Watch any Sarah Beeny programme and her hair has a co-starring role. Whipped up by a Somerset squall, held captive by a woolly bobble hat, or sneaking out from under a building site helmet, it’s always ready for its close-up.
‘My blonde chaos,’ she calls it. Or rather, she did.
In September, chemotherapy for breast cancer cost the 50-year-old TV presenter and property developer her hair. Sarah’s four sons had already scissored off her shoulder-length waves and she was hoping she’d keep the resulting crop.
But a fortnight after that tender kitchen haircut, it began to fall. Within 24 hours it was nearly all gone.
Sarah (pictured) was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2022. Her mother passed away from the disease when she was 39, when Sarah was only 10-years-old
‘Having no hair often seems to be associated with anger,’ she reflects. ‘You’re a victim or it’s a punishment, like Fantine in Les Misérables, or Cersei Lannister in Game Of Thrones. People are ashamed of their bald heads.
The more I talk to people in this boat, the word I keep hearing is shame. And I thought: Why? If you’ve got breast cancer and you’re having treatment, the fact you have no hair is not a reason to be ashamed.
I don’t want to be ashamed. I don’t want other people to feel ashamed. I want to change that stereotype.’
It’s why Sarah has posed for Weekend both with and without one of her new collection of wigs. She has ‘four or five different versions of the blonde chaos; longer blonde chaos, shorter blonde chaos, slightly more peroxide blonde chaos.
Sarah Beeny (pictured) lost her hair in September when she started chemotherapy. She has spoken to Weekend Magazine about her collection of blonde wigs
I did try a dark wig but when you’re blonde you’re blonde. I also have a red one. A nail polish red. I wore it to a wedding.’
She doesn’t have praise high enough for the ‘absolutely amazing’ £75.70 NHS wig which is the cornerstone of her collection.
It was fitted for her at Yeovil hospital where she’s having chemo and where, next year, she is due to have a mastectomy and radiotherapy, ultimately giving her an 80 per cent chance of a cancer-free life.
As for the rest of her wigs she says, ‘I’ve got a bit carried away. My husband says our bedroom looks like a scene from The Silence Of The Lambs.
‘I have eight of them sitting on heads on the windowsill. He’s like, “Oh my God Sarah, it’s a bit scary.”’
True to her word, Sarah is being funny and frank and unashamed about the hair she wears. But the impact of her hair loss cannot be underestimated.
When they tell you you have cancer, all you hear is, ‘What kind of coffin would you like?’
Going bald cracked her open emotionally, even more so than the prospect of a mastectomy – because it made her cancer visible and therefore real and unavoidable. She has now discovered she is very much not alone with it causing such a deep emotional response.
‘When the boys cut my hair short, I thought, “There, I’ve done it. I’m over the hair thing,”’ she remembers.
‘But it was really traumatic when I went like this,’ – she demonstrates pushing her fingers through her hair – ‘and a handful came out.’ Then, taking off one of her wigs, the double-sided fixing tape ripped off everything beneath it.
‘That’s when I cried. I thought, “Oh God, this is it. It’s happening.”’
She was right. When she woke up the next morning her bed was full of hair, and suddenly this confident woman was fretting about going into a petrol station to pay for her fuel.
She too felt that sense of shame and had to fight to overcome it – and realised how important it was to speak for others in her position who might not have a voice.
As it is, Sarah looks fantastic without her hair. She’s using bolder eye make-up and has had her eyebrows tattooed as a precaution in case they fall out next.
‘Still there,’ she says, clamping her fingers on them in the hope they’ll stay put. Her nails are varnished, her shirt is unbuttoned showing the remnants of her Greek holiday tan and the jangle of rings and bracelets familiar to the millions who watch her drilling and painting, are still in place.
As we chat on Zoom, her husband Graham Swift brings her a cup of coffee. They’ve been together since she was 19.
‘Sometimes I underestimate how brilliant he is,’ she says as he disappears. ‘Cancer is not easy watching.
‘I can’t make it any easier. You only know who a person really is when you need them to step up.’
Before this the couple looked to have the most enviable life. We got to enjoy it vicariously on the shows that have made Sarah a primetime star for two decades.
Most recently we’ve seen the family in Sarah Beeny’s New Life In The Country, which chronicles their move from London to a 220-acre former dairy farm in Somerset. Two series in, with a third due to air in the New Year, it’s all hickory-smoked trout, scrumpy, bee-keeping and candle making, not to mention the family’s newly built mini stately home.
Yet it could all have been taken from Sarah in a blink. ‘Genuinely, when they tell you you have cancer, all you actually hear is, “What kind of coffin would you like?”
Everything flashes before you in a panic and I thought of our sons [Billy, 18, Charlie, 16, Raffey 14, and Laurie, 13] and how I so wanted to see them all grow up. What if they need me? Will they be OK?’
For Sarah this is not an unimaginable horror. Her own mother Ann died of breast cancer when she was 39 and Sarah was ten.
Fear of breast cancer has stalked her all her life. When she found a lump in her left breast in the summer, and got referred to her local breast clinic – where they did a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy and diagnosed her a week later – she realised she’d simply been waiting for it to happen.
She does not yet know whether her cancer is her genetic inheritance.
She does know it’s oestrogen and progesterone positive and fast growing, but that there is no evidence of spread into her lymph nodes.
Her prognosis? With modern medicine there’s an 80 per cent chance of getting the all-clear, and a 20 per cent chance she won’t.
Sarah’s immensely practical and is an innate optimist. She’s built a business empire on those traits and now she’s coping with cancer this way too.
‘I’ve learnt so much on this journey. My fear of cancer was based on medicine that was practised 40 years ago.
‘I think we all carry the scars of someone we love who’s had breast cancer, but I realised our worst fears are often unfounded. As my lovely brother pointed out, “That other 20 per cent isn’t that you’ll definitely die instantly.
‘It’s a 20 per cent chance of having some cancer which can be treated in an ongoing way,” she says.
Similarly, after the boys cut off her hair, she put it into bunches and sent it to The Little Princess Trust, a charity which supplies wigs to sick children and young people as she wanted it to be of use. Then, when most of it fell out in September, she went at it with clippers she uses on her cockapoo Maple.
‘My hair was really thin, in patches and bald bits. I thought, “Forget that. I’ll have it all off”, so I took the dog clippers to it,’ she says.
‘But when her sons offered to cut their hair in solidarity, she shrieked: ‘What? No! I don’t think so!’
The boys and Graham have a band, The Entitled Sons, and have played at gigs and festivals this summer, including Chris Evans’s Carfest. They made their London debut last month at the iconic Bedford Pub in Balham, at which their mother made a brief appearance before heading home with the kit for chemo the next day.
Sarah was brought up in Berkshire. Her father Richard was an architect while Ann, raised in the world of London fashion, had turned her back on it to live a ‘Good Life’ existence.
They had a smallholding of ducks and goats, and grew their own vegetables. At 19 Sarah went into the property business with her brother Diccon and Graham.
(Diccon is married to Graham’s sister Caroline, and the siblings are very close. She struggled to break the news to Diccon because she understood what it would mean. ‘I didn’t have the words so Graham had to do it.’ She decided not to tell her father about her diagnosis because he had a stroke a few years ago and is ‘a bit forgetful’.)
At the beginning I thought wearing a wig would look like having a dead rat on my head. But everyone should have one
In 2001 she was perfectly positioned – inculcated with her father’s gift for architecture, her mother’s style and her own building industry know-how – for broadcasting when she was talent spotted for Channel 4’s Property Ladder at a hen party.
It’s hard to overstate her impact on how we buy, sell, renovate and decorate our homes since then. She’s made a dozen or so property TV series, written several property books and hosts a property podcast.
Her current project is a documentary about her cancer, to air next year on Channel 4. ‘I have a tannoy,’ she says, ‘I’m so lucky to have that and to be able to carry on working, so I want to make sure I use it well.
‘I have to spin this into something good that benefits people. It’s been hard to find a silver lining, but the more I learnt of other people’s journeys the more I knew I could help.
‘Some people are so afraid, they don’t check their breasts or get a lump examined. I want to sing it from the rooftops that the quicker you get a diagnosis the better the outcome.’
There’s also the fact that she’s a confessed control freak and this is about taking control, owning her story and responding to the amazing support she’s had from friends, neighbours, strangers and on social media. Filming has proved therapeutic because she has been obliged to examine her emotions about her cancer and her mother’s.
‘I’m good at sweeping things under the carpet. Graham always says my form of therapy is lift it up, sweep it under, put it down and don’t talk about it any more.
‘This documentary means the carpet is being pulled up and all the dirt is there for me to have a look at.’
Before her diagnosis Sarah was already writing a book, about tales from her life. Now her cancer will be written into that too.
Her mission with both projects is to educate and encourage, and celebrate how far cancer treatment has come. Her other hope is that society will change its ideas about baldness and take a new view of wigs, too.
‘At the beginning I thought wearing a wig would look like having a dead rat on my head. Remember the old Hamlet cigar advert,’ she asks, miming the chap with the shiny pate, his terrible toupée slipping down his forehead.
‘But wigs are brilliant, it’s like I’ve found a new religion. Everyone should have one, cancer treatment, alopecia, can’t be bothered to do your hair, there’s a wig for that.’
And will she keep hers after her own blonde chaos has grown back? ‘Do you know, I might,’ she laughs.
Her chemo doesn’t finish until 30 December. She’s given up alcohol for now because she can’t face the idea of chemo with a hangover but she is planning to drink a bottle of Champagne to celebrate.
Her favourite rosé fizz is already on ice. So too are plans for a trip on the Royal Scotsman ‘a bit like an Agatha Christie trip’ and skiing in Austria at Easter.
Ahead of all that though, comes Christmas – and boy does Sarah love it, she’s ‘the kind of woman whose Christmas decorations can be seen from space’, according to Graham.
Last year the couple and their boys dug a tiny home-grown tree out of their land and left the hole so it could be reburied for years to come. Maybe it’s a metaphor for Sarah herself, briefly uprooted from everyday life, but hoping to be safely replanted.
‘Don’t be afraid,’ is her message. ‘Check and check and check again, the earlier the diagnosis the better the outcome.’
- The Simple Life by Sarah Beeny is available for pre-order. Catch up on Sarah Beeny’s New Life In The Country on All4.
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