Jamie Laing on privilege and panic attacks: ‘I’d tell my younger self: don’t change’

The TV personality and Made in Chelsea star recreates a childhood photo and reflects on what he’s learned

Jamie Laing dressed as a pirate in 1992 and 2021
Jamie Laing in 1992 and 2021. Later photograph: Pål Hansen/The Guardian. Styling: Andie Redman

Born in Oxfordshire in 1988, Jamie Laing is best known for his role as chief mischief-maker on Made in Chelsea, the structured reality series he left this year after 209 episodes. It was appearances on Murder in Successville, Celebrity Hunted and Bake Off that introduced wider audiences to his puppyish enthusiasm and later his dancing abilities, when he became a Strictly Come Dancing finalist in 2020. Parallel to his TV career, Laing founded successful vegan sweet brand Candy Kittens and podcast Private Parts. Living in London with partner and fellow Made in Chelsea alumni Sophie Habboo, he hosts BBC Three’s new dating show I Like the Way U Move and has just published his memoir, I Can Explain.

I loved adventures as a child, so it’s no wonder I always wanted to dress up as a pirate. This is me, aged four, in 1992. It was Halloween and our nanny, Julie, created this fantastic costume. Once she made us Flower Pot Men outfits. They were unbelievable.

I was living in a village called Castle Eaton, in a big country house with my mum, dad, older brother, younger sister and two stepsisters. There was always a lot of noise – to this day I can’t sleep unless there’s a background hum – and I had a lot of freedom. One time, I stole a jar of mayonnaise and buried it in mud on the farm. Two days later, my brother dug it up. It stank, but we were intent on healing trees with it. So we started smearing it over the ones we thought might be sick. It was disgusting.

People have this idea that I grew up with millions, but it wasn’t the case. My great-great-grandfather, Alexander Grant, invented the McVitie’s digestive biscuit. It was a family business and his wealth was distributed to a lot of cousins; we sold our shares to the company many years ago. My dad inherited a good amount, but it wasn’t as if we were getting private jets everywhere. We’d have the occasional ski holiday and I’d be lucky if I got a tennis racket for my birthday. I was incredibly privileged, nonetheless.

When I was eight, my life changed drastically when my parents divorced. I knew about divorce because my dad had been married before, and I’d spent my childhood fearing it. Dad bought Mum a house in London after they split up. This sounds ridiculous, but when my mum stood me outside and said, “Here it is,” I assumed it was all three of the townhouses on the road she was referring to. She explained it was just the one, with three bedrooms. I remember thinking: “Wait, what?!”

About the same time as my parents’ divorce, I was sent to boarding school, where you learn to hold in your emotions. You can’t cry because you are surrounded by people at all times; if you do, you are weak. I had to make friends fast: I was sleeping in a dormitory with 15 boys, lots of them billionaires. I managed to remain quite popular – probably because I played sports. If you do that, you are safe. But I was conscious of being cool. I used to buy concealer to cover up my spots. It seems a modern thing in retrospect, but aged 13, in 2001, not so much.

I had a loving family, but I didn’t like change; bouncing from my mum’s to my dad’s and boarding school made me unsettled. I asked my mum the other day why I went to summer camp when I was back for the school holidays. I said: “You sent me to those places because you couldn’t be bothered to look after me? Is that right?” She said: “Yeah!” I laughed. Fair enough. At least she admitted it.

When I was 21, my friends Spencer (Matthews) and Caggie (Dunlop) signed up for Made in Chelsea. My initial reaction was: “Idiots! What are you doing?” I was clearly furiously jealous – ever since I was a kid, all I wanted to do was entertain. Then I was asked to do the second series. I was working at a wealth management fund after finishing my theatre and performance degree at Leeds University, and I remember thinking, I don’t want to do this job. With reality TV there was no longevity or security, but the prospect was way more exciting. Plus I had an idea for a sweet company, so figured I could use the show to talk about that.

I loved being on Made in Chelsea, but fame is fickle and you learn quickly you’re not for everyone. I was at Latitude festival when a group of girls, they must have been 16, were shouting: “Jamie, Jamie!” I joked to my friend: “Sorry about this – I’m really famous.” I turned to them and said: “Hi girls!” They replied: “You’re a twat.”

The show gave me a skewed perception of reality. You’re constantly fighting, bitching, backing someone up or defending yourself. You can’t go into a scene saying: “I had a really lovely holiday.” That’s boring. After 10 years, that grinds you down. At the time you are thinking: this is going to make great TV. Then the camera stops but you keep going – trying to be loud and extroverted. It’s why a lot of reality stars take on a persona. When you take a step back you think: I made bad mistakes. I hurt my mates.

The intensity got to me. One day when I was at home watching television, I got blurry vision and my heart started to beat fast. I went to hospital because I thought I was dying. The doctor sent me home explaining it was a panic attack. I then started to panic about the panic, endlessly, and was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder. But I told no one. I was worried that my career would disappear; I thought I’d never get a proper job as I’d been on reality TV and was unemployable. In the end, I told my mum; she took me to a therapist. Being open was the road to recovery. I feel much better now I’ve accepted who I am. When you’re young, you’re desperate to fit in. In my 20s, I even shaved the sides of my head and tried to get into techno. But as you grow up, you’re more comfortable. Finally I went: “It’s OK. This is who I am. I feel anxious, but that’s fine.” When you accept it, you can start to heal.

People assumed I started my sweet company with family money. That wasn’t true, and it was frustrating for my business partner and everyone who works there. They built it from the ground up. A bag of our sweets is sold every 12 seconds.

My mum still asks me: when are you going to get a proper job? But I don’t mind. I feel so lucky. I have one of the Made in Chelsea producers to thank for my latest job, hosting I Like the Way U Move. When the original host dropped out at the last minute, she suggested that I replace them. I imagine the conversation went: “Who’s that guy who’ll do literally anything? Let’s get him!”

My mum’s never watched anything I’ve been in – apart from Strictly, because all of her friends were – but she phoned me the other day really angry because two contestants had been sent home. She is invested in it, which is a huge thing for me.

If I were to speak to that little pirate boy now, I’d tell him: don’t change. Maybe don’t smear mayonnaise on the trees, but go and have fun. Be naughty. Have an adventure.

Contributor

Harriet Gibsone

The GuardianTramp

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