Professor Green: ‘Gut instinct saved my life’

In public he’s a hugely successful rapper, but in private Professor Green was battling a health condition that threatened his physical and mental wellbeing. He tells Francesca Babb how he got his life back.

British rapper Professor Green, born Stephen Manderson, was just six weeks old when he had his first stomach operation. It was for pyloric stenosis, which meant food was unable to enter his small intestine, causing excessive projectile vomiting and potentially lethal levels of dehydration. In 2017 – 34 years later, and after a lifetime of stomach issues – he found himself back in surgery, this time for severe inflammation of both the oesophageal mucus and stomach lining, the underlying cause of which was a hiatus hernia (where part of the stomach protrudes into the chest).

Professor Green
Daniel Hambury/Eyevine

What should have been a routine operation, it turned out, wasn’t quite so straightforward, and no sooner had he been discharged than he was heading back to hospital with the combination of a terrifying inflammatory reaction and pneumonia which had caused partial stomach paralysis. He was recommended a gastric bypass, but instead of opting for further surgery, he decided to do his own investigating.

‘I realised that if I had more surgery and suffered the same complications as last time, the outcome would not be good,’ he explains from a London studio where, rather than making his next record – as you might expect of a platinum-selling musician – he’s about to do a voiceover to advertise the supplement he created as a result of his research.

‘After I got home from hospital, I started reading, because I wanted to educate myself. I have no degree in this – I’m not a nutritionist, I’m not a doctor and I’m definitely not a real professor – but there’s enough information out there if you look for it. I had no idea that I’d gone through most of my life suffering from a vitamin B12 deficiency, or that dementia could be a symptom of pernicious anaemia, a rare condition caused by low levels of B12. I didn’t know 95 per cent of our serotonin is created in our gut or that almost 70 per cent of your immune system is in your gut, too.’

As a result of his self-education, Stephen discovered a direct correlation between his own stomach issues and his well-publicised battles with mental health, which have led to him working with Princes William and Harry for their charity Heads Together, as well as fronting a 2015 BBC documentary, Suicide and Me, about his father taking his own life. ‘I found when I started taking better care of my gut that my head was getting better, too. I was waking more rested, and my mood was more consistent,’ he explains.

He found himself taking a confusing array of supplements, not knowing which ones were actually helping him but understanding that something, somewhere was working. Rather than spamming his insides with every supplement on the market, he had the idea to develop his own line instead, a simplified one-stop shop. He sounded out his friend, investor and entrepreneur Kevin Godlington, who became a co-founder alongside him, and helped the idea become a reality. The result has been Aguulp, a three-part supplement system aimed at improving gut health, mental health and immunity, with two more pending, for sleep and for recovery.

‘We developed the formulas, then did clinical trials, and got good results,’ he says. ‘We also developed a gut test, having learnt that the state of your gut is more indicative of general health than your DNA. It’s the first of its kind to look at how much healthy fatty acid you have, and what you need to change to give you a healthier gut. A huge part of creating this brand was to communicate things in a way that people can understand – simplifying complicated science. I’m happiest when learning and this has given me an incredible opportunity to take everything I’ve learnt and create something that can help people with things that I’ve struggled with for the best part of my life.’

Does he have the fear of failure that so many start-ups face? ‘I think, “What am I doing?” about almost every aspect of my life,’ he laughs. ‘I used to get nervous before I went on stage, now I get excited – the feelings are identical. I want to be excited about what I’m doing, and I do want to be a little bit scared. I’m going to make mistakes along the way, no doubt, but for the most part I’ve always learnt from them.’

Mistakes have certainly made him the man he is today. He was never a bad kid, he says, but his start in life was not easy. Growing up with not a lot of money, he was raised on a London council estate by his great-grandmother Edie and grandmother Pat, after his teenage parents split and left him in their care. He suffered from anxiety from an early age, something he puts down partly to societal pressures, and partly, perhaps, to the lack of a nutritious diet. It’s one of the reasons why he is so furious about the recent government vote against free meals for the most vulnerable children during school holidays. ‘I’m right behind Marcus Rashford,’ he says. ‘My family was a stressful household. I wasn’t fed the best diet growing up because my nan was spending a hell of a lot of time working for very little, and it’s much cheaper to eat processed foods.

‘The reason we have to produce things like Aguulp is to try to undo a lot of the damage done throughout childhood. If kids aren’t eating well, there is a knock-on effect on their gut health and mental health, as well as the worry of not being able to eat in the first place. We know the NHS is under stress, but a lot of that could be remedied if people weren’t so malnourished. These problems are societal. We’d love to work out how to get vitamin D and B to every child in this country. We intend to talk to the health minister and companies who could help facilitate it. Our plans behind the scenes are vast.’

Stephen’s experiences with anxiety and depression from such a young age, along with his desire to create change, are the reason Princes William and Harry contacted him about working with them for Heads Together. One of his favourite moments was being able to go into a London school to give a talk with Prince William. ‘You would never put the two of us together,’ he laughs. ‘I used to sell weed for a living! It wasn’t much of a living, but it’s what I used to do and I very much turned my life around. I’ve never encouraged anyone to go down that path – far from it. That’s why I go into schools, prisons, everywhere I can to help people make better choices and to ask for the help that’s out there.’

Professor Green and Prince William
In 2018 Stephen and Prince William discussed mental health at a London school. Image: Rex/Shutterstock

Through working with Prince William, Stephen has been a guest at Buckingham Palace multiple times. ‘One time I was with [Vogue model and mental health advocate] Adwoa Aboah, who was part of the Heads Together campaign as well,’ he says. ‘We were the only ones in trainers and tracksuits, but we thought, we’re here because we engage with audiences that would usually switch off from these events. We were talking to Harry, and he said, “If my grandmother saw what you are wearing, she’d have a heart attack.” Good job she didn’t!’

Heads Together is not Stephen’s first time opening up about his emotions in such a public forum. He was 24 when his father killed himself in 2008, and in spite of a lifetime of on and off estrangement and fraught relations, it affected him hugely. The subsequent BBC documentary retelling their story, as well as investigating the wider male suicide epidemic, he says, still starts conversations with strangers five years on.

‘Every day that I’m out, someone says thank you for it,’ he says, acknowledging that initially he didn’t want the documentary to be about his personal experience, until the show’s producers convinced him it would be the best way to connect with people. I ask what was behind his reticence. ‘I had to deal with my own ego and macho and bravado. I had to realise that it’s OK to suffer somewhat visibly and to cry publicly if it can help someone else.

‘When the documentary came out, all the reactions that I was scared of were completely unfounded, because so many of my peers messaged me saying, “You’ve educated me so much”, and then they just started spilling their stories. I’m talking about people who have done a lot of time in jail, people who are renowned for how masculine they are, people you would never imagine admitting to having any mental health problems.’

On first glance, Stephen might not be the typical candidate to launch a food supplement brand, but the more I talk to him the more it makes perfect sense. A lifetime of stomach issues, mental health battles and a desire to start conversations and help people that runs deep – who would be better to lead the way? ‘And if it does fail,’ he says with a laugh, ‘I can just go and launch an alcohol brand like the rest of the rappers do – and at least everyone will understand that.’

The full Aguulp range for brain, gut and immunity can be found at aguulp.com.