There was a moment in the Great British Bake Off final this week which summed up the entire year for many of us. Laura Adlington — last woman standing — was having a nightmare with her collapsing custard slices.
Laura, looked as though she might collapse, too. Somehow she had reached the final despite many calamities — not least her fondant icing Freddie Mercury — but now she was facing defeat. So what did she do?
She stuck her head in the freezer, of course, willing it all to be over. And weren’t we all with her, in spirit?
‘I wanted to climb in,’ she admits, laughing. ‘Between the custard slices and the head-in-the-freezer, it was a visual representation of 2020 and what a sh**show it has been.’
Many would applaud Laura, a 31-year-old digital manager from Gravesend, Kent, for her great British pluck and for getting out of the freezer and ‘back out there’.
There was a moment in the Great British Bake Off final this week which summed up the entire year for many of us. Laura Adlington (pictured) — last woman standing — was having a nightmare with her collapsing custard slices
But when you hear what she has endured in her non-baking world, it’s nothing short of a miracle that she put herself through the whole terror-in-a-tent experience in the first place.
Laura was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder at the age of 24, and still has moments of catastrophising and ‘being gripped by this fear that the whole world is against me’.
She tells me she has been on anti-anxiety medication for five years. She did question, even as she applied to Bake Off, whether her mental health was robust enough to deal with the process, and the attention.
She says she almost didn’t apply because she was worried about how the social media trolls would deal with a ‘bigger girl’ appearing on a baking show. But she decided to overcome her fears. Interestingly, she’s the one who raises the subject of her weight today.
‘I decided I’d had enough self-loathing — I don’t need to deal with other people’s opinions of my size,’ she says.
Today, she also reveals that, months before applying for Bake Off, she nearly had a gastric sleeve fitted. She and husband Matt, who works as a police support officer, married in 2018 and had been trying for a baby.
‘We wanted to start a family and it wasn’t happening,’ she says. ‘The doctor said losing weight would help, and suggested bariatric surgery. I came close to doing it. Very close. Matt was supportive but said it had to be my decision.
Laura was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder at the age of 24, and still has moments of catastrophising and ‘being gripped by this fear that the whole world is against me’. Pictured when she was younger
‘In the end, I couldn’t do it. I just felt I needed to get my head sorted out before I got my stomach stapled. For me, I feel the eating is more of a psychological issue. Physically changing my stomach size wasn’t going to be the answer.’
So she applied to Bake Off instead — a rather brutal way of facing her fears, perhaps. Suddenly her head-in-the-freezer episode doesn’t seem quite so laughable.
Not that viewers will have been aware of this. Rightly, this series — surely the most needed Bake Off ever — was a hit because of its lighter moments. One of the best of those was when the British public watched agog as Laura tried to bring Queen’s Freddie Mercury back to life, in elderflower and lemon icing.
She failed: it’s still hard to be sure whether the fondant Freddie exploded or simply slid away, but the end result was unspeakable.
One critic said it was more ‘Pokemon with breasts’ than Freddie Mercury. It was undeniably TV gold, though.
Laura can see the funny side, now. ‘Obviously, at the time, I was distraught. I’d perfected Freddie. I’d done him six or seven times, and I’d got it perfect. Then, on the day, everything went wrong. I couldn’t believe it.
‘They didn’t show it on TV, but I went outside and just sobbed. I thought I was out of the competition on week one. It seemed a disaster.’
And now? ‘You bake to bring people joy. OK, they didn’t get joy from tasting my Freddie, but they got joy from the disaster of it. I’m happy with that. Making people laugh this year is something in itself.’
Somehow Laura reached the final despite many calamities — not least her fondant icing Freddie Mercury (pictured)
Laura didn’t win Bake Off. On Tuesday, 20-year-old Edinburgh University student Peter Sawkins lifted the trophy, becoming the youngest ever winner. Laura had tipped him as the one to watch even before she saw him in action.
‘He had this confidence. He knew his stuff. He was younger than everyone, but I remember saying: ‘He’s going to win.’ And he did, rightly so. He is a worthy winner.’
Laura, with her messy worktops, baking disasters and inability to stop swearing, won hearts, though. She also won her own treasured title from judge Prue Leith. ‘She signed my book afterwards, and wrote in it: ‘To Laura, Winner on Flavour’.
Perhaps she also deserves a prize just for being a Bake Off survivor, though, because her TV journey was quite a rollercoaster.
As well as being reduced to tears by cake, she was driven to the edge by online trolls, and found herself at the centre of a distasteful Twitter bullying campaign which is why, she says, she’s thrilled she didn’t win.
‘Hand on heart, I’m glad I didn’t. If I had, I don’t think I would have been able to enjoy it, because there would have been a backlash.’
She’s referring to the public reaction after the semi-final, when another contestant, Hermine, was given the boot while Laura was saved.
‘Foul’, called some, mostly on Twitter.
There were unpleasant scenes where Laura was blamed for Hermine’s exit. Bake Off Judge Paul Hollywood had to intervene and tell everyone to calm down.
Laura was sitting at home while the insults flew, as the Bake Off series had been filmed during the summer. ‘It’s hard to describe when you’ve gone viral, and it feels like thousands of people are telling you that you are sh**,’ Laura says.
‘It hurts. People were saying: ‘You are a sh*t baker’. Well, you don’t get to the final of Bake Off if you are completely sh*t, do you?
‘I tried not to read the stuff, but people tracked me down on my personal Instagram, which was difficult to cope with. I kept blocking people, but if you do that, you are denying it happened, aren’t you? ‘I decided to leave them, and other people would then take on the bullies. You realise there is a lot of kindness out there.’
She jokes about her language. ‘Mouth like a sailor,’ she admits. She also worried that she was ‘too common’ to be taken seriously on Bake Off. She’s not posh, she points out, but from a very working class background.
Her father was a self-employed bricklayer, and ‘we nearly lost the house a couple of times’.
Her parents divorced when she was in her late teens, and it was through her stepmother that she developed a love of cooking, and baking.
‘She always said you showed people love by cooking for them. No one ever left our house hungry,’ Laura says.
She’s quick with the self-deprecating quips, though: ‘I think I showed too much love, over the years. Maybe I had too many hot dinners, too.’
We meet via Zoom, and in the relaxed atmosphere of her pristine kitchen, away from the stress, the flour-coated apron, the tropical heat of the tent, she’s very beautiful. Laura seems chuffed so many women have commented on her appearance, in a positive way.
‘Women have asked where I get my dresses from, and they’ve said: ‘I’d never dare wear a dress, but you’ve given me confidence.’ I like that.
‘Some people think that to be fat is to be lazy and slobby, and to dress badly and have dirty hair. It’s not. I’ve always been very concerned about how I look.’
So is she a poster-girl for the body positive movement, then? In some ways yes. ‘I do think we live in a society which castigates people who are fat, as if we should hide away. That is changing, but there is more to be done. Everyone deserves respect.’
Which brings us to difficult territory because Laura’s size has long been an issue in her life.
‘But I’m not going to say I’m proud to be obese, because I’m not,’ she continues. ‘I just can’t say that being the size I am is healthy, because I know that it isn’t.’
She has always been ‘big’. ‘I was a chubby kid, and bigger as a teenager,’ she admits.
Food was, and is, an issue. She talks about ‘comfort eating’, which is linked to her anxiety issues. ‘I spent many years self-loathing and punishing myself, but comfort eating makes you feel worse.’
She’s done the yo-yo dieting? ‘Oh yes. But the older I get, the more I think not all of it was about weight. I didn’t have many boyfriends when I was younger, and I thought it was because I was big.
‘Now, I think it’s more about confidence because there are people who are bigger than I am, who don’t have these issues. Many people have a complicated relationship with food.’ How many of them are Bake Off finalists, though? She admits the decision whether or not to have weight-loss surgery presented her with a terrifying dilemma.
‘I’ve never wanted to be thin for cosmetic reasons. I’m not that person who wants to be a size 10 or 12,’ she says. ‘But this was about having a family.’
It would also be about changing her relationship with food.
‘The doctor did say some people fall into a depression because they can’t eat what they want,’ she explains.
‘I’m already prone to depression, and food is such a big part of my life. I thought: ‘How could I go from baking and cooking all the time to, like, eating an egg for my meal?’ Ultimately, I thought I needed to work on my brain, not have major surgery.’
She’s aware that being honest about this is likely to bring out the trolls, who will suggest she chose cake over something much more important. That’s unfair, because she clearly desperately wants to have a family.
‘I think I’d be a good mother,’ she nods. ‘I know people will say: ‘She can’t want a baby that much, otherwise she’d just lose weight,’ but it’s not that easy.’
Have the doctors been supportive? ‘No, not really. They just say: ‘You have to lose weight — get on with it.’ By contrast, they were very supportive when I needed help with anxiety. I had counselling through [the charity] Mind.’
She’s very savvy on matters of mental health, and volunteers with the Samaritans, helping others who are struggling.
‘It’s rewarding. I can identify. I was never suicidal, but I did have days where I did not want to exist. You don’t want to die, but you don’t want to be, either.’
She says she is still a work-in-progress herself.
Has Bake Off helped or hindered in that regard? ‘I think it has given me confidence,’ she says, tentatively. ‘It’s something I had to push myself to do, and I’m glad I did because it’s been one of the best experiences of my life.’
Hilariously, she came home, out of the Bake Off bubble, and resolved never to bake again. ‘It didn’t last, though,’ she says.
She hasn’t tried a Freddie Mercury since. Nor has she dared take on the custard slice challenge. She did make a key lime pie, though, her fail-safe dessert. Was it gorgeous?
‘No, it was a disaster,’ she says. ‘I had the grill on instead of the oven and it was raw in the middle. My brother said: ‘Bake Off Finalist? Are you having a laugh?’ ‘