Irish television presenter and former model Amanda Byram is sitting cross-legged at the edge of the set where she has just been photographed, sporting pieces from her slinky new Body By Byram activewear range that cling to her toned physique in all the right places.
And she is becoming quite emotional. ‘It’s amazing,’ reflects the 44-year-old. ‘A few years ago, there is no way I could have sat like this, with my body on display. I would have run to cover up the minute the shoot was over. I also would have starved for weeks before. I may have looked leaner, but do I really want to present an unsustainable body ideal to women who read the magazine?’
Half-Irish, half-Iranian Amanda has presented Total Wipeout with Richard Hammond, The Big Breakfast, Sunday Brunch and, currently, Dancing With The Stars in Ireland. She landed The Big Breakfast shortly after arriving in London, back in the late 90s, with then boyfriend Patrick Kielty (who is now married to Cat Deeley). But despite her success and outwardly glamorous life, Amanda has struggled with a ‘disordered relationship with food’ – and an associated compulsive attitude towards exercise – for the better part of 30 years. She recalls how, as a teenager growing up in a Dublin suburb, she would hide bottles of SlimFast (the diet shakes marketed as a replacement for meals) under her bed and empty the crumbs from the bottom of the toaster on to a plate so that her parents would think she had eaten.
As she ‘closed in on 40’, she realised she had had enough. She has since become a warrior – ‘channelling my inner Lara Croft’ – to empower women of all ages to be ‘kick-ass’ and aspire to more than ‘losing 7lb in seven days’. Goals like this are, she says, ‘so self-defeating and destructive. I suffered hugely mentally and emotionally, thanks to what I saw in magazines, always feeling I should be better and thinner. And it is much worse now, with young girls viewing everything through the filters of social media.’
With her handsome television producer husband of two years Julian Okines at her side, Amanda now feels stronger than ever. The pair married at London’s Mandarin Oriental hotel – close friend Fearne Cotton compiled the playlist at their reception – and they had a blessing on the beach in the Maldives during their honeymoon. Home is Southwest London, but her television work regularly takes Amanda to Dublin and Los Angeles.
For the past two years, Amanda has studied personal training and nutrition, ‘to understand how the body really works’, and has learnt to love herself. ‘I’m not in the best shape of my life. If I trained every day and had a stricter diet, I could look “better”, but I’m in my happy place. I train to a level of enjoyment. I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full.’
The Body By Byram collection is a testament to the self-love Amanda has found in her 40s, every piece lovingly – and stylishly – designed by her: ‘I just sat down and started sketching.’ It is athleisure at its best: a 14-piece assortment of mainly cropped tops and leggings in clever breathable designs and a riot of colours that would look just as good at the school gates or on a coffee morning as in a gym or yoga class. ‘I’d wear them on the red carpet if I could,’ laughs Amanda. Selfridges has snapped up the range to sell exclusively (in the UK) in its Body Studio, and it is also sold in shops throughout Ireland.
‘This is something I have always wanted to do. I approached a company several years ago about designing a line like this, and they told me there was no market for it. That was right before the Sweaty Betty and Lululemon explosion,’ she sighs. But, as with everything in Amanda’s life, this seems to have fallen into place at just the right time. Here, she talks love, carbs and learning to embrace your shape.
Turning 40 was my tipping point. I was mentally and emotionally exhausted and realised I had spent the best part of my late teens, 20s and 30s on a diet. If it wasn’t Atkins, it was Dukan or something else. I have done them all. I did the Atkins high-protein, low-carb diet for three years. It made me feel awful, but I didn’t care. I was almost 40 and constantly cancelling dinner plans with friends because I didn’t want to eat. I thought, ‘Am I still going to be doing this when I’m 60? If I don’t change now, I never will.’
My body issues started when I was 14 and a friend pointed out that my cycling shorts were too tight. She didn’t mean any harm, but she said she could see the fat poking out beneath them. I remember so vividly: we were in her bedroom, sitting against the bed with our knees up. I thought, ‘I’ll show you: I’ll be thin.’ Another factor was that I had an elder sister, Natasha, who got straight As, and I didn’t. She sang and wrote music, and I couldn’t. We are close and laugh about it now, but at the time I felt that controlling my weight was the only thing I could succeed at. I thought, ‘At least I can be thin.’
Conquering my issues with food and fear of carbs felt like battling a storm. I told myself, ‘I’m going to do this! I’m going to eat normally!’ A bowl of brown rice or quinoa or a slice of pumpernickel bread… it seems so obvious now that these are life-sustaining foods, essential as a source of energy and for our brains to function. How I managed to do anything existing solely on protein, I have no idea. At first, I did gain a bit of weight, but eventually my body went ‘ahhhh’ and settled into itself. Now, sometimes I gain a few pounds, sometimes I lose a few, and I am fine with it. The irony is that my weight has never affected what TV jobs I get. I’m not skinny now; I’m athletic. I’m in the shape I am meant to be. I wasted so many years when being skinny was all I cared about.
We yo-yo diet so much as a society that we destroy our metabolisms. I’d do ten days of a juice fast and then binge on a bag of chocolate. I wouldn’t drink for three weeks and then I’d drink three bottles of wine in one weekend. If you do these fad diets, when you then start to eat normally, your body thinks, ‘This crazy woman is eating now, but she’s going to go on a juice fast tomorrow and starve me for a week, so I’m going to store this piece of bread as fat for energy.’ And then you gain a bit of weight and you go, ‘Ah, I knew it! Food does make you fat.’
Being told how good I looked wasn’t helpful when I was dieting. My first thought would be, ‘Great, I can lose more weight, then.’ Compliments were a form of encouragement. I look now at photos of myself when I was 16, 20, 25 and I looked amazing. Why couldn’t I see it at the time? I remember older people would tell me, ‘Enjoy your figure while you can.’ But I didn’t. I just brushed it off.
Orthorexia [an obsession with healthy eating] is very prevalent now. The hashtags #strongnotskinny and #fitnotthin have done the rounds, so people have moved along from anorexia to orthorexia, which is just another way of exercising self-control. Anorexia athletica [an obsession with exercising] is another one. It’s beating ourselves up over what we ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do and because I still have that monster inside me, I can spot it a mile off. I never tipped into full anorexia – I couldn’t have devastated my parents like that. I knew there was a line I was never going to cross, but I also knew I would go as close to that line as possible.
I’ve always been an all-or-nothing girl, which is why I have given up alcohol and caffeine. I was never going to just have one cup of coffee in the morning. I’d have six and then jitter all day. I gave up caffeine a year ago. I slept for three days and the headaches were indescribable. I stopped drinking alcohol three years ago, which was easy by comparison: I did Dry January, and that turned into February, and then March. When I did, briefly, go back to drinking, I got so violently ill that I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ I used to binge. I was a fun drunk. I miss it at times but I don’t miss the hangovers and how it made me feel.
Meeting Julian changed everything. I was almost 41 and had been single since calling off a wedding when I was 38 – the hardest thing I have ever done. I’d had over two years of intense soul-searching and had given up drinking; weirdly, it turned out so had Julian, at exactly the same time. He was producing a photo shoot I did for Women’s Health magazine. We both had that googly eyed moment of seeing each other and going, ‘Hello!’ My ex-fiancé [professional rugby player Craig McMullen] was a gorgeous guy who did nothing wrong, but something was missing. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, until I met Julian.
I believe you meet someone once you have made peace with being on your own and learned to love yourself. I did so much self-help that I reached the point where I wasn’t just convincing myself; I was truly happy being single. My friend Fearne Cotton is very into cosmic ordering, or specifically asking the universe for what you want. Encouraged by her, I asked the universe for a handsome man who would be proud of me and travel the world with me. And Julian, an ex-model with a degree in psychology, walked into my life. He tells me constantly that I make him proud and we have been to amazing places together.
I haven’t had plastic surgery and don’t think that I would. But I’m 44, not 84, so who knows? I never say never. I want to grow old gracefully and love who I am naturally, but I’ve been through enough to know that’s hard to do. Hosting The Swan [a controversial US reality series in which contestants underwent cosmetic surgery procedures to improve their self-esteem] I saw how, for some, having work done gave them confidence and changed their lives. But I think the direction it is going in is scary, with younger and younger girls having their lips and boobs done. I hope it might taper off. Now that skinny has been replaced with strong, looking natural may make a comeback, too.
The focus on image is much worse in Los Angeles than it is here. Whenever I’ve done a stint there, I’ll come home and my mum will say, ‘Your teeth look so white, and your brows look so straight, but you don’t look so confident.’ You have an ‘ist’ for everything there – a dermatologist, a gynaecologist, a chiropodist, a dentist – and you see these people constantly. Everyone looks great over there. But this quest to achieve perfection takes such a toll on our mental health.
I no longer get gym guilt. Now I only go to the gym when I want to and respect that if I don’t want to, my body is telling me something. Gone are the days of doing three gym classes in a row to compensate for eating. I usually exercise between three and five times a week, mixing it up between spinning classes and walking and cycling outdoors, and pilates. I’m not a yoga-lover. I tried for so long to force myself to like it and be ‘that lean yoga person’, but I just don’t and life is too short to do exercise you don’t enjoy.
My mother and sister are inspirations to me. We talk about everything. My mum is 68 and still in great shape; we go to the gym and for walks together. My sister is busy with her four children; her youngest is four and has Down’s syndrome, so she doesn’t have time to work out, but she is super-healthy and makes amazing things like kefir, kombucha and sauerkraut, which her children eat, too. She is also doing a great job of protecting her kids from the pressures of social media.
I think social media has a lot to answer for. The longer you can keep young people away from it the better. There are shocking statistics about the percentage of girls as young as 14 who are depressed, and I am sure sites like Instagram and Snapchat are a big part of the reason why. You’re looking at everything through this unrealistic lens, with reality filtered out; people are using it to make their bodies look smaller.
I want to campaign for more education about nutrition. I think it should be taught in schools, along with mindfulness, and there should be more adult classes on offer. There are so many mixed messages and when women don’t know what they shouldn’t eat, they just think, ‘I’ll cut out everything!’ There also needs to be more awareness about the struggles women go through trying to be perfect at everything – wife, mother, sister, career woman. At some of the lowest points in my struggle, I looked amazing. But with mental health issues, you don’t know what’s going on behind the screen door.
Amanda’s activewear range Body By Byram is available exclusively in the Body Studio at Selfridges and online at selfridges.com
By Charlotte Pearson Methven