Ben Cohen: 'I've felt bullied, even though I was a top rugby star'
Former rugby hero Ben Cohen overcame hearing loss and tragedy to succeed in sport. He tells Gabrielle Fagan about his determination to counter bullying and how he experienced it himself.
It's a noisy hotel bar and not the ideal place to interview rugby star Ben Cohen, who has 50% hearing loss in both ears, but he's effortlessly tackling every question until we get to one about his personal life.
When asked how he feels about the ongoing reports that he's dating his former Strictly Come Dancing partner, Kristina Rihanoff - he separated from Abby, his wife of 11 years and mother of his seven-year-old twin daughters shortly after appearing on the show in 2013 - there's a long silence.
"I don't want to talk about that or put anything out there which will stir things up," says the 36-year-old former England player eventually, choosing his words carefully. "All I know is I'm true to myself and true to my children. It's a tough time, but as long as my children are OK I don't really care about anything else.
"I feel I've been bullied in the press recently which isn't nice, it's damaging, and it can make you feel isolated."
Siberian-born Rihanoff, 37, has been more open, revealing her anguish at the reports and being labelled a "home wrecker".
The dancer, who's had a past relationship with fellow Strictly professional, Vincent Simone and a four-year-relationship with boxing champion Joe Calzaghe, reportedly said she's been driven to the brink of suicide over claims - which she's denied - that the pair had an affair during their time on the show. She recently said of Cohen: "We are both single people. We enjoy each other's company. We work together. Who knows what the future will hold."
Clearly Cohen, the former winger dubbed the 'David Beckham of rugby' because of his good looks and success on the pitch - he's the 10th highest point scorer in England rugby history and was part of the World Cup winning team in 2003 - would rather this tricky topic didn't overshadow the point of our meeting: the launch of his fragrance, now on sale in Superdrug.
It's described as a "rugged and mellow" scent, which could sum up the man himself - he's 6' 2" and 16 stone of rippling muscle, and, when not put on the spot about romance, is friendly, charismatic and unassuming.
"If anyone had told me when I was in rugby I'd be launching a personal fragrance, I'd have laughed my head off," says Cohen, who retired from the sport in 2011, with a chuckle. "Actually, it was really fun to do. It's been part of my transition from a player who literally lived in tracksuits and whose only grooming 'routine' was showering, to someone who's had to smarten up their act and consider clothes and personal appearance. Nowadays it's important I look the part when I'm promoting myself and my charity."
That charity, The Ben Cohen StandUp Foundation, aims to raise awareness and funds to help counter bullying, in particular homophobia. The latter link came partly because Cohen became a popular gay icon during his playing days, despite being straight, which opened his eyes to the problems gay men and women endure.
His organisation, however, has its real origin in the tragic death of his father Peter Cohen, who died from a blood clot 15 years ago, a month after being beaten up in his own nightclub when attempting to break up a brawl.
"My dad's death was very hard. We were very close and I told him I loved him every day. Frankly, it's something you learn to live with rather than get over," says Ben.
"I went through every emotion, heartbreak, pain and anger, over a long period. But in a way, it made me even more determined to succeed in sport in his memory and eventually, when I knew it was time to quit the sport, I didn't have to struggle to decide what to do next with my life. I feel I was destined to set up the Foundation because of what happened to him. It's his legacy if you like.
"It's about encouraging people to be 'upstanders' rather than 'bystanders' when they see bullying. That's definitely what my dad was - he died because he stood up for others. I want to help give strength to those who may, for whatever reason, including sexuality, be at risk of bullying. It's a chance for me, as a former sportsman, to be a role model and promote a climate of positive change. I don't miss rugby at all because this is so absorbing."
The opportunity to raise the profile of the charity was a major reason behind his competing in Strictly, even though he was hampered by the deafness and tinnitus he's suffered since a child.
"The tinnitus can be really loud and drown out other sounds and with my poor hearing on top, it meant I couldn't actually hear the beats of the music, vital so you can time the moves. I had to do everything by memory," he says with a smile.
His hearing has improved thanks to the intervention of Sir Elton John, an ambassador for a charity helping children with hearing loss in the Third World, who contacted Cohen in 2011 after learning of the launch of his Foundation.
"He called me out of the blue, said he loved the work I was doing and wanted to help me. I saw a specialist recommended by him in America who said he was amazed that with my level of hearing I'd been able to be a successful sportsman," he recalls.
The specialist diagnosed him with profound hearing loss and revealed his hearing had deteriorated in the 10 years since his diagnosis, it had dropped from a 33% loss to 50% and could deteriorate further. He now has state-of-the-art hearing aids.
"I'm philosophical about my hearing. I've become so used to coping with it over the years - I lip-read a lot - that I'm determined not to let it bother me," he says.
"I'm an easy going person who thrives on hard work and I'm happy. I don't have any regrets because I don't think you can think like that. I try to be a nice person, do good things, work hard and be a good dad to my kids. It's all I can do."
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