Death threats, abuse… I started to feel unsafe: As she launches a new BBC game show, Alex Scott reveals the vile trolling she received online drove her to drink – and why resorting to therapy has been a lifeline
- Alex Scott is a former Arsenal women’s captain who won 140 caps for England
- Received abuse after becoming BBC’s first female football pundit at a World Cup
- 37-year-old, from London, reveals she turned to therapy to express emotions
- Alex is set to host new game show The Tournament, which has eight contestants
Four weeks ago, former footballer turned television presenter and sports pundit Alex Scott took herself off to a juice retreat in Portugal. She goes there twice a year.
‘Not to lose weight or do juices,’ she says. ‘I go to detox from life. I go so I can hike in the mountains every day, listen to a podcast and just switch off. I go when I’m in a red zone.
‘That’s when I’m totally tired. I reach a place where I need to escape from life and feel safe – safe and just free,’ she explains.
‘Either that or I’m just burnt out. My spark is completely gone and then I’m struggling. I need that time at the retreat so my brain can switch off and recentre. I don’t know how to describe it. I just sometimes need to get rid of the noise.’
Alex Scott, 37, (pictured) from London, began to be bombarded with vile online abuse after her television career exploded in 2018
This is the first time Alex, who turned 37 last month, has talked so openly about her mental health. She is, after all, a girl from the sort of tough estate in the East End of London where, as she says, ‘I had to hold my own – be like, “I’m all right. No one’s going to mess with me.”
‘It was a place where everyone tried to be strong. That was your survival mode. You couldn’t rely on other people for finances or relationships. You had to find your own way.’
Two years ago the former Arsenal women’s captain who won 140 caps for England began to stumble when she was bombarded by death threats and vile abuse on social media.
‘I was drinking most nights. I would easily go through bottles to try and switch off. It was the only thing that could help me sleep or numb everything that was going on around me… it was the death threats, the abuse, all of that.
‘I found myself pulling away from everyone around me, not wanting to talk to anyone.’ Her huge soulful eyes begin to swim with tears. She takes a deep breath to control them.
The vile trolling began when her television career exploded after she became the BBC’s first female football pundit at a World Cup in 2018. It intensified when she joined the Sky Sports Super Sunday team and speculation grew that she was to replace Sue Barker on the BBC’s A Question Of Sport.
‘I started to feel unsafe but I was in a place that was lonely because I was on my own and I didn’t want to put my stuff on anyone. I don’t want to put it on my mum in case she worried about me every single day of her life and had panic attacks.’
Her anguish remains so raw that she, unwittingly, slips into the present tense, ‘Who am I turning to? I’m dealing with all that on my own. Then, also, I’m going into a new job so I don’t want to be like that person – a female who can’t handle herself.
Alex with Alan Shearer, Gary Lineker, Thierry Henry and Gaby Logan at Euro 2020
‘So I’m having to turn to drink to switch off and sleep, and that’s not me. I’d been hiding it and hiding it until it got to the stage where I thought, “I can’t take this any more.”’
Two years ago Alex sought therapy, which has been a lifeline. ‘It’s a safe place where I’m allowed to let go of all my emotion and actually talk things through,’ she says.
‘It’s just that weight off your shoulders.’ Nonetheless, it’s hard not to be touched by her pain. So much so that you want to ram Lord Digby Jones’s criticism of her London accent during this year’s Olympics coverage down his throat (tweeting about her ‘inability to pronounce her ‘G’s at the end of a word’, the portly peer continued, ‘Can’t someone give these people elocution lessons?’).
‘All I can be is myself,’ says Alex. ‘I’m never going to shy away from that. My reply to him is Michelle Obama’s, “When they go low, you go high.”’
Which is right where Alex is heading. Within four short years of retiring from football to concentrate on broadcasting, she became the first permanent female to present the BBC’s Football Focus in May and is now hosting a brand new BBC daytime game show The Tournament, which will be broadcast on weekdays from Monday.
The show takes eight contestants who compete on the Tournament Run in a series of fast-paced quizzes. With a tension akin to a penalty shoot-out, the successful competitor in each quiz match picks an opponent to knock out in the next round and take their money.
The player who makes it to the end has the chance to double their money on a final Golden Run.
‘The game really begins after the first round of eight general knowledge questions,’ Alex explains, her eyes lighting up now as she talks about the show.
Alex said the new weekday show she is hosting gives the winner an opportunity to double their money. Pictured: Alex hosting new game show The Tournament
‘If you get most of the questions right and you’re at the top of the leader board with say, £500, you choose who to play against in a head-to-head. You might choose the person who has struggled so is down at the bottom with £10, or go for someone in the middle who has more money but could be a tougher opponent.
‘If you win you go through to the semi-final and that person goes home. If you lose you go home. The two players who win the semis go through to the final.
‘The winner can double their money on the Golden Run. It’s such a simple format but it works because you have these tense moments. You might be favourite but it’s actually about how you deal with things under pressure.’
It is also Alex, as host, who makes the show so very watchable. She has an easy humour and a sense of compassion that the likes of Digby Jones would do well to learn from.
‘I’m a sucker for emotions,’ she says. ‘That’s what I really love about the show. We had one guy who had Asperger’s. He got to the final and then started crying because he lost. He said, “I was homeless a month ago. People don’t see people like me on TV.” I was nearly in tears and having to hold it together.
‘If you don’t win you get the chance to come back the next day and try again. The guy with Asperger’s came back, won, then got to the Golden Run and doubled his money.
‘I think he won £5,000 or something. I think he was our biggest one so far. He was like…’ She finishes the sentence with a huge smile that speaks more than words.
Alex is a whatever-hand-you’re-dealt-bounce-back-and-head-for-the-golden-run sort of person. A fortnight ago she went down with the so-called ‘super cold’ that’s kept many of us in bed for a week.
Alex winning the women’s FA Cup with Arsenal in 2008
She was feeling grotty on Saturday but soldiered on to host Football Focus. By Sunday she was ‘on the sofa’ and forced to drop out of her guest slot on Monday’s The One Show.
It’s the first day she has ever taken off work ill. By Wednesday she’s at our photoshoot painting on a confidence that she’s never really felt.
‘I think from the outside people look at you and assume because you’re on TV and talk to millions of people, you’re confident, but the people around me who know me would not describe me as that.
‘I’m always scared all this could end tomorrow so I always turn up at any job and do the best I can. Even with football I knew I wasn’t the most talented. No one really imagined me going to play for England or Arsenal. What got me there was hard work.’
My job is hard for a lover to take on
Alex has been single ‘for a while now’. Much as the therapy she’s been having is helping her, she still finds it hard to let people in. ‘It’s trust, isn’t it?’ she says.
Pictured: Alex as a child with brother Ronnie
‘I’ve been in love. I suppose through my 20s I was with my first love – my most intense love. When the time is right I’ll speak about it. It’s not that I’m trying to hide anything, it’s just that I’ve always been on to the next chapter. I don’t really dwell on things.
‘I’ve been in relationships where at the start it’s all great, but to take on the job I do is a lot. They can’t take it because of the pressure or because I’m not home at a certain time.’ She shrugs.
‘Should I be in a relationship that I’m unhappy with? I grew up seeing my mum and dad, hearing arguments. That’s why they split, because obviously they weren’t happy. I never want to be that person.’
Alex began playing football with her brother Ronnie at the end of the road near their home in Poplar, east London. The council estate was a close-knit community but a tough one.
‘A fight would break out or a car would be on fire,’ she says. ‘You’d have sirens constantly or the police entering someone’s home. There was always something going on. On a council estate in that area it’s easy to find trouble.
‘I was lucky, we had a concrete football pitch with fencing around it. That was my out. That was where my dreams of a world that was beyond those four walls in that football cage began.
‘It was where I felt free. Playing football was just pure happiness. No one was talking to me. That football cage was my comfort blanket.’
Alex was one of two children born to mixed-race parents. Her father, who was Jamaican, left when she was seven taking the television, the radio and everything else he could lay his hands on with him.
Her mother, who was from an Irish family, struggled with various jobs to look after Alex and Ronnie as best she could.
‘Once Dad left I’d hear comments about my mum like, “I told you so.” She was a white woman raising black kids, single and struggling. She worked various jobs trying to get the best she could for my brother and me. It was a different kind of mother-and-daughter relationship.
‘I’ve got Afro hair and my mum didn’t know how to do Afro hair so I’d go down to my nan’s every week in Wapping and sit for hours for her to do my hair and teach me about it.
‘Every single time I was there we’d watch Oprah Winfrey. I suppose watching that show, hearing about her struggles and how she spoke with other people, it made you think, “Wow, there’s something else out there.”’
Alex adored her paternal grandmother. When she was awarded an MBE for services to football in the 2017 New Year’s Honours she invited her grandmother there along with her mother. She organised tea at The Ritz, she says, ‘to make them feel special.
‘My mum and Nan had never been to a fancy place like that. That was my happiest time. But I remember coming away from that day and saying to my mum, “I don’t think I’ve got long with Nan any more.” I knew that day was it.’
When her grandmother died shortly afterwards Alex was devastated. She’s in tears now as she talks about it. ‘I didn’t go to my nan’s funeral because I couldn’t, I was too upset. I was super-close to her.’
Alex (pictured) said experiencing Jamaica for BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? gave her a strong sense of belonging
Alex has seen her dad ‘a few times’ since he left her mother, but not for a long time. She sends Christmas cards and asks her brother ‘to check in on him’ but doesn’t speak to him.
‘My dad wouldn’t be able to describe my personality like my friends do. You can take from that the level of involvement he’s had in my life.’
Recently she visited her father’s native Jamaica to film the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? and discovered her maternal great-grandfather was a Jew who opposed fascism in east London, and that a four times great-grandfather was a black man who owned 26 slaves, which truly shook her.
But mostly, she says, experiencing Jamaica for the first time gave her a strong sense of belonging.
‘There was a distant cousin of mine on WDYTYA? who said something that stayed with me that I didn’t understand before going into the show, “You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from.”
‘That was so powerful because people were saying, yes, I’m doing great, aren’t I? I’ve got this job. Everyone sees me as successful – a girl who started playing football getting to where I am now.
‘But I don’t think I understood where I was from. I’d say, “I’m from the East End of London” because that’s all I knew.
‘So going to Jamaica and experiencing my nan’s life there was the most emotional part of WDYTYA? for me – but not in a sad way. I saw colour, happiness. The same as what I get from the juice retreat – just that feeling of being free.
‘You see, I’d never known anything about my roots. Now I have an understanding of who my family were and what they’ve been through. I’m actually proud I’m made up of all of that. I’m proud of who I am.’
The Tournament is on weekdays at 2.15pm on BBC1 and iPlayer.
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