TV presenter Anna Richardson is known for her daring documentaries and risky dating game shows that tackle sex, body image, and social taboos. Off camera, however, she has battled a series of mental health issues, from anxiety and panic disorder to depression and agoraphobia. Now back in rude health, she’s on a mission to bring therapy to the masses. ‘It’s really important to know yourself,’ she tells Happiful. ‘It’s the 21st century!’
On the Sunday before meeting Happiful, Anna Richardson was at home with her partner of four years, former Bake Off host and comedian Sue Perkins, discussing one of the most remarkable news reports of that weekend – plans for drag queens to visit primary schools to read stories to children in a bid to boost LGBTQ+ awareness.
“Sue and I were going, ‘Yep, I’d want my kid to go to that school!’” says Anna, 47. “I’d teach my children to be tolerant. I’m not a parent, but my gut reaction is that if my kid wanted to be Ziggy Stardust one day and Beyoncé the next, knock yourself out. I’m very open and accepting and easy around gender and sexuality. I don’t tend to label people.”
That goes for herself too. Before getting together with Sue at a Halloween party in Devon in 2013, Anna was in a relationship with film director Charles Martin, her boyfriend of 18 years. Since going public with her love for Sue, she’s never attempted to categorise her sexuality.
“I’m not gay, I’m not straight, I’m not bi. I’m Anna and I happen to have fallen in love with somebody called Sue, who happens to be a woman,” she says in her gentle Midlands accent. “People think it’s about sex. It’s not about sex. It’s about the person.”
I’m not gay, I’m not straight, I’m not bi. I’m Anna and I happen to have fallen in love with somebody called Sue, who happens to be a woman
Anna, the daughter of retired RE teacher Janet, and father Jim, a canon in the Church of England, was raised in a household where tolerance ruled. The door of their family vicarage in the Staffordshire village of Nantwich was, she says, “always open” to those needing support, irrespective of class, race or sexuality.
Anna has clearly inherited her parents’ open-mindedness. She is deliciously frank when we meet in the rooftop bar at London’s Century Club. It’s the same frankness that makes her Channel 4 programmes so eminently watchable. In 2008, The Sex Education Show was aimed at improving the nation’s knowledge of sexual issues and, more recently, she has hosted the controversial dating game show Naked Attraction. She’s also been willing to act as guinea pig in the name of journalism. For her Revenge Porn series, Anna uploaded naked photos of herself to the internet. She also tried a variety of extreme diets for TV documentary Supersize vs Superskinny.
“I’m not afraid to talk about anything and I want to try to dispel any taboo,” she explains. “You shouldn’t be ashamed to talk about being vulnerable, so I’m OK with nakedness and being mentally naked.” Although her parents were big on community compassion, Anna explains to Happiful that they lacked emotional depth. In her teenage years, in the aftermath of her parents’ divorce, Anna struggled to connect with mum Janet, who had been profoundly scarred by her own mother’s suicide when she was 19.
“I think because of that trauma she became emotionally stuck at 19,” says Anna. “When we were children, she was an amazing mother; but as a teenager I couldn’t get to [her]. Once, when I really needed a lot of emotional support, mum turned to me and very coldly said: ‘I will support you practically, but I will not support you emotionally.’ I think that was a combination of ‘I can’t because I don’t know how to’ and ‘I won’t support you because why should you get it when I didn’t?’”
Last summer, Janet, now 74, had a mental breakdown at her Peak District home and was rushed to A&E. With no mental health specialist on duty (it was a bank holiday), Janet was prescribed valium and told to go back home. Anna, despairing and frantic, paid for a series of private therapy sessions to ensure her mum received treatment. She knew, from personal experience, there was no time to waste.
Anna believes she is genetically prone to mental health issues.
You shouldn't be ashamed to talk about being vulnerable. I'm OK with nakedness and being mentally naked
As well as her mum’s and her grandmother’s mental health histories, one of her brothers also suffered from OCD. She first sought therapy 15 years ago, following a horrifying incident at a hotel in Cannes where she was presenting for ITV. In the early hours of the morning, Anna awoke to find two men in her room, rummaging through her suitcases.
“I was terrified,” she recalls. “I just wanted to get
out of that room.” What happened? “I went for them; they went for me. It was a scramble trying to get out of a very small hotel room.”
A month later, Anna began experiencing serious mental health problems.
“I suddenly became utterly overwhelmed by severe anxiety and panic disorder,” she says, describing the physical symptoms as a “thumping, beating heart, sweating, shaking and palpitations”. She also found it difficult to breathe, speak and sleep because of an overwhelming fear off the dark, and experienced flashbacks that pointed towards post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“On a couple of occasions, I woke up in the middle of the night terrified and shouting: ‘Be careful, watch out!’ I was left severely shaken. I was also very fearful of being in crowded situations. I felt very vulnerable and found it very difficult to leave the house. Night, the darkness – everything frightened me. I thought I was going mad.”