Giving birth to her third child during the pandemic was ‘a scary time’ for TV presenter Rochelle Humes. But, as she tells Cole Moreton, it’s made her speak out about a subject that’s very close to her heart.
Rochelle Humes, the singer turned primetime TV presenter, is halfway through a sentence when her baby Blake breaks in with a gurgle. ‘That’s him, let me show you,’ she says, turning the Zoom camera to reveal her husband Marvin lying on his back on the same wide bed at their home in London, holding up five-month-old Blake in his impressively filled romper suit. ‘The size of him! He’s so big!’
There’s delight and a splash of relief in her voice, which is understandable given how worrying it must have been a year ago to find herself pregnant at the beginning of a global pandemic. ‘I did find the start of it frightening because it was a very scary time,’ says Rochelle. ‘We didn’t have the understanding [of Covid] we have now, so it was like that for a lot of women.’
When Rochelle found out she was pregnant with a third child last spring she already had enough to handle, being on the cusp of launching her first business. ‘Great idea, starting in a pandemic, but it’s worked!’
My Little Coco is a range of skincare products for babies. ‘We were going to launch on the Monday and I found out I was pregnant on the Sunday,’ she says, able to laugh now at the memory of all that stress. ‘I walked into this lovely launch we had planned and I cried – a real, ugly cry. “I’m pregnant, by the way! This is why I’m crying! I just found out yesterday!” It was all very emotional.’
When the first lockdown was lifted last summer and Marvin was able to go back to work as a radio presenter for Capital FM, Rochelle was ordered to stay at home. ‘I was nervous. My doctors told me to isolate even as the world started going back to normal. That was right around the time I was due.’
Her daughter Valentina was only three back then but sister Alaia-Mai had just turned seven so would go to classes when schools returned in September. ‘My brain couldn’t process it. “So, my daughter’s at school, Marv’s going to work… I’m isolating. Is there any point?”’
Blake was born in October, by which time Marvin was allowed to be in the operating theatre for the caesarean. Thankfully everything went well, although with doctors, nurses and husbands in PPE and no visitors allowed afterwards, it was a strangely isolating experience. ‘Normally you’d share a pregnancy with family and you’d all be together – everyone can come and see you at the hospital,’ says Rochelle. ‘The positive is that I’ve been able to soak up every little drop of time with Blake, which has been lovely. But the strange thing is he hasn’t really met anybody.’
Rochelle has noticed lockdown having an effect on her youngest child. ‘He’s clingy already. If there are other kids in the park, he screams. It’s a product of the weird environment we’re in right now, his only wanting to be with us.’
One exception is her mother Roz, a former paramedic who retired from the NHS a year ago. ‘Mum is my lifeline. She’s on her own, so she’s in our bubble now.’
Roz brought up Rochelle single-handed after giving birth to her in Barking, Essex, in 1989. ‘She’s so driven,’ says Rochelle. ‘You have to be if you’re a single parent. I had a father figure in my uncle [the footballer Paul Ince, a friend rather than a relative] who gave me away at my wedding and was amazing, but my dad wasn’t around,’ she says. ‘To this day that’s how it is. That’s why when it came to Marvin I was thinking: “Is he going to be a good dad?”’
Rochelle and Marvin met when both were in the pop charts – he with JLS and she with The Saturdays – and married at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire in 2012. The first of their daughters was born the following year. ‘Sometimes I moan that they’re Daddy’s girls, but actually I just adore it. Nothing in the world makes me happier than that. Even though I’m the one who has to play bad cop. But I don’t mind. Sort of.’
Marvin is a great dad, she says, but adds in mock exasperation: ‘Since when did we come to the point where it’s automatically assumed women have to be “great mums”, but dads get a pat on the back for doing well? So he should be. We’re both raising children!’
They’re both self-employed, too, and when the new year came Rochelle was keen to get back to work, standing in for Holly Willoughby on This Morning and preparing to work on a documentary for the Channel 4 series Dispatches. The show exposed an alarming truth about the chances of women from non-white backgrounds dying in pregnancy or just after birth. ‘Black women are over four times more likely to die than white women. Mixed-race women, which is the category I fall into, are three times more likely. And if you’re from an Asian background, you’re twice as likely to die.’ That’s a daunting thing to discover when you are a mixed-race woman preparing to have a baby. ‘When you see the figures right in front of you, they take your breath away.’
The documentary is a serious gear change. ‘I’m a mother. I’m a human being. On a human level, this really upsets me.’ Rochelle speaks to doctors, midwives, medical experts and families who have been affected. ‘I met a lady – Jade – who had two awful experiences. The first was traumatic, a haemorrhage. The second was so much worse. She very nearly lost her life.’ Jade had twins by caesarean and afterwards was given liquid morphine, as is routine. ‘She was in and out of consciousness, saying, “My stomach! My pain!” Her husband expressed their concerns [to the hospital staff], but they were dismissed. Eventually Jade got sent for a scan, hours and hours later, and was rushed straight to theatre because it revealed an internal bleed and litres of blood inside her. They’d clipped a blood vessel during the caesarean and it was trickling like a tap,’ she says. ‘Jade’s not angry about the accident, but is angry that her pain wasn’t believed, which could have led to a fatality.’
Is Rochelle convinced that racism is part of the problem and that some doctors don’t listen properly to black women? ‘Oh, 100 per cent. That’s exactly the feeling,’ she says. ‘The women I’m talking to don’t want to believe that. No one wants to assume someone’s going to treat them differently because of their skin colour. [But] the underlying thing is that [non-white] women aren’t feeling their pain is taken seriously. They’re not feeling heard or listened to. That needs to change.’
There was some controversy around this documentary when the writer Candice Brathwaite complained she had lost out to a ‘lighter-skinned black woman’ as host. She turned out to have been in contention for a completely different programme, but the social-media row did highlight some people’s feelings about how life is easier for black people who are lighter-skinned. ‘Colourism wasn’t at play in this instance. However, unfortunately it does exist, which is unjust and shouldn’t happen. It’s important that it’s acknowledged and recognised so things can change.’ She has only begun to feel able to talk about race in the past year or so, starting with an appearance on another Channel 4 documentary in which Rochelle wept at the memory of trying to remove her own colour at the age of seven, after a friend’s father said she couldn’t come to a party because she was black. Her mum found her red raw in the bath: ‘I had tried to scrub my skin off.’
Years of everyday racism took their toll and even as a pop star with S Club Juniors, then The Saturdays, Rochelle was plagued by self-doubt. ‘I remember waiting backstage and thinking: “No one’s going to cheer for me.” Then they did and it was all right. But no matter if they screamed the house down the night before, every night I would think the same. It’s so deep-rooted, you just carry those things with you.’
The Saturdays sold more than eight million records before they took a break in 2014 that has never ended – so is there any chance of Rochelle reuniting with Frankie Bridge, Una Healy, Mollie King and Vanessa White?
‘We’ve never spoken about it. I can’t imagine it, to be honest. We’re friends, we talk on our WhatsApp group chat, but currently it’s only about how bloody hard homeschooling was and how we’re all ready for a vino on Friday!’ How have they managed to stay close when so many other bands have fallen out? ‘There was no clipping anybody’s wings. We split the publishing all ways. There were disagreements because we were five opinionated women, but we always said the majority rules. There was never any bad blood.’
I wonder how she plans to liberate her daughters from the kind of self-doubt she suffered at a young age? ‘I have as many open conversations as they need and I have celebrations of them and how wonderful they are.’ One way of doing that was to write the children’s books The Mega Magic Hair Swap and its sequel The Mega Magic Teacher Swap after noticing how few children’s books had people of colour as the lead characters.
And while My Little Coco skincare is for all babies and children, one of its innovations is Curl Custard for naturally curly hair like her daughters have. ‘In the black community curling custards exist, but it’s a new thing to the UK high street. I met five possible retailers before we launched – it felt very much like Dragons’ Den – and people said: “Everything else is great, we don’t think there’s much need for curling custard.” Boots wanted everything. They trusted me to know my audience. Now I’m a bit like this to those other retailers,’ she says, pretending to put her fingers up to them. ‘What do you think our bestselling product is?’
Rochelle knew herself there was a need. ‘Mum says she used to get fabric conditioner like Lenor or Comfort, put it in a gardening spray bottle with half water and use it on my hair because there was nothing else. We’ve come a long way since then.’
These may be small advances but Rochelle sees them as part of a positive change. ‘For anyone in and around my age group who is raising the next generation, I feel like people are listening and striving to do better.’
And she certainly feels more able to speak up. ‘I’m not a teenager any more. I’m not in my 20s. I’ve got older and found my voice. I’ve found permission to use my platform to speak on things.’ Which she did recently when asked by some people on social media about her thoughts on the Duchess of Sussex, another mixed-race woman, when she alleged racism in the Royal Family
‘I’ll always speak my truth and give my opinion, but I think you have to have a connection there,’ says Rochelle carefully. ‘The reason I’m doing this documentary is that mixed-race women are three times as likely to die. This directly affects myself, my kids, my family, my cousin who is a black woman.’
There is one way this all connects with Meghan, though, on reflection. ‘Look, we’ve all watched the interview, right? What I will say is that what upset me was the fallout afterwards. Here was a woman saying she struggled with her mental health and was subject to racism. We’ve come such a long way over the past few years with mental health and Black Lives Matter. And whoever she is – a royal, a human being, a woman – is sitting there talking about that, but the world doesn’t really want to believe her.
‘As a society, we need to do better,’ Rochelle says. ‘That’s her truth to tell, we can’t meddle with that. If that is what’s happened and that’s how it went down, that is horrific. We just need to do better to believe women – and individuals – when they are telling us their truth.’
And that’s really why Rochelle Humes has begun to speak more freely, on top of everything else she does: she wants to help. ‘We come back to women being heard. You can’t keep telling people to speak up if you’re not going to listen.’
The Black Maternity Scandal: Dispatches is available on All 4. My Little Coco is available exclusively in stores and online at Boots