She’s the social-media superstar who made cleaning cool – tidying her way to nearly four million followers and counting. But behind the perfectly polished posts, Mrs Hinch found herself plagued by terrifying anxiety. She tells Julia Llewellyn Smith about the ‘darker side’ of her rapid rise to fame.
Just after Christmas Sophie Hinchliffe, aka Mrs Hinch, the cleaning sensation with 3.7 million Instagram followers, found herself outside her GP’s office, steeling herself to ask for help with anxiety. ‘It was terrifying; it’s a big step telling someone you need help,’ she says. ‘But my stomach was in knots morning and night and I knew I wasn’t OK. It had got to the stage that my family were worried. Something had to change.’
For months Sophie postponed making the appointment, fearing the GP, like many others, might ask: ‘What on earth has she got to be anxious about?’ On the surface, her life appears to be a blissful merry-go-round of uploading videos of herself cheerily mopping, walking her spaniel Henry and playing with her 15-month-old son Ronnie.
Her @MrsHinchHome account, dedicated to showing how to make your home sparkle (known as ‘Hinching’), started two years ago and has netted her over £1 million. She’s gorgeous, has a loving family and an adoring husband Jamie, 41, who’s on a break from his sales manager career, to support her.
Certainly, Basildon-born Sophie, who met Jamie when they both worked in sales, is grateful for everything her unexpected Hinching career has brought. But there have been downsides she never anticipated. Worst is the trolling from websites where people gather to attack Sophie for her looks, her parenting and – most shockingly – little Ronnie.
‘They message saying, “Your baby should be moving more, he should have more teeth.” They’re even horrible about my dog! It turns my gut and takes my breath away; it makes me want to scream and cry.
‘I know I should ignore them, but when you get told the same thing over and over again – “Your voice is horrendous”, “Your face is wonky”, “Your hands are disgusting” – there’s only so many times you can ignore it without wondering if it’s true,’ Sophie continues, her voice quivering. ‘So I look at my hands and think, “Maybe people don’t want to see them,” and put on rubber gloves when I don’t need to.’
Often the messages aren’t just cruel, they’re downright threatening, meaning the police have occasionally been involved. ‘That’s so I feel safe,’ she says, now trying to hold back tears. At Christmas, vile comments about an Instagram story – a form of short video – of her wrapping Ronnie’s presents sent her into a full-blown panic attack. ‘I was hysterical, struggling to breathe – it felt like I was dying,’ she says. ‘Everything was whizzing past at 1,000 miles an hour.‘
I make sure to do my gratitude check-ins a lot,’ she says. ‘I remind myself of the amazing things to set me back on the right track.’ Those pinch-yourself moments include when Hinching was mentioned on Coronation Street and EastEnders, or when her teenage crush Lee Ryan from 90s boy band Blue sent her a message. ‘I was swaying with shock. If only I could tell my younger self this would happen!’
But at the same time, this naturally withdrawn woman can’t help reminiscing about her life two short years ago, when she’d just moved in with Jamie and was training to be a hairdresser. ‘Now everything I do gets put under a microscope and is open to scrutiny. It’s overwhelming. I’m a normal person, who was leading a boring life which I loved.
‘A friend who lives a similar life to me said as much as you love the opportunities your new life brings, you can’t help but feel sad about the life you’ve left behind,’ she continues. ‘Even if I was to come away from Instagram tomorrow, I’d never get my old life back and that can feel like a grieving process.’
Sophie’s talking over Zoom from her spotless, naturally, Essex home (though she insists she’s not obsessive about cleaning and can happily leave a pile of dirty dishes in the sink). We’re here to talk about her new memoir This Is Me. She’s published three books already – all huge bestsellers. They briefly mentioned Sophie’s anxiety, helped by her cleaning (‘It keeps my mind off things and helps me switch off’) and the terrible health problems that followed gastric-band surgery which helped her lose eight stone. But largely, they were guides to keeping a tidy home.
In contrast, This Is Me is a gut-wrenchingly honest account of how fame has transformed her life, not necessarily for the better. ‘This book isn’t about dust-busting, it’s myth-busting’, she laughs. Writing it, with the help of a ghost writer, was, she says, ‘like therapy. It was so good to open up, even though it was difficult. Often my life seems like a dream that’s happening to someone else, so to tell the truth on my terms was amazing.’
It was a relief to counter the bonkers theories about Sophie that flood the internet. One rumour is she employs a cleaner. ‘A paparazzo was waiting outside for the cleaning van that was supposed to turn up. I said, “You’ll be waiting a long time.” I don’t want anyone cleaning my toilet; I enjoy cleaning my toilet!’ Others say she fakes her anxiety to gain popularity points – ‘that amazes and saddens me’ – and that she’s the puppet of a management company who concocted the Mrs Hinch phenomenon. ‘If this could be created and designed then everybody would be doing it,’ Sophie exclaims.
In fact, it would be impossible to invent such a bizarre trajectory as Sophie’s. Initially, she set up her Instagram account to share cleaning and decorating tips. Within six months she had a million followers; by the end of 2018, two million – a tally that’s since nearly doubled. ‘I still don’t know how it happened. I haven’t even left the house,’ she says.
She and Jamie live in the same house as always, shop at Morrisons and were shocked when a spontaneous decision to breakfast in a central London hotel cost them £45. ‘How come the hash browns were three times the price of McDonald’s? A potato’s a potato!’
She refuses most freebies and turns down scores of invitations to events. ‘I decline nearly all TV appearances. I hide away. I’m probably the worst person for this to have happened to because I’ve always been such a worrier.’
You may wonder why she doesn’t walk away – after all, money’s no longer a worry. It sounds as though at some point she’ll start winding things down a touch. ‘Things come and go, it could all be gone tomorrow, who knows?’ she says. ‘I need a more manageable balance. People think I stay at home and photograph cloths, but there are lots of meetings with management, with brand partnerships… it’s daunting. Having said that
I am aware of what an amazing opportunity this is and how lucky I am; I love what I do.’
Sophie wants more children and to be able to devote her time to them. ‘I’d love more kids – it’s finding the right time… but then again, there never is a perfect time. Watch this space!’
But Sophie’s bond with her followers is so close, she’d never quit Hinching entirely. ‘I’m not going to say, “Goodbye, so long” any time soon. Wherever I go I’ll be taking my followers with me. We’re part of each other’s lives.
‘They help me more than they know. The love outweighs the hate a million times over.’ In return, she feels enormous responsibility for them. Recently, a GP told her several patients had come off their anxiety medication after becoming Hinchers (the name Sophie has given to her army of fans), because Sophie had helped them find a positive focus in cleaning. ‘She said, “If we could bottle you, we’d prescribe you,”’ Sophie says. ‘I still can’t get my head around it.’
She felt especially duty-bound to cheer up Hinchers during lockdown. ‘I counted my blessings but I was struggling. It was difficult to be away from my friends and family, but I wanted to keep my Instagram a positive space, where my followers could switch off.’
She tightly controls her Instagram: no one else is allowed to post and she often leaves random Hinchers surprise voice notes or chats with those who have messaged her. She won’t delegate those jobs – ‘they’d sense if it was coming from someone else’. But since her panic attack a friend screens direct messages, blocking hateful comments. ‘Some slip through, but I cannot explain the difference screening has made to my mental health. My friend says she pities these people, they can’t be OK.’
Sophie is attempting to employ the same mindset. ‘I try not to look at their attacks as personal, but think so many people are fighting battles that we know nothing about and acting out can be a reflection of what’s going on in their lives. But sometimes I can’t help wondering if they have a heart. Why don’t they stop watching when they clearly can’t stand me? They could be doing more with their lives: spending it with their family, their friends, putting that effort into a career.’
Many people aspire to be the next Mrs Hinch; a survey showed 52 per cent of children would like to be a social-media star (just 13 per cent want to be a doctor or nurse). Sophie is shocked by this. ‘When I was at school people wanted to be a vet or a teacher. My niece is 12 and she wants to be a dance teacher, but if she’d ever said she wanted to be an influencer we’d be having a serious chat. She’s seen the darker side. I think it’s crucial we don’t let likes and followers and comments consume our children’s lives. They need to know they’re living their best lives right now. My life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I advise anyone wishing to join this industry to make sure they do it with their eyes wide open, knowing exactly what they’re letting themselves in for. It can be really tough.’
So what was the outcome of Sophie’s visit to the GP? ‘I’m not ashamed to say that I was put on anti-depressants and they have taken some of the edge off during the day, but I still struggle at night – I’m not quite there yet,’ she says. ‘It’s important to talk to someone when you aren’t feeling yourself. Make sure you get the help you need. We wouldn’t think twice about going to see someone if we hurt our leg, but for some reason we don’t treat our heads the same. I’m proud of myself for going and I’m starting to feel better. People say to me, “Sophie, your positivity gets me through the day.” And those words keep me going. I want people to know that I’m not perfect. I never said I was. I’m just like everyone else.’
This Is Me by Mrs Hinch will be published by Michael Joseph on 1 October, £16.99