Olly Alexander, the frontman of best-selling pop band Years & Years, has disclosed that he suffered from eating issues and an unhealthy relationship with his body for a decade.
Speaking to BuzzFeed News on Friday during a Facebook Live event just hours before the band’s biggest ever concert at Wembley Arena, the singer described how he battled with a fixation on food from his childhood until his early 20s – as he was also coming to terms with his sexuality, his parents’ divorce, anxiety and depression.
The problems began, he said, aged 10 when he started attending a local gymnastics class: “It was the first time I was starting to have an awareness of my body and strength and [thought], ‘Older boys, they’re really muscly and they could do things that I couldn’t do’ and that’s the point, from then onwards… I started to have body issues and not eating, like I wouldn’t eat.”
He explained: “I was stuck between this place of being really, really, really skinny and hating it – because I wanted to be muscly like other boys – but at the same time didn’t want to put on weight because that was bad as well. I struggled with it for a really long time actually.”
The issues around eating and body image carried on into early adulthood. “For ten years at least really I would say I struggled with that,” he said, adding that it involved “skipping meals and constantly thinking about food and…obsessing over what I ate and what was going into my body and hating my body in the mirror.”
Going without food, he said, was in part an attempt to feel more in control. Asked by BuzzFeed News whether he would describe his problem as an “eating disorder” he replied: “I wouldn’t want to call it that myself… I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder but I definitely had a difficult relationship with food.”
However, that relationship has improved significantly, he said, thanks to a “good support network” and “years of therapy”: “I’ve looked at some of the causes that have been at the root of why I had not just problems with food but [also] there were links with depression and anxiety, and I’ve started to really unpack some of those things.”
Although he now enjoys a healthier relationship with eating, Alexander stressed that he remains vigilant about it.
“It’s really a life-long process,” he said, “that I think anyone that’s experienced any mental distress or mental illness knows it’s something you manage – it’s not something that just goes away. So it’s an ongoing thing.”
Alexander, whose band’s album Communion reached number one last year and who has won Brit and MTV awards, also described the pressure he has exerted on himself.
“I used to, before I went on stage, feel like, ‘I’m a terrible singer, [that] no one’s going to like it, and all these people who bought tickets don’t actually want to be here.’” Thanks to therapy, however, he now adopts a “positive mental attitude”: “I just say to myself you’re going to nail it, you’re gonna be great.”
In a wide-ranging interview – as the rest of the band were preparing for their performance in front of 10,000 fans – Alexander continued with the theme of health and wellbeing, criticising the NHS for not making the drug that prevents HIV more widely available.
Last month, NHS England announced that it would not be rolling out PrEP – a medication regime that uses the drug Truvada to stop people contracting the virus. The announcement sparked widespread anger from HIV charities, doctors and activists.
“It concerned [me] mainly because I feel like it really stigmatised people living with HIV,” said Alexander. “I can’t believe we’re still stigmatising or shaming people that have any sort of sexually transmitted illness but especially HIV because it feeds into this narrative that shames gay men especially, but not just gay men – lots of people get HIV.”
He added: “I don’t understand why anything that’s a preventive drug is not a good thing.” The cost of treating people with HIV far outweighs the cost of the drug that prevents it, he said, but increased discussion about the issue also needs to play a part.
“There needs to be more education and awareness around HIV because it just feels like we’ve gone back a bit, like, ‘It’s not a thing [anymore]’ or, ‘Ooh I’m gonna catch it from looking at you’. Alexander, who said he had no sex education at school, added that it “should be compulsory” for pupils.
The singer, who is gay, also spoke out about the need for schools to educate pupils around sexuality and gender, championing the cause of gender variant, trans and non-binary people – identities that were explored in Years & Years’ video for Desire.
Asked by BuzzFeed News if he had ever questioned his gender identity, Alexander replied: “Oh my god, 100 per cent,” before explaining, “I’m a cis[gender] male, I identify as a man but… I’ve never felt like a masculine male.” Growing up, he said, people called him “girly”. “I was like, ‘Why do I have to be one thing or the other and why is that bad?’
I believe there’s a fluidity to all of it really… we still have these quite enforced binary norms in school. It’s a process. But I do think it’s changing… kids are really smart and are much more tolerant and understanding of things that older people aren’t getting.”
Much of this change has come about through social media, he said. “Now we have this platform – all these people who in the past didn’t have a voice at all, now there are other people all round the world who share the same opinions or similar experiences.” He added: “You have a voice now and people have to listen.”
Patrick Strudwick is the UK LGBT editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Patrick Strudwick at firstname.lastname@example.org.