A show partly about anxiety, but mainly about Vogue Williams
TV Review: It shouldn’t work but it does, thanks to the presenter’s guileless warmth
“I look exhausted, I am exhausted, and I just can’t calm myself down.” Vogue: My Anxious Life (RTÉ 2, Tuesday, 10pm) opens with a close-up of a barefaced Vogue Williams (who doesn’t look all that different from a fully made up Vogue Williams), in bed – alone, frustrated and apparently unable to sleep.
“It’s a nightmare, when you’re alone in your own head. I’m just upset. I’m so fed up of feeling like this,” says the presenter, whose permanent state of bounciness seems to have briefly deserted her.
This opening sets the tone for another documentary in a three-part series called, you guessed it, Vogue (last week looked at sperm donation; next week is “sugar dating”) that is part-investigation, but more personal journey, on the part of the 31-year-old.
This time the subject is anxiety, and the “absolute goal”, she says, bounciness restored with a workout in the gym (cue lots of lingering close-ups) is to see if there is a cure for a condition she says she has suffered with since she was 20.
“Deep down I know there’s probably not, but I’d just like to see if there’s some way of getting rid of it forever,” she says.
Vogue Williams, anxious? The presenter with the dial permanently set to “Tigger”? It seems unlikely but, as this exploration sets out to show, you never know.
Despite her personal experience of anxiety, she makes no pretence at being a an expert in the subject.
When she goes to Limerick to meet Catriona, a young woman who suffers from acute anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and depression so severe that she considered taking her own life, Williams confesses to having had no idea that there was a link between OCD and anxiety – something even a cursory search of the Internet would have told her.
But then, Williams’s strength isn’t research, or searching questions, or piercing insights – instead, it’s that blend of pragmatism and guileless warmth that is fast becoming her trademark. It shouldn’t really work with a subject as complex and multifaceted as this, but it does.
There are lots of different ways to treat a subject as complex as OCD. Luckily, Catriona doesn’t seem at all offended at Williams’s approach – which becomes one of teasing incredulity as she describes one of her coping mechanisms. Catriona will only leave the house, she reveals, with a backpack filled for every eventuality, including a plastic bag in case she feels sick, a phone charger and a back-up charger, “a resuscitation mask in case someone collapses nearby”, a sling, five notebooks and anti-sickness tablets.
“My handbag is full of rubbish. I’ve got enough make-up in my bag to do 50people’s faces, which I don’t need either, so we all have our little different things,” Williams shrugs, in one of those moments where her attempt to find common ground manages to stay on the right side of the line between “winning” and “awkward”.
As anxiety levels rise in the young, experts are making links with an increasing reliance on screens and social media. This should be comfortable territory for a presenter with 77,000 Twitter followers, and almost 200,000 on Instagram, who sits down to explore it with four of Ireland’s most popular Instagrammers – Rosie Connolly, James Kavanagh, Grace Mongey and Paddy Smyth.
“What’s the purpose of us being online? Do you think we’re looking for some sort of validation?” Vogue wonders.
It’s an intriguing question, and an opportunity for a rare moment of introspection, if only someone around the table would bite. But apparently they’re more about the selfies than the self-awareness.
“Not everyone on social media or on Instagram is perfect,” says Rosie Connolly, who suggests that influencers have a responsibility to “show your flaws a little bit more”.
“You have to surround yourself with the right people,” suggests Paddy Smyth, but it’s not clear whether he means with followers or, you know, actual people.
What could have felt like a wholly unsatisfying segment is rescued when James Kavanagh describes feeling like “the only gay in the school...a shell of a person” until he discovered other “little gaylings” online.
Vogue: My Anxious Life is at its best when the presenter is confronted with the reality of her own reliance on her phone. She spends an average of four hours a day on it, picks it up every 30 to 40 minutes, uses it up to 81 times a day, wakes up at 5am to check social media – and on one day in August, she spent seven hours online.
“I am feeling absolutely disgusted with myself. I know I was having a little laugh in there, but that is not right. Getting up at five in the morning to go on my phone – there is something wrong with me. Honestly, I’m anxious – obviously,” she says.
Her exploration of all forms of anxiety takes her to see Michael, a “virtual reality therapist”, who uses technology to treat one of her anxieties: a fear of spiders. He gives her a pair of VR goggles and encourages her to leave her virtual hands on the table, while virtual spiders crawl all over them.
It makes for an amusing enough scene, but juxtaposed with the previous one – in which a new mother called Linda describes the crippling agoraphobia that has made her a prisoner in her own home, or the following one, in which Williams attends an OCD yoga class and meets people with severe intrusive thoughts – it veers worryingly close to the superficial.
Anxiety exists on a spectrum, and it can be challenging to deal with something so complex in a one-hour documentary. (I am currently working on a documentary on a related subject for an independent production company, so I appreciate the difficulties.) In a programme that doubles as a revealing personal exploration for a presenter whose experience of anxiety is, she admits, on the milder end than many of her interviewees – those challenges are undoubtedly multiplied.
There are no startling conclusions: Williams realises she should stay off her phone more, and that there may be no cure for anxiety, but that there are treatments and help available.
On paper, it probably shouldn’t work. At moments, on screen, it veers close to not quite working. But in the end it’s her playful approach, all-round likeability and ability to put the people she meets at ease that rescues Vogue: My Anxious Life.
The secret to its success is in the title. It’s all about Vogue.