For many years, Melanie Sykes was a regular face on TV, in shows such as ‘Today with Des and Mel’, ‘The Big Breakfast’ and ‘
The Great Pottery Throw Down’, and even the face of Boddingtons TV commercials.
But hers is a story, perhaps not uncommon among women in the celebrity spotlight. In November 2021, she was diagnosed as autistic, something she feels has released her and opened her up. She has now published her autobiography highlighting the many issues which caused her to fight with alcohol, mental health issues and coercive relationships.
Melanie Sykes was born in Ashton-under-Lyme, (then Lancashire, now Greater Manchester) on August 7th 1970 to an English father and an Anglo-Indian mother. She grew up locally, and played in the Ashtonian Brass Band on the baritone horn.
She first came to public prominence in the mid-1990s as the popular face advertising local brew Boddingtons Bitter on television.
Sykes’ TV presenting career started as a host on Sky One. She moved on to be a reporter for four years from 1997 until 2001 on Channel 4’s The Big Breakfast. Her other credits include presenting stints on ‘I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here!’ In 1999, Sykes presented ‘Melanie Sykes’ Southall Stories’, a documentary for BBC Two on Asian culture in Great Britain. She has also hosted a variety of awards ceremonies, including Miss World, the BAFTA Awards and the Q Awards.
Despite her 25-plus years as a recognised and well-respected TV presenter, she regards the industry as a ‘horror story’.
As a result, in 2016, Sykes launched her own online women’s lifestyle magazine ‘Frank’ - “The magazine for open-minded women of all ages across the world.” What Sykes offers in her magazine is an opportunity for women to tell their stories in the way they see fit – to be ‘frank’. While the magazine publishes articles and opinions from a variety of writers on myriad topics, it has also proved an essential vehicle for her to open up on her mental health and neurodivergent issues.
In October 2021, at the age of 51, Sykes wrote to the readers of Frank magazine to say that she had been diagnosed as autistic. She opened up about the ‘life-changing’ diagnosis, and her relief that things in her life had finally started to “make sense”. Rather than be bogged down by any societal prejudices, Sykes stated that the diagnosis was ‘life-affirming’, and she would be ‘celebrating’. She felt it offered her a deeper understanding of herself and her working and home environments.
One such example Sykes offered was that she had always struggled with earpieces while live on air. The director in the gantry would say something, and, “I have often accidentally responded to the director in my ear, live on air, as I cannot juggle the person I am interviewing and the person in my ear at the same time.”
Her neurodivergence would previously manifest itself in a manner Sykes herself didn’t understand. “There’s a sense of relief about it and a sense of mourning. Not because I don’t want to be who I am, it’s that I wish I’d known sooner so I could have understood exactly why things were rolling the way they were rolling.
“I’ve been vulnerable to abusive people, I’ve been vulnerable to people that lie because I only see and take on board what people tell me. I’ve always been a bit funny with jokes, if somebody tells me something with a deadpan delivery I believe them.”
Sykes had also had a public battle with alcohol. She declared herself sober in 2017, but despite this, her life in the spotlight affected her mental health and, after she was diagnosed autistic during research for Frank magazine, she had a breakdown. She recovered from it through therapy and exercise – and decided to speak out.
From this, Sykes has written her autobiography, in which she states that she has finished with mainstream television and all of the unpleasantness she encountered as a woman in the industry.
‘Illuminated: Autism & All The Things I’ve Left Unsaid’ written by Sykes herself recounts many of these horror incidents including how collecting a Royal Television Society award was “tainted” as she “kept being touched up by a TV personality, who would not leave me alone. He was grabbing my breasts and being a complete pest. I felt sick.”
The book chronicles Sykes’s experiences of sexism, abusive relationships and racism, while providing an insight into the often toxic culture that she claims pervaded the fashion and showbusiness industries during her career.
Those stories of sexual coercion come thick and fast in her book, including one colleague - get this - laying on the floor just to look up her skirt. She threw a drink on him, and it was all captured on camera, which was bad enough, though the show was edited to take out the oddball intrusion – making Sykes, “look like I was crazy.”
She alleges that she was also quite often “thrown under the bus.” As an example, Sykes recalls the time she and game show co-host Mark Wright filmed a pilot, only to have it cancelled as it fell foul of TV gambling rules. However, the press release issued about it cited, “Mark and Melanie had ‘failed to understand the concept of the game’.” Sykes fumes at re-telling this story.
She finally decided to leave television presenting after co-hosting Celebrity MasterChef in 2021 with Gregg Wallace. He told her,
despite not having had as long a TV career as Sykes, that the show would “do a lot for you.” That was the final insult, and made her “decide to end my television career once and for all. I was done.”
She felt she had been “tap-dancing for corporations who couldn’t give two hoots about my wellbeing”. As a result, presenting on television now no longer interests her.
She hopes her book and the two films currently in production would shine a revealing and positive light on autism, especially as her son was diagnosed autistic as an infant; and issues affecting vulnerable women, such as coercive control.
Sykes told The Guardian, “Women that ask for certain boundaries can be misconstrued as difficult. Many men ask for what they want, which is great, but we should be allowed the same courtesy. It is our right to equality. But if you challenge their status quo, you are considered a problem.
“Men do not talk to other men the way they speak to women because they would be in deep danger of getting punched on the nose if they did. Not all men, but quite a few, save up all their anger and anxiety and unleash it on women.
“For too long women who don’t fit a notion of normal have been deemed ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’”.
Sykes said she only wanted to use her profile now to help people, including by highlighting campaigns against domestic abuse and harassment. Writing her story had helped her, while hoping that it would help women recognise if they are in coercive relationships.
‘Illuminated: Autism & All the Things I’ve Left Unsaid’ by Melanie Sykes is published by HarperCollins, 2023