Stacey Solomon is giving me a tour of Pickle Cottage. Packets of crisps, pegged to a rail in the treats cupboard, stand at attention like soldiers on parade. The dog shelves contain wooden boxes labelled food, grooming, clothes, walkies and bedding. We pass a procession of gleaming kids’ trainers and head up the stairs. Hairbands are sorted by colour, natch, into jars.
And finally Solomon’s favourite things: her wardrobes. “I have my beiges in here, my pinks in this one and then this one for the greens and blues,” says the author, TV presenter and former X Factor finalist. “When I get up I normally think, What colour do I want to wear?, not, What outfit?” As for her husband, the actor and presenter Joe Swash, his clothes are squeezed into one tiny wardrobe. “That’s all he gets, God love him.” Her voice rises gleefully and she bursts out laughing. As she often does.
Was she always tidy? “No, but I was always organised. I think that comes from being a mum at a really young age. There was no room for error. I couldn’t be late. I couldn’t miss classes, otherwise I’d fail my exams. I couldn’t miss the post-office run, otherwise I wouldn’t get my Giro. I couldn’t not cash in my milk tokens. There was so much I had to do just to get by.”
Solomon’s new book is called Tap to Tidy at Pickle Cottage. But she is underselling herself. It’s not so much about tidying as creating. She and Swash bought the part-Tudor cottage in Essex, in southern England, last year. It needed a huge amount of work doing on it, and Solomon has done a fair whack of it herself. The book is a great guide to DIY and interior design for the DIY and interior-design illiterate (ie me).
I’ve got such an aversion to both that I couldn’t bear the thought of opening Tap to Tidy. But actually it’s fun, practical and friendly – much like Solomon herself. I couldn’t believe I was reading about renting a Sandy the Sander sanding machine for £35 a day and thinking, Well, maybe, marvelling at her ability to create panda doorknobs and thanking her for teaching me what a Rawlplug does.
In 2009 Solomon finished third on The X Factor. If ever there was a here-today-gone-tomorrow reality star, it was her. Sure, the single-parent teenager could sing a bit and had a giddy appeal, but her one album and three singles came and went with little ado and that seemed to be the end of it. But in 2010 she won the reality show I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! — partly because she was willing to stuff any number of bugs in her gob, largely because she was so well liked.
Solomon met her future husband when she was crowned queen of the jungle and Swash, the 2008 king of the jungle, gave her a congratulatory hug. Twelve years on, and now 32, Solomon is thriving on numerous fronts – a mother of four children, newly married to Swash (the father of her two youngest), a regular panellist on ITV’s Loose Women and making a new BBC series of Sort Your Life Out With Stacey Solomon, in which she and her team help people transform their homes. Many of those who wrote her off as dumb have realised Solomon is a pretty smart cookie. Perhaps best of all, she is a kind cookie in a world notorious for cattiness.
We’re in her kitchen, where she is talking 19 to the dozen. She’s dressed in a baggy beige jumper and beige leggings, her beige nails hovering over a beige pot of “mouldy veg soup”. Solomon has chucked in anything and everything that is about to go off.
If our energy bill doubles, then it might well be beyond our means in the future. I’m not saying it is the same for us as someone on the breadline, ‘cos it blooming well isn’t. But it’s such a scary time. How have we allowed Britain to get to this point?
Despite Solomon’s tidiness fixation, Pickle Cottage (so named because she calls her kids pickles) is most notable for its ramshackle warmth. Builders are working, three-year-old Rex is racing around, baby Rose is squalling, and Peanut the sausage dog is lying on the sofa waiting for his tummy to be tickled. Meanwhile, Solomon is pouring coffee, appeasing Rose and debating the state of the world.
Politics? She’s sick of the obfuscation. “I get really frustrated when politicians, most of whom have had a standard of education that the masses have not had, talk about things in terms that lots of us don’t understand. If I watch Question Time I have to slow it down to work out what somebody is saying, and then, when I do, none of it actually makes sense. It doesn’t give us what we need – it just enables them to get away with more.”
The cost-of-living crisis? Terrifying, she says – even for her and Joe, despite the fact that they are doing well at the moment. “If our energy bill doubles, then it might well be beyond our means in the future. I’m not saying it is the same for us as someone on the breadline, ‘cos it blooming well isn’t. But it’s such a scary time. How have we allowed the country to get to this point? How can the government not be prepared for it?”
Would she ever go into politics? Unlikely, she says, not quite ruling it out. “I’m passionate about circumstances and the way that some people get dealt certain hands and others don’t.” Which team would she bat for? “That’s where I don’t feel political at all. It’s all about: Are you Labour, Tory or Lib Dem? For me it’s not about any of those things. It’s about what you want for this country and the people in it.”
Solomon says the first thing she would look at is efficiency. “This sounds really sad. But I’d love to look at how we do things and reevaluate. My sister is a paediatric nurse and I’d love to look into how things are spent, because I know her hospital needed certain equipment and couldn’t buy it from a place that was loads cheaper because it was contracted to buy from somewhere else.” You’d use your organisational skills? “Yeah, I’d love to go and give it a shake-around.”
Some of our kids weren’t even getting school lunches, and to know a huge amount of money is going to somebody who doesn’t need it, I just couldn’t get my head around that
Now we’re on to the royals. It’s a week before Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, and Britain’s patriotic fervour is gathering pace. A Loose Women clip from 2018 recently re-emerged on social media in which Solomon said she didn’t get the point of the royals: how could we elevate one family over any other just by fluke of birth, and why did we pay towards their upkeep when they were already phenomenally rich? The clip went viral just after the queen’s death, and Solomon found herself feted by republicans and lambasted by monarchists. “They’re regurgitating it at the moment, which is really difficult, because obviously I didn’t say it on the queen’s passing.”
She claims the clip has been misrepresented. “I have nothing against the monarchy, and the queen seemed like a lovely lady, but I don’t understand why we pay a contribution to one of the wealthiest families in the world.” Solomon says the point she was making was that our priorities were wrong. “Some of our kids weren’t even getting school lunches, and to know a huge amount of money is going to somebody who doesn’t need it, I just couldn’t get my head around that.” As usual, she has a plan. “It would be cool if there was an opt-in opt-out version, and you can opt to give it to somebody else.”
Even cooler would be the Stacey Solomon Republican Party, I say. “Absolutely not. You’re not getting me fronting the revolution for anything!” Perhaps the royals could just reinvent themselves, she suggests. “I don’t know why they can’t exist just as a cool famous family. Why do they have to be head of anything and have that monetary contribution?”
Solomon may have her doubts about the royals, but she loves traditional family. She says she owes hers everything. Her mother works in admin and her father is a wedding and barmitzvah photographer. They divorced when she was nine, but there was no nastiness. It simply meant she had an extended family when her father remarried. (She now has six siblings in total.) Solomon grew up in Dagenham, in east London, and attended the Jewish secondary King Solomon High School, where she passed 13 GCSEs. “My parents raised me to believe I could achieve anything I wanted. I was really lucky.”
I was fugly, lanky and unfortunate-looking with boobs, hormones and stuff nobody else had. I was just uncomfortable in myself because I had a woman’s body at 10 years old. I didn’t enjoy the connotations it brought
But when she reached puberty early she hated it. “I was fugly, lanky and unfortunate-looking with boobs, hormones and stuff nobody else had. I was just uncomfortable in myself because I had a woman’s body at 10 years old. I didn’t enjoy the connotations it brought. So as a defence mechanism I was, like, ‘I’m going to have to be the funny one, because I’m not the one that slots into all the ideals. I’m not the pretty one, the popular one; I’m not the right size.’”
“Now I think I’m beautiful,” she says, “but back then I didn’t feel like other kids. It was all very awkward. I remember walking down the street, and my dad would have to say ‘She’s 10!’ to everyone looking at me. It was so gross. I was, like, ‘Eurgh.’” By the age of 12, the other girls had caught up with her and she was back to her carefree self.
At 17, she became pregnant. She decided to have the baby, became a single mum at 18 and suffered terrible postnatal depression. “I almost felt violated giving birth. People tell you that you’ll feel this rush of love and happiness the minute it comes out, and I struggled to find that. I questioned who I was, my morals. I thought, Why didn’t I immediately love this human? What’s wrong with me?”
When you’re growing up you feel invincible: you’re never going to die, the world is your oyster. Once you’ve given birth that mentality changes. There’s this huge weight on your shoulders because somebody solely depends on you to survive
She simply wasn’t ready for motherhood, she says. “Breastfeeding had a lot to do with it. I was a teenage girl, so to get my boobs out in front of people just felt gross. I found the whole thing really conflicting. When I breastfed Rose” – her youngest child – “I loved every second of it, but I found it hideous the first time around. And there are the things people don’t talk about when you’re going to have a baby, like the midwife is going to check all the cracks in your nipples, and people are constantly touching you and looking at you.” She felt exposed in every way. After giving birth to Zachary she lived with her mother, sharing a bedroom with her son, sister and brother. “For quite a while I was sad,” she says quietly.
For the first time she became aware of her mortality. “When you’re growing up you feel invincible: you’re never going to die, the world is your oyster. Once you’ve given birth that mentality changes. There’s this huge weight on your shoulders because somebody solely depends on you to survive. You don’t ever get that feeling back of being a kid.”
Solomon returned to college and took Zach with her. She felt people regarded her with pity, at best. “They would say: ‘It’s a shame you won’t be able to fulfil your ambitions because you’ve got somebody else who relies on you now.’ I was a kid with a kid and that wasn’t appealing to anybody.” Did she think she would never get another boyfriend? “I didn’t want another boyfriend!” She gurgle-giggles. “If this is the result of relationships, I’m out!”
How did she get her positivity back? “My hormones balanced out, which made a massive difference. And I had a mum who recognised the signs of postnatal depression from her own experience. So I was lucky that she was there for me.”
Then there was The X Factor. She turned up to the audition in denim shorts and a T-shirt, spoke so fast she was barely comprehensible, bobbed her head like a chicken in response to every question and sang her heart out. “Without The X Factor I’d never be in the position I am now. There is no way I could have broken into this industry any other way. People have good and bad experiences of it, but I loved every single second.”
She still finds it hard to believe she was mentored on the show by Whitney Houston and sang for George Michael. “You have no idea what it’s like to be a teenage mum from Dagenham, carrying her kid up the station stairs every day in a pram, then being in a room with Whitney Houston and singing to her. It was just insane! Incredible.”
Does she think The X Factor portrayed her as thicker than she is, I ask. “I think I seem thicker than I am anyway. People underestimate me because I’ve got a common accent and I’m smiley. I think The X Factor accentuated who I was already, because that’s what telly does.”
People have questioned her intelligence all her life, and for a long time it made her do so, too. “At my first school we all spoke like this and the teachers let us know we sounded common as muck. When I went to secondary school, in a posher area, they spoke nicer and I did feel common as muck because of the way they looked at me, especially the parents.”
Then there is the prejudice against positivity. “A happy disposition often makes people think there’s not much going on. For a lot of people, being happy means being dumb or disingenuous. They either think you’re not really that happy or you’re not all there.”
You had to make so much money to pay back your label. It was a huge pressure and I wasn’t equipped for it
It has its advantages, though. “The smallest thing you say with an ounce of intelligence people are like: ‘Wow! I didn’t expect that’, so it’s nice to be underestimated sometimes.”
Solomon didn’t enjoy her brief experience of the music industry. “You had to make so much money to pay back your label. It was a huge pressure and I wasn’t equipped for it.” These days singing is a hobby rather than a career. “If someone rang me and said, ‘Stace, d’you want to sing down at the RAF club?’ that to me is a lot of fun. But I don’t do gigs any more.” As with a number of former X Factor contestants, she has found TV presenting more to her liking.
She particularly loves transforming people’s homes on Sort Your Life Out. And she’s amazed at how she has managed to sort out her own – marriage, work and raising the pickles at Pickle Cottage (her second-eldest, 10-year-old Leighton, is the son of her ex-fiance Aaron Barham, whom she split from in 2014).
“We pinch ourselves walking around here sometimes. We can’t believe this is our garden, this is our road. I remember when we moved in I said to my dad: ‘Can we afford it?’, and he said: ‘If you can afford it now and it only lasts you 12 months or two years, go and work your butt off so you can enjoy it for the moment.’”
And does she worry they might lose it? “Absolutely not,” she says. “Growing up, we had nothing and all I look back on is happy memories because I had such a great family. I would like the kids to be sufficiently well-rounded to be like: ‘If we have to live in a caravan, we have to live in a caravan.’”
It’s time to go. I tell her I’m looking forward to future books such as Tap to Tidy the Royal Family or Tap to Tidy British Politics. “Hahaha! Oh God, no. Tidying politics would be so long!”
She asks if I’m hungry and says the mouldy veg soup will be ready in 20 minutes. Tempting though it is, I say, I’d better be on my way. “You’ve been here for two hours and not eaten. I’m embarrassed. My nana will be turning in her grave.” She unclips a packet of crisps to keep me going.
I’m glad things have worked out so well for her, I say.
Well, there’s always room for improvement, she says. “I’m yet to find someone with the perfect infrastructure for life.”
Blimey, what did she just say?
She repeats it, bursts out laughing and waves me off. — Guardian
Tap to Tidy at Pickle Cottage, by Stacey Solomon, is published by Ebury