Susannah Constantine poses during a video shoot for her original Magic Knickers range on July 18, 2011 in London. Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images for Trinny & Susannah
Susannah Constantine Explains Why She Was “Ready for Absolutely Nothing”
In her memoir, the London fashion guru recounts her privileged upbringing, relationship with Princess Margaret, TV career and sobriety journey / BY Leanne Delap / March 14th, 2023
Susannah Constantine is best known for What Not to Wear, an early 2000s reality TV show where she and Trinny Woodall were fashion police with critical eyes and sharp tongues who transformed everyday Britons from drab to fab on the BBC. The style gurus spun the show into a series of fashion books; since then, Constantine has been writing for newspapers and published two novels, After the Snow and Summer in Mayfair.
Now the former London It Girl has penned a rollicking memoir, Ready for Absolutely Nothing, that recounts her early years and glory days, and ends with gravitas as she describes what happened when the merry-go-round stopped and she began her journey as a recovering alcoholic.
Now 60, Constantine was the daughter of upper middle-class parents who were rich, but not part of the aristocracy. In the book, she has vivid recollections of her education at posh but rather grim and cheerless boarding schools. The last one, which accepted “any old thickie” and rarely paved a path to upper education, disgorged her with no expectations. “I wasn’t encouraged to have an opinion about anything – politics, religion, the Suez Crisis,” she says. Her main worry about the 1956 Arab-Israeli war, which interrupted oil shipping from the Middle East to Europe, was whether “I had enough petrol to get down to the stables.”
She graduated into the heady stew of London’s Sloane Rangers during the 80s and 90s, when she dated Princess Margaret’s son, David Armstrong-Jones (then Viscount Linley), and ran with a fast crowd that included Imran Khan, Adam Ant, Liz Hurley, Elton John, Sam Taylor Wood and Ghislaine Maxwell. After the TV years, Constantine settled into a peaceful country life with her husband and kids.
Ready for Absolutely Nothing is chock-a-block with famous names and hangouts – Annabelle’s and Tramp, for dedicated readers of Tatler – and delightfully scattered in its non-linear presentation. It is also compulsively readable, and often moving: While looking in the rearview mirror, Constantine has incisive views about the class system in Britain and how it strangles personal growth. Barmy British diarists are a great passion of mine – give me Debo, Duchess of Devonshire rattling on about chickens and country fairs, anytime – but Constantine is an unexpectedly wise observer who explains how women of her generation were raised to marry, and to think that was the full measure of their lives. This sentiment is reflected in the title of the book.
“There was no expectation for girls from my background to accomplish anything except basically become their mothers,” she says in a phone interview from London. It was a sexist hangover from the 1950s, “because the British upper classes hadn’t really moved on from that. It was all so inward looking.”
She entered a world she calls the Careless Class, dedicated to horses, nightclubs and waiting around to get married. Her saviour was an unlikely one. “It did take Princess Margaret to open my eyes to the rest of the world. She helped me – a female Henry Higgins – and I was her Eliza Doolittle,” she says of her transformation from privileged innocent to citizen of the world. “She opened my eyes to the fact that there was more out there. That my opinions should be strong ones, and I should stand by them.”
So began her career as a fashion guru, but she and Woodall became so intertwined in the public mind that “people would stop me in the streets and call ‘Trinny and Susannah,’” she says, as though it was one name. This led to an identity crisis at 40, when their post-What Not to Wear show, Trinny & Susannah Undress the Nation, ended in 2007. “We spent our entire adult lives as a duo working together. We did everything together: we travelled a lot, worked extremely long hours, my father died, then my mother died, then our babies came. We went through all that and then it ended. People had got bored of looking at us and watching us, and we got bored, too.” It wasn’t really a breakup as much as the end of an intense chapter of their careers.
That shift left her adrift and questioning her identity; combined with peri-menopause, it was “the perfect sort of recipe for total collapse. I was a hot mess.” She hid her drinking for a decade, until she hit the pause button and took up intense physical pursuits, such as Arctic treks and wild swimming (in outdoor natural bodies of water, in all weather). She revealed her struggles with alcohol in 2020 in a mid-pandemic newspaper piece, hoping to reach contemporaries going through a similar reckoning.
When Constantine recently turned 60, she didn’t obsess about it. “I can say I’ve turned 60 and I like chocolate in the same breath,” she says. “Writing this book, I’ve learned a lot about myself. I would not have looked back. I am very much someone who lives in the present. That is a gift. I don’t look forwards, either.” She attributes that propensity to her mother, whom she describes as “severely bipolar. Waking up every day unsure how she was going to be, or whether she was going to try to commit suicide. That gave me the ability to live in the present.”
Recovery, she says, has also helped hone that skill. “When I stopped drinking, all these little miracles would happen … I would notice more every day – the birds singing, I would notice leaves starting to grow on the trees. I regained my appreciation for nature, the way I grew up in the country.”
Her upbringing was privileged, but she now realizes her successful mercantile class father was perpetually jealous of the landed gentry. Dating Armstrong-Jones was a coup in her parents’ eyes, and, as she looks back on those years, she realizes she has her own complicated relationships with class structures. “I don’t think I changed my view as such, but growing up as upper middle class in an upper-class environment, it was all I knew.”
The manor-born world of rural Britain, in particular, was a bubble. “The outside world didn’t exist, not just to us kids, but to adults as well. There was no desire to look beyond the walls of privilege, no real curiosity of rest of the world.”
Constantine got by in that world by acting up. “I would meet someone and make an outrageous comment, mainly so they would remember me, because I didn’t think there was anything else interesting about me.” It was a bit like being a stand-up comedian, although she now admits, “I’m shy at heart.
The Sloane Ranger crowd – so named because they hung out in London’s Chelsea neighbourhood near Sloane Square – was suffused with hubris. “It’s funny, when I look at a lot of the people I grew up with, there is a certain amount of arrogance attached to them. I don’t think you can truly be shy if you are arrogant. Arrogance is always hiding some kind of insecurity.”