11 October 2022

Susannah Constantine on how her alcoholism brought her back to reality

11 October 2022

Susannah Constantine, ‘It’ girl of the Nineties who dated royalty and partied with the likes of Elton John and Mick Jagger,  is in reflective mode today, as we meet to discuss her memoir, Ready For Absolutely Nothing.

“My life has been a bit like Forrest Gump’s,” the writer and broadcaster muses. “I was always the girl at the back of the room, but witness to some amazing situations and encounters.”

We may recognise her from her 2018 Strictly appearance, when she was voted off in the first round with Anton Du Beke, or for her entertaining My Wardrobe Malfunction podcast, in which she interviews famous people about their fashion mishaps, or for her best known show, What Not To Wear, which she co-presented with fellow fashionista Trinny Woodall in the Noughties.

Constantine, 60, acknowledges she has had a life of huge privilege among the upper classes – she didn’t enter a supermarket ’til she left home at 23 – and her story, filled with royal anecdotes and celebrity snippets, makes for an entertaining read.

She dated Princess Margaret’s son Viscount Linley (now 2nd Earl of Snowdon) in her 20s, enjoyed holidays in Mustique and intimate dinners as part of the royal party.

“Quite often, an evening with Princess Margaret meant dancing – invariably to her favourite song, Desmond Dekker’s ‘Israelites’. At the end of a dinner party we’d move to the drawing room, find a little space on the carpet, and dance like you might if you were alone in your kitchen with the morning radio,” Constantine writes.

“I was very fond of her,” she says today. “I saw her as a mother figure. She was someone who, through her own courage, led her own life. I learned a lot from that, to have the courage of my convictions.

“One of my great regrets is not keeping in touch with her after I split up with David. But she gave a dinner for Sten [Bertelsen, Constantine’s husband] and I when we got engaged. That was so generous spirited.”

She has been married to Bertelsen, the Danish entrepreneur and businessman, for nearly 28 years. They have three children and live in a sprawling West Sussex home within 127 acres of land.

Looking back to her beginnings as the daughter of upper crust, wealthy businessman Joseph who, she says, always wanted to be an aristocrat, and manic depressive mother Mary-Rose, an alcoholic who may have used booze to try to hide her mental state and shyness, it’s clear all that privilege came at a price.

They used a ‘hands off’ approach, she recalls, dividing their time between their gentrified farmhouse in Lincolnshire, owned by the Duke and Duchess of Rutland, and a pied de terre in London. The young Constantine was largely looked after by staff and was later packed off to boarding school.

As she grew up, she mixed in rich circles and in her 20s lived the ‘It’ girl life, enjoying lavish Caribbean holidays and hanging out with movers and shakers, from celebrity photographers to racing drivers.

Yet she realised while writing the book that growing up in huge privilege only set her a goal for marriage.

“I was completely unprepared for anything other than getting married. I could have gone to university, but my father said to me, ‘Darling, don’t be silly, you’ll be much better off learning how to make a good Beef Wellington’.

“I wasn’t independent financially or mentally. I didn’t have my own opinions on anything. I was being brought up to become like my mother. But I’ve learned to be very resourceful, push the envelope and do my own thing.”

The memoir, however, features little about her career in fashion journalism, the TV show What Not To Wear which made her and friend and co-presenter Trinny Woodall into household names in the Noughties, or other work-based achievements during her life.

She does, however, chart her alcoholism, which began when her TV partnership with Woodall ended and there was a big void to fill. At her worst, she was drinking a bottle or two a night and wouldn’t venture out socially without a drink first. By 2012, her drinking had become a solitary activity.

The catalyst came during a break in Cornwall with some cousins, when she blacked out, fell over and wet herself on the way back to her accommodation. The humiliation, the shame, the problem, was fully exposed. Returning to Sussex, she sought help.

“I was an everything drinker but I was highly functioning on the outside. So many of my friends said, ‘What?’ when I told them I was an alcoholic in recovery. I was very good at covering it and continuing and putting my family first, but I was dying inside. That’s a very solitary place to be.”

She continues: “During lockdown, I went public about being an alcoholic because I was reading about how many women were suffering, and the response from that was so overwhelming.”

Given her mother’s history, she still doesn’t know if she could have avoided becoming an alcoholic.

“I’ve always assumed it’s a hereditary disease and if you have it, it’s not something that can be avoided. My mum and my grandmother were alcoholics, but was my mum an alcoholic because she was severely bipolar – or was she self-medicating when she was down to try to help herself feel better with alcohol?

“But I don’t think it’s something I could have avoided, because alcohol is so powerful. You have no control over alcohol.”

Her husband, she says, was amazing. “The smartest thing he did was not to try and stop me, because he knew he had no power over my alcoholism. He was there emotionally and physically, he was present all the time that I wasn’t.

“I’m so grateful to him. You look back and feel guilt and shame, but the only way you can make amends as an alcoholic is by staying sober.

“I regret my drinking, but I look at the positives that have come out of it, how I conduct my life today and how I can give the tools of AA and what I’ve learned there to my children on how to deal with difficult things in life.”

She’s been in recovery for nearly nine years and still goes to meetings, which she says are very important, but has booze in the house and doesn’t mind people drinking around her.

Her three children, Joe, 23, Esme, 21 and 19-year-old Cece, she says, were aware of it. The morning after she blacked out and wet herself, she sat them round the table and told them she was an alcoholic.

“Esme said, ‘Yes, mum, you can be a bit embarrassing. My youngest, Cece, was very quiet and told me I needed to get help. I’ve said to them to just be aware that this is a hereditary disease.”

Her family and her career have provided her with the raison d’etre she always needed to move forward.

“I am privileged and there’s not much point in going there, but the situations I am most comfortable in have always been when I had purpose.”

Ready For Absolutely Nothing by Susannah Constantine is published by Penguin Michael Joseph, priced £20. Available now.

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