Kerry: From Kitten to Kat-ona

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From munching cockroaches in the jungle to snorting coke and singing what could arguably be dubbed karaoke, the name Kerry Katona conjures some controversial images. Katona has been in the limelight since she first rose to stardom nearly fifteen years ago as a member of pop sensation Atomic Kitten, at the young and innocent (or not-so-innocent, in Katona’s case) age of seventeen. Yes, we all remember the songs. (Well, I remember the songs, and they’re probably still being played in Park End.) She’s appeared in pretty much every reality show you can think of and seems to have lived about seven lives in one (what else could we expect from a former Kitten?). A former self-confessed drug addict, however, the limelight hasn’t always been positive.

Despite this, it’s hard to believe that this bubbly, open and down-to-earth woman sitting in front of me is the same one that hit the headlines five years ago for a very notorious This Morning interview in which her slurred speech provoked accusations. Katona has come an incredibly long way in the past three years, cleaning up her act with the help of Nik and Eva Speakman, two highly optimistic life coaches who have cured hundreds of patients over the course of their twenty year career, not least Kym Marsh, as well as somebody suffering from a severe case of button phobia. Overcoming bipolar disorder, a heavy drug addiction and an extremely controlling ex-husband, Mark Croft, Katona turned her life around with the help of these “Schema Conditioning Psychotherapists.”

Katona didn’t have an easy upbringing. “My first memory is when my mum slit her wrists”, she openly states. She was three. She frequently witnessed her mum taking drugs, and it’s easy to see how Katona’s problems began.

When I ask her about her Atomic Kitten days, she laughs as if it were something wholly alien to her. For a moment I get the sickening fear I’ve got the wrong girl. “What?!” It turns out it’s just so long ago nobody really asks her about it any more. “I was out in a night-club and a guy came and asked me if I wanted to be a backing dancer for his band. I went along and started pretending to play the keyboard, wearing revealing clothes. He asked me if I wanted to front a new band and I said ‘Oh okay, thank you so much.’” At just seventeen, Katona had never been to an audition before.

“But I went along with my page three photographs, my wicked sense of humour and my amazing singing voice. I told a few jokes, sang a few songs and became the founding member of Atomic Kitten”, she declares with bags of light-hearted irony. Four weeks after getting Natasha Hamilton on board, the band got a record deal. Had she done any professional singing before? “I’d only sung in local karaoke bars. I used to go around to all the pubs entering the competitions.”

When I ask her somewhat tentatively if she is still in touch with the other band members, the answer is positive. “I spoke to Liz today!” I ask her yet more tentatively if she would consider a return to the music industry. “Absolutely, watch this space. More likely than unlikely.” I start to get more than a little excited at the vague prospect of a reunion and an excuse to break out all those explosive (or, one might say, atomic) nineties dance routines classily choreographed in my school playground.

We move swiftly on to Katona’s experiences in I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. What made her willingly volunteer to live for sixteen days in an Australian rainforest with venomous spiders, witchetty grubs and, deadliest of all, Jordan and Peter? Contrariness, it would seem.

“Everybody said I wouldn’t do it. I like to prove people wrong. I got a phone call for the third series inviting me to the audition, so I thought I’d go along.” She got through. “I shat myself”, she jokes. “I was in hospitals having panic attacks! And when I got there, especially when it came to the eating challenge, what actually got me through was knowing that everyone at home was watching it and saying, ‘she won’t do that’, and I thought, ‘just watch!’”

The hardest part? “Missing my kids. I missed Lilly’s 1st birthday.” And what did then-husband Brian McFadden think? “He didn’t want me to do it.” We briskly move away from a subject that I can tell is a touchy one.

And yet Katona certainly did prove people wrong, going on to be crowned Queen of the Jungle in the infamous series that saw Jordan the glamour model and Peter Andre the one-hit-wonder become Katie Price the horse-lover and, well, Peter Andre the two-hit-wonder.

Katona is extremely modest. Eva Speakman thinks that’s what people liked about her. “Obviously we didn’t know you then, but we watched that whole show and you just became the nation’s sweetheart.” “I still am!” Katona jovially replies. “I didn’t get it or understand it. I thought the viewers had forgotten that I was in there, I didn’t have a story line. I actually sat there thinking, ‘I don’t think they’re showing me on the TV you know.’” Did she watch any of it afterwards? Yes. “I thought ‘Oh my God I’m such a tit!’ It was like watching back your home videos. I didn’t actually get picked to do many challenges because I was just awesome”, she states, again with more than a hint of irony.

Much of the interview is filled with these hearty laughs and self-mocking statements. Katona is entertaining and energetic, and I get the feeling she is one of those admirably good-humoured people who knows how to laugh at her (self-confessedly hilarious) self. Swigging away at her lager and lime while Eve and Nick sip their tea, Katona pokes fun at them; “Oh yes thanks for the cups of tea! Whatever!”

I grill her on Celebrity Big Brother. “I enjoyed I’m A Celebrity more.” Why? “Because I won that, I only came runner-up in Big Brother!” About the experience, she says, “Big Brother was a bit like rehab. I felt quite intimidated, even though in the jungle I was with Katie Price, one of the biggest glamour models ever. We were all stripped of our makeup there though.” I ask her what it was like to be under constant surveillance. “You completely forget about the cameras.” Katona says the hardest thing was not knowing what was happening in the outside world. As she recalls getting to speak to her daughter on her tenth birthday, she gesticulates in a melodramatic crying impression that is characteristic of her unashamedly outgoing personality.

Katona admits she did Big Brother partly for the money. She was declared bankrupt in 2008 during a tough period of her life whilst still with ex-husband Mark Croft and still fully in the midst of her addictions.

So what has Katona learnt from battling with her painful past? “Never believe what you’re told.” Katona was diagnosed with the “worst case” of bipolar disorder and told she would be on prescription drugs for the rest of her life. When she met The Speakmans, that all changed. Using a treatment that consists in identifying “schema” (unconscious memories dating back to childhood that influence the way we behave) they work with patients to condition the mind into perceiving more positively. The therapists worked on changing Katona’s first memory, one which had produced feelings of inadequacy. By conditioning that “schema”, their story was one of success. “There’s always a resolution”, says Eva. Her support for the new, reformed Katona is clear. “I love listening to the way you talk now. You’re really positive.”

 

Eva and Nik Speakman have treated each other to cure their own phobias and are firm believers of nurture over nature. “I came from a challenging background”, states Eva Speakman. “I was a smoker and a drinker. I turned it around through what we learnt. I listened to this tape about creating your life and I was amazed at how it helped transform me.”

Katona has a new autobiography, Still Standing, coming out on November 22nd. When I ask her what it was like to write of her painful experiences, her response is immediate, and markedly less jovial than before; “horrendous.”

“I absolutely hated it”. She says that her first autobiography, Too Much Too Young, published in 2006, was a lot easier; “it was like therapy. After I did it I thought, that’s not really my fault, it was my childhood and it was out of my control. This second book is so raw and honest. It is about things that I chose to do. When it got read back to me I felt so ashamed and embarrassed by it. It’s like I don’t even know who this person is in the first half of the book.”

Yet Katona remains positive. “I’ve been open and honest, and I’ve come out the other end. In a way I’m glad it’s there in black and white, on paper, in a book. If I ever feel like going down that road again, I can read it and think sod that for a bag of… whatever the saying is.” And in a flash Katona is joking and giggling and back to her jolly old self.

When I ask Katona how living in the public eye has affected her, she makes this comparison; “If you walk outside and trip over running to the bus stop, the old lady sees you. I trip over and the whole world sees me. But there might not be any difference in our personal lives.”

And her first experiences of public exposure? “We’d been doing The Big Breakfast for a week and we went to a nightclub. I hated it, I had Tom, Dick and Harry constantly asking me for pictures, I didn’t like the attention, so I started having more drinks before going out, doing lines.” It seems the constant public exposure made its mark on Katona.

“I’m not an arrogant person, I’m not ignorant”, she states. Eva Speakman defends her unquestioningly: “She is one of the most genuine, endearing, kind and, believe it or not, normal people you could ever wish to meet. Kerry actually hasn’t changed. The public’s perception has, but she hasn’t. She has no delusions of grandeur. What I love about Kerry is that if people ask her for a picture, she’s always so accommodating, so kind. She makes every single person that comes up to her feel like an individual. She’s really inspirational, honestly.”

And I can’t help believing her. There’s no pretence about Katona, and her brutal, energetic honesty about a dark past is admirable. Of course, she makes a characteristic joke that she’s only prepared to have a picture if she’s being paid “a fiver” for it. Yet I know instantly that Katona is joking. After a short period of time I’ve already warmed to the genuine, open and seemingly light-hearted woman that was, just a few years ago, at the extreme end of the bipolar spectrum and on the brink of death. Katona has most certainly turned her life around, and something tells me she’s not going to back down now.

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