Andrea McLean was in a hotel room for work when months of money worries and stress culminated in a sudden onslaught of suicidal feelings.
“Unless someone’s been there it’s impossible to describe,” she says. “It lasted a night and it was the longest night, dark and horrible. I was on the floor, pacing the room and crying.”
Yet the Loose Women host hid her despair from the rest of the world – including her husband of three years, businessman Nick Feeney.
“The next morning I got up off the floor and went to work. I spent a whole day pretending everything was fine. By the time I got home I thought, ‘It’s passed. I still don’t feel right but I don’t want to think about it any more.’ So I never mentioned it.”
It was only after Andrea, 51, wrote her Sunday Times bestseller describing the breakdown she went on to have that Nick discovered how low she had been.
“Nick didn’t find out until he read about it in the book, he was devastated,” she says – but insists he needn’t feel bad, because like many women, she had been determined to put on a brave face.
“You don’t want to bother anybody,” says Andrea – which, she explains, was her motivation for writing This Girl is on Fire, part memoir and part practical guide to show struggling women how they can learn to love life again.
“I wanted to show I totally get how you’re feeling, I’ve felt like that,” she says. “People said, ‘Don’t write about having a breakdown, people will think you can’t cope. Well, I couldn’t. But I can now.”
It is hard to marry the warm, smiley presenter speaking exclusively to the Mirror from her Surrey home with the stressed-out shell of a woman Andrea became.
Yet decades of surviving in the cutthroat world of TV taught her to put on a brave face. “I’m used to it. You’re a commodity, you’re replaceable,” she says. “I’ve had to get a thicker skin.”
By the time she started her TV career as a GMTV weather girl in 1997, she was already suffering panic attacks. The first happened when a man knocked her flying on the Underground.
“Nobody helped and I had a panic attack on the platform. It feels like you’re having a heart attack,” she says. “It took years to know what they were.”
By her 40s, she had learned to control most attacks with breathing techniques. But working in live TV, combined with bringing up two children – Finlay, 19, from her first marriage to TV producer Nick Green and Amy, 13, from second marriage to builder Steve Toms – and starting an online business with third husband Nick left her exhausted.
She says: “I’d feel like crying. It’s the feeling you get when a train is underground – that rumbling feeling something is not right.”
She also had money woes, having splurged on a soft-top BMW and holidays to celebrate getting the all-clear from potentially fatal blood vessel disease vasculitis, with which she had been diagnosed. “I got a sense of ‘You only get one life.’ I took my eye off the ball. I thought I was in a Disney film and it would work out.”
Eventually, she couldn’t afford her tax bill. “I’m freelance. You put money aside for tax and I spent it. I was mortified, then scared,” she says, admitting the subject of money is so taboo she was unsure of including it in her book.
“Then I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ What’s the one thing we all worry about? Money.” She figured a way to pay her tax – but “that was one of the reasons I was working so hard and saying yes to everything.”
It took a conversation with friend and Loose Women make-up artist Donna last July to realise something had to give. “She was waiting after our morning meeting.
She said, ‘I’ve been worrying about you, you are spinning, trying to do everything and be everything to everybody’,” she recalls. After years of juggling, Andrea says: “All the balls dropped on the floor. It was so nice to have someone call me out. I went home and told Nick I needed to take my foot off the gas. We cancelled a lot.”
She booked counselling and brought Nick with her – not, she stresses, due to marital difficulties. “If you’re a team and one of you is going through something, the other needs to understand it. We worked out how to move forward as a couple.”
Before her breakdown, Andrea – who wed Green in 2000 and Toms in 2009 – had felt embarrassed to be a serial bride. “Privately, I knew the reason I married three times and I had entered everything with love. Publicly, it was embarrassing, so I would be the first to get the joke in – ‘Oh, I love the taste of wedding cake!’ But a bit of me was annoyed I had to take the mickey out of myself.”
She has since stopped doing so. “Now, I’m proud of being able to say ‘Yes, I’ve been married three times’. I’m proud of the fact I’ve single-handedly raised two brilliant children. I think I’ve been a good role model. I’ve never been bitter.”
Nick, 48, has been unflinchingly supportive. Andrea says: “Subliminally, my brain knew it was my turn – I’d caught him, now he’d catch me. We’re best of friends.” Instead of working constantly on the website they have built, they’re spending quality time together.
“I said we needed to have a hobby that would force us not to talk about work. Before Covid we’d just started going to salsa classes. We need to find something else.”
Work-wise, she is still very much in demand. “I’ve been fortunate in terms of when I came into TV. The industry has changed. Now I’m in my 50s, people are respected. They have experience and wisdom and I think we look great. I’m not as firm and not as fit but I think I’m awesome – I’m happy with who I am.”
Since recovering from her breakdown, she says: “I feel like me again, how I did as a teenager. I had acne and a perm, never had a boyfriend. But there was something in me that always knew I was going to find a way to make things work. I stayed cheerful. That’s how I feel again. I feel freer.”