Fearne Cotton keeps a pile of notebooks next to her computer, each brimming with plans for projects. Many of us have struggled to focus during the pandemic, but for Cotton, the past nine months have been among the most productive of her professional life. “I’ve found this time really creative,” she says, in that presenter voice of hers, so soothingly familiar. “It’s like when I go on holiday. In moments I’m forced to do nothing, I find this clarity.”
It’s 10am on a grey December morning when we meet over Zoom and her schedule, when she takes me through it, sounds exhausting. Her lockdowns have been busy. She’s written two books since the pandemic started and has kept up her popular wellness podcast, Happy Place, alongside her weekly Radio 2 show. And though the second instalment of her annual summer wellness event, Happy Place Festival, could have become another Covid casualty, Cotton and her team took the programme online. She juggled all this with home schooling her kids.
You’d think, then, that a quick television appearance at the height of the first lockdown would have caused little bother. Cotton, now 39, has been a small screen mainstay for decades. She’s TV’s Fearne Cotton, after all, once the face of Top of the Pops, a Celebrity Juice regular, a presenter who has fronted some of the biggest TV events of recent years.
But the night before she was scheduled to appear on a major national programme – she doesn’t say which – Cotton was lying in bed, wide awake and panicking. The prospect of telly filled her with dread. And it was an all too familiar feeling. Her brain went into overdrive and her heart pounded. She struggled to breathe.
“Intellectually, I know I’m going to be OK,” she explains, “but my body goes into panic. It’s a whole PTSD thing, feeling unsafe in certain spaces. I worry something is going to go wrong or I’ll be judged, and I go into catastrophe mode.”
She adds: “I have a really big imagination, which is amazing – it allows me to write and be creative. But it also sends me to bad places, from where I can’t get back.”
It’s experiences like this that have led her, in recent years, to pivot from presenting to health and wellbeing, an arena in which she feels happier and more fulfilled. She launched the Happy Place podcast, in 2018, as a platform to distribute positive ideas. (Guests have included Hillary Clinton, Alicia Keys and Jada Pinkett Smith; it has had 40m downloads.) And she’s already published three self-help books: Calm, Quiet and Happy, each a collection of advice and reader exercises alongside titbits from Cotton’s life.
We’re here to discuss her fourth book, Speak Your Truth, which is out early next year. At the beginning of 2020, Cotton was having trouble speaking and a doctor found a cyst on her vocal cords. When discussing the possibility of an operation, she was told she would have to stay silent during a two-week recovery period, an alarming prospect, given that chatting is Cotton’s shtick. In the cab home from that first appointment, Cotton decided to write a kind of manifesto for living more honestly. In it she offers guidance, while exploring the consequences of allowing her real voice to go unheard. There are anecdotes and affirming mantras and funny riffs on motherhood. But there are also frank discussions around depression, bulimia and anxiety. She writes about being “bullied, overpowered, manipulated”, of being “tricked, duped and shat on”. Cotton has spent 25 years broadcasting to the nation. But now she thinks it’s time to reveal more of the real her.
Cotton was a restless kid growing up in deep suburbia. Her family lived in Hillingdon, a few miles from west London, which she found dreary and dull. Dad was a signmaker, Mum did all sorts. At the local comprehensive, a careers adviser suggested she become a teacher. Cotton had other ideas.
“When you grew up in that sort of working-class environment in the 80s,” she says, “you lived in a pack, never meeting people who were better or worse off than you. It was very nice, very comfortable. I didn’t live in poverty.” But she wanted more.
At 15, she got it, bagging her first TV gig on a children’s GMTV show. It was the payoff for an adolescence filled with dance classes, advert auditions and am-dram. “It was everything I wanted,” she says, “a beautiful time exploring and learning the craft.”
Starting out on kids TV in the pre-social media age meant she was shielded, at first, from fame’s harsher realities. But that changed when she hit the mainstream, in her early 20s. Her treatment by the press, she says, was vicious. Once, after taking part in a televised bungee jump record attempt, a journalist lamented it was a shame her cord hadn’t snapped. “It was deeply personal and often felt unwarranted,” she says. “I was never trying to do anything shocking or sensational. You just become an easy target. Being a young, blonde girl from kids TV, who to some might have seemed vapid.”
The media attention took a toll on her confidence, but it didn’t stall her momentum. In 2005 she became a Radio 1 regular, filling gaps while presenting the station’s weekly chart show. In 2009, a few days after her 28th birthday, she launched her own mid-morning show. In her early 30s came big changes. She met musician Jesse Wood, son of Rolling Stones guitarist Ronnie, in the summer of 2011, on a boozy night out in Ibiza. A mutual friend introduced them at a club and something clicked. In 2013, Cotton announced she was pregnant; they got married the following year. In February 2013 gave birth to their first child. “The stuff I was experiencing at home was very different to lots of younger people in the [Radio 1] building,” she says with a laugh. “I couldn’t get on the radio and say, ‘Ugh, I’ve been up since 3am and milk is leaking from my boobs.’”
For the next few years, Cotton was on autopilot and in 2015 announced she’d be leaving Radio 1 permanently. “I was about to have my second baby,” she says, “and, my God, having a son had already been a shock.” She’d find herself at work, in the job of her dreams, but desperate to be at home doing arts and crafts.
I ask if this is the truth she writes about in her book, the one she felt unable to share until now. In part, she replies, but not entirely. There’s also the fact she was an introvert by nature, working in an environment where being effervescently energetic was encouraged. “If you were quiet it would be seen as odd, not making an effort,” she says. “It was expected, and rightly so, that you were there to entertain.”
Today she spends her days discussing rebirth and reiki, but for a long time those ideas felt too personal and for public consumption. “That’s a part of me I didn’t want to share on the radio then,” she says. “Imagine bursting on to the airwaves to talk about guardian angels.”
But the decision was also “due to what I was going through personally”. She won’t explain further other than to say that for three hours a day she’d be chatting away behind her BBC microphone while feeling utterly dreadful inside.
“That’s where it started to jar. That was maybe the catalyst that made me think: ‘I don’t think I can do this.’ It’s hell. You want to go and hide, but you can’t, because your job is being out there every day.”
She broadcast her final show in May 2015. The high octane, bubbly character she’d spent years perfecting was a performance she no longer enjoyed giving.
For the last few years, Cotton’s life has felt calmer and she’s embracing the freedom of being her own boss. Today, she’s most excited when talking about healing and therapies.
In Speak Your Truth, Cotton flirts with the political. She talks of the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement and of being a fierce LGBTQ+ ally. She still presents a weekly Radio 2 show, however, so what of the Beeb’s new impartiality rules?
“I know neutrality is more extreme now than it was before,” she says carefully, “so I’m not privy to all the new guidelines. But I’d like to think I’m supporting and elevating subjects which should be talked about. If I’m going to get into trouble for supporting the LGBTQ+ community then go for it, because I’ll stand by it.”
As Cotton points out in the book, she’s no longer a brand BBC beacon. “As I sit here today, I haven’t been asked to host a TV show in over a year,” she writes in Speak Your Truth. “I’ve been taken off – OK, sacked – from so many TV jobs over the past five years I’ve lost count.”
Exactly why the TV work has slowed down, Cotton can’t be certain. She reckons in part it’s because TV types know she’s focused on other projects and for now her heart isn’t quite in it, plus fresh faces are having their moment – just as she did. “Well,” she jokes, “it’s that or people just don’t like me.”
But she’s upbeat about it. Being replaced on a major show earlier this year without even an explanation stung, but she’s able to laugh it off. She’s content in this new life, happy to focus on bringing positivity to her audiences. She’s no longer giving the uncomfortable act. In many ways, she has turned to her Happy Place, and that suits her just fine.
Speak Your Truth is published on 7 January by Orion at £16.99. The Happy Place podcast returns in February