She faces a daily battle with paralysing anxiety, yet Loose Woman Stacey Soloman comes across as frank, funny and unafraid to stand up for herself. She tells Liz Jones how she manages to stay in control.
Stacey Solomon – one-time X Factor finalist, Loose Women presenter and national treasure – is nothing if not loud. ‘They’re not real!’ she shouts, as I compliment her on her amazing teeth (not to mention the long, honeyed limbs, spidery lashes and tawny hair).
Everyone loves Stacey. I love her, not just because I’m also from Essex, or like Stacey am one of seven siblings, but because she’s a natural: warm, funny and open. During I’m a Celebrity… (which she won in 2010), she famously said to fellow contestant Linford Christie: ‘I wanna race you!’ and happily told everyone that she ‘stank’. The nation fell in love.
Which is why the recent Now magazine cover, which made headlines last month when it described Stacey as ‘boring’, ‘desperate’ and ‘cheap’, was so devastating and unfair. When I bring it up Stacey rolls her enormous eyes. ‘My sister texted me pictures as I was walking into the corner shop. I thought, “Oh, that’s me.” Then I looked up, and the cover was all across the shop. I was, like, “Oh, that’s horrible.”’
Was she not tempted to just shrug her shoulders and let it go? ‘Most of the time I’m really good at rising above things. But it got to me because I am a human being and I read it and it was horrible. You look inside and you read the messages that are being put out with your face on the cover and you think, “I don’t stand for any of what’s in that magazine.”’
Stacey’s response – which was to call out Now on its ‘bullying manner’ – chimed with women everywhere, including TV presenters Lorraine Kelly and Zoe Ball, who posted their support for her on social media. Stacey’s idol, Stephen Fry, called her ‘wonderful’. In the end, the magazine offered a half-hearted apology.
Is Stacey glad she stood up to them? ‘I think [the media] is starting to get it a lot more now. We have been manipulated into believing we aren’t good enough. People are sick of it.’
While Stacey’s strength comes from her parents – her mum is a nurse turned social worker and her dad has his own wedding photography business – she admits she is a very anxious person. ‘My paternal grandparents were Jewish and my nan always expected the worst. Horrific things had happened and I think that affected them. My Nana would say, “Oh, you haven’t eaten, you’ll catch your death.” From as far back as I can remember, I was scared and anxious.’
What is she scared of? ‘I’m scared of dying. I spent a lot of time trying to get rid of my anxiety with cognitive behavioural therapy, loads of therapy, but as I’ve got older I’ve embraced it.’
She feels most anxious in the middle of the night. ‘Your mind is open to all the scary stuff. I imagine not being there for my kids. I feel I am not breathing. It’s overwhelming, that rush of numbness that comes in. I end up having an anxiety attack. I say to myself I have to ride it out. It has a beginning, a middle and an end.’
As mum to Zach, ten (his father is her former childhood sweetheart Dean), and Leighton, six (whose father is her ex fiancé Aaron), she believes boys are affected as well as girls. ‘It does worry me,’ she says. ‘Zach asked me the other day, “When is my six-pack going to grow?” We can’t be teaching children that they are never going to be good enough. But the best thing to come out of that Now article was that I found out people are inherently kind.’
When Stacey tells me she doesn’t want children to grow up in a culture where they are unhappy in their own skin, I wonder how that chimes with the hyper-groomed Essex aesthetic: tans, teeth, hair extensions? ‘Not all of Essex is like TOWIE – each to their own. I’ve never dieted. I can be myself, with all the flaws. My body shape means nothing to me.’
But she does, I discover, love clothes. When we meet during London Fashion Week – she is being photographed in her edit of autumn looks from Primark – she asks me: ‘Did you go to any shows?’ I tell her no, but that I’d loved to have seen Victoria Beckham’s. ‘Oh, me too. I think she must be a laugh. I saw her video with Vogue – she was hilarious!’
Stacey, though, is not one to fork out on a VB dress. ‘I can’t warrant the expense. I’ve got a couple of birthday gifts that are expensive – shoes, handbags – but when it comes to clothes, no. A VB dress is a month’s mortgage!’ It’s why her teaming up with Primark – where Stacey has ‘always shopped’– is ‘a big thing for them and me’, and she’s particularly proud of the jeans selection. ‘I love jeans. I live in jeans and jeggings.’
Family is very important to Stacey. Her parents instilled old-fashioned values, even though they divorced when she was nine. ‘I was born into such a loving, caring family who were super liberal and supported me no matter what.’
A devoted mum (‘I’m like the visual version of white noise to my children. I am so in love with them’), Stacey took the decision to home-school them both; ‘Zach is difficult to have in a class; he’s very inquisitive; he wants to know more and more.’
For just over two years, she has been dating 36-year-old actor and TV presenter Joe Swash, another former winner of I’m a Celebrity… ‘We are in the process of moving in together. Separate bathrooms! It’s a whole life change.
Separate bathrooms! It’s a whole life change. The most attractive thing about Joe is how much he loves his son [Harry, 11]. That made me fall in love with him. I’d love to have more children.’ I wonder how Joe copes with her anxiety attacks.
‘The first time it happened, he was, like, “What do I do?” I was, like, “Call my mum!” Now, he knows that is a part of me and he doesn’t care.’ Does she regret not becoming a full-time singer?
After seeing her studies at a performing arts school come to an end when she became pregnant at 17, she later came third on The X Factor in 2009. ‘No. I still sing! But I love being a Loose Woman. How many other TV programmes have an all-female panel? I won’t say a word against Loose Women. I might look dressed up, but I’ve always got my trainers on under the desk.’
She won’t have a word said against Simon Cowell, either: ‘He’s still in touch. I love [new judge] Robbie Williams. There are no airs and graces – you just think, “Oh, he’s nice.”’
Of the apparent sexism in the music industry, she says: ‘People are always really down to earth around me. My mum says I’m oblivious to most things because I’m grateful every time I get a job. I just say thank you!’
Stacey Solomon x Primark will be available from Thursday.