From X Factor hopeful to social-media sensation and primetime TV star, STACEY SOLOMON has carved out an incredible career. She tells Cole Moreton why she owes it all to the challenge of raising her son Zach – at just 17.
INTERVIEW: COLE MORETON PHOTOGRAPHS: BILLIE SCHEEPERS
Stacey Solomon is ecstatic. ‘The birth was incredible,’ says the TV presenter, talking publicly for the first time about the recent arrival of her daughter Rose. ‘I knew deep down I would love to have her at home. It meant I could be with Joe the whole time and my mum could be with me, too. She’s been there for every one of the boys being born.’
Stacey lives in rural Essex with her three young sons and fiancé, the actor and TV presenter Joe Swash, but they both knew he would not be allowed to be present if it was a hospital birth because of Covid restrictions. Then on Monday 4 October – Stacey’s 32nd birthday – events moved unexpectedly fast.
‘I felt strange but not in full-blown labour,’ she says. ‘I wanted to make sure everything was OK. We drove to the community hospital nearby, where I’d had my appointments with the midwives.’
Stacey was a lot further on than she knew, but the midwives were still kind enough to respect her wishes of a home birth. ‘They examined me and told Joe to pull the car around and they’d follow us home. It turned out I was 8cm dilated, so they broke my waters at home and after around 40 minutes of crazy contractions, Rose was in our arms.’
How did she feel when she first saw her daughter? ‘I just felt on the biggest high. I haven’t always had that rush after birth – in fact, it has been the opposite. But I think there was something about feeling in control and being at home, and the sun shining through my bedroom window… it just felt so surreal. I couldn’t stop smiling.’
Stacey is smiling again now and quite right too, because as well as a new baby, a loving partner and a new £1.2 million home near Brentwood, she also has a flourishing career. The struggling teenage mum who sang in The X Factor final in 2009 may have only finished third, but she has amassed a £5 million fortune off the back of her hard work. Now she’s a social-media sensation with nearly five million Instagram followers, she had one of the fastest selling nonfiction books of all time with Tap to Tidy and has her own new BBC series called Sort Your Life Out, commissioned after the pilot was watched by four million people.
In the show, Stacey and her team visit families who are overwhelmed by the clutter in their homes. They lay everything out on the floor of an enormous warehouse and the star of the show helps the reluctant hoarders work out what to keep and what to sell, recycle or throw away. Imagine the ruthless approach of tidying guru Marie Kondo delivered by someone who makes you smile, laugh and has empathy for the people she’s with.
Sometimes the show goes unexpectedly deep. ‘There was an Asian family who were so lovely, the Patels. As an outsider, you’d look in and say: “Why would anybody have so many Tupperware boxes?” But I grew up with a Jewish background and my family were exactly the same. You kept all your empty boxes and filled them with chicken soup and gave it to somebody who needed it. I get it.
‘My Nana, whose family had come from Poland, was so nervous all her life, waiting for the next bad thing to happen. I think in some communities you almost inherently pass on this feeling you’re going to be kicked out of a country or something’s going to go wrong. A lot of people from different backgrounds, or who have felt suppressed at any time in their life, hold on to any possessions they have, because you just never know when you’re going to lose them,’ she says with feeling. ‘I really relate to that, and I see my own family and my own self through them.’
Stacey and Joe live with Rose, their two-year-old son Rex and Stacey’s boys from previous relationships: Zachary, 13, and Leighton, nine, in a mansion – that she’s called Pickle Cottage – surrounded by 2.5 acres of land. (Joe, 39, also has a son – Harry, 14 – from a previous relationship.) ‘I grew up in Dagenham so I’ve never experienced countryside like this. It would have been my dream to have a treehouse, to build stuff.’ But if anyone had told the young Stacey she would have this life one day, she would probably have given one of those big, life-affirming guffaws that are her trademark.
Home was filled with love but very little money. ‘I loved my childhood. I didn’t know Dagenham was a poor area, it was just home. Mum only sold up about six years ago.’ Her mother Fiona was the child of a vicar but converted to Judaism to marry David Solomon. The couple had Stacey in 1989, then split up when she was nine.
The plan after going to a modern orthodox Jewish school in Barkingside was for Stacey to get her A-levels and study musical theatre at university, while auditioning for any part she could. ‘Singing was my absolute passion.’
Things didn’t quite work out that way. ‘I was at college, just 17, when I met Dean. Then I got pregnant, but I didn’t find out until really late on.’ Her explanation is hilarious. ‘I’ve never been a super-skinny girl and I worked in a chippy so I was eating a lot of saveloys. I finished them up at the end of my shift so they didn’t go to waste. Genuinely, I just thought: “God, I’ve got to lay off the food.”’ She really didn’t know? ‘At that age I wasn’t tracking my periods. I didn’t even click.’
Her stepmum worked it out when Stacey got nauseous at the smell of onions that weren’t there. She turned out to be 24 weeks pregnant. ‘I could have had an abortion. We went to the clinic to see what my options were. It was definitely something I considered, because I thought my life would be over,’ she says. ‘That sounds awful and I feel guilty about it every day because Zach’s incredible, but it is what it is. I wouldn’t judge anyone for going through with it.’ She chose not to have a termination, though. ‘It was just something I couldn’t do.’
Birth was traumatic for the 17-year-old. ‘I’d never had any sort of injury to even slightly prepare me for the pain. When I had Zachary I was still a kid, I felt like I could do anything and I was invincible. All of that went away immediately when I gave birth,’ she says. ‘I felt vulnerable, like I could die at any point. That played a huge role in the anxieties I had from then up until now, really.’
Has she still got them? ‘Yeah. On the flip side, those anxieties make me really vigilant about my health, so I get things checked out often. They made me strive to want to be successful and provide for my children. If I hadn’t had Zachary, would I have pushed myself as hard as I’ve done over the past 13 years? I don’t know that I would. So, ultimately, that decision to have him has made my life.’
Stacey really did struggle after Zachary was born, though. ‘For a long time I felt I was being cruel to him. I beat myself up about the fact I wasn’t financially stable. I went back to college as soon as I had him, so he went straight into the crèche and hardly saw me, which I felt terrible about. Then after college I worked in the fish and chip shop.’ Some of those around her disapproved. ‘A lot of people would say: “You’re bringing a child into a world who’s going to have nothing.”’
Did his father Dean help? ‘Yeah. It was very difficult. We were both kids. I don’t speak much about their dads [she split from Leighton’s father Aaron Barham in 2014 after four years] because I don’t think it’s right for [the kids] to read it.’
Things started to change for Stacey when her mother took her to audition for The X Factor. She went three times and it was her newfound post-baby determination that got her through. ‘I was the last person in the room. It was just me and Zach and a load of baby sick on my shoe. I’m not joking. The producer came out and said: “It’s been a long day and the judges are really tired. We might not get around to you.”’ She protested and changed their minds. ‘The lady in charge had had a child at a really young age and she made them stay. I’m eternally grateful to her.’
Stacey was bowled over to be on the show. ‘You can’t imagine what it was like to have had a baby at 17 and felt everyone tutting at you on the bus, then to be standing next to Whitney Houston.’ Her idol was now her singing mentor. ‘It was just the weirdest thing.’
Her parents were hugely supportive. ‘They both said: “Go and enjoy it, Stace. Graft your ass off and see where it takes you.”’
And that’s what she has done, building a sliver of reality-show fame into something more lucrative and lasting by sheer hard work and force of personality. She made an album after The X Factor then moved on to presenting, but it was I’m A Celebrity… in 2010 when people began to see past any prejudices they had about this Essex girl.
‘There is the odd occasion when that really gets me down. People think I’m dumb because I don’t always pronounce my Ts,’ she says. ‘Or even just that I’m happy. Some people just don’t believe that it’s OK. They think it’s insincere or it means you’re air-headed or there’s something wrong with you.’ But that can go two ways, she says. ‘Half the time I battle with my accent and where I come from, because I do feel like I have to work harder; but the other half I feel it’s an advantage, because people expect absolute rock bottom from you. So I don’t have to do much to turn that around!’
Lately she has gained confidence from her social-media campaign Tap to Tidy, in which Stacey posts pictures of her own rooms before and after she’s sorted them out. You tap the screen and they transform before your eyes, which sounds simple but millions of people find it addictive. Where does this compulsion to tidy come from? ‘When I had Zach I had to become more organised. There was no room for error. It also helped distract me from the things I was worried about. Even now, if there’s something making me anxious, the best thing for me to do is to focus on a task. Then the intrusive thoughts don’t get a chance.’ Tap to Tidy became a bestselling book that topped the Amazon charts. ‘I’m at the point where I feel like I’ve got nothing to prove to anybody.’
Now comes Sort Your Life Out. So what are the three things she couldn’t let go of herself? ‘I made a little rock family,’ she says, laughing. ‘It’s just a load of pebbles. We went to a beach and I brought some back and glued them into the shape of a family and wrote the location and date of the holiday on it. I can’t let go of it.’
Stacey’s chuckle is infectious. ‘Second thing is, I’ve got the kids’ memory boxes, which I will never let go of. My 13-year-old is like: “What the hell is that, Mum?” It’s got his umbilical cord in it…I love to go through them.’
The third precious item is her mother’s wedding ring, and soon it will be her turn. ‘I met Joe in the [I’m A Celebrity] jungle in 2010 when I was with Leighton’s dad, so it was completely platonic. We laughed, we said goodbye and that was it. I didn’t see him for another four or five years. Then I went on a show he was presenting and we got along like a house on fire. We have similar values, similar families, similar personalities; we find the same things funny.’
She batted him away at first, though. ‘I wasn’t looking for a relationship at all, because when you’ve got children it’s so difficult. It wasn’t worth my while having a fling. I couldn’t be bothered.’ Joe was persistent. ‘He said: “I’m older. I have a son. This isn’t something I would usually do either.” For almost a year we dated without the kids knowing. I would put them to bed, ask Mum to watch them and go on dates. We got to know each other slowly and fell in love.’
What convinced her? ‘He’s such a good dad. I think that’s probably the most attractive thing about him. I also think he’s just normal. Sometimes it’s hard to find authenticity in relationships in this industry, because you never know where you stand and what somebody’s end goal is.’
Joe took on most of the childcare before Rose was born. ‘I’ve been working a lot more than him lately and he has held down the home and the family.’ They plan to get married in the garden next year. Not to be brutal about this, but having worked so hard for independence, will there be a prenup? ‘It’s definitely something we would discuss, but our finances are already separate.’
How did the boys react to the baby? ‘Rose was born at 3.15pm, so about 20 minutes later the boys were home from school and jumping into bed with us. They love her. They’re loving boys, we are so lucky.’ Who does she take after? ‘She’s hungry and sleepy, that’s all we know about her so far. She smells like rainbows and has the softest skin in the world.’
Stacey suffered a miscarriage before this pregnancy and says the new baby will be their last. ‘We have to live within our means. We want to be the best parents we can. And when we were trying to have this baby, it wasn’t the process we thought it would be, so we were just so grateful to even get pregnant. I don’t want to push it any more. This is enough.’
It’s hard to think of anyone more grateful for her good fortune than Stacey –a smart, determined woman who had already worked her way to a happy place before her daughter was born. But now? ‘We are so blessed.’
Sort Your Life Out is on BBC One on Thursdays at 8pm and on catch-up on iPlayer. Follow Stacey on Instagram: @staceysolomon
STYLIST: HOLLY ELGETI. MAKE-UP: EMMA OSBORNE AT ONE REPRESENTS. HAIR: SVEN BAYERBACH AT CAROL HAYES USING DRYBAR. ADDITIONAL IMAGES @STACEYSOLOMON/INSTAGRAM