‘The menopause made me feel like a liability on the radio’: Jo Whiley has faced heavy criticism as co-host of Radio 2’s Drivetime but she reveals she was battling a crippling brain fog that often left her lost for words
Last week Jo Whiley’s habitual aura of cheerful equanimity deserted her: ‘It’s been quite challenging,’ admits the Radio 2 DJ.
‘I can go along and feel absolutely great, then all of a sudden I want to lock myself in a dark cave and not do anything at all because I can’t face the world.
‘I’ll be doing fine then it hits me: low self-esteem, low confidence. I don’t feel like myself at all. It’s quite daunting. It happens every couple of months. I don’t want to see anyone. My eyes are really sore. I get a burning mouth and tongue. I really get the wobbles.’
Jo’s is the intimate and warmly reassuring voice on the nation’s favourite radio station, piloting us through weekday evenings, the soundtrack to millions of lives. She has been a fixture at Glastonbury, presenting TV coverage of the festival — and many others — for the past three decades. Smiley and upbeat, she’s the sort of capable, energetic, multi-tasking, long-married mum-of-four who seems enviably in control.
Jo Whiley, 56, (pictured) said she began taking HRT after feeling a liability on the radio because of her menopausal symptoms
Yet here she is admitting to an ‘onslaught’ of menopausal symptoms that still threaten, intermittently, to floor her.
‘This week I literally slathered myself in HRT [hormone replacement therapy] gels because I knew my oestrogen levels had dipped,’ she says. At 56, she now recognises the warning signs, although she confesses that, at first, she was bewildered when she was ambushed by strange symptoms she had no idea were connected to the midlife change, like that burning mouth.
‘I’ve felt rotten, which is why it’s good to talk about it today. You feel less alone,’ she confides. ‘I noticed the brain fog returning. It’s difficult to deal with when you’re doing live radio and interviews and you can’t think of the word you’re supposed to be saying or the next question you’re supposed to ask.
‘That was the main reason I went on HRT in the first place. I felt I was a liability on the radio and it was a very uncomfortable feeling not being in charge of what I was doing, suddenly grappling for words.’
It’s a brave revelation from a consummate professional who relies on her natural loquacity for her living. But it will also be solace to millions of women who struggle similarly.
The mental confusion, Jo now reveals for the first time, really started to trouble her when, in 2018 — she was midway through the menopause at the time — she landed the job of co-hosting Radio 2’s Drivetime slot with Simon Mayo.
The decision to revamp the early evening show — making it a two-hander and ushering in its first female presenter — was widely lambasted. The BBC was destroying a much-loved programme, the carpers moaned. Listeners mutinied. Jo was even trolled on social media.
‘There was this wall of resistance to me from a very vocal bunch of people. It was hurtful, insulting . . . relentless, every hour of every day,’ she said at the time.
Jo (pictured), who now has oestrogen gel and testosterone cream, said before starting HRT she would get terrible migraines and felt slightly depressed
But only now does she reveal that this verbal assault coincided with the time when the menopause brought her to her lowest ebb.
The collision of events — the taxing new show, the vilification and the general sense that she was losing her grip on a job she’d done ably since her 20s — sent her scuttling to her doctor, having resolved to try HRT.
‘It all came at a time when I was most worried about brain fog and I felt I couldn’t do the Drivetime show with such a lot of pressure and things to remember. Until then, I’d thought, “I’m absolutely fine. I don’t need HRT.” But it had got to the point where I was really struggling. I decided to try it.’
Her doctor prescribed a mix of HRT that took account of her specific medical history and needs. She now has oestrogen gel and testosterone cream, both of which she uses sparingly unless she has a bad week (like the one just gone) and feels she needs to up the dose.
‘Before I started HRT I’d been getting terrible migraines and feeling slightly depressed.
‘The doctor gave me medication for the migraines and antidepressants. I didn’t even bother with the antidepressants.’ Now a combination of HRT and exercise — swimming is her ‘cure all’ (in her teens she swam competitively for Northamptonshire), as well as the slow, meditative calm of gardening — all help keep her on an even keel.
But what, perhaps, perplexed her most about her menopausal symptoms was their baffling and unexpected diversity.
It wasn’t until she researched it herself — her GP did not make the association — that she realised her burning mouth resulted from anxiety associated with the change of life. She’s now training herself to relax her mouth. Her eyesight, too, deteriorated, in her early 50s.
‘I first noticed it three or four years ago when I was doing my live studio sessions, and at Glastonbury, and I couldn’t read my notes. I had to blag a bit. I didn’t want to accept I needed glasses.
Jo said she is adjusting to sight loss as another factor of the menopause. Pictured: Jo with Cassius, Jude and India in 2003
‘I felt dismal about it; nearly in tears. The idea of getting them felt quite traumatic. But now I’m adjusting to it, realising sight loss is another factor of the menopause.’
She’s also sporting a new pair of specs. Not from some fancy designer but from Vision Express, and says they have boosted her confidence immeasurably. She’s now something of a convert.
‘Deteriorating eyesight does not mean you’re getting old. Embrace it.’
I wonder if she has also struggled with insomnia. She rolls her eyes.
‘I crave a full night’s sleep. I just want to go to bed at 12 and wake up at seven without seeing that 3am skyline and thinking, “Why the hell have I woken up now?”
‘And I also get not exactly hot flushes — but the sensation of sweating in bed.’
When I ask if the twin perils of wakefulness and overheating make it tricky sharing a bed with Steve, a music executive and her husband of 30 years, she laughs.
The whole family, it emerges, have at one time or another shared the vast marital bed, so the small encumbrance of a fidgety, insomniac sleeping companion is no novelty for Steve.
Their children, India, 29, Cassius, 22, Jude, 20, and 12-year-old Coco, spent their infant years snuggled up with their mum at night.
‘Coco is always waiting up for me after my show in the evenings, so she gets into bed and we watch TV together. And when the boys were little I’d cuddle up in bed with one under each arm watching superhero TV programmes with them until we fell asleep.
‘I think that’s the reason I’ll have to have shoulder surgery soon. It comes from all those nights sleeping with my arms round the boys. So we’ve had 30 years of co-sleeping.’
Jo admits that she can’t believe she’s 56, as in her head she’s still 27. Pictured: Jo with sister Frances
Despite the vicissitudes of the past week, when we chat over Zoom she looks fresh-faced and girlish.
‘I can’t quite believe I’m 56. In my head I’m still 27; I love music, having fun.
‘You’re never too old to do anything! I had my ears pierced today. I went with my producer, Anna. She’s been with me since my Radio 1 days.’
Jo hosted various shows on the station between 1997 and 2011 before her move to Radio 2.
‘We raised our kids together. She’s pretty punk rock and we thought: it’s now or never.
‘Now I’ve got four piercings.’ She points them out to me. ‘A dangly one here, a cuff at the top, a couple there — and I’m going to get another.’
She doesn’t hold with sliding into decorous middle age: ‘I’ve got a scooter — not an electric one — and I scoot from Euston station to work. It makes me feel like a five-year-old.’
I ask if her children help keep her young — Coco, of course, is still at school; India is a photographer and food stylist; Jude is writing a novel and Cassius is at university — and actually she protests, it is she who keeps them up to the minute, especially with the latest music: ‘I listen to new music all the time. It’s my job, what I do.
‘I’m in contact with Cass the least of my children. He’s quiet. I don’t hear from him for days and days. The other kids text me and say, “It’s really nice to hear your voice on the radio. It makes us feel you’re with us.”
‘But nothing like that from Cass. ‘So I bought him a radio and said, “You have to listen to me!” And he texted me the other day to say, “I really liked the Sam Fender and Vampire Weekend you played.”
‘We have the same taste in music and had a lovely exchange of views. I think we actually inform each other. If anything, it’s me who keeps the boys up to date with musical trends.’
Jo (pictured) revealed her entire family is looking forward to the return of Glastonbury next year, after its two-year Covid hiatus
She has consistently refused to regard any activity as ‘age appropriate’. It’s more a case of ‘you get old because you stop going to festivals’ rather than vice-versa.
Take Glastonbury. Of course, it’s not just for the young!
‘Everyone goes, the extreme ends of the age spectrum, from grandparents to kids. You don’t stop loving music because you get to a certain age.
‘My dad’s 82 and, yes, he loves [the Welsh mezzo-soprano] Katherine Jenkins but he’s also obsessed with [the Manchester band] Elbow.’
Her own listeners are similarly open-minded. Many of them graduated with her from Radio 1 to 2 ‘and they’re old punks, Goths and New Romantics’. ‘They love the music they grew up with, but they’re also very open to new discoveries.’
The whole family is looking forward to the return of Glastonbury next year, after its two-year Covid hiatus.
The children and Steve routinely bundle into a campervan while Jo is accommodated more comfortably — she’s working, after all — in a nearby hotel. She does concede that she’s not quite up to all-night partying these days.
‘I haven’t got the stamina to keep up with the kids, but Steve tries. We call him “Disco Steve”. He acts likes he’s 17.’ Surprisingly, she confesses, she hasn’t got a musical bone in her body.
‘I can’t sing a note and when the kids are dancing I’m slightly resentful because they move in a rhythmic way. You’ll never see me on Strictly, although I have been asked. The humiliation would be too much for my family.’
She remembers her most mortifying Glastonbury experience was during a Nile Rodgers performance five or so years ago — the American singer-songwriter and producer was a leading light in the 1970s disco scene — when she was swept up by his huge entourage, which invaded the Pyramid stage, dancing and singing.
‘They dragged me out, calling “Come on Jo!” and I just stood there, mortified, in the middle of the stage clinging to my clipboard. It was a nightmare!’
It’s slightly reassuring to know that Jo, who seems imbued with rock-chick cool, has her moments of awkwardness like the rest of us.
Jo (pictured) said when she first started out there were only a handful of women DJs – but now there are many more women broadcasting
‘She looks absolutely natural — casual and relaxed in T-shirt and jeans — as if her clear-skin is down to good genes rather than cosmetic artifice. But she says she is ‘genuinely open to anything that will improve the way I look’.
CACI facials — non-surgical skin tightening — are her go-to beauty treatments and she also has collagen wave facials, which use radio frequency energy to tighten, contour and rejuvenate the skin.
‘It’s like having your face ironed; a bit uncomfortable, but you do see results,’ she says. ‘I did have Botox once — the tiniest amount — but I looked weird and I’ve never got round to doing it again. Other than that I don’t look in the mirror or at photos of myself.’
She laughs. She points out, too, that anti-ageing is far from an obsession. Having lost two very dear friends — one had a brain tumour, the other Covid complications — in the past couple of years, she is determinedly grateful to be getting older.
‘It’s a privilege to still be here and I intend to cherish every minute on this Earth and make the best of it,’ she says.
Her sister Frances, two years her junior, also had a close brush with death at the height of the pandemic. Frances, who has cri du chat, a genetic syndrome that results — in her case — in learning difficulties, diabetes and sudden flare-ups of temper, was admitted to intensive care with Covid.
She pulled through but Jo, who campaigned vociferously for those with disabilities like her sister to be prioritised for the Covid vaccine, pledges to continue providing a voice for them.
‘It’s important for people like me to speak out, so I’ll be keeping an eye open for injustices. I’ll always look out for Frances and people like her.’
She intends, of course, to keep working, too. ‘It is my happy place. I feel I have decades to go.’
Retirement has no place in her plans and she believes that the BBC has become much less ageist and sexist.
‘When I first started out there were only a handful of women DJs: Annie Nightingale, Janice Long, Jackie Brambles and Paula Yates — all big inspirations. Now, of course, there are many more women broadcasting — and Annie is in her 80s and still on Radio 1.
‘That’s the joy of radio. It doesn’t take much to sit by a mic and talk to people. In fact, with a good team around you, as I have, it’s something you can go on doing until your last breath.’
Vision Express has partnered with Jo Whiley and noon.org.uk for their new campaign, See Yourself Differently, to raise awareness of the impact of menopause on eye health and encourage midlife women to get their eyes tested. For more information, go to visionexpress.com/eye-health.