While channelling a Lichtenstein heroine, Fearne Cotton talks to Stylist about the healing power of art and how creativity has helped her get through dark times. Words by Samantha Word. Photography by Matthew Shave.
Fearne Cotton is wearing a fluorescent orange Victoria Beckham shirt dress, face covered in approximately 100 layers of pop art-esque make-up, while passionately discussing existentialism and the profound power art has to transform lives.
It’s quite a departure from Fearne Cotton: the party-going Radio 1 presenter – or more recently, Fearne Cotton: the mum in yoga gear whipping up a banana loaf and designing her own range of kitchenware. But today, Stylist’s Roy Lichtenstein-inspired shoot is celebrating art and creativity and there’s no better cover star to completely embrace this (canary yellow eyeshadow and all) than her.
Indeed, Cotton, 36, cites art therapy as the saviour of her experience with “the dark patch”. More of which later. Cotton’s own artistic talents are unsung yet impressive – she is particularly adept at portrait painting while her Instagram often displays her biro drawings – but it’s the psychology behind art and its ability to heal that is fundamental to the woman here today.
This is something she only recently fully revealed in her book Happy, where she draws on her own struggle with mental health to offer ways to find happiness in life. It’s a personal journey that has been particularly mindful, and as we talk she’s open about what it’s taken to get to, and stay at, this point.
“I have to oscillate between the different ‘mes’,” she explains. “Sometimes I’ll move into another space and think I just can’t do it.”
Because for all her success, wit and outward confidence, Cotton is her own biggest critic, an affliction that is taking a dedicated daily amount of self-care – with the help of art therapy – to overcome.
This self-awareness has changed her life considerably over the past five years. Having been at the forefront of broadcasting with her popular Radio 1 morning show, the work treadmill became overwhelming and she gave up the gig in May 2015. Gone are the gruelling 12-hour shifts where Cotton would pack her schedule full of every presenting opportunity.
“I thought if I reached certain accolades then everyone else would accept me and think I was more interesting than I actually am,” she reveals.
In their place there’s a more calm, grounded lifestyle filled with family – husband Jesse Wood [son of Rolling Stone Ronnie] and their two children, Rex, four, and Honey Krissy, two, as well as Jesse’s children from a previous relationship, Arthur, 15, and Lola, 12 – painting and writing. Her new approach to life sounds very appealing…
There are many things people think they know about you, but they might not know you’re a seasoned painter. How long have you been doing it?
As soon as I could hold a pen I was drawing and painting. My dad’s a brilliant artist and my granddad was too, so I’ve had artistic people in my life who have inspired me. I’ve always wanted to emulate that.
What is it about painting as opposed to other art forms?
It’s the magic of being creative. There’s a weird alchemy within whatever your creative outlet is – it could be sewing, gardening, tie-dyeing T-shirts whatever little corner of creativity does it for you, I don’t think you can ever really put your finger on it. It just feels good.
Now I’ve realised how important it is to me, how it makes me feel brilliant, I have to create something every day. I might write down one idea for the future or start a paragraph of a novel. I have to create something otherwise life feels empty.
In your book Happy you talk about living with depression, referring to it as “the dark patch”. What did that feel like?
A lot of that period is a massive blur. It feels almost like a strange movie. It was really nasty and I felt a lot of very low energy and high energy at the same time. It was an intoxicating combination, a really dark place to be in. It felt like it would never end. It was one of those moments where you lose all hope. Couldn’t see a sparkle of it, not even a glimmer. It was scary.
How did you get through it?
By talking to people, being creative and making time for myself. Now when I feel bad I’m like [clicks fingers] let’s text Heidi, let’s call Bonnie – let’s do a positive thing and keep going.
I had a friend last week come to me who was feeling crap and I found myself giving all the advice that I knew I need myself sometimes. But I reminded her – and in doing so, myself – that you just need to do simple things every day. I make those things a priority. I have to for the sake of myself and everyone in my life.
Artist Yayoi Kusama said she “overcame [dark days] with the power of art”. What can a person get out of art that they can’t get from other types of therapy?
Every artist pours emotional expression into their work, but how personal you make it is up to you. I think even if you don’t feel you can paint, or if you’ve never even tried, it’s really interesting to see what comes out because you don’t really know when you start doing a painting or a bit of writing what’s going to emerge that day. It’s a tangible bit of evidence of what’s going on inside.
So being creative allows you to encapsulate feelings about a particular moment that you can then reflect on?
Yes. For me it’s more obvious with writing because it’s hard to be eloquent with your own feelings. Sometimes you don’t want to talk to someone about how you’re feeling, whereas with writing, even if no-one sees it you have no barriers. You can be completely open and vulnerable. It’s incredibly powerful to look at what you’ve created and think, ‘Wow, I never knew I felt like that.’ Letter writing is really good. Even if you don’t post it to another person you can write it to them and then burn it or post it to yourself, so the energy goes out into the universe and then comes back to you.
Is that something you’ve done?
Oh, I do all of this weird sh*t, yeah [laughs]. Sometimes people assume we need some magic cure for general life worries – the latest diet or expensive gym or therapy – while actually there’s a lot of stuff you can do to stimulate yourself. There’s so much self-examination available by just being open to it.
Is there a piece of artwork you’ve created that means the most to you?
There’s one that I did of Vivienne Westwood in 2007. I met her a long time ago at an event and told her I’d love a picture that she had copyright for so I could paint it and she actually posted the picture to me. I’m really proud of it. I don’t normally put my paintings up in the house but that one is in the downstairs loo.
Do you own any expensive pieces of artwork?
Oh God, no. I think once I’ve put the kids through school, maybe it will be a hobby I could afford to start but now our priorities are very much not that. We do have a lot of Jesse’s dad’s art in the house but they’re gifts and I don’t know how much they’d be worth. But even if he doodles on a piece of paper I take it and keep it in a notepad! He always draws little horses.
What paintings are you currently working on?
I started one of Claudia Winkleman a while ago. I’ve done two versions: one I like but it’s not The One and another I’ve abandoned. When the kids are this little it’s tricky doing big pieces. I can’t justify getting someone to look after Honey so I can paint all day.
I want to exhibit at some point but I’d have to be really good because in this industry people go, ‘You’re a DJ’ or ‘You’re a presenter, how dare you try anything else.’ But I was painting long before I did either of those things.
So how do you answer when someone asks what you do?
It’s been a weird process of liberation-slash-bereavement since I left radio because we all like to give ourselves labels; it gives us that air of importance. When I was a DJ, I had a place in the world. So losing that moniker was hard. But I felt very boxed in, I never felt like just a DJ. Now whenever I have to sign a document I put ‘broadcaster’ although I don’t feel like that’s completely true.
So you’d never call yourself an ‘artist’?
[Looks embarrassed] I can’t use that word. I feel you have to gain that title. I never quite feel worthy. I think that’s a confidence thing because I am, in an exterior sense, so defined by the current project I am doing, so if I was then to make such grand statements it would be laughed at. But right now I’m happy floating between all these creative projects.
I feel like I am doing the best work I’ve ever done because I’m enjoying it more than I’ve ever enjoyed anything and that, for me, has become more important than trying to climb this hierarchy of broadcasters.
You’ve talked about the struggle with feeling ‘good enough’. Are you able to step in when you catch yourself being unkind to yourself?
No. I constantly beat myself up about all sorts of things like not feeling good enough or not having achieved enough – which I know is ridiculous – but I always do the compare and despair thing. It’s hard for women to feel good about themselves. We have to remember to give ourselves a bit of a pat on the back and say, “You’ve done really well today.”
Have you worked out what your triggers are for feeling bad?
Any moment that I feel judged, analysed or misrepresented. Or if someone crosses a boundary that is very firmly set – that causes me to spiral downwards and it takes me a long time, like a week, to climb back out of it.
Instagram, for example, is both a joy and horrendous because I find it fun and inspiring but the negative side is believing the fantasy. Anything in life where I make assumptions that are wrong or people make assumptions about me that are wrong: that combination is lethal.
How do you turn the volume down on that?
I have some rules. I have to turn off all screens by 9pm otherwise I get insane insomnia, and I read for an hour to wind down. I’m reading a book called The Universe Versus Alex Woods [by Gavin Extence], which is brilliant. Reading is my favourite thing in the world.
Are there any books that helped you through the dark days?
Oh, I’ve read every self-help book that ever existed. I’m very fond of Brené Brown’s writing, I’ve read most of her books. And I just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic, which is all about being creative and it’s brilliant. But one I have read again and again is The Four Agreements [by Don Miguel Ruiz, a self-help book that gives four principles to follow in order to create love and happiness]. It’s quite an old book but it makes perfect, obvious sense.
Russell Brand talks about connecting with a higher power in his latest book Recovery. Do you believe in God?
Yes, but I don’t even know how to distinguish what that is. It’s not a person or a thing. I believe in something and I guess the way I can describe that is by saying we assume we’ve got it all sussed. But we know so little. There’s all this other stuff above us and that’s what I believe in. We’ve created a linear time and we assume that’s the only way to live our lives – but that is just because we’ve told ourselves that’s how things work. But there’s all this other stuff up here [waves hands above head] that I’m intrigued by.
Does that sort of existential reflection spin you out?
Yes! But I love that! Because it mitigates all the crummy worries. Oh my God, take yourself up to there and think about all the stuff you don’t know about. We can’t even grasp infinity. All these little, banal things we get stressed about, the ones that build up and create momentum and cause bigger problems later down the line, they mean nothing.
Do you feel brave?
Some days. Some days I feel really brave. Because talking and writing about your mental health and vulnerabilities is brave.
I wrote it down because I needed to get it out, whether anyone read it or not. I’m not on the front line in a war, I’m not saving lives in a hospital; I’m not brave in that way. But I do think there’s a certain amount of courage in being creative. You’re putting yourself out there, expressing who you are and what you’re about very tangibly.
If we’d asked you five years ago what your life would look like now, would this be it?
I would have hoped I’d found the sense to drop chasing all the craziness and trying to climb the work ladder. I always thought I needed to be better because that would make me feel whole. Obviously I’d hoped to have kids and find a great man but emotionally I hoped for stillness. And I’m getting there. I hope that by the time I’m 50 things will be even more still.
Are you happy at the moment?
[Immediately] Yeah! Really happy. Happiness for me now is getting to the end of the day and feeling grateful. It’s feeling grateful that my two amazing kids are up there snoozing away and I’m eating a bowl of cereal in my pyjamas. It’s simple stuff. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, my happiness.
Fearne’s new range of kitchenware and cookware, Fearne By Swan, is available from fearnebyswan.co.uk.
Fearne Cotton will be in conversation with her long-time friend and colleague Reggie Yates at Stylist Live on Sunday 12 November at 4.20pm. Join the pair as they reminisce about the past, discuss their successful careers and talk about their hopes for the future. Tickets from £15, available at live.stylist.co.uk