Fern Britton: SISU Beauty of the Week
September 26, 2018
Most of us know Fern Britton as the jolly, relatable TV presenter. It’s hard to see how, even without knowing her life story, anyone could dislike her.
But Fern has been fairly open about the challenges she’s faced in life – and that some of them were purely of her own making. While she has come to terms with the past, and recognises how it influenced her choices and behaviour, she is not angry or full of regret. If anything, she seems determined to use the insights she’s gained from her experiences to help others.
To a large degree, the trauma of being abandoned by her father as a baby has had the biggest impact on Fern’s life. The damage of that childhood loss, Fern has realised, is something she brought into adulthood – much to her detriment. The consequences included a drink-driving conviction and an attempt to take her own life. She was also raped at age 21, but didn’t report it to police because she assumed it was her own fault.
After marrying at age 31, Fern endured years of IVF treatments to have three children. But the marriage collapsed when her youngest child was barely five months old. She was fairly certain a second chance at family life was out of reach. “The boys were four; Grace hadn’t even started toddling. I remember thinking at the time that nobody was going to take on a 40-something woman with three kids.”
Yet a year later, she had a new family with TV chef Phil Vickery. Fern was energised by what she saw as a fling. “I doubted he’d want to commit, though. But he said: ‘Well, it’s a recipe, isn’t it? Just add water: instant family. If I want you, and I do, I get the rest.’ Bless him.”
She and Phil soon had a daughter, with Fern giving birth at 44 years old. As she did with her first three children, she was plunged into post-natal depression. Fern now urges women to take their mental health seriously and give therapy and modern medicine a fair chance to help them.
“One in four women suffers from post-natal depression and yet many of them battle it without recognising the reason for their mood swings or seeking professional help,” she says. “Women imagine they’ll turn into zombies if they take pills. But they won’t. The pills prescribed aren’t tranquillisers.”
Fern has referred to as her own mental health issue as her “black dog of depression,” which she says is now “in kennels.” She credits weekly psychotherapy, gardening, cycling and age with helping her mental wellbeing. “Ever since the menopause, I seem to have calmed down. I feel much happier, much more peaceful.”
After years of the lowest of lows – including a suicide attempt – Fern has more than bounced back. In fact, she has done nothing less than completely reinvent herself, without trying to be someone she is not. And it has worked spectacularly. Now in her 60s, she is still in massive demand in the entertainment industry, with everyone from TV networks to Gary Barlow begging her to work with them. “I didn’t expect to be working at this age, but if they are going to keep giving me work, I will do it!”
Fern’s career has spanned an astonishing 40 years. At 21, she started her career as a newsreader and continuity announcer on local television. Before long, she became the UK’s the youngest national news presenter to anchor the BBC’s News After Noon.
But her fame skyrocketed when she hosted Ready Steady Cook – where she first met her future husband Phil. She later co-presented This Morning with Philip Schofield for a decade, becoming something of a national treasure in the UK. Fern’s “I’m just like you” approach, combined with her openness and determination to live a good life regardless of age, emit a message of hope for many women and men alike. If you can go from overweight, suicidal and divorced to fit with a happy family, a new career as a best-selling novelist, and even a turn performing on Strictly Come Dancing, you must be doing something right.
Still, she faced major backlash when it was revealed her dramatic weight loss was not unaided, with Fern having availed herself of gastric band surgery.
She is unapologetic. Healthful eating and exercise had not made a significant dent in her get-fit efforts, Fern says. “I was cycling like mad and nothing was happening. My GP said I was a good candidate for a band, so I went ahead. My cholesterol was high. My knee joints were starting to hurt. I wasn’t able to run. I was approaching 50 and I thought: ‘Do you know what? I’m going to be different when I’m 50.’”
And she has certainly succeeded.
Fern didn’t just drop weight from her surgery and stop there: She got herself into the best shape of her life. Cycling is the most enjoyable form of exercise for her, and she has channeled that into long distance rides – in Burma, Egypt, India, Cuba, Jordan and Sri Lanka – that have raised more than €200,000 for research into miscarriage.
But even when embarking on a cycling fundraiser down the length of the UK, from John O’Groats to Lands End, Fern did it her way – critics be damned.
While most cyclists making the trip aim to ride 100 miles a day to complete the journey in 10 days or less, Fern and the 26 friends who joined her for the ride decided at the outset to halve that target. “This is an adventure for us. We need to stop and take a photograph and have a cup of tea and eat a jelly baby.” Some actually criticised her for taking the ‘lazy’ approach to a 1,000 mile bike ride.
Does she mind? No.
After a lifetime of living through her life’s trials, Fern could have gone one of two ways: Run and hide from it all or face it and use it to make herself stronger and better. She chose the latter direction and has gained increasing confidence along the way.
“I don’t mind making a fool of myself, or failing,” Fern says. “There are lots of things I want to do and I’m not scared of anything anymore.”
Don’t believe her? At age 61, she has taken a role in a touring musical version of the film Calendar Girls, in which a group Women’s Institute members pose nude for a charity calendar. This might not seem like an obvious fit for Fern, who has said of her reflection in the mirror, “It’s hard to say what I like most about my appearance.” She admits to being troubled by “the wrinkles, the chicken neck,” but says, “I’m much kinder to myself than I used to be.”
There has been speculation that her face has more volume than it did a few years ago, after weight loss, possibly thanks to dermal fillers. But perhaps still stinging from the media furore when her gastric band op was revealed, Fern is keeping mum. “I naively thought I was entitled to some privacy,” she says, and now refuses to discuss her surgery at all. Whether her glowing skin is due to Profhilo, Silhouette Soft, or just great clinical facials, she looks spectacular from head to toe.
Fern is so confident now that she was even willing to strip off for the Calendar Girls musical, which was co-written by Gary Barlow. She was surprised when her agent said she didn’t. And when Fern claims she wouldn’t have minded doing it, and it’s easy to believe her. After all, she shed her clothesfor a 2002 charity calendar – years before became physically fit.
Her fearlessness is understandable. Just two years ago, Fern nearly lost her life after a post-hysterectomy sepsis infection. “I was in bed and felt I was dying. I knew my body was shutting down. I wasn’t frightened,” she insists.
“I thought, ‘I’m definitely going to die.’ But I was very accepting of it. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I thought I had a bit longer but, hey, you know, it’s been good.”
Despite developing pneumonia and suffering a collapsed lung after surgery to clear her infections, Fern survived. But having become accustomed to life as a fit woman at a more mature age, the recovery was brutal. “Everything hurt. I had no energy and would have to sleep for two or three hours in the day. That went on for 20 months, and just as I was thinking ‘I’m going to have to pull out of the Calendar Girls tour’, suddenly I felt fine.”
But Fern is honest about where the health crisis has left her – and how she refuses to use sepsis as an excuse to let herself go. “‘I am not quite as fit as I was. But I am getting fitter.”
So what’s the wisdom she’s gleaned from 61 years on this planet? “Oh God, life’s a conveyor belt of stuff that keeps coming at you. But it’s also like a great big banquet: just as you think you’ve had enough, you go back for pudding, and then you think, ‘That pork pie was jolly nice too’, so you keep going back. So nothing’s ever over.”
Before you think Fern has her head in the clouds, she has simply accepted reality. “I know it will end, but my time in the sun has been great,” she says.
That’s not to say life has ever stopped bringing its inevitable difficulties. Advanced age has forced Fern to wear hearing aids now, which she openly admits. But more important matters put that into perspective for her.
After her mum died this year, aged 94, Fern says the grief can hit her without warning. Even in public she can find herself “crying and crying,” she says. But she is neither ashamed nor embarrassed to reveal this. Real life is real life, and Fern always keeps it real.
That includes her marriage. While she and her handsome, accomplished husband and their four children might be the perfect picture of effortless domestic bliss, Fern is characteristically honest about her relationship with TV heartthrob Phil. “He is my life’s great love, a really amazing, husband, partner, friend. Yes, we have humdingers, but then we’re normal. This is a real relationship,” she says. “You hear people say: ‘Thirty years and not a cross word.’ Sorry, I simply don’t believe that. But, if it is true, how boring.”
Not that his nickname for his wife, Cockroach, is an insult. “I’ve had a lot of very tough stuff personally and professionally, and my husband, bless his heart, says to me, ‘You’re like a cockroach. People try to kill you but you never die.”
This is why Fern Britton is our Beauty of the Week. Her resilience exemplifies the concept of sisu on which SISU was founded. The Finnish term, roughly translated, signifies strength, perseverance, and turning your difficulties and imperfections into advantages. Fern is a living example of how much more courage it takes to face life and change, helping others by doing so, than to put on the traditional stiff upper lip and withdraw.
Sisu also means striving to keep growing, improving and evolving. “It’s important not to be afraid of change,” Fern says. “You have to adapt really fast, whether or not you are scared.” But this doesn’t mean merely muddling along. With this mindset of growth, she says, “things generally get even better.” That’s sisu, too.
“My life has been 100 per cent challenging. All the way,” Fern says. But she is crystal clear on the best way to bear the load.
“Everything has just been about trying to put one foot in front of the other and keep going. You have to think, what’s the worst thing that can happen? I could die. That’s not so bad I now realise.”
Don’t worry: You don’t have to share Fern’s cocky attitude toward death to emulate her approach to making the most of life. It’s not easy, she accepts, “So let’s get on.”
As for what she recommends to those who want to create a better life for themselves, Fern is clear: “I really want to say to people who are a bit stuck in life, ‘Swim, walk, get a rescue cat, start gardening or get on a bike, just like I did. I’ve survived this far, and there’s still so much to do.”
If all of us adopted Fern’s attitude, who knows what we could accomplish – regardless of our age.
She has helped many people by not pretending her healthy sisu mindset came naturally to her. By admitting she was not born or raised with this outlook, she shows how we are not hostages to whatever unhealthy ideas we have picked up along the way.
Fern has developed her sisu over six decades of coping with everything from parental abandonment, rape, IVF, divorce, media criticism, mental illness and a near-death experience. Those agonies could have made her or broken her, but Fern worked to ensure they’d help her make something more of her life.
And today? “I could never have said this in the past, but now I can see a future.”
Fern Britton, our Beauty of the Week, proves that – as SISU says – it’s never too late to be who you always wanted to be.
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