Fiona Phillips: 'I've been on the verge of a nervous breakdown' 

TV presenter Fiona Phillips
TV presenter Fiona Phillips Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

Fiona Phillips is stressed. “I’m doing one thing but thinking about a million different things,” she sighs, sipping an americano. “Mums do it all the time. My husband, though there is stress at work, can just focus on what he’s doing, whereas my mind is in the fridge, the rucksack, it’s everywhere. I wake at night and don’t know why I’m worrying. But clearly I am - even if it’s the mess in the damn office.”

This is not the first time that Phillips has battled stress, nor is it the worst. GMTV viewers, who watched her with their cereal from 1997 to 2008, will know she spent more than a decade working in the high-pressure job with its 3.30am starts. During that time she was also caring for her parents, who both had dementia, and raising two young boys with her husband Martin Frizell, then-editor of GMTV .

“That was the most stressful period I went through,” admits the 56-year-old TV presenter when we meet near her family home in South-West London. “It was absolute madness and I feared I was on the verge of massive depression and a breakdown. Eamonn Holmes [her GMTV co-presenter] used to say to me, ‘You’re clinically depressed and you need to get help’. I’d say, ‘No, I’m fine’. I felt that if I admitted to it then everything would crumble, and who would look after my mum and dad and the children?”

TV presenter Fiona Phillips Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

Her parents have since passed away, and her two sons are now in their teens. Phillips works as a freelance TV presenter and columnist, and though she still battles the everyday worries of life, she recognises it is nowhere near as bad as the chronic stress and depression she once experienced.

“At the time I felt I was never doing a good job for anyone,” she says, shaking her head. “But, looking back, I was split in so many directions, I don’t know how I did it. I had things I had to go to, but I couldn’t get out of bed. It was awful.”

Naturally, it affected her marriage to Frizell, who is currently editor of ITV’s This Morning. “We’d have rows we wouldn’t have now because we were both at the end of our tether,” she says. “You say irrational things because you’re so tired. I had no time for him really.” Yet the couple are still happily married, and Phillips credits him for her survival: “I don’t think I’d still be here if he wasn’t so brilliant.”

How did they cope when they were both stressed and working for GMTV? “We avoided each other,” she laughs. “We’re quite good at handling it now. I used to keep some of my concerns from him, but after a while, I had to just share things because I was going mad myself and taking everything on board again. We never have ‘date nights’ or anything, because of the pressure. When you’re both working and have to come home and cook a meal together, it’s stressful.”

With so much personal experience of stress, it is no surprise that Phillips’ latest TV show looks closely at the phenomenon. BBC’s The Truth About Stress is a one-off documentary that explores Phillips’ own experiences, as well as various studies and coping mechanisms, such as therapy - something Phillips has never had (“I find it quite self-indulgent talking about myself”) but readily admits is “probably a good thing to do”.

Fiona Phillips presenting The Truth About Stress Credit: Blink Films

Her inner breakfast TV persona is never far from our conversation, which is peppered with bright smiles and laughter, but it’s clear that beneath the surface, Phillips is exhausted. Though she is far from the years of constantly being on the “verge of a breakdown”, she still feels their effects. Her sleep, for example, is often broken by nightmares of her mother, who spent her final years in a care home with Alzheimer’s, screaming: ‘Don’t leave me, I’m your mother.’

“That echoes in my head a lot,” says Phillips, suddenly quiet. “Or I’m looking to the future thinking, my God, I’m 50-something now and mum was only that [when she was diagnosed.] What if I disappear now?”

She is also, like most parents, concerned about her children. “It’s just family life, isn’t it? It’s hard, especially if both parents are working. I’m constantly thinking about my kids’ welfare. One of them has had terrible anxiety problems. That’s really stressful.”

Initially she would tell her son’s school that he had a cold if he wasn’t able to come in, but eventually told them the truth about his anxiety, and found they were “brilliant.”

“When it’s a mental health thing you don’t get as much understanding,” she explains. “It really is catastrophic, and in a family it’s hard. As a parent you think, ‘God, have we done something wrong here? Are we so stressed out at times he’s taken it on board?’ You can really find yourself snapping sometimes.”

She and Frizell have avoided heaping academic pressure on their kids, to the point where they have no idea if either of them will ever go to university, and Phillips wishes the government would follow suit. “School days have been so ruined,” she laments. “Kids are so stressed out now. They’re just hammering them all the time. They’ve made education an awful, stressful minefield.”     

Meanwhile older generations, she suggests, are also struggling with their own mental health issues and growing loneliness, yet are frequently dismissed as ‘grumpy and old.’

TV presenter Fiona Phillips Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

“I don’t get why there’s this negative attitude to older people in society,” she says. “We need to change our attitudes to age.”

Contrary to the belief that worries decrease with age, Phillips has found the opposite. “The older you are, the more you have to deal with,” she laughs. “It’s like a bomb waiting to go off.” As a woman on TV, she is also confronted with the harsh reality of ageism. Though she has never lacked work - on Twitter, fans are even calling for her return to breakfast TV, something she would “never” do - she says she would refuse a role if it was given to her as a ‘token’ older woman.

Her biggest issue with age is physical. “I scrutinise myself a lot more than anyone else would,” she admits. “HD television is really unforgiving. I spend a lot more time doing my make-up now than I ever did. I’ve got horrible lines around my lips now. It’s funny, I see lines as beautiful on other people, but not on me. I wish people would learn to appreciate the beauty of age so women wouldn’t feel this pressure. People don’t criticise older men as much; men can be whatever size they want.”

As for her, she keeps her slim figure by walking everywhere, only doing occasional exercises to avoid ‘bingo wings’, and jokes that she doesn’t need to do any more because of the “stress diet.” What she would rather be doing, however, is indulging in her favourite stress-free fantasy.

“My dream is to sit on my own watching the soaps on TV, because my life is always better than Phil’s from EastEnders, and I’d have a pile of mashed potatoes with butter, cheese, salt and pepper.” She closes her eyes and sighs. “Mash is just so lovely, and it’s such an... unchallenging colour.”

The Truth About Stress will air on Thursday 4th May at 9pm on BBC One