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If it can be said that anybody is having a “good war” in this pandemic, then Sophie Ellis-Bextor, whose live-streamed Kitchen Discos have brought unalloyed joy to anybody who’s stumbled across them since last March, seems a fitting candidate. But don’t just take my word for it. “Sophie Ellis-Bextor is to Covid,” one viral tweet had it last week, “what Vera Lynn was to the Second World War.”
That’s quite a comparison. “Well, I don’t really know much about Vera Lynn as a person, but I’m not sure she’d have approved of my sparkly leotards…” Ellis-Bextor says, laughing at the idea.
The Kitchen Discos, which ran for 10 weeks during the first lockdown and now appear on her Instagram intermittently, including last Friday and next, were what they said on the tin: filmed by her husband Richard Jones, Ellis-Bextor dances around her disco-lit kitchen in south west London wearing something from her seemingly endless wardrobe of bright, sequinned stage outfits, performing songs from her own back catalogue and whatever covers she feels like.
But Ellis-Bextor’s not alone, because she never really is while she’s at home. She and Jones, both 41, have five boys – Sonny, 16, Kit, 11, Ray, 8, Jesse, 5, and two-year-old Mickey – who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, join in with the fun. It means Ellis-Bextor’s performances are a masterclass of multi-tasking, as she ad libs things like “Be careful!”, “Somebody watch the baby!” or has to console a fallen child mid-chorus.
“Amid the heaviness of the news, I needed not just an escape but also catharsis,” she says. “There’s so much stress and tension. When I jump around and sing my heart out, it goes away for a bit.”
Mind you, she is keen to emphasise that the family isn’t always like the Brady Bunch caked in glitter. “It probably looks like we live that way, but it’s 25 minutes on the odd Friday – it’s not normally what goes on around here.”
What normally goes on around there is that Ellis-Bextor and Jones are facing the same pressures as any parents in the pandemic: managing the chaos of locked-down life, juggling home schooling with their own work, and perhaps above all, trying to ensure their children’s mental health isn’t suffering.
In the week The Telegraph launched its Mental Health Emergency campaign, highlighting the impact of lockdown on the nation’s minds, Ellis-Bextor is supporting a similar Bupa initiative, which focuses on the mental health of teenagers. As a mother of five under 17, she’s seen how the pandemic has affected just about every age of child.
“It’s been fascinating. Like a lot of parents, initially I thought, ‘OK, kids are resilient, they just react to the reality they’re in,’ but as time’s gone on, I’ve realised this is pretty significant, and something they will remember,” she says.
“I think it’s hardest for the eldest and eight-year-old. Because [Ray] needs school for the social stuff, he can’t replicate that online, he’s not adept at that. And for Sonny [who’s 17 in April], he’s coping really well, but I remember being 16 and all the rites of passage. Imagine that being put on hold for a year?”
The daughter of former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis and TV producer Robin Bextor, Ellis-Bextor was already on the way to becoming a pop star when she was Sonny’s age. Would any of that have happened if there were lockdowns in 1995?
“Quite likely not. There are going to be lives that they’ll never know. But I suppose you have to be at peace with that, it’s life in general, isn’t it? Maybe you end up doing something different that feels like the right thing.”
She and Sonny are close – he signed a recent birthday card “from your psychotherapist”, as she likes to use him as a sounding board for her troubles at the end of each day – but any parent of a teenager knows that at the moment, identifying a sign of real mental health difficulties amid typical pubescent sulking isn’t easy.
“What is a normal, monosyllabic mood swing for a teenager, and what is something that’s actually significant?” she says. “[Sonny] is a very sensitive boy, and I’ve been lucky – he’s taught me how to talk to his brothers when they get to certain ages. One of the things I’ve learned is that parents have to stop doing that thing when they say: ‘Oh yeah, I remember that when I was your age.’ You have to let people have their own space.
“You also have to have a bit of trust and not always try to fix things... sometimes it’s good to just say: ‘OK, that’s quite tough, thank you for telling me’, then have a hot chocolate and sit together or watch a silly film.”
Ellis-Bextor and Jones, a musician with The Feeling, have learned to relax into the pandemic, now appreciating that the albums they both planned will just have to wait. They’ve not seen Jones’s parents in over a year (because “they’ve had various operations”), while Kitchen Discos is the “main way my dad [who lives in Sussex] can see what his grandkids look like now.”
Ellis, on the other hand, lives nearby. She and Ellis-Bextor’s stepfather, John Leach, were shielding in the first lockdown, before Leach died of cancer in July.
“That was very sad, but our story is just one of billions. You have to take small comforts, and by the time John died, the first lockdown had finished, and we were able to be all together in the hospital, and have a small family funeral and a nice lunch outside. In a way this is the tougher bit. It’s tough for my mum.”
Now, Ellis-Bextor feels slightly more used to dealing with a life suspended. The help in this lockdown, she says, is that childcare is permitted, meaning the family’s nanny can help for a few hours each day.
“It sounds ridiculous, but you need a minimum of two adults, because Mickey is two, he can’t be unsupervised,” she says. Jones would clean, prepare meals and deal with all the other chores. “I don’t know how I’d do it on my own; I tried last year, it was a nightmare. Some parents I know found the first lockdown easier, but I felt like a complete failure.”
She’s not into yoga, doesn’t meditate, but to relax, Ellis-Bextor builds things. Currently it’s some sequin art, but last year it was “a very beautiful Lego set, this amazing four-storey shopping precinct from Tokyo. Every time the kids were in bed I’d have 15 minutes, a glass of wine, something on the iPad, do a bit of that.”
Either that, or she waits until Friday, puts in the rollers, picks out a sparkly dress, clears the kitchen of furniture, prays one child doesn’t punch another in the late afternoon, and prepares to entertain the masses. As calls for a damehood grow, Ellis-Bextor promises she will keep dancing until we’re clear of this mess.
“I’ve got a plan for the last one. I’m not going to say anything about it, but there’s something I’ve wanted to do right from the very start,” she says. “And there definitely will be a final one. I’m not going to be this crazy woman going, ‘Hello, it’s Kitchen Disco 723!’”
I don’t think we’d mind.
Bupa has created a number of free resources for parents and their teens on managing mental health in lockdown. More information can be found at www.bupa.co.uk/mental-health/teenage-mental-health