Davina McCall: ‘Menopause is a societal problem’

Conversations around menopause have gone from taboo to mainstream. It’s about time, says woman on a mission, Davina McCall
Davina McCall: ‘Menopause is a societal problem’

Davina McCall has penned her experience with the menopause in her new book, Menopausing. She’s even trademarked the word.

Davina McCall famously looks after herself, and it shows — she is not so much surface shine as inner glow. Since 2004, in a lucrative side hustle to her television presenting, she’s released 14 DVDs, four books and an app around fitness and nutrition. Her next book, Menopausing, is out later this year. She’s even trademarked the word.

The day I speak with her she is celebrating her 30th sobriety birthday — she quit drugs and alcohol when she was 24. She did this with the support of an ex-lover, Eric Clapton, after a tricky childhood with an even trickier mother, followed by heroin addiction and alcoholism, before going on to become one of TV’s most popular — and health-conscious — presenters.

Since 1992, from the madhouse of MTV and anarchic dating programme Streetmate to 10 years of presenting Big Brother and a slew of other reality formats, all the way to various thoughtful, grown-up documentaries, McCall has been a regular presence on television, coming across both as great fun and as someone you could depend upon in a crisis — a kind of cool big sister who wouldn’t let you down.

Her most recent collaboration is with the travel company TUI Blue — she is just back from an all-inclusive holiday where, instead of stuffing her face with all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink, she availed of the all-you-can-do menu on holidays with an emphasis on health and wellbeing rather than hangovers.

“If you want to spend your holiday eating and drinking, you can, but they also offer other ways of unwinding,” she says. “I felt a bit guilty because they asked me to go on holiday to these amazing destinations and try out their exercise classes, and that’s not ‘work’ to me, that’s something I would pay to do.

“So I did paddle boarding, sunrise yoga classes, cookery classes. There’s stuff for kids too — because if your kids are not enjoying themselves on holiday, that’s not a wellness holiday, it’s a stress holiday.”

Davina McCall presented the reality show Big Brother for ten years.
Davina McCall presented the reality show Big Brother for ten years.

McCall has three children, who were born during her stint presenting Big Brother between 2000 and 2010: Holly, 20; Tilly, 18; and Chester, 15. Or as she puts it, “Season 2, Season 4, and Season 7.”

Although Big Brother — which she says was “so much fun, so groundbreaking, so shambolic and crazy” — was peak Davina, since then she’s become synonymous with raising awareness around menopause, and how to live through it positively, rather than losing your mind.

Now 54, she’s been dealing with menopause herself for almost a decade. She realised something was up when she began feeling anxious, weepy, a bit shouty with her kids, unconfident, unsure of herself, putting her keys in the fridge — all the classic menopause brain-hijack stuff. Despite upping her exercise and taking more herbal remedies, it wasn’t until a doctor suggested she try hormone replacement therapy (HRT) that she began to feel a bit more like herself again.

Using her natural medium — TV — McCall has since explored and presented clear, informative programmes for women experiencing menopause and perimenopause. She has particular empathy for the partners of those going through it; she describes how she has received messages from men which have moved her to tears.

It’s not just a female health issue, she says, but something that impacts everyone: “Menopause is a societal problem. If women are struggling, then men are struggling, and kids are struggling. Most men want to help their partners, want to support them.”

She is keen to demystify HRT, given how much disinformation, stigma, and historical inaccuracy surrounds it. When a 2002 study of 16,000 women linked its use to breast cancer and heart disease, women stopped using it in their millions — and suffered in their millions. Yet, despite this study since being debunked, its data based on women aged 70-79 whose risk of breast cancer was already increased, rather than younger perimenopausal women, misplaced fear persists. Today only 10% of women take HRT. She is one of them, despite normally avoiding pharmaceuticals, from paracetamol to epidural (her three children were all home births).

“The only thing I want to do is correctly inform people about what HRT does, the benefits and the drawbacks, so that people can decide what they want,” she says.

“You can’t make a decision if you don’t have all the facts. It’s not very helpful when even the information inside the boxes of HRT is incorrect — how are we supposed to make an informed decision based on that?

“They use one blanket leaflet for all types of HRT, from an older oral form of oestrogen, which says it increases blood clots — yet none of the transdermal oestrogen patches carry any risk of blood clots. But if you had DVT [deep vein thrombosis] or were at higher risk, if you read this leaflet you wouldn’t take HRT. You’d be too worried. How are we supposed to deal with that?”

Now 54, Davina has been dealing with menopause herself for almost a decade and has become synonymous with raising awareness around menopause and living through it positively.
Now 54, Davina has been dealing with menopause herself for almost a decade and has become synonymous with raising awareness around menopause and living through it positively.

McCall, who has always been candid about her recovery from addiction — she recently appeared with DJ Fat Tony on his Recovery YouTube channel — has said the night sweats of perimenopause reminded her of the sweats of heroin withdrawal.

“I attribute my enormous gratitude for even the smallest things to having had a drug and alcohol problem in my early 20s,” she says.

“I am grateful for dawn, and for not being mashed up at dawn — you know that horrible feeling when you look out the window and people are starting to go to work and you’ve been up all night. I’m so grateful that I wake up in the morning and go to bed at night, which sounds ridiculous, but it’s living life the right way around.

“Another thing I’m totally grateful for is dry sheets — and so when they started getting wet again when I began hitting perimenopause around 43 or 44, it felt really grubby and nasty. Not nice at all. 

Born in Wimbledon in 1967 to a French mother and English father, McCall’s mother was also an addict. Aged four, she underwent cataclysmic upheaval when her mother dropped her to her paternal grandparents in Surrey saying she was going on holiday and never came back. She had split with McCall’s father and gone back to permanently live in Paris. McCall has spoken about how her mother was “wild” and smoked “magic cigarettes”, describing her as an alcoholic and drug addict who probably should never have had children.

She has spoken openly about the emotional “hole” that this maternal abandonment caused, and how when she did see her mother during the holidays she would try hard to be “perfect” in order to gain her mother’s love — instead, her mother spent McCall’s childhood not turning up, once abandoning her 12-year-old daughter in a Paris nightclub so that she had to be brought home by a stranger.

By the time of her mother’s death in 2008, they were estranged. Her mother had repeatedly sold stories to the tabloids about her now-famous daughter — including one which appeared in the run-up to McCall’s marriage to her second husband, TV presenter Matthew Robertson, the father of her children who she remained with for 17 years, separating in 2017. She doesn’t speak about a brief three-month marriage in 1997 because her first husband is not a public figure. Since 2019, she has been dating Michael Douglas — not the old Hollywood guy, but her hairdresser of 20 years.

"Menopause is a societal problem. If women are struggling, then men are struggling, and kids are struggling."
"Menopause is a societal problem. If women are struggling, then men are struggling, and kids are struggling."

The tabloid story her mother sold, which involved McCall attending a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, implied that her daughter was on the verge of relapse, rather than keeping her recovery on track. That was the final straw. McCall did not go to her mother’s funeral, and although she says she has forgiven her, at the time of her mother’s death she spoke about her great sense of relief. I wonder how has having an active addict as a mother affected her own mothering — did it make her crazy with over-compensation, as is so often the case?

“I discovered a website called My Horrid Parent (www.myhorridparent.com), which is run by a children and families clinical psychologist,” she says.

“It talks about if you have a terrible mother, you can go on to be an anxious parent yourself, which is the route I took, especially with my eldest daughter. I gave myself quite a hard time, set myself very high boundaries, trying to be the perfect parent. It was exhausting — I was more forgiving of myself with my subsequent children, more relaxed about it. So you either go down that route of perfectionism because you know what it feels like to be forgotten, or for your parent to not turn up or be cruel or whatever, or you might go the opposite way and not want to become a parent at all. My big sister went down that route. She never had children of her own, but was a great auntie to mine.”

McCall and her older sister, Caroline, did not grow up together, although they were very close, until Caroline’s sudden death in 2021 aged 50 from lung cancer, just three weeks after diagnosis. Another loss followed earlier this year with the death of McCall’s beloved father from Alzheimer’s.

Their mother was 16 when she gave birth to Davina’s older sister, who was raised by her French grandparents in Paris. The sisters lived together later on as adults, but spent their childhoods apart, as McCall was raised by her father’s family in Surrey, attending a prestigious private London girls’ school. By 16, she was messing about with cocaine and heroin — after school. When she got a job as a booker for Models One, and had money to spend on drugs, she became addicted.

McCall has always been candid about her recovery from addiction. “I attribute my enormous gratitude for even the smallest things to having had a drug and alcohol problem in my early 20s,” she says.
McCall has always been candid about her recovery from addiction. “I attribute my enormous gratitude for even the smallest things to having had a drug and alcohol problem in my early 20s,” she says.

She recounts, while talking about long-term recovery to DJ Fat Tony, himself a recovering crack addict, how a close friend had dragged her to one side when she was still using, and told her in no uncertain terms that unless she sorted herself out, she would lose all her friends. People, said the friend, were talking about her at dinner parties. About what a mess she was. McCall, the perfectionist, found this incredibly shaming.

With the support of Eric Clapton, briefly her lover and famously in long-term recovery himself, McCall found Narcotics Anonymous and got clean. It was “horrible”, but she did it — and never looked back. Health, for many addicts and alcoholics whose drug and alcohol use put their own health in jeopardy, can become a focal point after recovery — Davina McCall is a classic case.

Except her keen health awareness does not just benefit her own body — and bank balance – as she currently uses her platform to highlight the horrors of, and solutions to, a condition that affects half the population but until this generation has never been given the cultural airtime it so desperately needs.

No, not heroin addiction — menopause. She has done more than most to place it squarely into public conversation: “There’s a willingness for change, and we are there chiselling away at it,” she says. “It’s given me real purpose, I feel like this is something positive I can do.”

Think You’re Going Mad?

Davina’s advice on recognising perimenopause

“The first thing is to start listening to your body.

“If you’re past 40 years old and you start to feel not quite yourself, maybe unusual anxiety like you don’t want to drive at night, or are experiencing weird feelings of worry, or something that’s not really depression but just feeling a bit glum — start monitoring this.

“Monitor when it happens, which days of the month, if your periods are becoming any different. Go online and look up symptoms of the menopause — they are so wide ranging. Heart palpitations, aching joints, things you wouldn’t necessarily attribute to perimenopause.

“Write them all down, including vaginal dryness, or if you are experiencing lots of UTIs, or you’re getting itchy or sore down there – don’t be embarrassed to mention that as well.

“If sex is painful — this is also a symptom, which for most women can be easily fixed.

“Go to your doctor and ask them to talk you through the pros and cons of HRT. And then you make that decision. For me, I was beginning to feel a bit invisible, a bit unable to speak my mind, a bit unconfident — if you are feeling like this, bring someone who cares about you, and who knows about perimenopause.”

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