Why I’m still a Lincolnshire girl at heart
TV presenter, writer and style guru Susannah Constantine looks back on the ups and downs of her colourful life with the publication of her memoir, Ready for Absolutely Nothing. By Barbara Young.
Susannah Constantine is feeling nostalgic. Sitting in the peace of her Sussex country house, surrounded by 120 acres of fields and ancient woodland, she reflects on treasured memories of a Lincolnshire childhood growing up with her aristocratic neighbours on the Belvoir Castle estate.
“I do love Lincolnshire and still think of it as my home,” says Susannah, who fell in love with the county from the age of four when her family rented The Priory, a “gentrified farmhouse” in the shadow of the historic seat of the Duke and Duchess of Rutland as a weekend retreat.
“I love the big skies and landscapes, as well as the people and way of life. I’m a Lincolnshire girl at heart and get very nostalgic each time I return.”
Susannah recalls memorable childhood years spent indulging her passion for rural life shared with her “best friend” and next door neighbour, Lady Theresa Manners, describing it as “idyllic, like an Enid Blyton cliché”.
Days were spent outdoors playing ponies, with sandwiches and picnics, while exploring, building dams and fishing, and enjoying home cooked hearty meals produced by her much loved nanny and housekeeper Mrs A, whom she fondly describes as “the human equivalent of a tea cosy”.
But behind this seemingly rural idyll hid a darker side: the effects of Susannah’s mother’s bipolar disorder and her father’s inability to cope, resulting in an overshadowing feeling of uncertainty, together with her family’s expectations for her to be a society bride.
“I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s when the only expectation my parents had for me was to get married and that was it. Education wasn’t important, my father said you’re better off learning how to make a decent Beef Wellington than you are to go to university!
“I didn’t have any opinions of my own at the time. I was literally not a fully formed person in any shape or form. The only way I could become a fully formed person, as I understood it then, was if I had a husband!”
Written with searing honesty combined with genuine humour, Susannah’s fascinating memoir Ready for Absolutely Nothing is packed with extraordinary anecdotes from a varied social landscape, including dates with dashing men and the many rich and famous faces that have passed through her life.
Her book shares a collection of candid tales from many memorable experiences; from Margaret Thatcher and the Queen having a tussle over a teapot at Balmoral and holidays on Mustique with Princess Margaret (while dating her son David Linley), to how she met and became best friends with Elton John – all told with sharp wit and eye-opening frankness.
“I hope people read the memoir not because it’s me, but because it’s a really good, fun read.
“I’m an open book, I’ve never been indiscreet about anyone else, but I’m very happy to be indiscreet about myself!”
Susannah, who married Danish businessman Sten Bertelsen in 1995, has three grown-up children, Joe, Esme and CeCe. The children have not yet read their mother’s memoir, although many of Susannah’s connections mentioned in the book have dived in and “loved it”.
“If my family want to read it they can. My husband knows all about the content and has been incredibly supportive. One day my children will read it and when they do, I hope it’s a lovely thing for them to remember and understand their mum by.”
For her part, Susannah says that rather than being cathartic, writing this book has been a learning experience and also given her a new sense of freedom.
“Writing the book wasn’t at all painful – despite my mum being bipolar and suffering very badly from it, she was still an amazing mum and did the best she could. I had a very privileged life and far from being upsetting, it was like looking back at my life with love letter glasses on.”
In the spotlight
The publicity flyer sums the book up well: ‘You might think you know Susannah Constantine, but you may be surprised to learn the truth. That she made her name as a “style guru” from What Not to Wear, is actually the least interesting thing about her.’
During the 1980s, Susannah regularly found herself in the gossip columns due to her eight-year relationship with Princess Margaret’s son David, Viscount Linley.
After they split, Susannah focused on her fashion career, working for leading designers Giorgio Armani in New York and later John Galliano and Alistair Blair in London.
he first met her soon-to-be TV partner Trinny Woodall in 1994, at a party hosted by Viscount Linley.
Their hugely successful BBC One show What Not To Wear, which ran from 2001 until 2005, launched them as household names.
As well as writing two novels, Susannah went on to appear on popular TV programmes, such as I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! and Strictly Come Dancing.
In 2020, Susannah went public about her battle with alcoholism and revealed that she had given up drinking in 2013. Today she still regularly attends AA meetings.
“I’ve been 10 years sober, I don’t drink at all and don’t miss it. Yes, it was hard, but each day I didn’t pick up a drink it felt better and slowly and incrementally it’s improved. Now I don’t give it a second thought. I don’t mind open bottles of wine around the house, or if people drink around me. Not drinking is completely normalised now.”
Susannah, who also no longer smokes but admits to having a vape “attached to my mouth 24 hours a day”, describes being an alcoholic as “more than just drinking too much”.
“It’s a disease of the mind, with alcohol just one of the symptoms. It’s an illness, not a condition and one that you have to look after just like any other illness.
“The first step in recognising that you have a problem is when you instinctively know that you have no control of drinking and once you start, you can’t stop. It might only be a bottle of wine, but if you wake up in the morning and feel fear, self-loathing, anxiety and self-hatred, those are red flags.
“I was a highly functioning alcoholic so I denied it to myself and to everybody else for a long time, but eventually you realise it yourself. Yes, it’s a hard path to take, but my God, it’s worth it!”
Life as a writer
Having been approached to write her memoir by a number of publishers, Susannah says that initially she wasn’t interested.
“But then it got me thinking and I realised that my life has been quite amazing and I’d taken everything for granted before.”
Just nine months later, Susannah delivered the book on time and complete with a collection of photos which reflect a life lived to the full.
Susannah writes “pretty much anywhere, at the kitchen table, or in the village café, as well as on trains and planes,” on her Apple laptop while listening to rap music.
She works from 9.30am to 4.30pm with a break for lunch, followed by a cross-country run through the woods at the end of the day.
“Just like preparing to run a marathon, you need to get brain fit and then writing becomes much easier. I need to be in the right frame of mind, but that will only come if you start writing. If you keep waiting, it’s not going to happen!”
“When I first started writing, I was easily distracted and the house was never cleaner but my husband gave me some good advice and told me to look at it as a nine-to-five job and that’s exactly what I did!”
Returning to Lincolnshire
Following the death of both of Susannah’s parents, the Constantine family moved out of The Priory after 40 years, but she still makes frequent journeys north to stay with her friends at Belvoir Castle, finding it the ideal writing bolthole.
“Belvoir feels like home and I go and stay with the family several times a year. I’m very close to Emma [Manners, the current Duchess of Rutland] and her family as our kids have grown up together.
“When I was there as a child, the atmosphere was very much one of a grand stately home where you were seen and not heard, but the private wing is a proper home now.
“I have so much respect for Emma and her family, who have such a sense of responsibility and are doing an incredible job as custodians.”
Susannah reveals that her Lincolnshire childhood taught her many life lessons.
“More than anywhere else, it’s where my heart is and where I feel happiest. When I die, I’d probably like to buried there!
“Lincolnshire helped shape me as a person and taught me to never think I was better than anyone else. It also taught me not to look back; to change the things that I can, but accept the things I can’t, and never to think I can put my feet up and be complacent, but live in the day and the moment.”
Reflecting on her life, Susannah recognises that moving to Sussex 16 years ago has seen her life go full circle.
“I’m quite introvert, not madly social and don’t need excitement all the time. I need the bedrock of domesticity,” she says.
“The years of being on television and living in London were a different version of me, almost like someone in the wrong skin. Now I like a simple life and feel very comfortable in my own skin.
“However, I’m not someone who can just sit on my laurels and think I’ve had a wonderful life, which is true. I’m always looking ahead, forever curious and asking myself, what’s next?
“When I set out to write this book, I thought I knew what it would be, but the process of writing it has revealed so much more. I’ve had the freedom to recall anecdotes from my life: some funny, some painful, but all of them show that despite everything, I was brought up to be ready for absolutely nothing!”
Ready for Absolutely Nothing is published on 29th September in hardback, e-book and audio by Penguin Michael Joseph, £20
Main photo: Photography: Capital Pictures