The lead singer of Sheffield band Reverend and the Makers has opened up about his struggle with anorexia after 21 years. Jon McClure tells Laura Drysdale why he spoke out.
It was the Britpop era that dominated the mid-1990s when a teenage Jon McClure started missing meals. He would skip breakfast, telling his parents he would eat later at school. But break time would come and no food would pass his lips.
At lunch, a green apple and bread became his staple, though most of the latter he would feed to birds in the school yard. He’d lie to dinner staff if they questioned why he did not order a full meal, saying he had something else in his bag.
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And on an evening, at his girlfriend’s, he would tell her family he had already eaten, occasionally tucking into a bowl of cereal at night or going without anything at all.
“By about 14, I’d clapped quite a lot of weight on,” 37-year-old Jon says in a men’s special of the BBC’s Naked Podcast, which sees him talk publicly for the first time about his battle with anorexia. “As I put weight on, I started to develop this ‘I don’t want people to see me’...This is around the time Brit Pop is coming out.
“So there’s all these rock stars, your idols who are all bone thin and dead skinny, Jarvis [Cocker] and Liam Gallagher and Damon [Albarn] and they’re all dead thin... and I started to get shy about my body...Around the age of 16, I got really funny with food - I skipped meals. I guess you would call it anorexia. I went really thin and my parents had to step in.”
Jon, the lead singer with Sheffield band Reverend and the Makers, recalls surviving on little more than water, diet coke and cigarettes.
In the summer between school and sixth form, he had been going to the gym and had started to lose weight.
“I wanted to look like [my idols],” he says, recounting his experience in the days following the podcast launch on February 21. “I think it’s a common theme for people in adolescence. You want to look like your heroes.”
He “falsely” made a connection between losing weight and “being attractive to girls”, he says, and feared if he ate more, he would pile on the pounds and miss out on female attention.
“I remember being really sad, dead upset all the time, which is not really how you should feel at and 17.”
With his hip and rib bones protruding, Jon’s parents confronted him over his weight loss.
“Whenever you are hiding things from your parents and loved ones, it’s a problem,” he says.
He saw a doctor, who confirmed he had an eating disorder, and with medical help, the use of a food diary and support from his loved ones he gradually came to the realisation “I wasn’t fat, in reality I was very thin”.
“If one of my sons did [what I did], I would be horrified,” he says, looking back now. “I would be really upset, which it did make my parents. They were brilliant. God knows what would have happened without them.”
It has been 21 years since Jon’s experience, and for a long time, he says he “buried it”. But in last Thursday’s, Naked Podcast, he opened up.
The podcast series usually involves BBC reporters Kat Harbourne and Jenny Eells holding unclothed and unconventional interviews with guests, with the aim of encouraging more open conversation around body image and confronting taboos about nudity.
But they handed over the mic to BBC Radio Sheffield’s Adam Oxley for a special edition highlighting some of the biggest issues facing men.
“It dawned on me that I can’t think of another person in the public eye, certainly not from a working class background, or the north, that has ever spoken about this and been a male,” says Jon.
It was not a conscious decision to talk about his eating disorder on the show. But baring all at a music studio in Sheffield, where the interview was filmed, made Jon feel that he could be more frank when the opportunity arose during the course of conversation.
“It felt good actually. I feel that there has been this burden on my shoulders for 21 years and I have finally admitted to it.”
Jon also saw the revelation as a step towards shedding the “alpha male persona” to which he says he felt compelled to conform as a lead singer of a rock and roll band, when the group first launched.
“It’s not really who I am and I thought it is time to be honest really, because there’s lots of men and boys who suffer this issue and we should talk about it.”
Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, believes approximately 1.25 million people in the country have an eating disorder.
“Studies suggest that up to a quarter of sufferers are male,” it says. “But the stigma around eating disorders and around male sufferers means that we can’t say for certain - many men may go undiagnosed.”
This week, February 25 to March 3, is eating disorders awareness week and the charity is campaigning against stereotypes and highlighting the stories of those who are not normally associated with eating disorders.
“Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that affect people of all ages, genders and backgrounds,” says chief executive Andrew Radford.
“We have to challenge stereotypes and raise awareness so that everyone who needs help can get it quickly.”
Jon says there is as much pressure on men to conform to look a certain way as there is on women, but believes women and girls are more vigilant on each other’s behalf, in watching for signs of eating disorders.
“I think it’s more talked about in feminine circles and us men, for whatever reason, are a bit less forthcoming emotionally and it often goes under the carpet, especially among young people.
“There must be lots of young men, loads out there, who are suffering in silence, who have got this condition and have got no one to talk to about it. We have got to change that.”
“We don’t think those issues affect boys so we don’t look for it,” he adds. “We have to try and be more vigilant because there’s an incredible number of lives affected.”
Jon, who has young children of his own, also feels that social media has led to more pressure on young people.
“I think kids now have more pressure put upon them than ever because people can bully them online as well as at school.
“I think we’ve got a duty as a society to look out for young people. We do come in all different shapes and sizes and kids can be cruel. People can be cruel.
“I see that on the Internet a lot - under the veil of anonymity, people think they’ve got carte blanche to say anything they want to you. They can be very hurtful.”
He hopes speaking out will help boys and men struggling with body issues to tell someone and seek support.
“It doesn’t make you less of a bloke. It’s not a weakness. You are just human,” he says. “You are not alone and you don’t have to suffer in silence.”
Jon’s Naked Podcast interview is available on BBC Sounds.
For help and information about eating disorders, visit www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk