COMMANDING the Celebrity X Factor stage with a powerful voice and outwitting The Chase contestants with her fierce intelligence makes Jenny Ryan appear supremely confident.
But behind the intimidating Vixen persona is a woman in fragile mental health whose depression and panic attacks have kept her housebound for months at a time.
Jenny’s depression was diagnosed in her late teens after the terrifying experience one day of feeling her brain had stopped working.
The 37-year-old says: “I’d always been the genius of the family. Teachers said I’d definitely go to a top university and could do anything, even be Prime Minister.
“Suddenly, things got harder. I used to enjoy doing homework but stopped trying and felt drained. Anxiety started to build and I didn’t understand what was going on.
“One day at uni it crystallised into something physical and I had an urgent need to go home. On my way to the train station I felt like I had a fish bowl on my head, as if I wasn’t part of the same world as everyone else.
“Back home I sat on my parents’ sofa and felt a lack of reality. My brain couldn’t process. I just flipped out. I thought – ‘what’s going on? Is my brain broken?’
“I eventually went to the doctor who said it sounded like I could be depressed and had had an anxiety attack. The diagnosis was a relief. I thought, ‘so it’s not just me? I’m not failing? Other people feel like this sometimes?’”
More than any other contestant, Jenny’s emotions have been put through the wringer on The X Factor : Celebrity as she was first voted off but then reinstated for the live shows, thanks to massive public support.
Public votes and Simon Cowell’s withering criticism add up to constant pressure for Jenny, but over the years she has learned to manage her mental health.
She says: “At the moment I’m not on antidepressants but I’m taking a low-level beta blocker for anxiety.
“Music really helps – singing is huge because it releases all the endorphins and gives me a real thrill.
“But I still have bad days. It’s about recognising when I might be spiralling into a dark place.”
Jenny’s mentor Nicole Scherzinger is coaching her to have more confidence on stage and her methods are bolstering her everyday life.
“Nicole turns up at rehearsals and doesn’t announce herself, so I’ll do a full run-through, walk off set then she’ll come out of the shadows.
“It means she sees me performing naturally.
“She gives me brilliant advice. Nicole said when I was using my arms to emphasise parts of a song, I was still bending my elbow so taking up less space. I think that’s a particularly female thing – there’s something in society that says women should make themselves small.
“So Nicole’s taught me to have big arms that say, ‘look at me, this is my world, welcome to my show’.
“When you walk down the street, ask how often do you dip out the way of someone walking towards you? Men don’t do that nearly as much.
“Now, when I’m shopping on Oxford Street, although I move out of the way for women I don’t for men. I’ve had dirty looks but am going to keep doing it because it’s an interesting and empowering exercise.”
Jenny still lives in her home town of Bolton, where she counts another famous local as a friend.
“I’m really proud to be from Bolton. Population-wise it’s the biggest town in Europe but you feel you live in a village – you’ll always find yourself beside someone you went to school with. Everyone’s a character and I think that’s why a lot of people from Bolton are well known in the media.
“Peter Kay is an old family friend. He was at performing arts college with my Auntie Vic and they were really close. We had big family parties with all the generations. Peter would go and sit with my grandad and do impressions, which my grandad loved.”
Although Jenny declines to disclose her relationship status she says doesn’t feel ready for motherhood.
“I had one day off in the last month and went to meet my stepsister’s baby son Xavier to give him his first cuddle from Auntie Jen.
“And I gave him his first telling off. He wasn’t eating enough so I told him off and the next day he put on 40 grams so that’s good. It was lovely to have a cuddle, but it didn’t make me feel broody at all. I’m glad I don’t need to think about childcare and stuff at the moment because I’m concentrating on my very busy career. I’m thinking, ‘not just yet’.”
Jenny initially hoped to have a career as a barrister but her mental health affected her studies.
“I didn’t do as well as I had been expected to do in my exams. I was miserable at uni. There were months at a time when I wouldn’t leave the house unless it was to buy food. I lost a lot of friendships. I later lost jobs because of my mental health.”
Before becoming instantly recognisable as The Vixen on The Chase, professional clever clogs Jenny appeared as a contestant on University Challenge and Mastermind.
She later worked as a writer on quiz shows The Weakest Link and QI before joining The Chase as a quizzer in September 2015.
Jenny was given the Vixen persona because of her fox-like cunning.
“Vixen exists to help me with my performance on The Chase” she says. “As I’ve settled into the role, I rely on her less for my own confidence.
“Vixen’s a slightly more dynamic version of me rather than a full caricature. Now you’re not seeing The Vixen on stage, it’s definitely me. I do want to win but I’m not taking it too seriously. It’s all a bit of a game, all fun. And I’m enjoying every minute.”
The X Factor: Celebrity is on ITV on Saturday at 8.10pm