'I thought about jumping in front of a train', Roman Kemp reveals he was close to suicide during battle with depression
ROMAN Kemp might have been up since 5am to present his breakfast radio show, but his mother Shirlie is giving him a run for his money when it comes to early starts.
She’s already done “a day’s work” before she arrives at our 10am photo shoot, having popped round to Roman’s London flat to give it a clean.
“Even though it’s spotless, every time she comes round, there’s something wrong and she starts tidying,” teases Roman.
Shirlie, 59, laughs and says she loves making sure he’s taken care of. “Living on your own, you don’t get that nurturing. I really enjoy looking after you.”
It’s perhaps little wonder that Shirlie feels like she wants to look after her boy. Just over a year ago, Roman’s ground-breaking and NTA-nominated BBC documentary Roman Kemp: Our Silent Emergency explored the mental health crisis affecting young men in the UK and revealed his own battles with depression. He opened up about an incident in 2019 where he considered taking his own life after coming off antidepressants and hitting rock bottom.
In the end, it was his mum he called in tears to ask for help.
“I just said: ‘I’m coming, I’ll be there,’” Shirlie recalls. “And I got in the car. I have great faith that people can be cured and healed, and as humans, we can help heal each other. Whether we’re just listening, whether we just stay. Sometimes, especially with boys, they don’t like to be ‘over-mothered’, but you can just be there.
“I said I would stay – I’d clean, cook, wash and iron everything and just reset everything. I felt like I had to reset to get him back.”
It was Shirlie – who has suffered with anxiety all her life and believes her dad had depression – who first spotted something concerning about Roman, now 28, when he was in his teens.
“I noticed a real shift in his personality,” she says. “He was quiet and started staying in his bedroom a lot. And he became a lot moodier, where normally he is this funny, jokey person doing impersonations.
“I said to him: ‘I think you’re suffering depression and I’d like you to go and see a doctor and talk to someone else about it.’ He told the doctor something he’d never told me – that when he woke up, it felt like someone had given him terrible news, only they hadn’t.
“The doctor told him it was clinical depression and what I realised is, it’s not that your children are having bad lives and so they’re depressed – it’s chemical. Roman was given medication, and the change came about so quickly.
“It’s quite a dilemma as a parent to think: ‘Would you want your child on antidepressants?’ Or: ‘Is it a failure in me?’ But it wasn’t about me. And the change that came about within a few weeks was incredible. I got the boy back, our funny boy.”
Spend any time around mother and son and it’s obvious that they have an incredible bond, despite Roman ribbing Shirlie that he prefers working with his dad, Spandau Ballet star Martin, 60, because he takes less time in make-up.
Shirlie, who first found fame as one half of pop duo and Wham! backing vocalists Pepsi & Shirlie, has been married to Martin for 33 years.
The past 15 months have been particularly challenging for Roman, who has now spent 13 years on antidepressants. In August last year, his friend and colleague Joe Lyons killed himself, aged 31.
Roman found out the heartbreaking news while live on air on his Capital FM radio show, which he, understandably, abruptly ended, unable to carry on presenting. He is still trying to come to terms with Joe’s death, which is what sparked his documentary.
“S**t,” Roman says, bluntly. “That’s the only word for it. I felt kind of helpless [when Joe died]. I wanted to speak to professors and people who attempted to take their own lives, and the documentary allowed me to do that.”
I was caught out in my brain on everything – how I looked, what I was doing wrong work-wise, whether I was doing my job because of who my dad was, whether I was being a good boyfriend.
The film also allowed him to explore his own battle with depression – in particular that moment in 2019 when he called his mum in complete despair.
“I was caught out in my brain on everything – how I looked, what I was doing wrong work-wise, whether I was doing my job because of who my dad was, whether I was being a good boyfriend.
“All these pressures just came on top of me. I remember being in my bedroom not knowing what to do. That day, I thought about going to the train station and jumping in front of a train.
“When I’m in that bad bit, I can’t get out of it and there’s nothing I can do to help the situation. You feel like someone is sentencing you to 30 years in prison and, at that point, you just think: ‘I don’t want to be here any more.’
“It’s really hard to pull yourself out of it. And that particular time, I’d just had a lot of stress. It was bad. It’s something that a lot of lads go through, so it’s important to have that one person you can speak to.”
Shirlie adds: “I think people worry about being vulnerable and that you’re going to judge them. And that isn’t true. I’m always shocked when I meet people who say: ‘I never wanted to tell anyone that.’ To keep that inside is so dangerous – emotionally and physically.”
Shirlie says she worried Joe’s death would spark another crisis for Roman.
“We went through him losing his best friend and I never worried more. I am the ultimate worrier. It has never stopped, that worry.”
Worry is the reason she always rushes to the phone if she sees it’s Roman – or his sister Harley Moon, 32 – calling.
“No matter what I’m doing, when my kids call, I drop it and go: ‘Hello?’ They always say: ‘Why do you answer the phone like that?’ But I always answer – they are always my priority. I have had this amazing life and there’s nothing really I haven’t done. So now I just want to be supporting them as much as I can. Though these days, when they call, it’s usually for help with cleaning!”
Roman, who is single since splitting from Aussie radio producer Codie Jones earlier this year, admits he often pours his heart out about his relationships to his mum.
“We don’t have any secrets,” he says. “Mum probably wishes I would tell her less stuff. Although, she used to drive around for longer when we were in the car together, just so I would talk to her more – she thinks I open up more in the car.”
Interrupting, Shirlie adds: “I’d keep going: ‘Oh, I’ve missed the turning!’ I’d be horrified if I felt Roman couldn’t talk to me. I’d think I’d failed at my job.”
From the outside, it’s easy to assume that Roman has it easy – he’s handsome (even more so in the flesh), has a successful radio and TV career and a loving family – so he knew that doing the documentary would open him up to people questioning what he had to be depressed about.
“Of course people think that, 100%. That [judgement] is one of the things I knew would come with doing the documentary, but I just didn’t care.
“When you’re in that state of mind, the thoughts you are having are non-logical. They’re so blurred. You don’t say: ‘Hang on, I’ve got a good family. I’ve got a great job,’ because you don’t see that. All you see is that you’re trapped.”
Shirlie nods in agreement. “That’s the problem with society,” she says. “They believe that the higher you climb the ladder and the more success you get, the more happiness you have – and you absolutely don’t. I experienced that when I went to the top of fame and realised there’s nothing up here. It was a lonely place.”
That’s the problem with society. They believe that the higher you climb the ladder and the more success you get, the more happiness you have – and you absolutely don’t.
Shirlie understands the world of celebrity more than most. Back in the ’80s, she jetted all over the world with Wham! heart-throbs George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley, while Martin scaled the top of the charts with Spandau Ballet. But after she gave birth to Harley in 1989, she realised she wanted to prioritise motherhood over being a pop star, and stepped away from the limelight completely to care for Martin after he was diagnosed with two brain tumours in 1995.
The whole family was devastated by George’s death from liver and heart disease on Christmas Day in 2016, but Shirlie has learned to appreciate the memory of his friendship.
“He’d always say to me: ‘Shirlie, I’m so proud of how you and Martin parent. Your kids are so lucky. You’ve done such a great job.’ And I remember when Roman got Capital [he started working at the station in 2014], he kept saying to me: ‘I feel really proud of him. He’s just got something.’
“George is in my heart. It was no different to how we’ve lost Joe. It’s the same feeling – someone who I really loved, I’ve lost, but I feel blessed that I’ve known him. What I’ve learned, especially as you get older, is that anyone can go at any time.
“I feel with people I’ve loved, like my mum and dad and George, I was a good friend. And they were good friends to me.”
Shirlie reveals that the last time she saw George at his home, weeks before he died, he told her how much he had enjoyed his life.
“We were having one of our heart-to-hearts and it was lovely. It wasn’t a premonition, we were just talking about fame and I said: ‘Did you enjoy it?’ And he said: ‘I’ve loved every minute.’ That’s enough for me.”
Like his godfather George, Roman is trying to make his career something he really enjoys. He has consciously stepped away from accepting every job he’s offered, acknowledging that his mental health suffers when he takes on too much. And Shirlie is on hand to nag him if he gets too busy.
His focus now is being patron of Joe’s Buddy Line, set up in his pal’s memory, which aims to provide mental health workshops in schools, run by certified mental health professionals. “We are in a position now where 50% of schools in the country don’t have any form of counselling – it’s disgusting.
“Yes [it’s good to be able to help people], but I’d rather have my friend back. That’s what’s so hard. You do this thing and make yourself feel great. But then I remember why I’m doing it and it’s s**t. I promised Joe’s family I’ll be there for them. This is a serious legacy that has his name attached to it and that’s why I’m doing it.”
Although he is planning more documentaries, radio is Roman’s passion. He refuses to complain about the early mornings, insisting: “It’s the best job on the planet.” He took over the coveted Capital Breakfast slot in May 2017 and has a huge weekly audience of 3.5m – with even Kate Middleton confessing to listening with children George, Charlotte and Louis every morning. “They do listen. It’s very cool,” Roman confirms with a smile.
Like everyone, the Kemps struggled with being apart during the pandemic, although Roman found it particularly difficult as, although he was able to see Martin every day, he couldn’t see Shirlie. He and his dad filmed together for Celebrity Gogglebox, as well as their ITV show Martin & Roman’s Weekend Best!, which launched in June last year.
“The last 18 months obviously hit hard – especially because of the Covid rules. I was allowed to see my dad but not my mum. It was weird and quite sad. But I always feel bad because the only time I see my mum is when I need something or my life sorted out!”
And Shirlie usually can sort it, but they both joke that the one element she hasn’t fixed is his love life.
The last 18 months obviously hit hard – especially because of the Covid rules. I was allowed to see my dad but not my mum. It was weird and quite sad. But I always feel bad because the only time I see my mum is when I need something or my life sorted out!
Martin and Shirlie have enjoyed one of the most successful marriages in showbusiness and it’s set a high bar for their kids.
“I think, genuinely, the relationship between my mum and my dad actually affects personal relationships that me and my sister have,” says Roman.
“We are trying to emulate that and it’s really difficult because you argue with somebody and you go: ‘What? You shouldn’t be doing that with someone that you love!’ It’s really hard.”
Shirlie says: “My mum and dad had a volatile relationship and that affected me as a child, so I will never argue in front of the kids. My house was like the Wild West growing up, whereas in our house everyone’s nice to each other.
“When Harley was a baby, I said: ‘Oh, she’s going to have a hard time finding someone who’s as good as her dad.’ And it’s true.”
Whoever Roman ends up with – and the chances are he won’t be single for long – will be extra lucky. Because getting the fabulous Shirlie as a mother-in-law makes it the ultimate package deal.
- Tune into Capital Breakfast With Roman Kemp, weekdays, 6-10am. It’s All In Black And White by Pepsi DeMacque-Crockett and Shirlie Kemp (£20, Welbeck) is out now.
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