Ahead of the first episode’s exclusive premiere on stylist.co.uk, we speak to Nutritiously Nicola creator and star Natalie Bray.
In a grey room in an eating disorders unit in London, Nicola Woodford sits down with her therapist. There’s good news and bad news. The good news: she is now officially “the upper end of underweight”, meaning that she’s no longer so thin she could die.
The bad news: this means Nicola has 24 hours to move out of the clinic, so that someone more urgently unwell can take her place. “I suppose there are a lot of people on the waiting list,” she says, warily. Her therapist nods. “About three miles, at the last count!” Outside, thousands of people stand in a snaking, cheering queue, as though they’re waiting to audition for The X Factor.
So begins Nutritiously Nicola!, a new web series about a woman attempting to build a career as a health and wellness blogger after being discharged from an NHS eating disorder inpatient facility. If that sounds dark, it often is – but Nutritiously Nicola! is also wickedly funny, razor-sharp and unashamedly crude. Take Fleabag’s theatrical surrealism and the DIY spirit of Broad City, add a pinch of Catastrophe’s sour cleverness and a splash of Bella Younger’s ‘Deliciously Stella’ clean-eating parody, and you’ve got some idea of what to expect. (Watch episode one, shared exclusively with stylist.co.uk, above.)
Made up of seven short episodes, the series is heavily based on the real-life experiences of writer/actor/producer Natalie Bray, who wrote the script and stars as Nicola. Bray, who recently turned 30, spent 15 years battling an eating disorder. Unlike Nicola, she has never attempted to become a wellness blogger – but like her creation, she was “completely tricked” by the concept of clean eating when it first reared its head in the mid-2010s.
“I was like, ‘Oh! This is so sensible and great, because I can lose all the weight again, but it’s healthy,’” she says. “Actually, it’s not healthy – but it’s not something you have to keep secret [like an eating disorder], either. There was an air of legitimacy about it.”
Bray describes the wellness phenomenon as “an ex-anorexic’s dream”. “They did the most incredible marketing project on it. You could hide behind it, when in fact it was just incredibly disordered eating.” Once she realised what she was being sold, she says, it felt “natural” to turn the subject into comedy.
Nutritiously Nicola! began life as a one-woman stage show, in which Bray played a manipulative influencer exploiting her followers for her own ends. A fairly straightforward attack on the superficiality of the clean eating brigade, it contained just one joke alluding to the eating disorder that Nicola was hiding under piles of spiralised vegetables.
But as Bray developed the concept of Nutritiously Nicola! and read more about the relationship between clean eating and eating disorders, she began to feel sympathy for the droves of wellness bloggers on Instagram. Psychologists are increasingly concerned about ‘orthorexia’ – an obsession with healthy eating that, while not recognised as an disorder on its own, can often tip into and interact with other conditions, particularly anorexia. Research has also shown a connection between high Instagram use and orthorexia when users follow health food-focused accounts.
“I think a lot of these health food bloggers probably have some quite real problems behind the façade,” Bray says. “I won’t go as far as to say that they all have eating disorders; I’m sure that’s not the case. But that degree of obsession with food… If you’re posting pictures of every meal and only eating certain things, then that is an obsession in another way.”
Nutritiously Nicola! is consistently funny, but it makes serious points: for one, the dearth of easily accessible support for people who do develop eating disorders. On average, it takes 27 weeks for a person to receive treatment from their GP after seeking help for an eating disorder, and inpatient services are under severe strain due to NHS cuts.
Bray says she has spent much of her life going through a cycle of waiting lists and referrals before being discharged as soon as she put on any weight. “I don’t want to criticise the NHS in any way because I love it to bits,” she says. “But it feels like a flawed system.”
The series never mocks women (who make up 90% of eating disorder sufferers in the UK) for struggling with food and body image issues. Instead, it highlights the fact that we’re constantly bombarded with conflicting messages about what we should eat and how we should be.
“Nicola is just trying to work out what’s healthy, like we all are,” says Bray. “She has this element of ‘oh, I should have got over this by now; I should be OK, but I’m not’. And I think that’s something a lot of women in their 20s and 30s experience, to a lesser or greater extent.”
But while we might not judge Nicola for her eating disorder, she is often – like many great British comedy heroines – not particularly likable. Narcissistic, childish and irrational, she is clearly the last person who should be telling others how to take care of their bodies. (When she is first advised by another influencer to get into “health slash wellness blogging”, she blurts out, “But I’m not very healthy or well!” “That’s why you’ll be great at it, Nicola,” the influencer replies, sagely.)
Bray says it was a conscious decision to make Nicola slightly obnoxious. The series was developed with all-female production company Double Yay Productions, and she hopes it will “broaden people’s minds about what you can make comedy about, and how women can be funny”.
“‘We need more strong female parts’ is something you hear a lot in the debate about equality in the [entertainment] industry,” she says.
“But I don’t really think any of [the female characters] are strong in Nutritiously Nicola! They’re all really flawed and kind of messed up – but that makes them human and interesting.”
The first episode of Nutritiously Nicola! premiered on stylist.co.uk on 9 January 2019. All seven episodes are available to watch on Double Yay Productions’ YouTube channel.
Images: Double Yay Productions