Feanne's happy place
A few years ago, behind the smiles and sunny disposition, Fearne Cotton’s world was falling apart. In the process of rebuilding, she found not only herself but a new chapter of her career, too. Emma Freud finds out what she learnt along the way
Ihave known this month’s cover star since she wrote an unusual letter to Comic Relief in 2003. She said that even though she was a kids’ TV presenter and not a comedian, please could she make a film for Red Nose Day at one of our projects in Africa. She was the first person we had ever come across who had actually ASKED to be involved. My boyfriend Richard [Curtis], who co-founded the charity, replied saying she was very kind to offer, but we had just sent Lenny Henry to visit a project in Tanzania and didn’t need anyone else to make a trip. Undeterred, the 22-year-old found a friend with a video camera, looked up the address of one of our projects in Kenya and went there anyway, making her own Comic Relief report film, just in case. We didn’t use that film on our show, but the following year we asked her to be one of our presenters and she’s been part of our team ever since. In 2009, we sent her up Mount Kilimanjaro with Gary Barlow and Cheryl Tweedy – a charity climb that raised more than £3m for our projects, during which she puked behind a rock on camera halfway up the mountain. In the 2011 campaign, Chris Moyles attempted a 50-hour continuous broadcast on Radio 1. Halfway through, he rang Fearne and asked her to join him in her swimsuit if the listeners managed to raise £2m. That phone call caused the biggest spike in donations of the entire two days and, when they reached £2,406,648, she appeared alongside him wearing her swimsuit, saying later, ‘It was the most awkward thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.’ Despite the indignities, we’ve stayed friends throughout, even after the yoga lesson we took together during which she was justifiably re-christened ‘Firm Bottom’. Just after she posed for this issue’s glorious front cover photo, she came to our house with her two-year-old daughter, Honey, and her ridiculously good-looking husband, Jesse. Honey was there to visit our dog, rabbits and tiny kittens. Unfortunately, she disliked them all, although was overjoyed to meet the small plastic tortoise that keeps our real tortoise company. After she and Jesse left, Fearne and I moved to the garden, giving me the chance to reflect on how very different she is from the girl I met 15 years ago. That Fearne was a single cog in the vast machine of the TV industry, but this Fearne has been on a much bigger journey… Emma: So, how was the cover shoot? Fearne: Oh, joy. I got to play with the most amazing clothes – a gorgeous, luscious peachy ball gown with loads of layers of netting. It was heaven. Then I wore a midnight-blue silk gown – the whole thing was the opposite of my actual life. E: Your actual life is so different from when we first met. When were you last old-style drunk?
F: At my best mate’s wedding last year. I was absolutely shitfaced and danced all night. The thought of going out late and then getting up with the kids just kills me, though I think when the kids are older I will.
E: Mine are older and I do. It’s worth the wait.
F: Also, I drink less because Jesse doesn’t drink – he hasn’t done for five years now, which is incredible given his upbringing. I mean, how the fuck has he turned out so balanced when his life has been so crazy?
E: So explain how you got from young hell-raiser Fearne to this wise, moderate woman.
F: Okay, I started in TV at 15, came from a working-class background and had no clue about the lifestyle. I stumbled through doing all manner of weird, wonderful, great and awful programmes. I enjoyed parts of it, but also felt that I didn’t really belong.
E: You appeared so self-confident?
F: I thought everyone else was confident and deserved to be in that space, whereas I didn’t know if people liked me or if I was going to get sacked. There was a Fearne that used to pretend to be the person I thought everyone needed for the job, amalgamated from bits of other people.
E: How would you describe yourself back then?
F: I was naturally very enthusiastic – I’m like a Jack Russell with a new toy and I have that aptitude to be massively,
‘THERE WAS A FEARNE THAT USED TO PRETEND TO BE THE PERSON I THOUGHT EVERYONE NEEDED’
ferociously excited. But I was a kid, you know, and it was scary. E: So what changed?
F: I grew up, but my work didn’t. Then, a few years ago, while I was working at Radio 1, I went through a really bad patch, where I became a much rawer version of myself…
E: How bad was the bad patch?
E: How long was it?
F: Over a year. Maybe two. There were some exceedingly dark bits where I thought, ‘I don’t understand how to trust, how to be me, how to feel okay with eyes on me.’ I just felt fucked, basically.
E: What was the lowest point?
F: I was off work because I wasn’t capable of being around human beings and my mum and auntie came over. They brought me a bag of vegetarian sausage rolls because they could see I wasn’t looking after myself. When they showed up, I thought, ‘Fuck, they’re not the sort of people who would drop in – this must be bad.’
E: You know it’s bad when you get the veggie sausage rolls… F: That same week a good friend tipped up and said, ‘I’ve booked you an appointment with a doctor today.’ She drove me there, it was pissing with rain, a horrible day, and
I felt like a shell of a human. I broke down in front of this man I’d never met. He said, very simply, ‘You are depressed.’ I was put on a course of antidepressants, even though I didn’t really want to be on them, but I had to do something to get my head above the ground. They gave me a numbness until I was able to try a different route.
E: Were you still able to do TV work?
F: That dark patch came with a huge confidence blow where I just didn’t feel good enough to do TV. A big part of my getting better was giving 18-year-old Fearne a break and not beating her up any more for being enthusiastic and naive. A very wise person said to me, ‘Be kinder to that YOU. Go back in time and imagine sitting with that version of yourself and just say, “I understand why you’re like this, and you’re alright.”’ And so, rather than shunning that version of myself, I tried to embrace it. I am still that eager, bubbly person who is a bit on the back foot and worried about getting found out – she’s still a part of my story.
E: Did you fall a bit out of love with TV at that point?
F: Yes, I realised how ephemeral and flimsy the whole structure is. I realised none of the success was boosting me internally, it’s not actually real. So I took a leap of faith and started to strip back the layers. I left Radio 1, which was terrifying. I had no job and I was a new mum, my social life changed – I didn’t want to go out and get drunk and all that stuff any more. But, over the next year, some great friends rallied around and I talked to brilliant experts. It was very slow, but in the last few years – especially the last 12 months – I’ve felt good. This year has been extraordinary, with the momentum of the work that I’m doing and where it’s leading me. It might not be as big and shiny as it used to be, but I’m happier than ever.
E: You looked that darkness in the eye and really worked it out, didn’t you?
F: I had to, because otherwise I would still be in the kitchen with my auntie and a veggie sausage roll.
E: It seems as though success used to be one thing to you, but now you’ve redefined what you’re aiming for…
F: I got to the point where I thought, ‘I’m just going to be me and if people don’t like that, or think I’m not cool or interesting enough, then it doesn’t matter any more.’ So I decided to write an honest book about finding joy in every day and letting go of ‘perfect’. The amazing reaction to it made me think, ‘Oh, I can just keep being me then.’
E: In TV, you were a cog in a big machine, but you weren’t in charge. Now you’re running the show with your books and podcasts. Is that sense of empowerment a joy?
F: It is. It’s finding your voice and having the confidence to say, ‘I believe this is right and I’m going to say it, whatever the outcome.’ Events unfold if you’re open to the right stuff, but the ‘right stuff’ can be tough issues that you need to look at. When I had my low patch, I didn’t want to deal with those issues, but I can see how it’s enriched everything I’ve done since. If you’re open to it, if you’re ready to be vulnerable, courageous, willing to try new things, look like a fool if things don’t go well and feel all the emotions that come up, the right outcome will unfold.
E: If you’ve reached some sort of closure, does it mean you’re ready to do more TV work?
F: Yes, I think so – I’m doing a new show now, which has been a really liberating turn of events this year, and I don’t feel like I’m compromising who I am to do it.
E: Does it feel different?
F: When I was in the dark place, I thought, ‘I’m not good enough. Other people have got more confidence, they’re more well-equipped mentally, they’re better than me.’ I just parked 20 years of experience like it didn’t mean anything. Now I feel I can use all of that experience, but I can still be me. I haven’t got to be the old Fearne on TV – I can do it in a way that I feel safe.
E: Are you still painting, too? We still have the artwork you gave Richard after the first Red Nose Day you presented.
F: I’m painting a bit, but I’ve just started to use that side professionally – I’ve created a print for Cath Kidston. It was a huge creative outlet for me. I worked with the print team and it’s really gorgeous. This is the first period in a while where I’ve really thought I’ve got something to give.
E: How important has your ridiculously handsome husband been in this whole process?
F: Massively. We’d only been together a few years when the bad bit came. But we had what felt like such a game-changing, world-stopping love for each other that we said, ‘Nothing else matters, whatever carnage happens, we’ll get through it.’ We’ve both been able to really support each other through that. Now, seven years down the line, we adore each other’s company and we’re best friends. We obviously have loads of arguments like everyone does, but it’s fine, because we’ve been through loads of shit and our lives hopefully won’t ever be that turbulent again.
E: I can see that. It glows out of the pair of you.
F: He’s so amazing.
E: He’s so good looking.
F: I know, he’s so handsome.
E: He really, really is.
At that point, the protective, kind and (had I mentioned?) good-looking husband arrived to pick her up. Fearne Cotton has changed a lot over the last 15 years – she’s wiser, kinder, more wary, more beautiful. But I still see and admire in her the passion and determination of the girl who was turned down as a Comic Relief presenter, so made the trip to Africa to shoot the film herself.