Fearne Cotton opens up about coping with depression
Fearne Cotton may be famous for her upbeat personality, but the TV and radio presenter’s battles with depression have inspired her to write a series of self-help books, and now launch a podcast. Maria Lally went to meet her
DRESSED IN SKINNY JEANS, baggy jumper and Converse trainers, a make-up-free and flustered Fearne Cotton rushes up to me in the hotel lobby, apologises for being (barely five minutes) late and orders us both a coffee. It’s far from her rock-chick image, but then the TV and radio presenter has always been a bundle of contradictions. Despite her relentlessly chirpy and sunny persona on the airwaves, the 36-year-old has also spoken frankly about her depression and anxiety. She has a rock’n’roll husband – she’s married to Jesse Wood, son of Rolling Stone Ronnie and also a musician (the couple married in 2014 and have two children, Rex, four, and Honey, two), yet she’s teetotal, loves baking and goes to bed at 9.30pm every night.
And in 2015, seemingly out of nowhere, she walked away from a high-profile job presenting her own BBC Radio 1 show, with no clear plan of what to do next.
‘It was absolutely terrifying as I had worked since I was 15. I was taking the linear route of presenting – Top of the Pops, radio etc. But then I reached a point where I asked myself if I was happy climbing this ladder. I’d done it for 10 years, I loved it and I felt bloody lucky to work there, but Rex was a baby, and I was out of the house every day. I also felt like taking a risk.
‘It wasn’t an easy decision. I had no security. I don’t have wealthy parents or anybody to ask for money. I was jumping into a pit of nothingness, but that felt quite exciting. And I knew I was passionate about writing, mental health, cooking, designing, and I had a fairly healthy social media following [she has almost 7.5 million followers on Twitter and more than two million on Instagram]. So I felt brave enough to just go for it.’
Fearne’s departure from Radio 1 coincided with her second pregnancy. And despite her concerns that she might never work again, she has carved out a new career for herself as a successful author: her five bestselling cookery and self-help books have sold more than 273,000 copies. But it is Happy, published last year, that has had the biggest impact. In it, Fearne revealed for the first time the full details of the depression she suffered from during her 20s. And this month, she launches Happy Place, a podcast based on themes that run through her own life – namely families, careers, motherhood and mental health – and also feature widely in Happy and its follow-up, Calm, which was published in December.
‘After Radio 1, I started a magazine column and began opening up about my depression for the first time,’ she explains. ‘I felt passionate about it, and wondered if it was something I should put in a book. But would people judge me? And would I then feel worse?
‘I wrote up a list of pros and cons, and the pros were so powerful that I went ahead. Afterwards I had so many people emailing
and contacting me on social media to say it helped them feel less alone, like they weren’t the only ones going through it.’
Of her depression, Fearne says, ‘I thought it was normal 20-something moments. I’d always been a generally happy person, but the spark in me began to extinguish and I was in a very low place. I could be overly sensitive and overanalyse everything – I was never feeling good enough, or smart enough.
‘But I also got used to being in this fog, putting on a fake smile and going to work every day. In private I would cry and feel numb. A very good friend suggested
I see my doctor – it was then I realised something was very wrong.’
Fearne was prescribed antidepressants but never saw a therapist, preferring instead to gradually overhaul her lifestyle. ‘There used to be a secrecy and shame around depression and mental health. But saying you have it out loud reduces that and starts a conversation.’
While she was writing Happy, Fearne contacted the mental-health charity Mind for advice on writing about depression, which led to a meeting with its CEO, Paul Farmer. He then asked Fearne to become an ambassador (‘I was so honoured,’ she says). And after meeting Stephen Fry, Mind’s president, she invited him to become one of her first interviewees on Happy Place – other upcoming guests include former Vogue editor-in-chief Alexandra Shulman and Dawn French. ‘Dawn spoke about adopting her daughter Billie, divorcing Lenny Henry, remarrying, becoming a stepmum. All those pivotal moments we go through. After all, you can be this megastar comedian, but it doesn’t negate how things affect you emotionally.’
Fearne says she’s particularly excited about interviewing Stephen Fry, who suspended his Twitter account after being trolled online, and plans to ask him about the role social media plays in depression.
‘Social media is both a dark and brilliant thing for mental health,’ says Fearne. ‘If I’m feeling down I won’t go on it because it’s nearly impossible not to compare yourself
‘I got used to putting on a fake smile and going to work. In private, I would cry and feel numb’
unfavourably to others and to feel a bit down. I only scroll through when I’m feeling happy. If I feel down I have a social media detox for a while. You have to remember you’re not looking at people’s real lives but just edited highlights of it.
‘Like tonight, for example,’ she says, referring to the National Television Awards ceremony she’s attending later in the evening, ‘I may look half-decent in my outfit, take 10 pictures, put the best one on Instagram and people will go, “Oh you have the best life.” What they don’t see is that I get anxious doing a red carpet. Everybody’s looking at you, shouting your name, taking your photograph and it can be strange and overwhelming. But I went to see an amazing breathing coach called Rebecca Dennis who taught me some exercises that really helped.
‘Then tomorrow there’s a 90 per cent chance I’ll be in a tracksuit with my hair in a bun, no make-up, and my kids will be throwing pasta at me. So I try to show both the glamorous and boring bits on my Instagram account because I think that’s a fairer portrayal.’
On the subject of anxiety, last year Fearne had her first panic attack. ‘I was driving on a motorway and my chest began to tighten and I felt like I was going to black out. I pulled over and had to be driven home,’ she says. ‘There was a lot going on in my life, with family members becoming ill, and I was just becoming exhausted from plate-spinning.’
She says that yoga and running have also helped her emotionally. ‘I’ve always loved running, and when I begin to feel down, anxious, or overwhelmed, I get my trainers on and go for a run.
‘I prioritise my health, get early nights; I don’t drink, I avoid sugar and I surround myself with good friends and spend a lot of time at home, where I’m happiest. I still have my depression triggers, but I now know how to handle them.’
Fearne’s mother and grandmother also suffered from depression and she wonders whether it runs through her family, or if it’s simply due to circumstances. ‘My mum had depression throughout her life and I’ve had it – but my brother hasn’t. I don’t know if it’s hereditary but what I do know is that the older generations didn’t talk about it – I only found out about my grandmother’s depression after she passed away. I’m very open emotionally with my own children.’
The strong work ethic that spurred on Fearne’s career is something she’s inherited from her parents. Her father is a sign-writer and her mother juggled four jobs alongside raising Fearne and her younger brother, Jamie. ‘She cleaned for our neighbours up the road, delivered Next packages, worked as an orthodontic nurse and did my dad’s paperwork,’ says Fearne. ‘She used to take us with her when she went to do her cleaning jobs, so when I tell her I’m worried about my kids’ diet or whether they have too many plastic toys, she tells me to get over myself. My parents were mainly
Clockwise from left Fearne with her father-in-law Ronnie Wood and husband Jesse; with close friend Holly Willoughby on
This Morning; interviewing Princes William and Harry in 2007