Rae Earl interview: My Mad Fat Diary, teen mental health & social media

To mark the publication of her new book, #Help: My Cat’s A Vlogging Superstar!, we chatted to the brilliant Rae Earl…

In the course of my conversation with Rae Earl about her new children’s book, the following topics came under discussion: Kirsty MacColl, the Playmobil Funko Willy Wonka figure, running marathons, Krysten Ritter’s fringe on Gilmore Girls, David Tennant on stage (“the only time Hamlet’s ever made any sense to me!), the layout of Stamford Morrisons’ car park, the sound design on Jackie, McDonalds coke, the sanctuary of public toilets, Piers Morgan, Rory Gilmore’s paramours (“I’m a Jess fanatic and I won’t have any nonsense about Dean or Logan”), Anne Widdecombe, level crossings, Nazis and vomit.   

It’s not even that long a conversation.

Earl is incredibly good value for money. Somehow during our chat, there’s even time for me to say hello to her husband, her mum, and very nearly, a doctor who’s the spit of Dev Patel in Lion currently making a house call to her poorly child.

No doubt to Earl’s publisher’s relief, we also manage to talk about the new book, which is lively and funny and wise, and her first book My Mad Fat Diary—her own teenage journal published as a two-volume memoir and adapted into a much-loved Channel 4 television series.

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At the time of the interview, Earl is, in her own words “dribbly tired” thanks to two sleepless nights spent catching her child’s vomit. “There’s me in tatty, sick-covered pyjamas, I’ve got no bra on!” she says laughing at the humiliation of having to meet the Dev Patel doctor in such disarray. “Story of my life!”

Thanks to My Mad Fat Diary, we know the story of Earl’s life. Sort of. The memoir, an alternately uproarious and heartbreaking account of Earl’s struggles with her mental health, weight and friendships and sex, covers her sixth form years between 1989 and 1991. “I know I seem like a chronic oversharer—and I am!” Earl laughs, but those two volumes don’t tell the whole story.

“I held back a lot in the diaries,” she says. It was a question of self-preservation. “When I got to doing the second book, My Madder Fatter Diary, there was stuff I would never share. There was always stuff about other people I wouldn’t share—it would have made for a far better book, I’ll tell you now, because there were some great stories. Oh, there were some crackers!—but I wasn’t going to share them. But in Madder Fatter there was specific stuff about me and I thought do I want to put this out there?”

Becoming a mother between the publication of the two volumes made the difference, she says. “My Madder Fatter Diary was written after I’d had a child and I thought do I want my kid to see that? Do I want to share that? I thought, no.”

The questionable wisdom of sharing your life online is a theme of Earl’s latest book, #Help: My Cat’s A Vlogging Superstar! Behind the fun title is a sensitive and funny story about thirteen-year-old Millie, a girl who achieves fame online and starts an advice vlog that earns her the enmity of Instagram queen Erin.

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The book started as a thought experiment, explains Earl. “I’m a bit of a social media nut. And I tried to imagine myself if I had been in this world at age thirteen.” That didn’t involve as much of a mental leap for a forty-five year old as you might imagine. “To be honest, it’s not hard for me to get into the mind of a teenager at any given point” she laughs. “My inner thirteen year old is alive and well! She’s forever there in my head.”

Earl created #Help’s protagonist Millie as a reflection of the kind of young teenager she was. “I was very like Millie, the sensible one, still silly and funny but you’d go to her for common-sense advice.”

The two also share another similarity: both suffer from anxiety. “I did want to discuss anxiety as a thing for a younger audience, and how it makes you feel, because if I’d been caught at Millie’s age and I’d been able to talk about it at her age, I don’t think my problems would have been half as bad when I was older.” Thirteen was “before things started to go really wrong for me in the head, as it were, before I started to be really unwell.”

Earl’s teenage mental health problems, which included OCD, anxiety attacks, eating disorders and self-harm, and resulted in time spent being treated in an adult psychiatric care unit (“which was wildly inappropriate, really wildly inappropriate and really deeply upsetting. I still find it upsetting now”) are relayed in My Mad Fat Diary. Those experiences also inspired her to write next book, It’s All In Your Head: A Guide To Getting Your Sh*t Together, a non-fiction mental health advice book aimed at older teenagers, due out this August.

As an adult reader, I tell her, reading My Mad Fat Diary is painfully frustrating. Diary-Rae has so much going for her yet because of her weight and anxiety issues, she spends all of her time pinning her hopes on a thinner future.

“That’s encapsulated that perfectly – pinning your hopes on a thinner future, like that solves anything!” Earl agrees. “And actually down the line I do go ever so thin and it solves nothing. It solves absolutely nothing. Yes, I can get into a pair of size ten hot pants at Topshop but it meant nothing. It solved nothing.”

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When Earl was a teenager in the eighties, she didn’t have access to the mental health support that’s around today. If she had, she tells me, “I think I could have been happier and, I hate to say it, more successful in life generally, because a lot of my coping mechanisms weren’t always very healthy, they were necessary, but not healthy.”

“It was a different time,” she explains. “If I’d said things then and shared things like I have now, I don’t think it would have been helpful. I don’t think I necessarily would have got the right care. If I’d revealed then just how poorly I was—I don’t know this for sure but I don’t think there would have been a level of appropriate care available.”

“I still have challenging days and I still would have no hesitation in going to get the correct help for that” says Earl. She would and does urge her young readers to seek professional help if they feel they’re struggling: “I tell them ‘you’ve got to go and talk to somebody about this. Don’t be frightened, they’ve heard it all before and worse’. And they honestly will have done.”

Does Earl find a sort of instant intimacy from readers who get in touch with her because of the personal nature of her books? “Yes, because it’s always about identification. I think if you’ve have that sort of miserable adolescence, you are really looking, probably all your life, for somebody to say ‘I felt that way too!’ because we see everybody having a great time at proms and things and for a lot of us, it’s just not like that.”

Who did Earl identify with growing up? “I was borderline obsessed with Ruby Wax. It was people like Ruby Wax on television and French and Saunders. You’ve got to remember that television in the eighties and nineties was just full of perfect, preened, beautiful women, which, you know is a thing, that’s fine, but it’s not something I ever was or am ever going to be, so it was the people who I felt I could be like. And that kind of saved me, really, seeing that there were other ways to be.”

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That’s what, in an ideal world, makes social media such a useful tool Earl suggests – it can bring together all sorts of people from all over the place and show them they’re not on their own. What’s less helpful though, is “the fallacy of this perfect adolescence. That really needs to be shot out of the water because it’s nonsense.”

Don’t compare the inside of your life to the outside of other people’s, is one sage rule I read somewhere. “Oh my God yes! That’s brilliant. Because that’s another key point. On social media, you are seeing the highlights or the lowlights that have been picked for a reason. Always ask yourself, why is somebody sharing this? Are they sharing this because they’re joyful and want to spread it, are they trying to show me that everybody has bad days too, which is great, but why is somebody sharing what they’re sharing? There’s always a reason.”

Are mental health issues among young people are taken seriously enough today? I ask. “I think there are moves in the right direction. I think the stigma is being reduced a bit, but I want to see action, not words. There is a huge, huge issue, specifically in taking adolescent mental health care seriously because people just assume it’s just ‘being a teenager’. And you know what? Some of it is but the trick is distinguishing between what is feeling sad and what is depression, what is a worry and what is anxiety. People need help distinguishing this so they can either have their fears put to rest or they can be treated.”

Is Earl relieved not to have grown up with the likes of YouTube and Instagram? “I wouldn’t have felt so lonely, because then I would have realised that other people felt the same way. I don’t think it’s this terrible thing at all, I love it, I just think it’s new ground and we need to sort out the good parts from the bad parts.”

The good parts are sorted from the bad in #Help, which takes a sane overview of the perks and pitfalls of young people sharing their lives online. One of the latter is the potential for instant notoriety. “You can have a transgression now that can go global in five minutes… When I think about some of the things that I did, God, if there’d been camera phones around I don’t think I’d be here, genuinely. Or I’d be known as ‘that girl who did that’.

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Duly, today’s young people have it tougher than she ever did, says Earl. “I think it’s harder to be thirteen now than when I was thirteen, I truly do. They grow up in a much harder world than we ever did. All this talk of ‘wet millennials’ and that nonsense is really frustrating to me. In the book, Millie’s wise, her mum’s wise, granddad’s wise… That’s kind of what I wanted to bring through. No generation has the monopoly on wisdom.”

Thank heavens for Earl’s brand of wisdom, I suggest, which makes her shriek then laugh long and loud. “Louisa. My head’s like a mad omelette!” she tells me. I can still hear her laughing when we hang up the call.

Order #Help: My Cat’s a Vlogging Superstar! from Amazon now, published by Walker Books.