‘I’ve heard it all: she’s a fraud, a liar, a thief’: Jack Monroe on alcohol, addiction and answering her critics

She’s the anti-poverty campaigner and food writer who shot to fame by teaching us how to make the most of our pennies. But behind the scenes her world was unravelling

A car calls at Jack Monroe’s home in Southend to take her to the photoshoot at noon. Nobody appears to be in. The driver rings the bell and calls her mobile. Nothing. 12.30pm. More ringing, more calling. Still nothing. 1pm. Her agent tries her. Then her publisher, then her former girlfriend. Still nothing. 1.30pm. We call off the shoot, and the car leaves. Everybody is beginning to panic. Where is she?

At 2pm, Monroe wakes up and looks at her phone. She sees all the missed calls – and the time. Now it’s her turn to panic. She calls her agent, apologises like crazy, and makes her own way to London. Two hours later, she’s lying in a bath of pennies for the photoshoot, still apologising. “Every single one of those people trying to get in touch with me thought I’d relapsed. My AA sponsor came round and tried to get me up, but I just couldn’t wake. The first thing I did was ring my sponsor and say, ‘I promise to God I haven’t relapsed.’”

She tells me she woke at 6.15am, got dressed, pottered around, let the dog out, fed the cat, did all the routine things. Then she sat on her bed to put her boots on, and the next thing she remembers is waking up at 2pm. I ask why she is so exhausted. “I’ve just been overdoing it recently. Everybody’s been saying, ‘You need to slow down.’”

There is a big difference today though, she insists. “Two years ago if I’d sat down on my bed and fallen asleep and woken up hours later, I would have just gone, fuck it, got a bottle of whisky and emerged a month later.” She’s talking 19 to the dozen. How did she feel when she saw the time? “I cried. I just cried my eyes out. I thought everyone was going to be really angry. I couldn’t stop crying the whole way. The cab driver must have thought I was running away from home.”

Jack Monroe in a roll-top bath filled with copper coins
Set design: Lisa Engel at Propped Up. Hair and makeup: Alice Theobald @Arlingtonartists using Morgan’s Pomade and Guerlain. Photograph: Pål Hansen/The Guardian

Monroe is the anti-poverty campaigner and food writer who kept herself going by making the most of her pennies. She showed us how to survive in the age of austerity by being frugal in the extreme – making meals for 30p, and reusing every leftover. But I’m about to find out that it wasn’t as straightforward as that.

Today, few people divide the public like Jack Monroe. For many, she is a heroic anti-poverty campaigner, as evidenced by her recent awards. In October, she won the 2022 Food Hero at the Observer Food Monthly Awards, and a couple of weeks ago she was named The Grocer’s Hero of the Year. Both publications praised the way that Monroe has highlighted the fact that food inflation disproportionately affects the poor. As for her critics, they say she exaggerates her influence, makes claims she cannot back up, and is not transparent about money.

Perhaps it was inevitable that she would become such a controversial figure – the Jack Monroe story seemed too good to be true. A decade ago a young woman (she now identifies as non-binary and transgender, but is happy for us to use the pronoun she) blogged about living in dire poverty and surviving by cooking meals to feed herself and her son for £10 a week. The blog went viral. Before long, Monroe had columns in newspapers, was on the telly, feted by the liberal media. She was an out-and-proud lesbian, gorgeous, gobby, tattooed, smart and funny, showing people how to get by on a pittance. Some people thought she was smug and opportunistic, and deserved to be taken down a peg or two. When they got the chance, they jumped at it. In late 2014, Monroe contributed to a thread on Twitter about why then prime minister David Cameron should resign, saying: “Because he uses stories about his dead son as misty-eyed rhetoric to legitimise selling our NHS to his friends.” Columnist Sarah Vine responded in the Daily Mail by accusing her of heartlessness and hypocrisy, telling Monroe, “You used misty-eyed rhetoric about your son to build your career.”

Despite her success, Monroe continued to plead poverty. Her critics started to dig deeper. Hold on, they would harrumph, she describes herself as a working-class kid with four and a half GCSEs (the half was for taking the short course in RE rather than the full GCSE), but when she first emerged she said she was middle-class and had had a good education. They pored over datelines for inconsistencies, pointing out that she said she had spent one Christmas freezing in the dark, without heating and light, but just a few weeks earlier she had invited people to come round for cake. And on it went.

More and more people began to question her veracity. And that is when the world became a more threatening place for Monroe. In 2019, she announced she was an alcoholic in recovery. Perhaps naively, she wrote an article for the Observer a week after she had stopped drinking saying that she was beating her alcoholism. She lapsed and lapsed again. Meanwhile, the attacks intensified.

Nowadays, Monroe refuses to answer her door to strangers. Nor will she go out after dark by herself. When she turns up at events, she is often accompanied by security. Monroe has been stalked, strangers have appeared outside her son’s school, maps have appeared on social media detailing where she lives. Her critics say she is a fake and a liar; that she has exploited goodwill and poverty to make a fortune. There have been messages on social media encouraging her to kill herself. Not surprisingly, at times Monroe has considered taking her own life.

And yet the Monroe who appeared on TV or in interviews seemed as resilient as she was irreverent. Like she does today. She giggles and goofs her way through the shoot. At the end, the photographer’s assistants sweep her clean of pennies, and she rushes off to the loo in her flesh-coloured swimsuit, chattering with cold. “Sorry I’m roaming around in a romper suit, like an overgrown baby. I had a blast, lying in the bath in the nude, covered in fucking pennies!” Well, you weren’t quite nude, I say. “No, I wasn’t, but my tit kept falling out of my swimsuit and I was fishing copper coins out of my arse crack at one point.” This is the laddish, likable Monroe we’re used to seeing.

Jack Monroe shot from above in a bath filled with copper coins, with just her face and hands showing

She returns in a grey top and checked trousers, ready to head out into the icy Hackney night. We find an empty Thai restaurant, where Monroe takes about 10 seconds to order. “I’m starving. I’m going for spring rolls and prawn crackers and then a big curry.” Her voice is so nasal she could be wearing a nose peg.

As she talks, I’m looking at her arms. One tattoo merges into another, pretty much telling the story of her life. On her right hand a note is scribbled. I wonder if it’s a reminder. But it turns out to be another tattoo – of the quote “Find what you love then let it kill you,” usually attributed to Charles Bukowski. “I found what I loved, which is whisky, and it very nearly killed me,” she says. “This time two years ago, I was a wreck. My liver was packing up, my kidneys were hurting, my skin was grey, my hair was falling out.” It’s taken a couple of false starts to get there, she says, but she insists she’s now doing well. Monroe is back with a new book to help us through the cost of living crisis, and help her make a new start. Thrifty Kitchen comes with an endorsement from Nigella Lawson (“Jack Monroe is a force for good in the world”) and more than 120 low-cost recipes, from veg-peel falafel to tinned-peach drizzle cake. It also comes with a freshly baked controversy. Thrifty Kitchen contains a number of suggestions which have been criticised for being unsafe (notably, using a sharp knife and a hammer instead of a tin opener).

Earlier this week, publisher Bluebird issued a statement about “potentially risky” hacks and tips in the book, and amended text in the ebook edition. Monroe is donating a number of books to the Trussell Trust, the charity that runs a network of food banks in the UK, but the Trust has expressed concerns about the current version of the book. “The safety of people who use food banks is our priority, and food banks aim to help people access essentials such as tin openers if needed,” it said in a statement, adding that it would distribute the books to its food banks once the publisher had included an addendum. Monroe can barely open her mouth without causing a controversy these days.

She has been in recovery for about 18 months, and tries to go to 12-step meetings every day. “One of the things about being in recovery is you sit down and assess your life. You do what we call a moral inventory. You go over five years at a time, and identify things you’ve done, things other people have done, and you look for the clues.” What has she discovered about herself? “From a very young age I’ve had a self-destruct button.”

The young Monroe was academic and driven. Her father worked in the fire service, her mother was a nurse, and she and her three siblings grew up in Southend. She attended the local grammar school where many of the pupils came from a more well-to-do background. Monroe was determined to do better than all of them.

Class, she says, has always confused her – it changes, depending on who you mix with. As a child, she didn’t realise her parents were struggling for money much of the time. At grammar school, she found other children holidayed in Tenerife or went skiing while her family took the ferry to her maternal grandmother’s two-bedroom house in Northern Ireland or went caravanning in England. She must be working class, she thought. By the time she left school, her father was in middle management at the fire service. When her mother had to retire from nursing, she started fostering. Her parents ended up fostering dozens of children, and her father won an MBE in 2007 for his services to children and families. Of course she was middle class, she told herself. Then she dated Allegra McEvedy, the chef and co-founder of Leon. McEvedy’s father was a psychiatrist and historian, she went to public school and considered herself middle class. So Monroe reassessed again. “I only realised what middle class looked like when I lived with Allegra. She’s lovely, and we’re still good friends. But I’d sit round the table with all her friends going, ‘Fuck me, I don’t belong here.’”

For her first year at grammar school, she was top-of-the-class swotty. “Everyone thought I was going to get 15 A* GCSEs and be a doctor.” At 12, she crashed. “I got really depressed and had severe anorexia. I stopped trying at school. My parents said, ‘You need to start eating otherwise you’re going to die.’” She sends me a photo of herself from that period in which she looks skeletal.

She struggled with anorexia until she became pregnant at the age of 21 (the father was more of a close friend than a boyfriend – although they have never lived together, they remain close and share childcare). “When I got pregnant, it was like the switch flicked and I thought, this isn’t about me any more; this baby needs feeding. I was with a friend, and we went round Asda and it was like what I imagine being on an acid trip is like. We put everything into my trolley that I hadn’t allowed myself to enjoy for years and I got ginormously fat – steak pies followed by cherry pies.”

Jack Monroe in 2013, standing in a kitchen wearing an apron
Monroe in 2013, when she started writing for the Guardian and Observer on how to eat for £10 a week. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Monroe, now 34, left school at 16. She worked in all sorts of jobs as a teen – nightclubs, cafes, supermarkets – and from the age of 12 helped her grandfather run his guesthouse at weekends. One day, she says, her father walked into the Starbucks she was working in, told her she needed a proper job and that the fire service was having a recruitment drive. Monroe complained that she wasn’t interested, but applied nonetheless. “Something like 3,000 people applied and they recruited 12. I didn’t get in.” She says she was later told she was 13th on the list. “I suddenly wanted nothing more than to be in the fire service, whereas the day before I couldn’t have cared less.” She grins. “Really, I wanted the opportunity to turn it down.”

Eventually, she got a job in the control room. “I loved every single aspect of it. I didn’t think I would, because it’s disciplined, authoritarian and male-dominated. You’ve got to polish your shoes and iron creases in your epaulettes. That structure and discipline was exactly what I needed.” The skills she learned still serve her well. “I can be very calm in a crisis. If the occasion calls for it, I can click into being very organised, methodical and analytical. And I can still iron a shirt in 30 seconds flat.”

It was when she was training to transfer from the control room to become a firefighter that she became pregnant with her son, who is now 12. She found the shift work was incompatible with motherhood. Her union rep told her she would probably win at an employment tribunal because she had not been offered flexible working, but Monroe decided to walk away from her decently paid job without a fuss. “It’s ironic, because I said, ‘Don’t pursue it because I don’t want to end up in the papers.’ I didn’t want the attention.”

Monroe soon found herself struggling, jobless with a baby, and housing benefit that fell £80 short of her rent. It wouldn’t have mattered if the difference was £80,000, she says, the effect was the same. She found herself in a poverty spiral. “You know if you put a frog in boiling water and gradually turn up the heat, it doesn’t realise. Well, it was like that. Just a big decline without me fully realising. I kept thinking, tomorrow I’ll get a job, tomorrow I’ll go into town and hand my CV out, and people will say, ‘Ah yes you’re exactly what we’re looking for.’” But it didn’t happen.

Before long, Monroe was using a food bank. “It had taken me four or five weeks to pluck up the courage to go. The first time, one of the women looked at me and I looked at her. She went to church with my mum. She said, ‘Your mum will be devastated.’ And I said, ‘You can’t tell anyone. You haven’t seen me.’ She said, ‘Your parents will help you,’ and I said, ‘They can’t know.’”

That’s what I don’t understand, I say. Why didn’t you tell your parents when they were in a position to help? “Because … ” For once, she slows down. “I was ashamed. I was ashamed that I had had a good job and I’d fucked it. I was embarrassed that I’d ended up not being able to provide for my son, and I was worried that if I told a soul, the walls would come crumbling down. Because my parents had fostered for most of my childhood, I’d grown up with this fear that if I ever had a child, he would be taken into care. That I would be an unfit mother. I’d grown up with almost 100 children revolving through my childhood home. So in my head, nearly every kid went into care because nearly every kid I came across was in the care system. I was terrified that if I told anyone, my son would be taken into care.”

Monroe decided to flog pretty much everything she owned to pay for her rent. She waited until her parents were away, then put a notice in the local paper. It ended up running a story about her and, unsurprisingly, her parents found out. “They were really upset. They came round with two Sainsbury’s bags for life. It was like Christmas. All this stuff that we hadn’t had for ages. There was a box of Coco Pops! I sat there like a child and ate bowl after bowl.”

Until then, Monroe had been known by her birth name, Melissa Hadjicostas (her father is of Greek-Cypriot heritage). She decided to write about her life of poverty under a pseudonym. One night with friends, she came up with Jack Monroe. Jack had been a childhood nickname (she had always been tomboyish, she says) and Monroe was after Marilyn. She didn’t want to embarrass her family by using her real name. But it was more than a pseudonym. Now felt like a good time to reinvent herself; to start afresh. In July 2012, she posted a blog entitled Hunger Hurts, in which she talked about her struggles as a broke single parent and posted recipes that could provide family meals on the cheap. It went viral. She became a weekly columnist for her local paper and wrote columns for HuffPost. Her profile was growing, but her bank balance wasn’t. She was paid a pittance for her work.

In 2013, she started to write columns for the Observer and the Guardian on how to eat for £10 a week. She began to appear on TV. Although Monroe seemed fearless (stylish, extravagantly tattooed, outspoken), she was anything but. “The first time I was on TV, the makeup artist used Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour cream on my lips because it stops them sticking to your teeth, and she gave me a tube because I liked it so much. And that became something I had to do before I went on stage or TV. It meant, I’m ready now. And somewhere along the way the Elizabeth Arden got replaced with a drink.”

Monroe says she has drunk recklessly since her late teens. “I worked at a nightclub, and towards the end of the shift I’d just be necking spirits. Mine-sweeping the bar. Disgusting!” When she was pregnant, she stopped, then after her son was born she couldn’t afford to drink. But now that she had a bit of cash, she was boozing again. The more successful she became, the more fearful she became, and the more she masked those fears with drink. Is it true you were drinking a bottle of whisky a day? She nods. “Yep. A bottle, a bottle and a half.” If she was making a public appearance, she drank vodka because it has no smell. Monroe was becoming a household name, and she was out of control. She had been diagnosed with autism at school and ADHD as an adult, and she was a barely functioning alcoholic. “If I did morning television, I would take a Sprite bottle or a Thermos flask and fill it with booze, and I’d sit in the car on the way drinking it. I thought I had to have a drink to give an interview, to be on camera. It became ingrained – I can’t do this without doing that.”

She was also struggling with her identity. In 2015, she announced she was non-binary. She said she considered herself trans, was taking testosterone and thinking about an operation to remove her breasts (which she hasn’t had). But she still valued her female side, and just really wanted to be her own version of trans Jack, whatever that meant. Soon after her announcement, she won the Women of the Future award in the media category. Monroe said she was “surprised”, adding, “I’m not sure I’ll even be a woman in the future.” She believes this is when the personal attacks intensified on social media, with people asking why she should have qualified for the award when she didn’t consider herself a woman. Questions were asked about her finances. Why was she effectively begging for money on fundraising platforms when she was now a bestselling author, a Guardian columnist and appeared regularly on TV?

Towards the end of 2015, she launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise £8,000 for her third book Cooking on a Bootstrap; she raised more than £60,000. The book wasn’t published until 2018, and by then she had asked for more money because she said she had underestimated postage costs. Meanwhile, she invited people to support her on the membership platform Patreon. For £3.50 a month (the minimum), she promises exclusive content and discount codes for her website; for £7 a month she promises all that and three limited-edition art postcards every month. There are six levels of membership. Level six costs £44 a month, and Monroe provides postcards, recipe cards, a signed copy of every book when it comes out and “a signed framed print of one of her food photographs in the first month, and a mounted photo every following month”. The problem is that in the first 19 months she provided very little content and didn’t provide the extras she had promised (she says she has since fulfilled the outstanding extras). Even loyal supporters began to feel cheated. Her haters responded with direct threats. “They sent me pictures of nooses. One of them threatened to come to do me over with a piano wire at my book signing. I came across a conversation on Twitter where two of them openly speculated about what vulnerabilities they can lean on to pressure me to top myself.”

Monroe winning the 2018 Food Personality award at the Observer Food Monthly awards, with Jay Rayner and Nigella Lawson.
Monroe winning the 2018 Food Personality award at the Observer Food Monthly awards, with Jay Rayner and Nigella Lawson. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

What have they got against you? “They think I’m a fake. They think I was never really poor, my parents are millionaires, I’m a millionaire, and I made all of this up for a bit of attention.” The trolling has had a huge impact on her mentally. “But if I disappear, they’ve won, haven’t they? They’ve got what they wanted,” she says. “And there is a reason why I’m doing what I do after 10 years, because I think some people find it a bit fucking useful.” Has she ever felt like disappearing? “Oh yes. Absolutely. Either into obscurity. Or into the sea. Or off the end of a pier.”

When people contacted Monroe on social media to ask how much money she had made on Patreon or what has happened to the money (she has 643 followers at the time of writing), she declined to answer and said she was being bullied. It wasn’t a good look.

People say you’ve taken money, I start to say. “Yes: ‘She’s a fraud, she’s a liar, a thief, a chancer.’ I’ve heard it all.” How do you answer that – you don’t seem like a fraud to me, but it does look as if you’ve taken a lot of money. “I’ve been an absolute chaos. I’ve been very ill, physically and mentally.”

I ask if the simple truth is that lots of the money was spent on alcohol. “I was drinking a lot so I was losing work left, right and centre because I was unreliable and chaotic. I was spending money.” Were you spending recklessly? “Yes!” she says instantly, with what sounds like a sense of relief. “Oh my God! You can go online and buy furniture. That’s what I used to do. I’d go online absolutely shitfaced and buy nice furniture.” What was the most excessive thing you bought? “Sideboards.” How many? “Four!” She is laughing, out of embarrassment. “One day after the next. It turned up and I didn’t like it. And then I got another and another and another.” Did you have space for them? “Course I didn’t have space.” How much did they cost? “About £300 each. Like I say, I’m a chaos.”

One year she filed her tax return late. There was speculation that this was because, “I earned nigh on a million quid and didn’t want anyone knowing,” she says. “Entirely fabricated nonsense – I’m just incredibly disorganised about paperwork, and for many years found dealing with financial matters and/or government departments extremely traumatic. I’d earned around £25,000 that year.”

Monroe does not deny that she has abused the goodwill of well-meaning backers. What she does insist is that she’s not a fraud, hasn’t committed fraud, and hasn’t made pots of money from those who have financially backed her. If you’d been earning £1m a year, I start to say. She finishes my sentence. “I would have spent it.” The irony is stark and uncomfortable. The guru of thriftiness was chucking away tens of thousands of pounds, given to her by the public to support her work, on items she didn’t even want, let alone need.

“A couple of things happened to get things as precarious as they were. My partner and I split up a couple of weeks after I had the lease on our house. It costs me £3,300 a month to run that house, and that is on a tight budget, without turning the heating on and a single lightbulb.” She breaks down the sums for me. It’s a far cry from the stringent budgeting that made her name.

There’s another thing she’s not mentioned, she says – tramadol. Six years ago, she was prescribed the highly addictive opiate, for arthritis. “I loved that. Loved it too much. It’s basically legal heroin. It’s handed out by the doctor, and it’s different if the doctor gives it to you, isn’t it?” She answers her own question. “No, it’s not fucking different. It’s an opiate. I was taking them for 18 months.”

In 2021, she finally took herself to rehab. At the time she was engaged to Louisa Compton, Channel 4’s head of news. They were both saving for their wedding. She used the money she had saved to pay for her treatment, and soon after she finished rehab, they split up.

When she went into rehab, she says, she didn’t admit the extent of her problem. “I wasn’t honest about what I was drinking and taking because, again, I thought somebody might take my son into care if I said I drank a bottle and a half of whisky a day and took 40 tramadol.” How many? “Forty, at the end.” In a day? “Yes, how I’m not dead is beyond me.” Was it an attempted overdose? No, she says, not in the conventional sense. “I took eight, then another eight, then another … I remember counting them the day before – 40, that was five days’ worth. I didn’t care if I died. I crashed out, fell over in the bathroom, gave myself a fractured eye socket, a broken nose. I suspected I might not wake up again.”

In rehab, she took herself off social media. “It was liberating as fuck. We just sat and talked. I opted out of the world of television, trolls, the lot. And after I left I didn’t want to go back. I thought maybe this is the end of the road for me and I’ll train as a therapist. Anyway, I drifted back, didn’t I?” She sounds regretful.

A portrait of Jack Monroe with bare shoulders

About 18 months later, she is still sober, albeit fragile. She hopes Thrifty Kitchen will help us get through the cost of living crisis and help her make a new start. But people are still asking questions about her character and the latest controversy hasn’t helped. There are extended blogs dedicated to exposing the inconsistencies in Monroe’s story. In Thrifty Kitchen, she acknowledges that she is more comfortable than she was when she first came to our attention. But only a few months ago she claimed that things were as bad as ever; that she was melting soap into shampoo to save money. How can both be true?

Easily, she says. Freelance life is precarious. “I’ll get a good job, a good contract, but I don’t know when the next thing is so I don’t know how long I’ve got to spread that for. It’s all right now. I’m not poor.” She is still hoping to buy her first home in the near future.

Her recent blog sounded like a Dickensian melodrama. Were you exaggerating about turning soap into shampoo? “No, we had nothing. But it was also because I was writing on frugal living. I signed a book deal between then and now. It wasn’t a life-changing amount but it was a situation-changing amount, which meant I could go from, ‘Fuck me, how am I ending up back here again?’ to, ‘OK, I can breathe for a bit.’”

I ask if she felt bad about taking money via Patreon and not delivering on her promises when she was still drinking. To be honest, she says, it was way down on her list of priorities back then. “I was struggling to stay alive. Sending out recipe cards didn’t even register. I didn’t care when I went to bed if I didn’t wake up the next morning. There was no future planning. I didn’t have the guts to off myself, but I was drinking and using drugs in a way that was going to get me in the end.”

It’s getting colder by the minute. I go to pay for our food, but the boss tell me it’s free. Why, I ask. “She does so much good for people,” he says. Monroe takes out £20, leaves it as a tip and thanks them very much. We head off to look for somewhere we can get a hot drink. That was lovely what he said about you, I say to her. Does she often get told she doesn’t need to pay? “No, it’s only the second time it’s ever happened.”

We find a pub, and Monroe insists she’ll be fine here. She orders a cup of tea, then says make it two cups of tea. We talk about how people in the industry now view her. “I’ve got to accept people have been witnessing my behaviour in public for 10 years, so it’s going to take quite a long time for people to go, ‘Things are different now.’” Do you think you will be able to convince them you’re OK now? “One of the reasons I’m being so frank about the depths I plumbed is not to use it as an excuse but to go, that was then. I’m aware I was a fucking mess and I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way, and I’m trying to put that right. By the time you get to steps eight and nine of the 12-step programme, you’ve made a list of all the people you’ve harmed and you’re willing to make amends to them all. And then step nine you go and make your amends.”

Have you started yet? “Oh my good God, Simon, it’s absolutely relentless. It’s like a hydra, you chop a head off something and five more have grown in its place. I’m like, can I just sum it up by going, ‘Sorry for everything, everyone, for ever?’”

• Thrifty Kitchen by Jack Monroe is published by Pan Macmillan at £19.99. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

• This article was amended on 7 January 2023. An earlier version said that the Trussell Trust had “distanced itself from the current version [of Monroe’s book] and does not plan to distribute it”. Following an updated statement from the trust, received after publication, the text was changed to clarify that the trust says it plans to distribute the book to its food banks after an addendum is added by the publisher.


Simon Hattenstone

The GuardianTramp

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