Fearne Cotton: ‘I was having a panic attack every day’

Fearne Cotton admits that her busy-busy lifestyle has been a big factor in her battle with anxiety. But now she knows how to keep it in check. She tells Elizabeth Day what it took to get her groove back.

Fearne Cotton is no stranger to being scrutinised. After all, this is a woman who has been on our screens since the tender age of 15. 

‘I was acutely aware of other people’s opinions from a very young age, and that f***s you up,’ she reflects. ‘It just does. There’s no way around that one unless you are made of steel. And I’m a very sensitive person. I’m not really made for my job. I haven’t got a thick skin. I take everything personally. I always think, “That person is right, I could have been better. I could have done this differently.” And I beat myself up; I self-flagellated for years.’ 

The TV presenter, radio DJ and author is now 37 but looks at least a decade younger. She’s as slender as an off-duty yoga teacher. She is also sincere and warm, and you get the sense that she is no longer afraid of admitting what goes on beneath the surface of a picture-perfect life. ‘I’m comfortable now being in that more vulnerable place,’ she says.

Fearne Cotton
Dress, Emilia Wickstead, from matchesfashion.com. Image: Chris Floyd

Today she has had to bring her daughter to work with her. Three-year-old Honey is sitting on the kitchen counter of the house where we’re meeting to do our interview and photo shoot. Honey’s red hair hangs to her shoulders as she helps the make-up artist sort out her brushes and eyeshadow palettes with an intensity that makes it clear this is a Very Important Task.

‘Honey, can you say hello to Elizabeth?’ Fearne asks, and her daughter politely obliges then returns to the job in hand. ‘We don’t have a nanny at the moment, so we’re rolling solo all summer,’ Fearne says, as we walk outside with cups of tea to chat in the sunshine. She proceeds to outline a diarising nightmare that will be familiar to any working parent of two young children. Fearne and her husband Jesse Wood, 42, musician and son of Rolling Stone Ronnie, also have a six-year-old son called Rex, and Jesse has two children from his first marriage, Arthur, 17, and Lola, 13. Juggling their schedules is a weekly exercise in mental origami.

‘We sat down with our big notepads and went through who’s working what day,’ Fearne says. ‘Jesse’s playing a festival this weekend so it’s a bit of to-ing and fro-ing. And today was the one day where I was like, “My mum and dad are in Cornwall. I can’t take Honey to nursery because I’m here. Rex is at school and another parent is picking him up and taking him to a party later. So Honey’s coming with me.” You have to surrender to those moments when things go a bit awry.’

It is this kind of honesty that has made Fearne a self-help guru for the frazzled generation. Her chart-topping iTunes podcast Happy Place, which sprang out of her bestselling book Happy, have both proved so popular that the concept is about to be turned into a festival. The Happy Place Festival will launch next weekend in West London, with a second date in Cheshire in September. The line-up includes talks from the likes of comedian and activist Russell Brand and motivational speaker and Olympic gold medallist Dame Kelly Holmes, as well as workshops and yoga classes designed to foster a sense of, well, happiness. 

Fearne, who describes herself as ‘100 per cent control freak’, is across all of the organisational details. ‘I underestimated slightly the amount of work that it requires,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to just palm it off on someone else to organise. I’m in every meeting talking about toilets, water… all those things. And now I’m doing that British thing of hoping the weather’s going to be OK, which is tedious. A bit like it’s my wedding day.’

She’s also about to host a competition-based interior design show on BBC2 and Netflix, Interior Design Masters, in which fledgling designers compete for a commercial contract. Is she any good at DIY? ‘Very good at flat pack,’ she grins. ‘It’s that meditative thing of, “Here’s a pamphlet, here’s some stuff, no one’s going to talk to you for an hour, you’ve got to create that. Go.” I like that.’

Fearne Cotton
Dress, Red Valentino, from Harvey Nichols. Earrings, Eshvi. Image: Chris Floyd

This is the second time I’ve interviewed Fearne. We first met in 2009, when it had just been announced she was taking over the weekday mid-morning show on Radio 1, replacing Jo Whiley, in the station’s biggest shake-up for years. At the time, I remember being struck both by Fearne’s youth (she was 28) and her emotional intelligence. Back then she said that she’d struggled to be taken seriously because she had started out so young. Her first job in television was presenting GMTV’s Disney Club when she was 15. She went on to front Top of the Pops and Children in Need and become a team captain on the popular comedy quiz Celebrity Juice. By the age of 30 she had racked up an impressive broadcasting CV. 

‘I was a completely different person ten years ago,’ she says. ‘So much has happened – all for the better. Although there have been moments that have been incredibly dark and low, all of it feels absolutely right, in a way.’

Fearne talks openly about suffering from debilitating periods of anxiety, and three years ago experienced her first panic attack. She was driving along a motorway with her friend Claire at the time, and she remembers getting very hot, experiencing double vision and seizing up with fear: ‘It was as if I wasn’t quite in my body, everything was moving really quickly, my breathing had gone completely awry. I was just like, “No, no, no, I can’t do this. I can’t do this.’’’

She rolled down the windows and tried to regulate her breathing, but it didn’t work, so in the end she pulled over on to the hard shoulder and was so affected by the experience that she didn’t feel she could drive any further. ‘Claire’s a member of the AA and they, very wonderfully, came and picked me up.’

Fearne hasn’t been back on a motorway since. She says there wasn’t one particular trigger for the attack, but that, with two young children, two stepchildren and a busy professional life, ‘there was just a lot being thrown our way and we were juggling situations, things, people and whatnot. Because life was so hectic at that point, I could be live on the radio or live on the TV and then that sick bit of your brain goes, ‘Ooh, this would be a terrible time for that thing to happen.’ And I would feel it physically coming on and then would be like, “No, no, no, I can’t have this happen!” I’d try to connect with my breathing and it didn’t work. I was having them every day at one point where it did become sort of unmanageable.’

It wasn’t, she’s keen to point out, because of any hidden trauma in her childhood. Fearne was raised in Middlesex with one younger brother. Her father was a signwriter and her mother an alternative therapist, and she remembers a happy upbringing: ‘It was really normal. I went to a state school and to ballet and drama club at the weekend because I loved it, in a really un-fancy local church hall. We went camping with my cousins for holidays. My parents have both got an incredible work drive which has, by osmosis, gone in.’

Fearne Cotton with her husband Jesse
Fearne with her husband Jesse. Image: Richard Young/REX/Shutterstock

She says her family remain resolutely unmoved by her fame. ‘They’re unfazed by everything. I said to my mum this morning, ‘I just interviewed [the author of Eat, Pray, Love] Elizabeth Gilbert today and it’s the highlight of my career.’ And she went, “I don’t know who that is.” I was like, “For f***’s sake. Why did I bother telling you?” They are very like that. They just let me get on with it. They always have.’

Fearne now has strategies to handle her anxiety and the panic attacks have lessened in regularity: ‘I might get one every six months if I’m really tired, really haven’t slept and things are getting on top of me. I might just get it in the middle of the day.’

One of the things that Fearne did to tackle the issue was to visit a ‘breathing coach’ who she describes as ‘life-changing’, and she says that talking openly to other people through the podcast has helped too. ‘My other thing is that if we’ve been out, I will get Jesse to drop me about an hour from the house without my phone and I walk home. I’ve just got keys and a nerdy flask that I carry everywhere with me, and I walk. How simple is that? I know it sounds a bit ridiculous but it is the best thing ever.’

Fearne and Jesse have been together for eight years, and married for five, after meeting in Ibiza where she had gone with a group of friends to get over a break-up from her skateboarder fiancé, also called Jesse. They were introduced in a club by a mutual friend and ‘we just talked from midnight until 7am… And as soon as we got home, we went on a date, then I’ve probably seen him every day until now.’ 

Jesse’s sprawling, unconventional family is the opposite of Fearne’s neat unit of four. As well as three half-siblings from Ronnie’s marriage to Jo Wood – Leah, Tyrone and Jamie (Jo’s son who Ronnie adopted), Jesse has half-sisters who are the same age as his daughter: three-year-old twins Alice Rose and Gracie Jane, from Ronnie’s third wife, theatre producer Sally Humphreys, 41.

Jesse is adept at coping with Fearne’s periods of anxiety because, she says, ‘he’s a brilliant communicator. He was brought up by a single mum [Jesse’s mother was Ronnie Wood’s first wife Krissy Findlay, who died from an accidental drug overdose aged 57 in 2005. Honey’s middle name is Krissy in her memory]. It was just him and her, so he’s really good at emotions and talking and all of that stuff, and we make an effort to check in with each other all the time. He’s been sober now for six years and he’s worked incredibly hard to create a whole new path in life because of that decision.’

Jesse, like his father, had been in rehab for alcohol dependency. ‘And we talk about that constantly,’ Fearne says. ‘We talk about my things. We never let things lie dormant or perhaps turn into passive-aggressive behaviour. Even if it’s hard, we talk it out, or we shout it out – whatever, we get it out. We do not leave anything pushed under the carpet.’

Fearne Cotton
Top and skirt, Roland Mouret. Earrings, Vicki Sarge. Shoes, Emilia Wickstead X Charlotte Olympia. Image: Chris Floyd

She says being in tune with anger is important, particularly for women. ‘Don’t suppress it because it’s going to come up later, even worse… We have been indoctrinated culturally that women cannot show anger. Men can. [They can] go and have a fight in the park or nick someone’s car and drive off in it in a computer game. Whereas women are meant to be demure. I’m still going to feel angry but it’s just how I choose to deal with that anger. And I think the empowering thought is that we should be able to feel all of those feelings.’

Instead of going out clubbing, which Fearne and Jesse might have done a decade ago, the couple now find their greatest joy comes from staying at home: ‘I don’t want to go to a party and talk to people,’ she says. ‘I’ll have my feet rubbed, thanks very much.’

It all sounds distinctly normal and balanced, but I have to ask… does she get starstruck when she sees her father-in-law performing with The Rolling Stones? ‘Of course!’ Fearne whoops. ‘I mean, they’re insane. They’re incredible. They’re an absolute force of nature. I’m still gobsmacked when I watch them live. I can sit with Ronnie and see him as my husband’s dad and my children and stepchildren’s grandfather, and then I see him performing with the Stones and go, “Oh my God, they can do that!’’’

Her children are less impressed, however. ‘They sort of get it. Honey less so. We took Rex to the Stones gig at Twickenham last summer and he was dancing, then by about 9pm he went, “I’m really tired.” So we slipped out. Honey? Not interested. She’d rather play with her Sylvanian Families dolls, quite frankly.’

From rock stars to Sylvanian Families, via panic attacks and podcasts. ‘I don’t want to talk about fluffy things or even make small talk,’ Fearne concedes. ‘I’m awful at it and I don’t feel comfortable doing it. I’d much rather come out here, sit on this bench and get into it.’

We finish talking and go back into the house, where Fearne gathers up her daughter, eats half a muffin and then sits in the make-up chair, ready to get back to work.

Fearne’s Happy Place Festival is at Chiswick House, London, on 3-4 August and Tatton Park, Cheshire, on 7-8 September, happyplacefestival.com. Interior Design Masters will start on BBC Two next month.