'I nearly took my own life, but now I'm happy'
Four years ago, Lucy Spraggan wowed audiences on The X Factor, but after quitting the show early, she battled with mental illness. She explains to Gabrielle Fagan how she paid a price for fame and how love's helped her 'battle her demons'
The X Factor's just back on TV, with its line-up of hopefuls dreaming of stardom, but Lucy Spraggan - a former finalist, once hotly tipped to win the talent show - admits appearing on it nearly "broke me".
The Sheffield-born singer, who reached week five of the live rounds in 2012, reveals that the public scrutiny and harsh online criticism she attracted contributed to her contemplating suicide a few months after she quit the series early because of a family bereavement.
"It's an amazing high when you go on a show like that - and I don't regret it for a minute - but you are in this unreal bubble of fame and attention. It means millions of people see you, watch your every move and feel free to constantly criticise you, which is hard to take," says the 25-year-old, who's just released a new single, Dear You - the story of two friends battling mental health issues, inspired by her own traumatic experiences.
"I experienced endless cruel Twitter trolling and comments ranging from 'you're rubbish', and 'how did you ever even get on that show?' to 'you're ugly,' and 'you're fat' and much worse. It felt like the constant destruction of my personality and that my outer shell, which you use to protect yourself, was being worn away. If people tell you you're rubbish day after day, you start to believe it. In the end, the relentless scrutiny, combined with exhaustion and grief over losing my grandma, led to my suffering depression and I nearly took my own life."
It all started so well when Lucy joined the show and she was hailed for her original, heartfelt songs - a mixture of acoustic, folk and hip hop - all of which she wrote herself. She became the first contestant in the show's history to score a Top 40 single and album before the live shows even aired, with her independently released album, Top Room At The Zoo.
It was a shock to all, including her mentor, Tulisa Contostavlos when she suddenly quit, citing illness and saying she was "gutted" not to be able to continue.
"I couldn't carry on. I'd been ill with flu, was exhausted and grieving. I'd got out of the series all I wanted - attention for my music. I'd never wanted to win because I didn't want to go down that pop music route which is often a short-lived career," she says.
"I know I was right now because if I was broken from being on a quarter of the show, imagine what could have happened if I'd stayed till the end. It's a big process to go through being on a talent show. There's a massive jolt to your day-to-day life when you join and, inevitably, when you leave there's a 'crash' as you return with a bump to normality. I know many people who think there should be some kind of therapy offered afterwards. For some people, suddenly having to pick up the pieces of their life and just returning to their old jobs again as if nothing has happened is very tough."
By contrast, Spraggan, who first started performing in festivals aged 13, enjoyed sell-out tours post X Factor, and saw her career go from strength to strength, but "inside I felt empty and as though all the colour had drained out of life", she recalls.
"I felt even worse because people rightly kept saying how well I was doing, but all I felt was worthless, which seemed so ungrateful and wrong. It was down to the depression kicking in, but I didn't recognise it."
One morning she tried to crash her car on a motorway, only stopping herself when she looked at her dog sitting next to her, and realised she'd hit rock bottom.
"I just lost it, but thankfully pulled back right at the last minute. I drove onto the hard shoulder, sobbed my heart out and knew I had to face the fact that something was seriously wrong. I went home and step-by-step started to rebuild my life. I changed the way I worked to give myself more structure, improved my diet, exercised and saw someone for CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy commonly used to treat anxiety and depression). Recovering from a mental breakdown takes time, but you can do it."
Falling in love proved a turning point and, in June, she married Georgina Gordon, who she met during the months she was struggling to recover.
"Meeting 'G' saved my life really. It was love at first sight and I never thought I could be this happy. She's the yin for my yang. I've always been oversensitive and still have anxiety at times, but she's so caring and deals with my dark times really well and helps me through them just by being there," she confides.
She hopes her new single, with a video starring This Is England actor Thomas Turgoose, will increase awareness of depression and help end the stigma around mental health.
"Writing the single was so cathartic and releasing it is another way of my facing my demons. I hope by speaking out about what I've gone through, I can help break the taboo surrounding mental health problems. I'd just urge anyone going through it to talk to someone before they get into the state I did. Expressing your feelings and sharing the pain helps release the pressure on you and is such a relief," says Spraggan, who's an ambassador for mental health charity Young Minds.
"Once you've had depression, you have to be watchful and guard against it happening again, but once you've gone that low, you can recognise the warning signs. You know you don't want to go there again and it makes you more careful of yourself."
She's full of plans for the future - she and Georgina want to start a family soon - and she's finalising a new album.
"In my own mind, I was an X Factor winner even though I didn't walk away with the prize. I got incredible exposure for my music and it really helped me. There's definitely a place for talent shows, as long as people realise that when you come off them, it's really only the beginning of your career. You've then got to prove yourself and you can find prejudice because a lot of people in the music business won't take you seriously if you come from one," she says.
"But I learnt so much from being on the series and everything that happened afterwards has made me a stronger and wiser person. I'm just looking forward to the future and feeling so lucky to have a great career and fabulous partner."
Lucy Spraggan's new single, Dear You is out now. She is an ambassador for Young Minds, a charity dedicated to young people's mental health and wellbeing. Visit www.youngminds.org.uk