Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

'The book is a tribute to my mother because her gift to me was making me strong, and showing me how to empathise'

Renowned fashion guru Susannah Constantine found fame with Trinny Woodall on TV's What Not To Wear series. She tells Gabrielle Fagan how childhood experiences are the inspiration for her new direction as a writer

It's easy to assume that Susannah Constantine has led a charmed life. She dated both Princess Margaret's son, David Linley, and Pakistani cricketer Imran Khan in her youth. She also enjoyed a glamorous career in fashion PR and journalism, before finding fame presenting TV makeover programme What Not to Wear with Trinny Woodall.

The posh fashionistas who gave forthright advice about everything from 'saddlebags' to flat chests, were renowned for their 'boob grabs', had spin-off shows in eight countries and bestselling books in their millions. But after seven years, their popularity waned.

"We tried to keep the partnership going and to get more television work but nobody was interested. We both went into a stage of mourning afterwards, because it was such a huge part of our lives. I lost confidence and felt like, 'F***, who am I? What am I doing?'" admits Susannah (55), who's chatting to me in her rambling Sussex mansion.

In reality, for the fashion guru, the end of her high-profile TV career in 2008 was actually the second time in her life that she's had to reinvent herself.

Painfully shy, anxious and prone to panic attacks because of a childhood marred by her mother's manic depression, it wasn't until she left home in her late teens that Susannah was truly able to blossom and discover her own identity.

It's these early traumatic experiences that she's drawn on as material for her new career as a novelist. Her debut fiction book, After The Snow, tells the story of an 11-year-old growing up with a mentally ill parent.

"There's a lot of me in the book. In so many ways I had a privileged upbringing and my mother was amazing, but her illness ran through our lives like a destructive thread. I remember waking up with a snowball of dread in my stomach just wondering how she'd be each day," she recalls.

"Sometimes she'd be manic and gabbling so fast that you couldn't understand her, while at other times, she'd be paranoid people were threatening us. Sometimes she'd lapse into depression where she was like a ghost. You could see the pain and anguish in her face, which was almost like her silently pleading for someone to make her feel better.

"She made numerous suicide attempts and was in and out of psychiatric hospitals.

"Her sudden, unexplained disappearances (to hospital) left me with a fear of abandonment. That early, ingrained anxiety about her left me vulnerable to panic attacks."

Her "worst moment" came when she visited her mother after one of her suicide attempts. "She was in a hospital bed, connected to tubes and was clearly terrified and confused. She was reaching out to me, trying to escape. It was harrowing seeing her like that and not be able to help her."

Unaware until she was 15 that her mother was ill - "my father was in denial and in those days, that sort of thing wasn't understood or even discussed" - she veered from "being constantly watchful, anxious and trying to keep her safe" to "angry, because I thought wrongly for a long time that she could control what she did".

"I retreated into an imaginary world where I made up stories. I saw the illness as a demonic monster and I was a little girl trying to save her mother from its clutches."

"It was only when I left home in my late teens I felt somehow freed of the burden of responsibility for my mother and was able to focus on myself, decide who I wanted to be, and embrace life. It was a release in a way."

She's combined her continuing career in fashion with working on her debut novel over the past seven years, even plotting part of it while she appeared in TV's I'm A Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here! in 2015.

Writing it was cathartic experience, says Susannah: "I don't want my childhood to sound like a sob story, because it definitely wasn't.

"The book's a tribute to my mother because her gift to me was making me strong, self-sufficient and showing me how to empathise with people."

However, there was one negative legacy from her childhood: her fear that she would inherit the illness.

Susannah confides: "I was absolutely terrified I had the same gene - my mother and I looked alike - and that at some point the illness would develop. It wasn't until I became a mother that I felt I could allow myself to believe I was going to be alright, because the illness usually occurs earlier in life."

These days, Susannah enjoys family life in Sussex with her Danish husband Sten Bertelsen, and their three children, Joe (18), Esme (16), and Cece (13). Her friendship with Trinny is stronger than ever, too.

"When we met (in 1994) I felt I'd found a piece of me that was missing. It was the same for her. I'd never have had the career I have now without her. She's like a sister to me. We talk all the time and socialise as couples - me and Sten with her and Charles (Saatchi). It's lovely to see her so happy.

"We had such an amazing time on the What Not To Wear shows. It was fantastic. I have such happy memories of those years. It was so brilliant seeing women emerge from layers of baggy or unflattering clothes they'd been hiding in.

"It was really about helping them find their inner confidence, rather than a new wardrobe of clothes," she explains.

Today, Susannah herself happily "slobs" around at home in jeans and baggy jumpers - the 'uniform' of the middle-aged women the pair took to task on their shows. "Of course, it's nice to dress up occasionally; I always do when I meet Trinny - otherwise she tells me off! But I love the fact that these days, people talk to me about what I've achieved - the book or my fashion projects - rather than focusing on my appearance. I feel content with who I am and I'm comfortable in my own skin."

  • After The Snow by Susannah Constantine, published by HQ, £12.99

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