Rebecca Humphries’s 32nd birthday was one to remember, but for all the wrong reasons. On 3 October 2018, the actor was waiting at home alone, wearing a red silk dress and keeping a celebratory dinner for two warm. Meanwhile her boyfriend of her, the comedian Seann Walsh, was at the pub, kissing Katya Jones, his married professional partner of him on Strictly Come Dancing. When paparazzi photographs of their embrace were splashed across tabloid front pages, a scandal erupted. Humphries ‘relationship of her, and her whole world of her, publicly collapsed.
The next day, she tweeted a statement which began: “My name is Rebecca Humphries and I am not a victim.” It described how, during their five-year relationship, Walsh called her “mental” and “psycho” whenever she questioned inappropriate or hurtful behavior. His multiple other infidelities of hers would emerge later. In the meantime, her tweet from Ella went viral, gaining her 20,000 new followers overnight. Now it was Humphries’s turn from her to monopolize front pages. One gleeful headline read: “You’re cha-cha-chucked!” Another hailed her as “the real winner of strictly”.
Humphries – currently appearing in Have Percent (Amazon Prime), the UK version of the hit French TV series Call My Agent! – was deluged with invitations to appear on television and radio and to write newspaper columns about toxic relationships and emotional abuse. On behalf of the organizers of the Women’s March London, she spoke in the House of Commons about gaslighting and the media. “I became an accidental figurehead,” she says.
Now she has written an extraordinary memoir, Why Did You Stay?. Described as “dazzling” by Marian Keyes and “fierce”, “gamechanging” and “brilliant” by Emma Thompson, the book is neither a kiss’n’tell, nor a revenge tragedy. Alternating between episodes from her relationship de ella with Walsh and the aftermath of the strictly debacle, it becomes a chilling study of insidious control and male-female power games. Unflinching and often very funny, it’s also a diary of self-discovery, an account of finding one’s self-worth, a celebration of resilience and a hymn to the value of friendship.
Tell us about the book’s title, Why Did You Stay?
It’s the question that those of us who’ve had difficult relationships get asked more than anything else. It’s victim-shaming, but it’s also the question that stays with us and has the potential to eat us up. So I’m reclaiming it.
You write that what happened was your worst nightmare come true. really?
I’d catastrophized that exact scenario. Two months earlier, a friend asked me: “What’s the worst that can happen?” I said: “He has an affair with his dance partner and it’s splashed all over the tabloids for my friends and family to see.” I blurted that straight out. At that point, the relationship was my everything. I was watering a dead plant for a long time. It was all I had left. But when it broke up, that’s when my life started.
How did it feel when your tweet went viral?
Before I met Seann in 2013, I was somebody who people listened to. I was forthright and always had opinions. But those five years were a slow process of eroding my personality, feeling as if I had no voice and my opinion didn’t matter. When I decided to tweet a statement, I told my friends: “It doesn’t matter if anyone else believes it. This is for me. And maybe it’ll get like, 50 likes.” When the numbers started totting up, I felt as if I had a voice again. Maybe one that mattered.
Are you still getting supportive replies?
It never stops. Mostly from people that it resonates with, which says something about how common this is. Thousands came forward who’d been through the same. They understood what I was trying to say, which was: I was a smart, sexy, confident, clever woman and I can’t believe this happened to me. Victims of this behavior don’t all look like submissive mice. It’s insidious when you see abuse victims in pop culture, because they’re often portrayed like that.
Do you feel like you had to write this book?
I did, I felt a strong sense of responsibility. When I tweeted, I felt a similar sense of responsibility for the many who’ve had these experiences but don’t have a platform. And when you voice your shame, it disappears. I want to encourage more people to do the same. So much of the book is about ending victimhood. Nora Ephron said in heartburn that she didn’t want to be the victim of her story, she wanted to be the heroine. That’s exactly how I felt.
Can you watch strictly now?
I still watch it. strictly‘s great. None of this is strictly‘s fault.
Would you consider doing the show if they asked?
No, it would feel like a weird revenge fantasy. Imagine if I was crap and got knocked out in week one.
Who are your writing influences?
Funny women, whether they write books like Nora Ephron and Marian Keyes or journalism like Marina Hyde. I’ve always taken delight in funny women, full stop. I remember watching Miranda Richardson in Blackadder as a kid and thinking she was the best one in it. Women like that got under my skin. When I sit down to write, I can’t not try to be funny.
How did it feel writing the book?
For the best part of a year, I sat at the laptop and battled impostor syndrome, the version of me that sat at my shoulder, saying: “Well, it’s hardly Margaret Atwood, is it?” I’m extremely proud of beating that inner voice.
Do you have more writing plans?
Yes, a novel next. I also have a TV show in development about the world of drag, co-written with a good friend of mine who’s a drag queen.
What was your writing routine?
I fully intended to get up at 5am, drink a celery juice, go for a run, watch the sunrise, then write some gold. Then I got the role in Ten Percent and it became about tearing scraps out of my day to furiously batter a keyboard. I ended up doing lots of writing at my desk in Ten Percent. When you see me tapping away in the background, I’m genuinely typing into a Google document. Helena Bonham Carter came up and said: “You look very plausible.” I was like: “I’m actually working!”
Were you a Call My Agent! fan before landing the role?
Huge. In fact, I told my agent: “I’m going to write a book, so I’m taking the rest of the year off from acting. I don’t want to hear about any exciting opportunities unless something mad comes up, like UK Call My Agent!” Two days later, he emailed me with the subject line “Guess what?”
What did you learn from the guest stars?
Jim Broadbent was a privilege to watch in action. David Harewood was electric. It was a fizzy environment to work in.
you played Carol Thatcher in The Crown. Did you study her?
If you step on to The Crown without doing your research, you’ll get shown up in seconds. There isn’t much footage of Carol as a young woman, except one clip from breakfast TV in the 80s. I studied that like the scriptures.
What’s it like having Gillian Anderson play your mum?
You walk into the room, see the sexiest woman alive and think: “How am I going to hold my own against that?” Gillian is an utter powerhouse, but being intimidated slow itself to the dynamic between Thatcher and Carol.
What makes you happy when you’re not writing or acting? You write that you like “dancing around gay pop”…
I did that this morning. I’ve always got George Michael on, singing like no one’s listening. I also do very loud Alanis Morissette karaoke.
Your Twitter statement ended: “I’m not sorry I took the cat, though.” How is Winston?
He’s an absolute lesson to us all in his serenity and boundaries. He’s a very bounded being. It’s inspiring.
Why Did You Stay? A Memoir about Self-Worth by Rebecca Humphries is published by Little, Brown (£18.99). To support the Guardian and observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism