Fake Wellness: In Conversation with Daniella Isaacs

For much of her 20’s, Daniella Isaacs was something of an ambassador for the Wellness movement, shouting the praises of following rules and restricting your diet to ‘clean’, ‘whole’ foods. That is until it made her sick. Isaacs has taken her experiences in the toxic world of clean eating to create Hear Me Raw, where a wellness blogger realises you cannot control life, and what happens when their image of perfection comes crashing down. I spoke to Daniella before her run in London’s The Arcola.

Hey Daniella! What’s Hear Me Raw all about?

Hear Me Raw is an autobiographical show which tracks my journey through the world of contemporary wellness. You don’t have to care about avocados or chia seeds (or any of those things) to enjoy Hear Me Raw because underneath all of that is a story about control, anxiety, and how we deal with our minds in an Instagram-image obsessed world.

So, for those who might have managed to avoid the ‘influencers’, what on earth is wellness?

Wellness can mean many things and as an industry, obviously, wellness is driven by consumerism. So when you start to recognise that wellness as an industry is continually trying to make a profit, it made me question whether ‘wellness’ in the truest sense of the word equates to ‘wellness’ as an industry? The answer is very much no because wellness as an industry made me sick. I become so obsessed with the wellness ‘rules’- and by that, I mean becoming totally consumed and obsessed with diet and exercise that it made me both mentally and physically unwell. I found that antithesis very dramatically interesting because I found it fascinating that in a world that spouts positivity, happiness and ‘glow’, underneath it there’s a lot of people, including myself at that time, who were deeply anxious, deeply controlled, deeply un-fun. And that contrast is very interesting.

What would a typical day have looked like when you were in the middle of all this?

I was in my early 20’s. I’d just finished drama school, I was in debt, I was feeling really confused and very vulnerable. I think that’s key in people who are drawn into this obsession. My friend recommended this book all about clean living, so I bought the book. I’d gone through drama school, where people can become very obsessed with the way they look, and it hadn’t bothered me. I would prance around in a leotard and never cared. And [my friend] presented this book to me and I kind of felt found for the first time in a really long time. I was reading this book and she wasn’t just saying things about the way we look, she was saying things about how we feel. If you read in a book that if you add some chia seeds or some almond milk to your smoothie you will feel happier; it’s connected to emotion. And when it’s connected to emotion, it feels like a very easy solution to this millennial existential angst which spins around a lot of people’s minds at this time.

I fell very hard down the wellness trap because I felt it was the one thing I could impose upon my quite chaotic life. I started going to the gym, I started being very careful about what I ate. On a typical day, I would get up at 6, go to a spin class, make myself a smoothie without any fruit in, (because when I was at full wellness there was a lot of literature about how fruit should be a treat…). They say it’s nothing to do with calories, but the fewer calories I could put in the better. Lunch would be a salad of some sort and I would make my own dressing because I would be scared of the secret ‘un-pure’ ingredients in one bought from a store. The language of wellness is fascinating if you analyse it- ‘clean’, ‘dirty’, ‘real’, ‘well’, ‘unwell’- once you don’t follow those rules you feel like you’ve sinned in some way, and for people, especially vulnerable people, you want to constantly get validation from the wellness world. I was just looking for someone to say ‘you’re doing a good job’ really. And it takes time. It’s so time-consuming, yet it gives you a purpose.

At the end of that day, when my body was screaming for some real calories I would binge hard. I had a monologue which didn’t make it into the final show, where I used to think of binging like sex, it was this secret act which felt rebellious and exciting at the time. I just wanted more and more and more and I didn’t want to stop until I felt satisfied. Then afterward, I’d have this deep feeling of shame. I’d get into bed and feel gross and the next day I’d wake up and the punishment would start again and I’d purge by getting back on that spin bike and having that smoothie for breakfast. Eventually, the binge was a clear warning sign that something was going wrong here because this celebrity diet you’re following has obviously left something empty if you’re absolutely craving food at night. It was such a secret act, I was living with my housemate and she would go to sleep, and I was so jealous that she could eat dinner and then just go to sleep, and I would eat dinner and be ravenous and countdown until she shut her door so I could have this secret food

And do you find this pervasiveness of the wellness brand a gendered one?

That’s interesting. I think men are definitely affected by this issue, and this is the problem of our time and hopefully, it’s changing, but men don’t really speak about their feelings in the same way as women do. I don’t think they’re talking about it as loudly, however, I don’t think it manifests itself in the same way as it does for women. What is quite scary is that a lot of these wellness gurus are women, and they say they’re feminist, something I’ve found quite confusing. Just because you cloak it up in self-care or all these words of empowerment, I don’t think it’s feminist or kind to other women to impose some kind of authorship over their bodies or their lives.

To say ‘I can make you well’ implies that someone is unwell to begin with. Where’s the empowerment there? You’re actually telling me I’m not as good as you, and you can make me better, and that makes me angry as a woman because you have no ownership over my body. You don’t know how unique I am, and we are not a one size fits all creation. To imply that we are cheapens us, and I don’t want to be monetised. The wellness industry is doing exactly that and it’s everywhere. It’s in every magazine you pick up, it’s going on social media, it’s on TV it’s even in food adverts. All of these messages are telling us we should be better and that we are not good enough. The truth is that’s not wellness. They’re not advertising wellness to us, they’re advertising a product. It’s my mission through this show to realise that no one has authority over your body or mind other than yourself, and wellness is embracing that. Wellness is honouring your mind and body and accepting that we have no control over the chaos of life, and being ok with that. And that’s bloody hard.  

It seems that a lot of Wellness is tied to its language?

The definition of wellness had been ruined by clean eating, I want to dirty the word because life is so much more interesting when we are not clean. The clean-living world is turning us into robots and it’s boring. I had such a controlled existence where I lived on rules. I lost my periods and that’s ok, but your hormones are what gives you your feelings and your emotions, and I lost so much of that. I was emotionally switched off. Now, having broken that cycle, I’m softer and vulnerable, and it makes it more interesting, fun and creative. It’s an addiction, and the difficulty about this particular addiction is that it’s complemented and praised- because my addiction was wellness I was congratulated. It just feels like so many women have imposed shame and guilt onto their bodies and it makes me sad.

How does it feel to put on a show so personally related to you?

In terms of breaking the cycle, this show helped. My sister was pregnant and I realised the fact I didn’t have periods meant I might never get pregnant and that was a wake-up call. I started to become aware of the fake truth, and of the dramatic potential of this world. So I started writing at night, and then I started talking to my friend and director Rosy Banham. I said I really wanted to make another show about wellness, and she saw the potential of this world which has been untapped from a creative point of view but said that the show needs to be about [me], because my story is interesting, and I don’t want to make another version of Fleabag, we want to make something new and different. So we started meeting up once a week and I was still feeling very restricted. I thought that in order to get my periods back and in order to write a good show I needed to be true to my message. So I was reaching around a lot and I self-diagnosed myself with orthorexia [an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy] and started talking to a lot of people online who were suffering.

No doctor had helped me in the way these women online had helped me. I ripped up the wellness rulebook as I started writing this show- I quit the gym, and I started making myself eat foods that I had restricted for so long. I hated it, I absolutely hated it- you should have seen me. I’m not an angry person but the rage that came out of me and the shame I had and that feeling like a fraud, you know, since leaving drama school I had this purpose, and I was quite a disciple. I would go around spreading the word of wellness and now I had to be like ‘Sorry guys, all of this wellness has made me unwell’. And all those feelings that I told you about that I had when leaving drama school just came back bubbling to the surface- all wellness had done was numb them for a bit, and that has a sell-by date. And I had to deal with them, and that’s wellness. I dealt with them through writing, and through March to July I checked in with Rosie and she was amazing, and we’d put rules down, like in the rehearsal room we weren’t allowed to say anything negative about our bodies. Just think how many times we are mean about ourselves in the day and we weren’t allowed to do that. It was the most unintentionally cathartic experience because going into this I remember saying to Rosie that I really didn’t want this to be self-indulgent- I wasn’t writing it for therapy, I was writing it because there’s an interesting drama at the heart of the wellness world.

I wrote the show and I shared it with the people I respected and trusted. I had a great writer who was my Dramaturg called Joe Hansen, and James Fritz who’s a playwright he came in and listened and gave feedback. And all these people who didn’t give a shit about wellness, because I didn’t want the show to just be aimed at these people who are clean eating freaks, I wanted the opposite- I wanted to show that at the heart of this, hopefully, I’m tapping into the chaos of the human condition  and the messiness of that. And it doesn’t have to be wellness- anything that we do to try and control the chaos, and for me in this show it’s wellness. I play a wellness blogger called Green Girl whose life is in absolute chaos, but she is controlling it through her wellness ways and she is selling her book Hear me Raw to her audience and that’s in real time what she’s doing in the show. And very quickly she can’t do that because her world is breaking down quite quickly, and so she has to face up to her problems, and she indulges in a superfood binge so I snort lines of turmeric, I do ginger shots, I gum some matcha and I explore my mental health history. And all of that is based on truth. What I’m trying to do with this show is get people talking about their mental health and get people recognising that there doesn’t have to be a stigma around it. You don’t have to be fully cured to be well.

It is absolutely not a show where I sit in a chair talking to an audience, I did not want to do that. Yes, it’s a one-woman show, but constantly the challenge was ‘how can we make this active?’. All the way through we’re thinking about who I am talking to, how can we trick the audience. I wanted to was put the audience into a place where they felt comfortable and open and then throw a curveball at them, take them somewhere new, and then do the same thing again.  I’m bored of watching shows where it’s just one person talking at me. That meant that it was constantly about doing something rather than saying everything. It’s definitely a piece of theatre, not a TED talk.

In terms of performing it and the writing, I felt at the most vulnerable and most anxious I have in years when I was writing this show because it brought everything to the surface. I’d given up all my rules, that were keeping me feeling safe and validated, and now they’re gone, and now I’m writing a show that’s a risk too. So I was in a vulnerable place at that point, then when I started performing the show my friend Charlotte said to me ‘Just like it is someone’s job to go to the office and do a good day’s work, it is your job to go on stage and deliver a story to your paying audience.’ And as soon as she said that the realisation hit that I’ve been so self-absorbed. This show is nothing to do with me. This show is about giving a good story which will hopefully ring true to many people. When I’m up there I am not thinking about me one bit, I’m thinking about what this character wants in that moment and how she’s going to get it. 

The myth of dieting and Instagram #fitspiration is extremely popular at the moment. Have you found any backlash?

I’ve had one person sending me abusive messages, but I think people have been wise enough to realise that I’m not imposing any rules, I’m anti-rules. So I’m not telling anyone what to do, I guess what I’m saying is the rules don’t answer your existential angst. So if you’re looking to the rules, no matter what they are, if you’re looking for structure or routine, whether that’s wellness, drugs, addiction of some kind, anything, that’s not going to answer the unanswerable questions of the human condition. And if you’re looking to these superficial structures to answer that then you’re always going to be deeply disappointed. It took me a long while to realise that, but once I did it was very empowering.  Many people in the wellness world are brainwashed because they’re numbing themselves from the human experience.

For me at the heart of everything is the fear of death and the fear of the unknown, that is at the crux of all of us whether it’s conscious or unconscious we don’t understand. Our existence is chaotic and we are constantly trying to find ways to control that. Wellness is just a very pretty way of doing that, it doesn’t mean that it’s successful. It’s not going to make you immortal, it’s not going to stop you from getting sick.

Imagine if life was so simple. Imagine if we all drunk matcha lattes none of us would get cancer; it’s bullshit. We’re simplifying our existence by imposing these rules and we have to think let’s just rip the rulebook up and just listen to ourselves and respect ourselves and individuals, life would be so much more interesting. It sounds so light and superficial at first, but beyond the saccharine surface and if you start to delve a bit deeper it’s a lot darker. When you start to delve into why this world is so in vogue it’s interesting. What are we all running away from?

What’s next for Hear me Raw, and what’s next for you after that?

It’s in London for a bit, and my goal is to make it into a television show. I feel like the themes are so current, and if I can get this message out to as many people as possible, that’s my goal. I’m writing lots of other things and acting in other things, but this issue is hugely close to my heart, and I think it’s close to a lot of people’s lives right now. If you’ve got social media, unfortunately, you’re going to be a part of it in some way.

What’s your least favourite health superfood?

I guess I should say that I’m not telling people never to have, for example, a turmeric latte, in fact, I had one last night. I love all of it, but I’m saying that your world is not ruined if you can’t have those things. If you are sacrificing your social life in order to make sure you get home to have your matcha latte. If the mental chatter is overtaking your life that’s when you know there’s a problem, and your wellness obsession has got out of control. So I love superfoods, but I know they’re not going to make me suddenly five foot taller and have a glowing complexion… Wheatgrass makes me heave, I mean why would we want to drink grass?


You can catch Hear Me Raw at London’s Arcola Theatre from 12 Feb – 24 Feb. For tickets and further info visit here.