I am sitting in the road, in Primrose Hill, during a global pandemic, when Meg Mathews starts loudly telling me about her vaginal atrophy. All right, we’re at a café table but, due to the aforementioned plague, the tables have been allowed to stretch into the main thoroughfare, which is half closed to traffic, and Mathews is explaining how the menopause closed down her own private thoroughfare. “I first realised when I was wearing my workout leggings and they weren’t new, but they were starting to chafe,” she says, before describing the laser part of her “vaginal rejuvenation” treatment.
At this point, a voice from the pavement calls out “Meg!” and I can’t help but spin around, just in case it’s Kate Moss shouting from 1997, but it is not Kate Moss, it’s a sweet old lady in a raincoat with a tiny dog. “You’re looking well, Meg,” she says, and they chat politely until Meg can get rid of her neighbour and return to the business of her collapsing genitalia. The menopause is Meg’s new subject you see – the former first lady of Britpop, once married to Noel Gallagher, now has a book, a website and products to launch, all branded as Meg’s Menopause. She’s on a mission to rid us of our hormonal embarrassment and shame.
“People put collagen in their faces, but what they don’t realise is that the menopause can make the lips of their vaginas really thin,” continues the 54-year-old, sipping on a herbal tea, wearing a sleek black tracksuit, chunky gold jewellery and with finger tattoos. It’s an aesthetic one might describe as Goop crossed with EastEnders. “The girls at my waxing place told me they can spot a menopausal vagina, or one that’s not being used, a mile away,” she writes in her forthcoming book The New Hot. They’re just not as plump, apparently, as well as the dryness, and she checked this out with her gynaecologist who said, yes, flat fannies are definitely a thing.
It’s not just the physical symptoms of menopause that affected Mathews when she went through it – and there were enough of them, because she had perimenopausal symptoms, such as night sweats, from the age of 40 – but there was psychological turmoil, too.
“It was so dark for me, I was in a really dark place,” she explains. Her divorce was long over, and that was “all fine,” she says (by which I think she means terrible but ancient history), and she lived with their daughter Anaïs, “the love of my life,” and had a nice boyfriend, too. “But I had mostly mental health issues with mine – the lack of oestrogen makes you get really bad anxiety and I was very overwhelmed with life. Now I had been a person who just got up and went out and didn’t give a shit about anything. All of a sudden, I was the worrier – I mean I’d always been a worrier in some ways, but never like this.”
Mathews returned from a holiday in California and just felt “really low, but low low, like I didn’t really know what had hit me. I went to the doctor and burst into tears, and got given antidepressants”. She would take Anaïs to school and then come home and crawl back into bed and “scroll through Facebook looking at everyone else’s perfect life”. (Celebrities – they’re just like us!) This went on for three months solid. Her boyfriend would try to take her out, but Mathews would just cancel and cry, sometimes wondering if she was getting dementia.
Were you thinking, this must be my life falling apart – were you making up a narrative to go with it?
“I was going, oh my God, my colourful 90s have caught up with me. My mum always said they would. I thought I’d just shattered my nervous system or…”
You mean the partying, the drink and the drugs?
“Just, yeah, my colourful 90s, I like to say. It’s best to say – everyone knows, they all smile when I say it, you know. It’s not like it wasn’t out there. I’m a recovering alcoholic. So I went to an AA meeting and I basically shared how I was feeling. It’s what we do, speak to other addicts, it’s a support system. When I left, this woman knocked me on the shoulder and she said, ‘I think you’re going through the menopause’ and I was like…” (She makes an appalled face.)
You’re like, that’s not what I came for.
“No! And then I thought: ‘Ooh cheeky cow,’ you know, oh my God! Do you know what I mean? I just had a vision of my grandma with a little stick and grey hair, very frail, stooped, you know, there was me thinking, whoa, not feeling great. Anyway when I got home I couldn’t even drive my car. Too fearful. My world had just become very small and the antidepressants weren’t working, because I wasn’t actually depressed.”
Thus began Mathews’ long and detailed journey into trying to understand the menopause, researching everything from oestrogen receptors to shamanic healing in a bid to get to the bottom of it. When she gets the bit between her teeth, she clearly runs with it, and she has such a wicked glint in her eyes that you suddenly understand how everything in her social circle ever happened. They were clearly all led by that glint – I’m not sure why they needed the drugs at all.
In The New Hot, a manual with shades of memoir about it, she describes the “voracious sexual appetite” she had when younger and how adventurous she was before menopause tried to steal her libido. It came back, apparently, plus she advises masturbation (four times a week) as well as vibrators (you should test them on the end of your nose!) and lube (which has transformed her life – in fact she has created a “motion lotion” herself). It’s an immensely readable book that I have to say I found rather helpful, although not all of her advice is supported by doctors, such as the fact she’s launched a vaginal rinse.
“They say you should just clean it with water, but I’m like, well, I’m sorry after I’ve done a 5km run, what if I want to have sex, you know? So I’ve done the lowest Ph balance and it’s got a little bit of rose water in and marshmallow root, and I made up all the ingredients myself.” She has got her products stocked in various chains. “Boots bought them for 435 stores – they approached me and just said, you’re so right about women’s wellness.”
Her own en-suite bathroom at home always seems to end up full of her daughter’s friends getting ready, which led to her wanting to make sure her menopause products looked nice on the shelf, too. The pair of them posted an Instagram video of Anaïs comically rolling her eyes at her mum “talking about the menopause again” – the fondness between them is clear.
Mathews grew up in Suffolk, to working-class parents who managed to send her to private school, which might explain why she’s somewhat hard to place in the British class system. (She says she used to fake a Cockney accent.) Obsessed with fashion, she hitchhiked to London and “lived on the streets, I lived in squats, I lived with my bags and I had bin bags. I just moved from squat to squat, never knew where I was going to sleep,” she says. She didn’t have her own bedroom for two years. (In the past she has spoken about how much money she wasted on drugs in her wealthy days and hinted that she didn’t keep a good hold on her divorce settlement, having to sell her big house for a much more modest one.)
Her career began as a cashier in a branch of Joseph, the high-end clothes shop, but she had been made manager within six months. By 21 she was running her own fashion PR company, representing brands such as Naf Naf “and I did the whole of Neal Street [in Covent Garden].” Then there was music. “I mean I managed Betty Boo, I did all of this stuff, you know. Way before I met Noel, I had my own music management company, I was doing remixes – not me, but I managed remix people. Did Ice Cube. Ice T got his only ever top 20 UK hit! But all of that gets forgotten.” I say something about how the media has disrespected women in the past and she raises an eyebrow. “Don’t even… I can’t.”
She’s not one for self-pity, and this isn’t the past, it’s our brave new future. One where Gwyneth Paltrow has started talking about the menopause, and Angelina Jolie and the panellists on Loose Women, too. Mathews seems utterly delighted that it has suddenly become the zeitgeist among many high-profile figures. I thought she might be annoyed that they’ve all hit on the same thing, but she wants to meet them, lobby governments with them, inform the world. “Michelle Obama did her podcast on the menopause a month ago, and it got every front cover of every newspaper around the world. You know, she’s talking about Obama in the White House and the women surrounding him who were all going through the menopause, and I was just like: ‘Yes! Say it! Go there!”
These are powerful women – not a stooped, grey grandma in sight – . The menopause turned out not to be a topic for the elderly, as she once feared, but one that women need to talk about in their 40s. “The only hill I’m over,” she says, with that wicked glint lighting up her eyes again, “is Primrose.”
The New Hot: Taking on the Menopause with Attitude and Style by Meg Mathews is published by Vermilion at £16.99. Order it for £14.78 from guardianbookshop.com