‘I knew she was loved’: Nick Grimshaw on Caroline Flack and mental health

DJ talks about health scare during Sport Relief challenge and dark side of celebrity

Eight hours into a 35-mile cycle across the Namib desert, Namibia, for Sport Relief in February, Nick Grimshaw developed severe heat exhaustion. A medical team put him into a car to shield him from the 44 degree temperature, and explained what was happening: he was at risk of organ failure. Grimshaw's body started "vibrating", as he puts it, and he began to panic. He needed a sedative injection to calm him down. The next morning, he had recovered, but sat out that day's challenge.

“I’m gonna be one of those annoying people who does a trek and is like: ‘I was changed in Africa,‘” says the 35-year-old Radio 1 DJ. “When I got back to London, I wrote everything down – exactly how I was feeling – so I didn’t forget it. Because it felt really good, and I just want to feel like that for ever.”

The expedition was originally scheduled to take place in Mongolia, with the celebrities – which included the news presenters Louise Minchin and Krishnan Guru-Murthy and the actor Samantha Womack – expected to complete a 100km trek across the frozen Lake Khövsgöl. The threat of Covid-19 meant the challenge shifted at short notice to biking, skiing (down sand dunes) and walking across the world’s oldest desert. What did he make of the switch? “I thought: ‘Wicked. It will be dead warm,‘” Grimshaw says, with his typical deadpan delivery.

We meet in Clissold Park, in north London, not far from Grimshaw’s house, and sit down on a bench to talk. Grimshaw says that the challenge, which was set up to raise money for mental health services, is the hardest thing he has ever done. “We’re not saying that [Sport Relief] is going to solve everything, but it’s good that mental health is in the public consciousness more,” he says.

“I’m quite lucky in that I’ve not been as severely affected as some people on the trip were,” he continues. “I’ve had horrible anxiety that won’t go, and have been feeling down, with really horrible panic attacks. I’m not here being like: ‘I’ve got severe anxiety.’ But I suffer with anxiety, and when it’s bad, it’s bad.”

Grimshaw first experienced anxiety at university, with flashpoints occurring at the times in his career when he has been working too hard and partying harder – taking on the job of replacing Chris Moyles on the Radio 1 breakfast show in 2012 was a definite strain. Although he has not had a panic attack in years (Namibia aside) he still sees a therapist, although he recognises not everyone can afford to pay for talking therapy. “Most people don’t have the luxury of a spare Thursday afternoon to pop round and see their therapist,” he says. “I think it’s a real privilege that I do.”

His mental health has become more manageable as his social life has slowed down. “I drink, but I won’t get drunk like I used to,” he says. “I used to just go out all the time, but I guess that’s what you do in your 20s. I used to think my mum and dad were crazy not being in Ibiza. But something happens where you turn 32, I think, and you’re like: ‘Fuck this.‘”

This year has been especially tough for Grimshaw: he has lost two close friends, one of whom was the presenter Caroline Flack, who died in February. Her death prompted an astonishing outpouring of grief from the public.

“I knew she was very loved,” he says. “She was so funny, engaging and open. And also really vulnerable. I think a lot of people, me included, saw her in themselves. And it was the most horrible, shocking news.”

Grimshaw was in his car on the way to the gym when heard on the radio that Flack had died. He remembers checking his phone and seeing messages come in from his friends. He drove home and cried alone.

'My experience of Caroline was nothing but joy and fun'

“It’s really hard to take,” he says. “We weren’t best friends, but we were close and we’d speak all the time. We’d spoken earlier that week. We had plans to hang out, and I’d been messaging her when all the shit had gone down.” Flack was facing trial, for an alleged attack on her boyfriend, Lewis Burton. She had been forced to step back from presenting Love Island, and had become a tabloid target. “She was going through a tough time.”

Grimshaw met Flack in 2007 at the Hawley Arms pub in Camden – a famed hangout for the mid-00s north London set, including Amy Winehouse and Noel Fielding. He was doing an internship at MTV nearby, so they would drink there most weeknights. The two went on to work together in 2015 on the 12th series of The X Factor – Grimshaw as a judge and Flack as a host. Flack was also a regular guest on Grimshaw’s Radio 1 show.

“My experience of Caroline was nothing but joy and fun,” he says. “She was always one of those people who, if you were having a fine night out, would make it a brilliant night out.”

What has he been thinking about since he found out about her death? “That it could have been avoided,” he says. “I know that always happens when someone dies young, and when I’ve had friends who have passed away before they should have. You always play a bit of ‘what could I have done?’”

Flack’s death put the spotlight on the tabloid press, with many angry at the way her personal life was covered so incessantly by some publications, particularly after her arrest in December. A petition to introduce “Caroline’s law” (which seeks to make it a criminal offence for the media to knowingly bully a person by sensationalising their misfortune) has received more than 860,000 signatures.

“With Caroline, no one was reporting on facts,” says Grimshaw. “There’s this constant need to dig things out about people. It felt really unnecessary. It felt relentless. It’s really dark. It’s not a funny thing to cover.

“Someone’s life was on the line here. And their relationship, and their family’s lives. I just thought there was no ...” he pauses. “We’re taught about duty of care at Radio 1. I just can’t imagine making light of something like that on the radio, so why would you write it down and print it?”

Grimshaw is no stranger to the tabloids himself. In the early days of his career, he would be papped leaving parties with A-listers such as Harry Styles, Kate Moss and Rita Ora. And he’s still photographed when out and about.

“I don’t indulge in it,” says Grimshaw. “I think girls get it on a totally different spectrum to guys. I remember when Fearne Cotton was at Radio 1; there were paps outside every single day, and every single day she’d be in the paper. It’s the same with Maya Jama now. Boys don’t really get that. I think with girls there’s so much more to comment on, like: ‘Oh, they look tired,‘ or: ‘How dare they have roots.‘ There’s so much more interest in gossiping about their sex lives or what they’re posting.”

Grimshaw’s path to radio began on his childhood bedroom floor in Oldham. He remembers it vividly: creaky wooden floors, a giant Prodigy poster, incense and the voice of John Peel coming out of the speakers on his hi-fi with a double tape deck (which he still has).

“I thought I discovered John Peel,” he says. “I thought no one else had heard of him and he was really niche. And everyone was, like: ‘What, the most famous DJ in the world?’ I vividly remember sitting on the floor with the radio on, like people in the war. Now, I can’t imagine a young person just listening to the radio and not doing something else.”

He inherited his love of music from his older brother and sister (13 and 12 years his senior), and would listen to Chris Evans and Sara Cox on his way to school. Away from music, he describes his childhood as fun, his household as noisy, and his school reports as consistent: “Nick could be actually really good, and he’s smart, but he will not do any work and he’d rather be the class clown.”

Grimshaw never felt the need to come out as gay to his parents – he suggests it was obvious enough for him not to have to spell it out. “I used to just do Cher and Gloria Estefan shows,” he says, before launching enthusiastically into an anecdote about the time he recreated one of Estefan’s album covers for his bemused parents.

“I also remember seeing a picture of David Beckham,” he continues. “He was in a bath, and it was in black and white, and there was foam on him. I must have been so young because I didn’t find it sexually attractive; I just couldn’t stop looking at it. I remember running out to my dad in the garden being like: ‘Can I put this on my wall?’ And him being like: ‘Yes, but with Blu-Tack – don’t ruin the wall.’”

In 2002, he went to the University of Liverpool, where he studied communication and media studies. He spent much of his degree heavily involved in the student radio station and distracted by parties. He never showed up to the graduation ceremony and only found out what he’d left with more than a decade later live on Radio 1. (He’d failed his final year and left with a DipHE.)

After a brief spell with a music management and PR agency in Manchester, Grimshaw moved to London, where he helped run club nights while interning at MTV. He got his first shot at TV on E4, hosting daily shows, before moving over to Channel 4 to do its breakfast show, Freshly Squeezed, with Alexa Chung and, later, Jameela Jamil.

In September 2007, he was poached by Radio 1 to host the 10pm-midnight slot. He had been there for nearly five years when Ben Cooper, the station’s then controller, offered him the biggest job in radio: replacing Moyles on the Breakfast Show.

'When I was a kid, I only wanted to do the Radio 1 Breakfast Show. I never listened to anything else. I still don't'

It was a gig Grimshaw had for nearly six years, making himself a household name in the process. It wasn’t until he stood down from it in 2018, to be replaced by Greg James, that he realised how much of a mental strain the 4am starts and intense criticism of his performance was having.

“I was burnt out,” he says. “But I don’t think I realised until a few months later. When you do that show, you’re under a lot of scrutiny – people are slagging you off at 5.30 in the morning. I don’t think I’d taken in that element of it.”

Grimshaw was a hit with critics, but ratings dropped during his tenure — according to Rajar, 5.1 million people listened to the show when he announced he was leaving, the second-lowest audience since records began. The response from Grimshaw and station executives was always the same: they wanted to attract the younger listeners who had left the station during the Moyles years, even if it meant a drastic drop in overall listeners.

“Ratings are important, although I never paid too much attention to them,” says Grimshaw. “It was hard to know exactly what they were measuring it against because our bosses were saying at the time: ‘Our average listener is too old. We want young people.‘ So I had a specific brief. When I look back ... that’s a bit of a shitty brief for the Nick Grimshaw brand,” he says, knowing that he was essentially being asked to dramatically reduce the overall listeners to narrow the age bracket. “Was that a good idea for me?”

It certainly doesn’t seem to have done his career much harm. On leaving the Breakfast Show in 2018, he was given a comfortable drive-time slot. And, after a year that began with announcements of job losses and aggressive budget cuts, the BBC has received praise for the way it has adapted to the coronavirus pandemic. “Loads of people are messaging into Radio 1 being like: ‘You guys are really helping us. We’re bored at home and we’re really liking this,‘” he says. “It feels like the thing that first made me want to do radio. The only brief we’ve had is to just be yourself, be honest.”

Does he think he will remain at the BBC when the time comes to move on?

“I hope so,” he says. “When I was a kid, I only wanted to do the Radio 1 Breakfast Show. I never listened to anything else. I still don’t listen to anything else: I have Radio 1, 1Xtra and 6 Music, and that’s pretty much it.”

No plans to move back to television, then? “I definitely still want to do radio,” he says. “I’ve never not liked it, and I’ve never gone into work and felt worse – because I just love chatting to people. The only two things I like are listening to songs and chatting shit. I can’t believe I’ve managed to get a career out of it.”

Nick Grimshaw hosts the drive-time slot on BBC Radio 1 from 3pm every Monday to Thursday. – Guardian