Son of pop royalty, Roman Kemp has turned tragedy and his own struggles into a window on mental health.
There have been plenty of tough times in my life and career, but few quite as stressful – in truth, terrifying – as the fear that your own son is intent on drinking himself to an early grave in his 20s. Thank you to all who sent kind messages on reading of Calum’s struggle, and the effect it was having on me and the rest of the family, in The New European’s serialisation of the latest volume of my diaries.
When I did a talk on the diaries as a fundraiser for Sobell House hospice in Oxford in launch week, moderator Tim Wraith said, “I feel I know your children as family friends – I feel like I have seen them grow up,” because he had read all eight volumes of the diaries, the first of which, covering 1994-1997, begins with Calum aged five, his older brother Rory six, and our daughter Grace a tiny baby.
Calum, though he was fine about me including the passages about his drink problem in the hope it helped the debate on addiction is much more private, say, than Grace, a comedian, activist, and author of a book on shame which has on its cover a picture of her riding a cloud shaped as a penis.
Of our three children, Grace is the most unshy, if that is a word, about using my fame, notoriety and connections, and as you may know, ‘cajoled’ me – am I allowed to say ‘bullied’ when speaking about my own daughter? – into doing a podcast with her, Football, Feminism and Everything In Between. My brief is basically to get great guests and let Grace use them to make herself look good and smart and funny, as she pursues her lifetime ambition – “for you to be better known as Grace Campbell’s dad than for being Tony Blair’s spin doctor.” Takes all sorts.
She is also deeply intolerant of my political obsessiveness, insisting for example that I am allowed only three mentions of Brexit. And on our latest episode, she insisted I was allowed no mentions at all. “I’m bored of you and Brexit,” she protested.
Happily, the guest was an easier one than most to let me carry out the order, namely 28-year-old Capital DJ Roman Kemp, in the news recently for a brilliant BBC documentary he made, Our Silent Emergency, inspired by his own struggles with depression and suicidal ideation, and the suicide of his friend and the producer of his show, Joe Lyons.
As mental health is another obsession of mine, I passed with flying colours the no-Brexit test Grace had set me. It also gave us the chance to pursue another theme she is interested in – herself, growing up in a high profile household – as Roman Kemp is the son of Martin Kemp, of Spandau Ballet and EastEnders fame, and of singer Shirlie Holliman of Pepsi and Shirlie, who was also a backing singer with Wham!
If you missed Roman’s film, I strongly recommend you catch up with it on iPlayer. He meets other survivors of suicide. He tells his mum about the depth of suicidal despair he sometimes feels. He talks to Joe’s grieving mother and sister. He also learns that his dad, from a tough London ‘men don’t cry’ working-class background, was tricked by Roman’s mum into seeing a chiropractor who was actually a trained therapist after struggling mentally as he recovered from brain tumour surgery.
Even before Joe’s suicide, Roman was thinking about making a film about mental health – his own – but admits that it was partly his worry about how it might affect his career that stopped him. “I worried – ‘am I going to be known as the celebrity kid who says he gets sad?’ When Joe died, it felt like nothing else mattered, this was the most important thing and I had to do it. It felt like I was holding a piece of paper I had to show to everyone.”
We discuss what I call the depression scale in my mental health memoir, Living Better – 1 is out of control manic, 10 is active suicide. Like me, he has been at nine, and says: “The horrendous thing is that people can be at a ten and you would never know. I have been at nine a couple of times, it is something that I recognise, and I can tell the right people, and they are just there for me.”
His appeal to the younger generation – he has 1.3million followers on Instagram – and openness make him a huge asset to the mental health campaigning world, though he doesn’t see himself lobbying the government. “I would rather be talking to schools, and parents. I went to a school where guys did not talk about their feelings, it was a sign of weakness. But I want the onus to shift from the person suffering onto the people around them, their mates. In that lonely place, the last thing a guy is willing to do is talk.
“It needs to be the mates that help bring it out of them. Lads love a challenge, and that is the challenge we need to meet … ‘he is my mate, I am going to protect him, I need to be the hero’ … maybe that is a form of toxic masculinity, I don’t know, but it is better than other forms it takes.”
Of his own best friend, Charlie, he says: “He lost his mum when he was young. When I had my problems, I was open, told him I was on antidepressants. When he has problems, he comes to me; when I have problems, I go to him. I’ve got him, he’s got me. There are things we can tell friends that we can’t always tell partners, things we tell partners we can’t tell friends.”
“And lots you don’t tell parents?” I ask. “I always talked to my mum, and until the film I had never really sat down and had that chat with my dad to the extent we did that night. I was really proud of my dad for saying what he did about when my mum got him to open up after he had the brain tumour, and for being honest in saying about me, ‘No, I don’t always understand.’
“The other night he was talking about a friend who was struggling, and he said ‘you see Ro, there are lots of people out there have the same thoughts as you, and just hearing him say that, and recognise what I feel, that was so validating.”
He says he admires and looks up to his parents more than anyone else alive, and their closeness was clear also in his other recent TV documentary, DNA Journey on ITV, when together they explored Kemp family history, and were in floods of tears learning Kemp senior’s gran Eliza Crisp was sent to a workhouse aged ten. “To know he came from where he did, and did so much, and devoted his whole life to entertaining people, I respect him even more.”
He admits that the fame and success of his parents was an added pressure. “It was a pressure I put on myself – ‘am I going to live up to the Kemp name?’ You feel a responsibility in that toxic masculinity way – ‘am I going to be successful, carry on the Kemp name, good people, strong family, have an impact?’ You know what it’s like, Grace, having a dad people know, you’re born with it, but all you see is someone saying ‘I am really upset about this.’ If that feeling is real, you share it.”
Their closeness was perhaps never greater than as Roman’s dad recovered from his brain tumour surgery, and realised he had forgotten a lot of the music that was such a part of his life. Here, Roman’s musical upbringing came in handy. ‘“My sister is a songwriter. When we were growing up, mum would only let us sing in the car if we could sing in tune, and dad taught me bass guitar. When it came to Spandau Ballet going back on tour, he forgot all his basslines, he says ‘I can’t work it out, can you teach me?’ That was brilliant, being able to do that.”
Grace asks if it gets to him that because of who his parents are, inevitable charges of nepotism get thrown? He admits when he announced he was making a film about mental health, there were two kinds of reaction… one, great, good on you; two, what the hell do you know about struggle? “I am the first person to explain I have had the most privileged, looked-after life. Great parents still together, good schools, every present I ever wanted I got it. There is not a thing I would change. But when I get those kind of comments, I say judge me after I have done the show. Believe me, if you can’t do the job hosting a radio show, you get found out, no matter who your parents are.”
In addition to the famous parents, he had a godfather even more famous than mum and dad, namely George Michael. Indeed, he must surely be the only person on earth, with parents who both appeared in the video for Last Christmas.
“You got to spend Christmas with the King of Christmas,” gushes Grace. “Watching EastEnders’ Christmas special,” I add. “You’re not wrong – that is exactly what he did,” he laughs.
Grieving for George, he says, had similarities as well as big differences with the grief for his much younger friend who took his own life. “With George I loved him like my uncle, he was part of the family, part of our life. To me the name George Michael does not say ‘insanely famous musician’; he was my mum’s best friend.
“When it came to George passing I was always pushed by my mum to feel more pride in him… look how incredible it is that he touched so many people, maybe people going through a tough time, or they played one of George’s songs at their wedding, or when a child was conceived. It is an odd thing to see it all on the news, but mum just said, ‘look how many people’s lives he changed.’”
Just as his mum wanted to take good out of her insanely famous friend’s death, so Roman wants to get good out of Joe’s death, even if that perhaps means making him better known after death than he was before.
“I went to see him the other day, I visited the church where he is, I sat there and I said to him ‘we did it.’ I felt him with me the whole way when we were making the documentary.
“It was hard at times, and I did have to ask the producers to let me take a break for a while during the filming because it was too intense. But the film was not about saying ‘grieve with me for my friend’. It was more, ‘I am proud of you, Joe.’
“If everything is meant to happen for a reason, then look at how many people are reaching out to tell their story having heard Joe’s story. We just got the stats – searches for suicide helplines were up 760 percent on the night the film was on. That makes me so proud of him, and grateful, to him, and to his family for allowing me to tell his story. I spoke to them after we got those figures, and they were literally overwhelmed – their son has saved lives, even if he doesn’t know it.”
The day after we met, I was a guest on the Channel 4 show, Steph’s Packed Lunch, and on the agenda for debate was what changes we would like to see on the school curriculum, and I found myself channelling Roman Kemp, who had told us: “I would love for there to be something taught in schools representative of mental health and mental illness, and the realities of things like suicide. I did not go to a school that talked about these things. I am still here because of my parents, because I could speak to them.
“I spoke to Rory O’Connor for the film, he is at Glasgow University, runs the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory. He said this needs to start in the womb, the sense of positivity no matter what. Whatever thought a child has, they are heard, whatever feeling they have is valid.”
His own depression, he has learned, is as much a physical thing as a psychological one. “I did a lot of tests, figuring how much serotonin my body releases, blood tests etc, and they basically told me it was a chemical form of depression. There is good and bad in that. Bad is I can’t help it. Good is I understand it, it is just part of my body. It’s the same as how my body does not work the same as a professional footballer. I am not a professional footballer, and I am not a professional happy person.”
Rise and Fall of the Olympic Spirit, volume 8 of Alastair Campbell’s diaries, is published by Biteback at £25. Details at bitebackpublishing.com
Living Better, How I Learned to Survive Depression is published in paperback by John Murray Press on April 29 at £10.99. Details at johnmurraypress.co.uk
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