In the latest in our WISE WORDS interview series – where stars from a whole range of fields share the important life lessons they’ve learned along the way – we’re posing some of the big questions to three women from different generations and realms of the world of entertainment, as part of our All Women Everywhere month.
Here, BBC Radio 1 DJ Adele Roberts (36), actress, presenter and author Denise Welch (57) and choreographer and former ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ judge Arlene Phillips (72), open up to HuffPost UK about the importance of family, what they learned from their biggest mistakes and the obstacles they’ve overcome working in an industry which is notoriously tough on women.
Denise: I watch rubbish television. I’d like to say I do something really prolific, but I can’t. My switch-off, much to the dismay of my family, is sitting down to a feast of ‘Real Housewives’. As an actress, I should be against reality TV, but I’m a total hypocrite and I love nothing more than binge-watching those shows. I find it like a form of meditation. I didn’t feel too guilty when I heard that Jennifer Lawrence watches ‘Dance Moms’, though.
Adele: Usually music, that’s my best way to relax. Check out of Twitter and the rest of the world, and just listen to music. The other thing I like to do is go to the cinema, because for those two hours that you’re in the cinema, it feels like you are escaping into another world and you forget who you are.
Arlene: I find it really difficult to switch off, physically or emotionally. I always have thoughts running through my head and I’m always on the move. The way I do it is to be involved in a really good TV drama that is so biting and so gritty that I’m forced to sit back and let myself take in the action. I’ve loved ‘London Spy’ and ‘Happy Valley’, because they are so stark and dramatic, it’s the only way to stop my mind running.
How do you deal with negativity?
Denise: I try my upmost to be positive most of the time, but you get those times in your life when negativity takes over and I just have to rely on my family to bring me out of it. Negativity is brought on me by my depressive illness as well, so sometimes if I’m in a negative space due to my depression, I have to wait for that to lift. If it is outside of that, I have to ask myself if it’s really that bad and give myself a good talking to. Since I became sober four years ago, I’ve also made a conscious decision to not surround myself with people who bring negativity to my life.
Adele: I try to stay away from negative situations or people and try not to read negative things. Sometimes there’ll be an article that looks really juicy but you just know that it will just be a negative angle on something, so I just stay away from it all. Social media can play a part in that, so I try not to have many people on my timeline that complain a lot. If they’re my friend, I understand that’s their opinion, but I might mute them.
Arlene: I’m very affected by negativity. I try to create a bright atmosphere at work and let my spirit affect everyone to lift them, and encourage them to think that with their energy, we can achieve anything. When I’m met with my own negativity, I allow myself 24 hours and then it has to go. I carry that thought or feeling for a day, and then it’s out there.
When and where are you happiest?
Denise: Literally in my house, with my family. I’d like to say in my house with my husband, my two children and my step-son, but unfortunately that never happens. I never know what continent Matthew [Healy, her son, who is lead singer of The 1975] is on half the time. Me being waited on my my husband Lincoln and son Louis hand and foot is probably my happiest, while they bring me food and I’m on my sofa with my sloth blanket.
Adele: When I’m with my family, but we could be anywhere. When I usually go and see them, it will be in Southport and I love being by the sea. I try and go to the seaside down in the south a lot too.
Arlene: When I’m surrounded by my family. I love and adore them, despite all the ups and downs. It can be at home or we can be out at a lovely restaurant, that is when I’m most relaxed and I feel fulfilled. I feel absolutely blessed to have a partner who I’ve been with for many years and two lovely daughters.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Denise: Never be jealous or envious of anyone else. Many years ago, I was doing a play and I heard that one of my contemporaries had got a part that I wanted and I was really jealous. One of the actresses, Isla Blair, said to me never be jealous or envious because you never have any idea what’s going on behind closed doors. Not long after, I found out that person was very poorly, and there was me being jealous of her having this job. In this day of social media, we are always trying to prove that they have a more fab life than anyone else, and if you are in a bit of a negative space, and we look at people’s profiles and are jealous, but when you look into it, you realise you are happy with the life you’ve got.
Adele: This is something that I struggle with quite a lot, and it’s not to hold on to the past, and not to hold onto anger, because you only hurt yourself, and that is so true. I’ve been through a lot of things that I’m upset about and shouldn’t think about, but I’ve realised that I’m OK and to keep moving forward.
Arlene: My mother always said to me, “remember to do unto others as you would wish to be done by”, and whichever way you translate that, it’s good advice. My mother died when I was 15 and I carry those words with me, because believe me, I have a mouth on me and I can fire away, but I try not to hurt people for hurt’s sake.
What has been the hardest lesson you’ve learned?
Denise: That everything you do these days will end up on the internet and never go away. I’ve tried to pass that onto my children, because I’ve made some quite large mistakes publicly, and the photographic evidence or the comments you make can’t be thrown away like fish and chip paper. So be very careful what you agree to do and say, because it will be there forever, and ever.
Adele: I’ve learned this the hard way because I lost somebody suddenly, but it is to appreciate your loved ones. Live life for today and don’t worry too much, because there’s no promise that you will get a tomorrow. When I lost my aunt very suddenly, it knocked me for six, and I don’t think I’ve ever been quite the same since to be honest with you. It’s a constant reminder to live for today.
Arlene: To remember that people don’t live forever, so if you can take care when they need you, you must do what you can, or live with the guilt forever.
What would you tell your 13-year-old self?
Denise: The main one would be don’t smoke. I smoked up until a year-and-a-half ago, and I would really beg myself not to do it, because it really is the worst thing in the world – I saw my mother die of cancer, but she said it was emphysema that was killing her. I’d like to say a lot of other things to my 13-year-old self, but I know it would go in one ear and out the other! But actually my badly behaved days came in my 30s and 40s – so the question should be, “what would I say to my 30-year-old self?”, and I’d tell her to grow the fuck up!
Adele: I would stay stop worrying and that it gets better. I used to worry about a lot of things and I don’t know whether that’s coming from a small town, where a lot of people are the same, and they do the same things, so I used to feel really weird and freakish and different, and wonder why I would see things differently to other people. You’re about to go on the most amazing ride, so enjoy it.
Arlene: You are beautiful and bright and spirited, and to let go of the feeling that being first matters, because it doesn’t matter a bit. I went to one of those schools where it was the most important thing, but you live a miserable life when you aren’t.
What three things are at the top of your to-do list?
Denise: To stay sober forever for the sake of myself and my family, because I love my life now. To continue to see more changes in the way mental health is dealt with in this country – more investment, more people having a voice, and to see it treated on the same level as other illnesses. And also, to see Katie Hopkins disappear from public life.
Adele: I feel like since I started working for Radio 1 and 1Xtra, I feel like that is more than I ever imagined would happen, so I feel very happy right now. I think one of the things I would like to do is take my mum back to Barbados, and I’d also like to get in shape.
Arlene: I want to climb a mountain and be at the top to realise how small each of us are. I want to make sure that the people I love know that I love them and make sure that I take the time, no matter where they are in the world, that I visit them. Finally, I want to know that in my life, I have done enough for the charities I support and that I continue to make that happen until the day I die.
What do you think happens when we die?
Denise: I would consider myself an atheist, as in I don’t believe in God as a man with a white beard. I believe the Bible was a public record of many things that happened thousands of years ago, but not that it was to do with the son of God. I also believe heaven and hell are on this earth. But I do believe in the universe and that there is something bigger than us, but I don’t know what it is. I believe we have to live the best life we can, because when we die, that’s it. That doesn’t frighten me, that gives me closure.
Adele: When it comes to me, I just think I’m going to go to sleep for a very long time. I just feel like you go to sleep and never wake up. Doing the Early Breakfast Show on Radio 1, sleep is a big thing for me, so that would be quite good. But thinking about people that I know who have passed, I feel that their energy is still here, and that makes sense because I don’t think you can have that energy and then it goes to nothing.
Arlene: When a family member dies young, like my mother did, you want to believe their spirit, her care and her love is somewhere wrapping itself around you. But I do believe when we die that all is left behind is our skeleton, that eventually disintegrates. We’ve been here, we’ve played our part and we no longer exist other than in the memory of those we’ve left behind.
When do you feel a sense that we live in the presence of something bigger than ourselves?
Denise: Every time I see a baby born, I know there has got to be something bigger than us, I just don’t know what it is.
Adele: I love the science and nature section of the BBC iPlayer and I watch it every night before I go to sleep. The more I learn about science, the more I realise how complex and beautiful nature is, and think it must have been created by a genius, so there must be someone up there.
Arlene: I have this argument about fate all the time. Is there a presence that is guiding us? If so, are our lives pre-ordained, or do we battle through life making our own way? I look at my life and the many coincidences that are quite extraordinary, but was there a plan, or a greater spirit helping me through? I’m often inclined to believe there is, because I can’t believe I got to where I am without some form of help.
What do you try to bring to your relationships?
Denise: I try and bring loyalty to my relationship with my friends. I’m still friends with boyfriends I had when I was 18, my best friend Rose was at drama school with me, and I’ve remained loyal to them and vice versa. I believe I bring a strong shoulder, and I’m always there for them. I believe I bring fun to them, or at least I hope I do. I used to think I brought fun when I drank, but now I realise I’m much more fun when I’m sober. But now I do bring a sort reformed drinker and smoker to their party, who reminds them all about how much wine they’ve drank!
Adele: In the most important relationships in my life, honesty and love, just total love. The people who are closest to me, I’m the most honest of them and I would do anything for them. They are everything to me.
Arlene: I try to bring my whole self. My half-self is one that is buried in emails, or Twitter, or work, so I try to bring the whole of me, and not leave a bit behind. Focus on the job or person in hand, whatever that may be.
What keeps you grounded?
Denise: The fact that I’m a Geordie from Whitley Bay. If you cut me in half, I’m a Geordie girl through and through.
Adele: My friends and family. Due to the obvious nature of our relationship, they are not shy in telling me about myself and telling me when I get a bit carried away. They always make me remember where I came from. Moving to London, you discover things like avocados, and when I explain things like that to them, they just don’t get it. You can probably get kale in Southport now, but you couldn’t when I was younger.
Arlene: I am so grounded that I sometimes wish I could rise higher off the ground. I’m solid physically, mentally, emotionally. I just always want to sort out other people’s problems, and that keeps me extremely grounded.
What was the last good deed or act of kindness you received?
Denise: I’ve been quite overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers recently, because Twitter is the home of the troll and I’ve been quite shamelessly pushing my first novel, but there has been a huge wave of support. There’s a real sisterhood amongst novelists like Martina Cole, Susan Lewis and Marian Keyes who’ve all come out publicly to support me on social media, and they have no need to put their necks on the line. I thought it would be a case of ‘oh no, not another celebrity bringing a novel out’, but they’ve all taken the time to read it. Social media can be a very cruel place, but it’s been lovely.
Adele: It might sound a bit silly, but someone was so nice to me in a shop the other day and they went above and beyond what their job entailed, and it honestly meant the world to me. It put me in a good mood for the rest of the day and I love it when people have pride in their work, no matter what job it is.
Arlene: I’m working on a musical at the moment called ‘Jackie’ that is based on the popular comic for girls, and I have the most marvellous associate choreographer, Richard Roe. One number, no matter how many times I changed it, the director was not happy with it and I wasn’t finding the solution. About 11 o’clock at night, I got in touch with Richard and he said, “Don’t worry, I’ll come in early tomorrow and we will sort it.” I arrived and he had done about nine versions, and he must have been up all night. It inspired me to turn it into something which I hadn’t even thought about.
What do you think are the biggest problems women face in 2016?
Denise: Misogyny from other women. I think there is a real, horrible misogyny in some of the women’s magazines with regards to fat-shaming and bullying, and I feel a real responsibility to young women growing up in a looks-ist world, where carrying a few pounds is frowned upon. Social media can be a dangerous place too, and there’s a lot of bullying, particularly if you have girls as a parent. Bearing in mind that one little thing you can say to a woman when she is feeling vulnerable, and that can set someone up for a lifetime of bad relationships with alcohol or food, and I’ve seen it many times. These magazines have to take a real look at themselves and what they are doing to the young psyche.
Adele: I always think about the sad stories about women around the world who have to go through these awful things just to have equality. The biggest issue we face globally is women being treated as equals alongside men. Sadly, there’s reminders in the news that it’s not as easy for women in other countries and they don’t have the simple choices that we have. That’s what resonates with me the most. In some countries they still can’t vote, or drive, and it makes me feel really sad, but also lucky that I live in a country where I’m mostly treated as an equal.
Arlene: I want to say getting old. I never did, but I think it’s harder and harder for women to be treated as equals to men when they are ageing. I meet so many women who don’t want to retire, who feel that although their outer body is ageing, they feel young and vibrant, and face dreadful disappointment when they have to say goodbye to something. There needs to be a real choice in retirement. For those who are inspired to keep on working, they should be allowed to go on fulfilling themselves.
As a woman in the spotlight, what has been your biggest challenge?
Denise: I was lucky enough to grow up in a house where being a woman was never thought of as being any less. My gender has never held me back in my career and I’ve always been taken seriously. In this industry, gender and class don’t play a part. One thing I will say is that my depression started as post-natal depression started, and obviously men struggle with all sorts of mental health issues too, but that’s something only women go through after having a baby, and that has been my biggest life struggle.
Adele: To be totally honest, I’ve been really lucky. There’s six sisters in my family and my mum and dad, right from when we were little, always taught us to go and get what we want and to go for our dreams. I’ve always been inspired to do that. The thing that affected me most was losing an important woman in my life, and that was my auntie, who passed away suddenly and my world just changed. Getting over grief has been my biggest challenge as it has affected my confidence too. Working in media, you need confidence to be able to do your job properly, and that is my daily struggle.
Arlene: To retain my confidence after I was let go from ‘Strictly Come Dancing’. That was a hard battle. I learned not to think back, and only look forward. It is the only thing that keeps me going – find that place that you have where you were confident and sure of yourself. It’s a slow process, I tell you.
If you could give one piece of advice to young women today, what would it be?
Denise: Never be afraid to talk about your feelings – talking and sharing may help mental health problems down the line. Open the lines of communication with your mum and dad, or if you can’t do that, then find someone out of that. I also always say it’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice.
Adele: I had this teacher, Mrs Mills, at my all-girls school, and she was amazing. They always taught us that as women, we could achieve anything we wanted to. And I think that is what I would say – don’t let the fact you’re a woman hold you back and stop you from achieving your dreams.
Arlene: Believe in yourself, fight for what you want, and never lose the ability to challenge anyone.