To millions of viewers at home she's the well-spoken, put-together presenter of daytime TV show Loose Women and the matriarch of a beautiful family. But in a sit-down interview at home with her husband Nick Feeney, Andrea McLean shows HELLO! the other side of her self-labelled 'Stepford Wife' persona.
No one could have guessed the TV star secretly suffered a breakdown last year, at her lowest point finding herself alone in a hotel room, plagued by suicidal thoughts. But with the support of her colleagues, family, friends and therapy, Andrea managed to overcome her breakdown and deal with the past trauma of unhealthy relationships. She has bravely shared her experience in self-help book, This Girl Is on Fire: How to Live, Learn and Thrive in a Life You Love.
We spoke to Andrea on publication day earlier this week from her stunning Surrey home...
Your breakdown will come as a shock to many, including your Loose Women colleagues. How did they react?
"It was a mixture, to be honest," says Andrea. "And obviously remember this is work, so some people still don't know what to make of it but the ones that count have stepped forward and that's been really nice. They've got in touch, and messaged me and rang me, and we've spoken about it.
"Saira Khan, for example, was incredible. She rang me and said, 'I feel like I wasn't a good friend to you because I didn't push you hard enough. I asked how you were and you said you were fine and I never asked you again and actually, I feel like I've let you down. So what can I do to make it up to you and how can I pass on what you're saying to me?'
WATCH: Andrea is interviewed by husband Nick - find out the truth behind their couple's therapy
"These are people who, you work together day in day out, but you wouldn't necessarily bring your problems to work. So that's how I see it. And also I'm really good at hiding it. There were signs there and people missed them."
Her husband Nick adds: "Everyone is very, very busy and caught up in their own life, but there were certain ones, who Andrea has more of a relationship with, who have been absolutely gorgeous."
"Denise Welch has been wonderful, Linda Robson has been wonderful," Andrea says. "Everyone's different and by naming some and not naming others, that doesn't mean anything. I'm just saying the ones off the top of my head. But that's normal in a friendship group. Some people are embarrassed and just don't know what to say, and that's normal too."
"It's like when you get divorced," muses Nick. "Sometimes you don't hear from friends, because they just don't know what to say. A week goes, a month goes, a year goes and all of a sudden they're not your friends. And it was nothing more than they just didn't know what to say so they didn't say anything."
"And I see that, and that's ok," says Andrea.
This Girl Is On Fire by Andrea McLean, £7.99, Amazon
What do your children think of your book?
"When it came closer to the publication date, by osmosis, naturally the conversation started to open up at home and we were talking more about mental health, being strong, and actually I was able to really open up and talk to them," says Andrea, who has two teenage children Finlay and Amy. She is also the proud stepmother to Nick's daughters, Tia-Lily and Sienna.
"Amy put it really well the other day. She said, 'I knew what you were going through, but I didn't know how you felt.' But I'm Mum so my job is to protect the kids. She never knew that was how I was feeling. She's read the book and said she found it difficult because she hated to think of her Mum being sad. But she's really proud of me and that makes such a huge difference. It's actually changed our relationship."
Amy calls her mum Andrea "Mrs Incredible"
Andrea adds of her 13-year-old daughter: "Amy put it so beautifully when we were talking about my past and I'd explained to her the truth behind it. She said, 'Wow mum you're like Mrs Incredible. You just stretched over the top of us and it was like bullets were pinging off you and all you were doing was letting us play underneath, not even knowing that all of this was happening.' I just wanted to cry because that's all I wanted to do. To be a shield over the top of my kids so that I protected them from some of the bumps that they weren't ready to have yet."
Andrea adds: "Will I change my parenting style? A little bit in that I will be a lot more open about whether I'm finding someone's behaviour uncomfortable or I need to take my foot off the gas because I'm tired. But there are some bits that won't change because kids need a captain, they need to know that someone is in control."
"You are a fantastic mum and our children are incredibly lucky to have you in their lives," says Nick.
"You are a fantastic mum," Nick says of his wife Andrea
In the opening of the book, you talk about past abusive relationships and at your lowest point, feeling suicidal. Did you always plan to write a no-holds-barred book?
"It was difficult revisiting times in your past and you can physically feel it – your chest getting tight and you're back there again – but it was worth it," says Andrea. "You can't write a book about helping people turn their life around by just giving the good bits. That makes it an instruction manual. You need to talk them through your whole experience and the journey that you've been on, to show them, whatever you're feeling right now because you've picked this book up, I was there. I get it.
"Although what you're experiencing right now might be different to my experience, the feelings are the same. So everything that I'm explaining in the book and the tips I'm giving, I genuinely know that they work, which is why I had to be so vulnerable. But it's still really hard to know that people will pick this up and go, 'Wow I did not know this about her.'
Andrea at home in her makeshift Loose Women studio
"I was also aware that I was writing it from the point of view of someone who is famous, and people have a very weird attitude towards someone who is known, in that they're not human. They're different to everyone else. They think, 'Yeah but how bad could it be?' But everybody's human. I'm lucky that I can put my story forward and people will listen because of who I am, so that made it even more important to tell it.
"And also, I needed to let so much stuff go. The stuff that I'd kept inside for so long clearly stays private with me, but the results of turning all that around, I needed to tell that story so that people like me who are women who constantly turn up with a bright smile and put everyone first and make sure that everyone's ok, trying to be a good daughter, friend, partner, mother – all these things are being good for others and you don't even realise that you've slid right down the list to the point where you can't even remember who you are anymore.
"And I think so many women have their voice snuffed out. My voice was snuffed out in a very extreme way and I hope to god no one experiences what I experienced. But even if it happens in a lesser way – being talked over in meetings or not being taken seriously – all of that eats away at you. We all know what it feels like to feel squashed and that's why I hope the book helps."
"My voice was snuffed out in a very extreme way," says Andrea
The point at which you felt suicidal in your hotel room came shortly after a disagreement with Nick. Did you talk about whether you were going to include that in the book?
"Nick didn't know I had put it in, he didn't even know it had happened. I hadn't mentioned it at all. I think it was quite a shock for him," says Andrea. "Our disagreement was tiny, I can't even remember what it was about."
"It's never that one thing," says Nick. "When we argue it's not like we're throwing stuff, we barely even raise our voices. But it's never that one thing. But to have that in the book, that after our argument, she felt like that was it. That was really, really tough."
"But I felt it was important to put in because that was a huge part of having a breakdown," says Andrea. "The crux of the book is that it doesn't matter what your 'it' is, we all have our different thing and mine is not more important than anyone else's. I think that's why it was important that I didn't go into huge detail as well, because otherwise people would think, well I haven't gone through that exactly, so therefore this book isn't for me. It's important that people know it's for all of us because we all have our own thing."
The couple praised therapy for helping them deal with Andrea's trauma
Are you fearful of feeling at your lowest again?
"No. I've always known that you have peaks and troughs. As human beings, the way I see it is you know you're alive by your heartbeat. That's life, you go up and down. It's going to happen but what's different now is that I say it and that's what's really changed. I say to Nick, 'I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed and I think I need to cut back,' or 'I'm feeling tired.' And as a team we go, right, clear the decks, cancel everything, have a day off, and sometimes that's all I need. I know what the worst feeling is and I don't want to go through that again."
Do you feel mentally at your strongest now?
"I'm back to where I used to be. It's not like I've discovered some kind of new me, I'm just how I used to be and it feels really nice, it feels really good. It's not like all of a sudden everything's euphoric and you're running around and everything's awesome like the Lego movie. I just feel content. Contentment is a great goal. I look forward to small things. Watching Good Girls on Netflix, on my phone, in the hot tub, is my favourite thing in the world."
"I just feel content now. Contentment is a great goal," says Andrea
One of your core messages is that it isn't enough to survive, you have to thrive. Can you relate to the Duchess of Sussex, who made a similar statement in her interview last year?
"Clearly we're on the same wavelength, she's clearly read my book!" laughs Andrea. "You literally only get one shot at it. I always say it's your birthright to thrive. When you've been through a really difficult time, and it doesn't matter what that is because we're all different, you realise that you do only get one shot at it and it's a real waste at that one shot if you just plod along.
"Because there are people who would love to have the life that you're living and you're wasting it if you're just taking it for granted, not really noticing the good bits of it. Thriving can mean all sorts of different things to different people. It can mean literally sitting with your feet up reading a book, it could be spending time with your kids. You have to find out what works for you and don't be fooled by this advert of 'living your best life'. I think that's total rubbish because it's impossible."
Andrea and her beloved pet dog Teddy
You also speak openly about going to therapy and couple's counselling in the book.
"Therapy was amazing for us. We weren't going because we were in trouble, we were going because I was in trouble. It didn't make any sense at all for me to go and learn to process all the things I needed to understand, and for Nick not to be part of that journey, because Nick is my present and my future. So even though I was dealing with my past, Nick had to know that by innocently saying something, a remark, may remind me of something in my past.
"I got so cross when I mentioned on the telly one time in passing that we had been to counselling and how misreported that was. The headlines were all about Andrea's marriage in crisis. I was so upset because it did such disservice to any couples who are going through any kind of difficulty, because they'd be too frightened to get help, they'd see all the slack that one woman would get if she mentioned therapy."
Nick adds: "We went to therapy so I could learn to understand what Andrea was going through and how I could better work with Andrea, so when Andrea does say something, know that it's not about me, it's about back there, know that it's not personal, and deal with it."
"If I can bring anyone back from the abyss, that fills me with so much joy," says Andrea
You've called yourself a 'Stepford Wife'. How do you think people will react to seeing the other side of Andrea?
"I think people will be quite pleasantly surprised," she says. "I'm a lot more rock and roll than people think. I'm quite brave and strong and I really do push myself and I think people only see me in a one-dimensional way, which is totally understandable because they see me at work. I think people will be surprised by not just how open and raw the book is, but how feisty I am."
"I'm really pleased that she's starting to show her true self," adds Nick. "The amount of people that have said, I thought you were the one who sat at the end of desk on Loose Women, but seeing her fall out backwards of a helicopter on Celebrity SAS – that's Andrea. She is such a strong woman, such a strong person and that's why I think for her to go through this – she's showing her teeth, she's prepared to say no and I'm so proud of her."
Andrea and Teddy relaxing at home
What message do you want your book to give to readers?
"In a nutshell, you can. You think you can't, but you can. So many of our problems that we have in life – overwhelming fear, anxiety, a terrible situation that you're in and you feel stuck – comes because you think you can't change anything about it, or you think you're not good enough, or you think you couldn't possibly. The whole crux of the book is that you can, and you can control more than you think you can.
"Say no to things if they don't resonate with you and you're doing it for other people. That was my biggest problem. I said yes to everything because I didn't want to let anyone down and I didn't want people to not like me. I turned up to events, helped promote this and that, supported charities. I gave so much of myself away until there was nothing left for me. It was quite a difficult thing and you feel quite selfish saying no, but I've chosen my charities now and that's who I give my heart and soul to. I don't spread myself thin any more."
"This book will change lives," Andrea smiles. "I got the most beautiful message today from a friend who texted saying, 'You will save lives.' That chokes me up. If I can save anyone from going through what I went through and pull them back from the abyss and it literally is the abyss, and show them how to move forward, that fills me with so much joy."
This Girl Is on Fire: How to Live, Learn and Thrive in a Life You Love is available to buy now.
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