Fearne Cotton: 'Every marriage takes work. Of course I’m not living this perfect, fairytale life'

Fearne Cotton (left) with husband Jesse Wood
Fearne Cotton (left) with husband Jesse Wood Credit:  David M. Benett/Getty Images Europe

Watching Fearne Cotton on television is like receiving a masterclass in unflappability. In the course of a presenting career than has spanned some two decades and counting, she’s perfected the art of donning a game face and keeping it fixed, no matter what the provocation. She herself has admitted to “putting on a fake smile”, as demanded by her job, no matter what was going on beneath the chipper, telegenic veneer.

And for a long time it seemed to work, at least as far as her viewers or listeners were concerned. Rarely has she missed a beat or grown flustered on air. Not even when the fictional Keith Lemon (alter-ego of comedian Leigh Francis) was doing his utmost to embarrass her in her decade on ITV2’s Celebrity Juice, or when the very real Robbie Williams was bizarrely hitting on her as they chatted backstage at Live 8 in 2005. 

But something changed for Cotton when, a couple of years back, she began to show at least part of the real person behind the mask. In 2017 she wrote in detail about the depression she had suffered since her 20s, in a bestselling book called Happy. A follow-up, called Calm, came less than a year later. She has since spoken openly and honestly about mental health, and was last month appointed Goodwill Ambassador by the Prince’s Trust, with a brief to champion young people’s wellbeing and mental health. 

This has all been a fairly new departure for the girl from north-west London suburbia who once upon a time wanted to be an actress and is now a 37-year-old mother-of-two and stepmother-of-two married to the son of a Rolling Stone. Yes, you’ll still see her popping up on ITV’s This Morning to demonstrate her recipe for guilt-free beetroot cupcakes and, as recently as last October, attempting with her friend Holly Willoughby to pick up a single olive together using only their tongues on Celebrity Juice (a show she has since quit). But Cotton, who started on The Disney Club at 15 years old, spent 10 years at BBC Radio 1 and has presented everything from Top of the Pops to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, has a serious mission now, too. 

“Looking at all the research that has been done recently, the mental wellbeing of young people has been at an all-time low and has plateaued for the last few years," she says. “Which is unbelievably sad. No-one wants that to be the case. The generation below me has a host of bizarre things in the mix that I didn’t have to deal with growing up, like social media and the internet.”

Tonight she will present the Prince’s Trust Awards alongside Phillip Schofield, in lieu of the usual hosts, Ant and Dec, who apparently have a diary clash. “It’s terrifying to replace those two,” she says, although I don’t imagine her looking anything but calm and composed later on. 

The Prince Of Wales (right) with Fearne Cotton and Jesse Wood during a Prince's Trust reception at The Savoy Hotel, London, in February Credit: Chris Jackson/ Getty Images Europe

In her new role, she hopes to implement a nationwide initiative to look at mental wellbeing and how we can “get off our screens more and find community with other people.”

So how much does screen time and social media affect our mental health? “I think it’s probably one of the biggest problems,” she says. “I think we underestimate how big a problem it is. Some of it is lovely and you can find your own community online but it also brings a whole host of comparisons, and that kind of compare and despair model that’s the worst. I fall into that trap at the age of 37 as do many of my peers, and you have to really work hard and apply some discipline so as not to. We have to remind ourselves and the younger generation that there’s choice involved.”

Cotton herself has 2.6 million followers on Instagram. But she tries, often in vain, to restrict her use of the site. She has more luck keeping her children, Rex, six, and Honey, three, offline. 

“I’m trying to keep them as little kids as long as I can, so we hid the iPad about three years ago and they’ve kind of forgotten it exists,” she says. “I don’t mind what they watch off kids’ Netflix, but when they were on kids’ YouTube and were mindlessly scrolling through videos of kids opening Kinder eggs, I thought ‘oh my God, I can’t govern this’. So I took it away.”

Meanwhile she herself continues to receive thousands of likes on her Instagram posts, which include plenty of selfies alongside pictures of things she has baked (two recipe books also feature in the prolific Cotton output) and inspirational quotes from her podcast, Happy Place.

But this new brand of honesty she has lately made part of her persona comes with occasional downsides. Cotton was recently forced to address rumours about her four-year marriage to guitarist Jesse Wood, son of rock star Ronnie, after admitting in a magazine column that they’d been through a rough patch last year. The truth, she tweeted, was they were “very happily married and more in love than ever.”

She says: “I’m kind of used to people taking what I say out of context, so you have to eye-roll and move on from it. But my [teenage] stepchildren are old enough to scour the internet freely and I just thought, ‘I don’t want them reading that and thinking Jesse and I are having struggles and haven’t told them, because we’re an extremely honest family, and especially with my stepchildren. Every step of the way with our relationship we’ve put them first. Even when we are having a row we just say ‘sorry, guys, you just heard us having a row.’”

Her aim in writing frankly about the light and shade of marriage was to counteract the illusion we all have - generated by the internet - that everyone else’s life is perfect. “I wrote that article to go ‘what a load of s***,’” she says. “Every marriage...takes work. It doesn’t dilute our love or make our marriage any weaker, it actually makes it stronger because we’re willing to have those conversations.”

The rumours about their marriage falling apart were, she adds for the avoidance of any doubt, “absolute b*******.” But now she’s begun to talk frankly about feelings, she believes it’s only right to be consistent. “I’m happy to share the good and bad bits of myself because of course I’m not living this perfect, fairytale life,” she says. “What’s the point of me having a platform and a large following if I’m not talking about something that’s going to have a positive impact?”

To be fair, it’s not as if she wasn’t making any positive impact previously. She’s been involved in multiple Comic Relief programmes over the years, among other charitable endeavours. What, I wonder, did she make of recent accusations against presenter Stacey Dooley of encouraging a “white saviour complex” over her Comic Relief trip to Africa? Unfair? Without pause, Cotton says she missed that story, and deftly sidesteps the question. Unflappable to the last.

As for her own mental health, right now she is feeling both happy and calm. But that can change any time. “I feel good today but I don’t know what I’m going to feel like tomorrow. It’s not like ‘yeah, I’m having a really calm 2019’. God no. Today I feel fine.”

The Prince’s Trust and TKMaxx & Homesense Awards take place tonight at the London Palladium. For more information on the work of the Trust, visit  princes-trust.org.uk