From the outside looking in, Stella Tennant (pictured) appeared to have everything. An aristocrat with the androgynous looks that entranced designers like Karl Lagerfeld who made her his muse in the ‘90s, to the editor of Vogue who made her the magazine’s cover girl multiple times to the top photographers who made her iconic. Stella Tennant epitomised British cool. She found love with photographer David Lasnet, they had four children and the family lived in an 18th-century house on the Scottish Borders.
In December 2020, sometime after the split from her husband of 21 years, the 50-year-old killed herself. The family cited mental health problems and wrote: “Stella had been unwell for some time. So it is a matter of our deepest sorrow and despair that she felt unable to go on, despite the love of those closest to her.”
Despite all the access we have via social media, we still can only make assumptions about people we have never met, even though we think we know them. In reality, even when it comes to people we know much more intimately, it’s sometimes difficult to untangle the reality from what they present or what they tell us.
In 2018, the celebrity world was shocked when designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain took their lives, two more people who seemed to have luck, talent and charm. If they couldn’t find happiness, you think, then who can? You couldn’t help but warm to Bourdain as he explored the world through food. Kate Spade made her name with her light-hearted designs that brought a smile to your face.
You wonder what could have happened? But mental health is a complicated area, as we know. If only it was as easy as simply pulling up your socks. And while suicide is ultimately a tragic, desperate act, it is also a hostile one, as the people who are left behind are left heart-broken, having to pick up the pieces of their own lives. I’m reminded of this every Christmas when one of my festive rituals is to watch the 1946 film, It’s A Wonderful Life with James Stewart playing the lead George Bailey. An angel comes to Bedford Falls as Bailey is about to jump from a bridge, and in the rest of the movie, Clarence shows him what an important impact his life has had on so many people.
These days we throw around the term mental health, which has become a catchphrase for everything from lethargy to paranoid schizophrenia. During the lockdown, there has been a lot of emphasis on the toll mental has taken on the population. We hear about teenagers who worry about missing out on university, without the perspective that age brings. We wonder what the impact will be on young kids not able to go to school. And what about the terrible toll on people who suffer from domestic abuse, where the numbers have skyrocketed?
We like to think that celebrities have these glossy lives, but we also know that isn’t true and that perfectly “ordinary” people find happiness without the manifestations of £60 million houses and luxury yachts or fame or fortune.
What we do know is that we don’t really know what happened in Stella Tennant’s life or in Kate Spade’s or in Anthony Bourdain’s to make them feel so hopeless, despite what we thought when we peered in. There’s never really a silver lining to these tragedies but what they have the power to do is open up the conversation. Desperate people who have been hesitant might feel empowered to seek help. Mental illness is slowly coming out of the medicine cabinet and gradually losing some of its stigma.