22 August 2023

Bake Off’s John Whaite: ‘My life will be a continuous battle of dealing with bulimia’

22 August 2023

Former Bake Off winner and Strictly runner-up John Whaite picks at his chicken and broccoli lunch, telling me how his recent ADHD diagnosis explains much about his hyperactivity, previous alcohol abuse, eating disorder and perceived depression.

Today, looking fit and toned, he says he’s following the keto diet (low carb) and agrees that he still constantly worries about what he eats.

His difficult relationship with food is charted in his memoir, Dancing On Eggshells, as bulimia took hold while he was studying law at Manchester University.

He sought refuge by baking everything from breads like focaccia and fougasse to Swiss rolls and macarons in his student digs and became gym-obsessed to offset his calorie intake.

Sometimes he would eat all his bakes and then make himself sick, or dump them.

Yet today is looking at the obsessive behaviour in a different light.

“It’s remarkable that since starting my ADHD medication four weeks ago I haven’t had one episode of binge eating. And when you look at studies on the link between ADHD and alcoholism, bulimia and binge eating, in America the medication that I’m on they use to treat binge eating disorder.

“So, I now think I’ve never had depression. I have ADHD burnout, where I get so physically and emotionally exhausted because of my hyperactivity that I can’t function.

“But ADHD is not an excuse for my behaviour,” he clarifies. “ADHD is an infliction, but it is also now my responsibility. I have to deal with my behaviour and my impulses, because I now know what I am prone to do and how I am prone to act. I’m a 34-year-old man and I have to make sure I’m a grown-up about it.”

In his memoir, Whaite charts his life, from growing up in a working class family in a village near Wigan, where his parents ran a chip shop, to dropping out of Oxford University, the pains of coming out, the years of body dysmorphia, workaholism, alcohol abuse and bulimia, while his long-time partner Paul Atkins patiently tried to help him pick up the pieces.

He explores fame and how his bulimia and boozing escalated at the height of and immediately after his time on Bake Off (which he won at the age of 23 in 2012) and Strictly in 2021, when he and professional dancer Johannes Radebe became the first same-sex couple in the show’s history.

As ever, there is a welcome respite in baking, as he crams into the book some of the mouthwatering recipes which stick in his memory.

Today he has therapy from a sports performance coach who teaches him how to slow down, to meditate and to detach himself from ego, he explains. He also does yoga nidra, also known as yogic sleep, for relaxation.

He looks back with pride at his time on Strictly, on the message he and Radebe wanted to convey to anybody who has felt different growing up.

“When we did Strictly, me and Johannes used to say, ‘If just one little boy or girl tonight goes to sleep not thinking that the world would be better if they’re weren’t here, then we’ve done our job’. That’s what it was about.

“It was about that message to say to children that if you feel that you’re different, that is ok. There is a world here that will accept you.

“We didn’t really have that as kids. Any gay storylines in soaps were often met with salacious headlines or the abrupt shutting off of television screens in some households. There was a lot of shame and stigma around it. And there’s still a stigma around the queer community. There’s still homophobia out there.”

He says the ADHD diagnosis came about after he sent a good friend the book manuscript and she responded by saying he was textbook ADHD and should get checked out, which he did, although it was a gruelling process.

“People think it’s just like going to your GP but it’s not. It’s psychiatrists, psychologists, questionnaires, your family’s involved. It’s a very lengthy process.”

He says he used to be impulsive, whether it was about eating, spending or saying too much in interviews, and was reckless, which is highlighted by some heartbreaking anecdotes in the book.

After the joy of coming runner-up in Strictly with Radebe, he embarked on the Strictly tour and started to revisit destructive habits of boozing and binge-eating and split from Paul for a period.

He still has issues around food, he realises.

“Food had the ability to soothe my soul, but at the same time it could chill me to the bone and it could terrorise me and still does.

“I was so obsessed with what I ate, restricting calories, working out twice a day, making myself sick. I was afraid of food. I loved it, and I celebrated it and the beautiful creativity that’s involved with it, but I was afraid of what it could do to me.”

Today, he’s on a ketogenic diet and has lost weight, he says. He exercises six days a week in the gym, body building and doing cardio work but says he’s not obsessed. He also meditates every day.

Yet his life has changed this year. After a horrendous, booze-sodden Christmas during which he admits he was spiteful and curt to his family, he has been sober for more than eight months.

The ADHD diagnosis has also marked a turning point.

“The medication has just made me realise how much a confused muddle my life had been before. I can’t tell you, I’ve bleached my floors, my life is that much more organised, my floors have never been cleaner. My utility room is labelled, it’s organised. And that would have been overwhelming for me to even think about in the past.”

The bulimia, he says, is “an extricable part of who I am now. My life will be a continuous battle of dealing with bulimia. Once you are a bulimic, once you are an alcoholic, you are always those things. I’m more than that, but what’s that’s given me is a real ability to navigate the s*** that life flings at me.

“I can bounce back and deal with things. I can pull myself out of difficult situations with the help of people that I love, of course. I can’t do it on my own.”

His memoir, he says, is a message of hope and redemption.

“You do make messes in life, you make mistakes, you regret things, but you move on, you keep ploughing forward.”

Today, he’s getting ready to reopen his cookery school in a converted barn on the family farm near Wigan and is a regular on the daytime Channel 4 show Steph’s Packed Lunch, but confesses that despite his training at  Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, he still feels inferior to more famous TV cooks including Nigella Lawson, Yotam Ottolenghi and Nigel Slater.

“I feel that if we don’t have people in our industry to look up to, then how do we grow? But I do feel inferior because I’m not this branded machine. I am still just John who makes videos on Instagram and teaches people in his cookery school now and again.”

He’s starring in panto at Christmas in Bradford, playing Dandini in Cinderella, and reckons there will be some dancing. And he’ll be tuning in to this year’s Strictly.

“I’m excited. I can’t wait to see what Layton (Williams) does – he’s supremely talented. And Angela Rippon, the oldest contestant ever! That’s what Strictly’s about – breaking boundaries. We did it, Rose Ayling-Ellis did it and I think Angela’s going to do the same.”

Dancing On Eggshells by John Whaite is published by Kyle Books on August 24, priced £22.

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