so I thought, ‘I’m going to try my luck and see if I can get an interview with one of them’.”
The idea of a podcast came to her because it seemed a much more intimate, easy way of chatting; fewer barriers than in a traditional newspaper piece.
“And Harry said yes. But I thought he’d talk very obliquely about mental health.”
What did she make of the reaction to the interview?
“There’s a lot of people that have said ‘Eurgh! We don’t want to hear our royals emoting. Their thing is to keep composure; to keep a stiff upper lip.’ And I’m like, well, maybe it was when the biggest killer of young men in this country was the Nazis. But currently the biggest killer of young men in this country is suicide.”
The podcast has proved so popular that a second series is on the way.
“I’m not doing it to get headlines. We put it out on a Sunday night because – although depression hits any time of the week – Sundays and Mondays are full of trepidation. So you can listen and feel geed up. There’s no sad music. It’s like a big, warm hug.”
Talk is important, yes. But what does Bryony Gordon want to change? Actually change. What sort of world would she like for four-year-old Edie, by the time she hits 20? There’s no hesitation in her answer. “I want her to be able to come to me and say - as she would if she felt sick and needed a day off school – ‘Mum, I’ve got this thing in my head that doesn’t feel quite right.’ That’s all I want. That there is no difference between mental and physical health.”