Davina McCall is crying. She’s finding it hard to compose herself as she tells me about “the most upsetting job” of her TV career. Given Davina, 53, has been on our screens for more than 30 years and presents the sob-fest that is Long Lost Family, this is quite a claim.
“I had no idea how shocking a scandal this was,” she explains, apologising for the unexpected tears. “Some of the women I interviewed were planning to take their own lives. How desperate must you be to think death is the only way out? This is not OK. This documentary has been both harrowing and heartbreaking to make.”
It’s unnerving seeing the perky doyenne of positive telly so subdued on my Zoom screen, her cat on her lap as she sips tea in her front room. Davina rarely presents anything less than an upbeat persona but her new documentary, Davina McCall: Sex, Myths and the Menopause, has touched a nerve.
The Channel 4 show explores the agony of women battling to be taken seriously by UK doctors who are inexplicably resistant to treating midlife hormone deficiencies. It features women with perimenopause and menopause symptoms so severe they have been suffering in silence for years, particularly those enduring the hideously named vaginal atrophy, a condition caused by lack of oestrogen, which can affect up to 80 per cent of women in midlife. One woman Davina talks to in the programme was in such distress she could not sit down and numbed the daily pain with ice blocks.
The investigation lifts the lid on years of illogical chaos surrounding the prescription of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) – and has unleashed Davina’s midlife warrior. “I did wonder,” she says, “if telling the world about my vagina and taking HRT was a career-ending move, but I was so angry I thought, what the hell, why not.”
Davina explains how she experienced dryness “down there” during her mid-40s, but was one of the lucky ones whose symptoms were cured by HRT.
“What I didn’t know then, but I do now, is that I was experiencing symptoms of perimenopause, which can start in your early 40s,” she tells me. “I had also begun to have night sweats – they were so bad it reminded me of when I was coming off heroin. (The ex-Big Brother presenter was addicted to drugs in her 20s.)
“And I was losing my mind – I forgot how to read an autocue at work; I thought I was getting dementia. My dad suffers from it and I was convinced I had it early.
“I was tearful all the time and I remember sitting in the car yelling at the children on the school run, which was so unlike me, feeling utterly miserable. I thought ‘I cannot continue being this person’ and I sought medical help. It took a year to get the levels right but I went on HRT and my life changed. I was me again.”
And indeed the presenter appears to be on excellent form. She’s a woman of huge influence right now, with 1.3 million followers on Instagram, 2.7 million on Twitter and more than 700,000 on Facebook. And she is catnip for viewers – The Masked Singer finale saw more than 10 million tune in and the last series of Long Lost Family reached a live audience of more than 5.2 million.
She’s in a happy place at home, too, after her divorce in 2017 from Matthew Robertson, the father of her three children: Holly, 19, Tilly 16, and Chester, 14.
For two years she has been dating Michael Douglas, 47 – a “fancy pants” hairdresser, as he calls himself, and dad of two teen boys, whom she has known for 27 years. She won’t talk about their relationship in order to protect her children’s privacy, but it’s easy to hear the affection they have for each other on the podcast they co-present, Making The Cut. In the last episode he playfully refers to germophobe Davina as “Britain’s cleanest woman”, they discuss how he weighs 3kg less than his fitness guru girlfriend and it ends when he promises to cook her steak that night. “You’re so lovely,” she says.
“I’m enjoying a vibrant second act,” she tells me, exuding the kind of morning-person energy you wish you could package up and sell as a supplement.
“I think when you get to 50 you can start to reawaken your sexual desire. You’re not exhausted after getting up early with toddlers, or working ridiculous hours. You get the house to yourself. So it’s possible to reignite a happy sex life. You don’t stop having orgasms as you age; quite the opposite.
“I am half French so I can talk about sex more openly than most and I believe we all have the right as women to enjoy a good sex life as we mature. And that’s what was so upsetting about reporting on this scandal, meeting women in pain who have been denied this part of their lives and relationships; women who want to feel female again.”
In the show, which also features fellow midlifers Gabby Logan and Zoe Ball, we learn that 13 million UK women are menopausal, yet two-thirds of those who seek help for their symptoms are mistakenly prescribed antidepressants by GPs, despite NICE guidelines stating that HRT should be the first line of treatment as it relieves symptoms of perimenopause. More importantly, says menopause specialist Dr Louise Newson, it can offer protection against heart disease and osteoporosis.
Yet doctors became scared of prescribing this life changing drug after a controversial study published 20 years ago which linked HRT with breast cancer. The Women’s Health Initiative trial was carried out on women 12 years past the menopausal age on a form of HRT no longer prescribed. The results prompted one million midlife women to stop taking HRT and has continued to be misinterpreted by doctors.
According to the most recent research, the risk of breast cancer associated with taking today’s body identical HRT is less than drinking two glasses of wine a day, and other lifestyle factors carry a similar or greater risk – obesity, for example, doubles your risk of breast cancer. Yet only one in 10 women today takes HRT and only one third of women visit their GP to get support for menopause symptoms.
It’s a story I hear often as the co-host of the podcast Postcards From Midlife, which Davina features on this Sunday May 9. And while not all women may be able to take HRT, the stories of those repeatedly dismissed for asking for help are shocking. A listener with menopausal depression told us her GP recommended she take up needlepoint to “calm down”.
And in the shadow of this medical confusion, GPs also seem reluctant to even prescribe oestrogen pessaries for hundreds of thousands of women enduring vaginal atrophy: a zero-risk treatment that usually cures symptoms overnight. Of the 80 per cent of midlife women with symptoms only eight per cent get treatment. Why is this, I ask Davina?
“Women are expected to just endure this,” she says. “To suck it up alongside the other symptoms like brain fog, depression, lost libido. Women who try to get help are at the end of their tether. Ashamed of unravelling in front of their families, like I was. Some are even ashamed of taking HRT because of the myths that still exist.
“GPs need to educate themselves. A private menopause doctor I spoke to says she sees one woman a week who is suicidal. Many women are told they are stupid for asking for help, to pull themselves together. I am on a mission to change this.”
In the show Davina also explores the dip in libido that can affect perimenopausal women with orgasm specialist Sam Evans, founder of the sex toy company Jo Divine, who spends much her time counselling midlife women customers.
“Women become invisible as they hit midlife and that is not fair,” adds Davina. ”We are at our peak and our quality of life matters, so give us our personalities back and that includes our libido. It is a crucial part of our female identity.
“I have a progesterone coil fitted, I have an extra pump of oestrogen each day and I am on testosterone. I’ve been taking this for the past six years so that I feel like me again and to protect me from other illnesses like heart disease, dementia, osteoporosis further down the line. I need to be on the ball to parent teenagers, to have a happy sex life and to enjoy my career.
“I feel like we are on the cusp of change. The women of Generation X want to be heard. This message is finally getting through in the corridors of power. We’re a spirited, kick-ass bunch and we won’t stop until we change this.”
Davina McCall: Sex, Myths and the Menopause is on Channel 4 on Wednesday May 12 at 9pm