'We don't talk about it... It's like a shameful word' - Michelle Heaton on the frightening change every woman endures
From light entertainer to heavy-hitting medical advocate, Michelle Heaton has performed many roles. Speaking out about the menopause is her most important
Michelle Heaton jumps up out of her seat to hug me. "Oh it's lovely to see you again," she says in her distinctive Geordie accent. I'm shocked. First, I can't believe she remembers me - we ran into each other with our respective families in Disneyland Paris a few years ago.
Secondly, her warmth has put me on the back foot. I'd had great craic with Heaton's Dubliner husband Hugh Hanley, while the former Liberty X singer seemed more than a bit standoffish. As Heaton and I chat, I realise that keeping it at ''standoffish'' must have been a huge challenge for her as she was battling menopausal symptoms - in the Magic Kingdom, with two small children. Standoffish was a triumph of will power.
Heaton is meeting me to discuss her unlikely role as an advocate for Menopause Awareness. I say unlikely because the singer is still in her 30s. Heaton has a family history of cancer and specifically breast cancer. She famously had a pre-emptive double mastectomy and hysterectomy when she tested positive for BRCA1. She was widely hailed for her bravery but when the hoopla died down she found herself in the unusual position of being a menopausal woman with a small child and a baby.
Heaton is tiny, even in heels. She has to reach up to kiss me on the cheek and I feel like a lumbering giant beside her. To compound the awkwardness, I manage to cop a feel of her boob as we come out of the embrace. When I apologise she laughs and tells me she's got no feeling in her boobs anyway - another side effect of the double mastectomy.
We're in London's Ivy Tower Bridge for brunch and Heaton tells that she's quite happy to kick back and have a Mimosa without someone calling for their bottom to be wiped. Under the makeup, she looks exhausted and she says that she's been suffering from insomnia which has exacerbated her already severe menopausal mood swings. Like many women, Heaton was unprepared for the physical, mental and emotional impact of menopause. "Mr Sheridan (her surgeon), he did tell me... but the only thing that stuck in my head was putting on weight and that's the least of my worries now," she says, half laughing.
The singer and I spend a lot of time empathising with each other over night sweats, mood swings and many of the other frightening and uncomfortable things that happen to a woman's body during menopause. As a result of her own experience, Heaton thinks that women need to start speaking up and speaking out. "We're not told about it; we don't talk about it. It took me going though it… before this I was as ignorant as everybody else." I agree with Heaton completely and ask her why she thinks this important period in a woman's life, and one which ultimately affects almost all women, is such a taboo?
"It's like a shameful word or admittance," Heaton replies. "We are taught to feel (shame). Men don't want to talk about it but will use it to blame us - 'oh she's going through menopause, that's why she's a bitch'." Heaton firmly believes that it's not just women who need to be educated about this time of their life, but men too. The entertainer goes on to say she thinks "the change" has a detrimental effect on marriages and relationships. "I saw the deterioration of my Mum and Dad's marriage and now I look back and think surely that had to be part of it.
Heaton met her husband Hugh, a decade ago, when she lived in Ireland for three years. While here she worked with the Sunday Independent's Brendan O'Connor on You're a Star. "Brendan was hard work," she says with a cheeky smile. "I'd say that to his face too. But I love him and I miss him. Tell him I miss him!" Heaton's grin becomes bigger as she recalls meeting "my Hughie" in Dublin. "Tara Sinnott introduced him to me as her future husband and I was like NO!" she laughs.
These days she feels guilty that her husband suffers fallout from her menopausal symptoms, telling me she gets ''super rage''. She goes on to say that only the day before, while at home in London, the ''switch'' from ''normal'' to ''super rage'' occurred. "It was because I had nothing to wear," she says, "which is really fucking stupid because I have three wardrobes but in that moment I had nothing to wear and I took it out on my husband who didn't know what to do." She goes on to say that Hanley calmly told her "I don't know what to do with you, I don't know what to do any more because whatever I say is wrong."
"And that was wrong!" she continues, laughing in retrospect. She does an impression of her own high-pitched screeching, "What do you mean you don't know what to say? I want a reaction! He said, 'If I give you a reaction then it's going to get worse and then the kids will ask is Mummy OK Daddy?'. And that killed me," she finishes looking as if she may cry.
Anyone unused to the menopause might read that paragraph and dismiss Heaton as a spoiled diva reacting over nothing. But that's the point. The hormonal surges of adolescence are tiny ripples compared to the tsunami that middle-aged women have to cope with. Of course that's Heaton's other problem - she's still a young woman. Most of her friends are, like herself, women with young kids, who are a decade or two away from their own menopause. Heaton admits to feeling lonely and, as a result of this, feeling that she can't really talk about it "because I don't want my friends to feel awkward", and says she self-censors continually as she feels like she's constantly "moaning".
Heaton goes on to say that speaking out publicly, writing her book, Hot Flush: Motherhood, the Menopause and Me, and talking to her husband has helped. She urges women to smash the taboo and speak out. Heaton has also recently become spokesperson for Femarelle® - a new supplement designed specifically as an alternative for women unable to take HRT. While Femarelle® is primarily a replacement therapy for HRT, Heaton is taking it, under medical supervision, along with using a HRT patch. She says that since starting the supplement she thinks her mood swings have become less severe and she's hoping that she will stop struggling with insomnia too.
As I leave, to another long squeezy hug, she says that she loves Dublin. "I could live there again in the future, I'd love my kids to grow up there," but she goes on to say, "financially it wouldn't work out which is a shame as Dublin is just so amazing". I look at this tiny little woman, slogging away, raising her children, working on her marriage despite her body being a battleground and I think she herself is "just so amazing".
For more information, www.femarelle.com
Sunday Indo Living