It’s undeniable that the Covid-19 pandemic has been tough for each and every one of us, in a multitude of different ways. From worrying about our health to missing loved ones during self-isolation, feeling claustrophobic in lockdown and facing financial uncertainty, our mental health has taken a nosedive.
Several studies have shown that anxiety and stress levels, as well as feelings of hopelessness and loneliness, have risen dramatically since the beginning of the Coronavirus crisis. Equally concerning is that many of us have been reaching for the bottle or other substances to numb our frantic minds. It’s unsurprising to hear, then, that calls to mental health charities like SANE have skyrocketed by 200%.
But while it might sound hard to believe, the pandemic has also had some positive side effects. A newfound community spirit, reconnecting with old friends and speaking more openly about our struggles has brought us closer together. And one man who has consistently contributed to putting a smile on our faces with his hilarious, no-holds-barred sense of humour is DJ Fat Tony.
With an illustrious career that has seen him grace the booths of legendary clubbing destinations like Palladium in New York and Turnmills in London, spin records for Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna, and soundtrack London Fashion Week – sometimes with his pal Kate Moss – the house music pioneer is used to spreading joy through his irresistible sets. And while his Instagram account was infamous for his outrageous posts before the Covid-19 crisis hit Europe (Prince Harry is said to be a fan), it was during lockdown that @dj_fattony_ became a much-relied-on source of light relief.
However, Fat Tony – real name Tony Marnach – is not just using his platform for sharing eye-wateringly funny memes. Having always been candid about his past excesses – he famously estimated he had spent £1 million on cocaine before getting sober over 13 years ago – he is now equally open about his recovery process, his struggles with psychosis and the work he has put into keeping his mental health in check.
This month, Tony has teamed up with mental health non-profits We are Hummingbird and PANIC LOVES COMPANY to star in one episode of a series of six searingly honest video interviews ahead of World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10th. Hosted by mental health, suicide prevention & intervention expert Ian Hurst together with UK fashion designer and mental health advocate Panic The Mother, under the title A Mental Session they delve deep into topics including addiction, dealing with grief, parenting with mental health issues and suicide.
We got the chance to talk to the iconic DJ about this important campaign and, over the course of a rip-roaring 20-minute phone call covered a lot of ground. It’s not always comfortable to talk about these things, but as Tony himself posted on Instagram just a few days ago: ‘Don’t suffer in silence because “no one wants to hear about your depression”. I’d rather hear about your depression, anxiety, stress etc. than hear about your death. I love you. Let’s fight this shit!’
Your video interview was remarkably honest. Were you nervous about opening up about your own struggles with mental health?
I don’t get nervous when I’m telling the truth, because that’s real and I can own it. I’ve done a lot of work on myself and I talk about that so often, recovery and wellness are the only parts of my life that I don’t feel like a fraud in! I get nervous when I have to DJ and stuff like that, but not when I talk about these things…
Sorry, we have to go off on a quick tangent: do you really still get nervous when you DJ?
Of course! It’s good to get nervous, because when you feel too comfortable you get complacent and don’t do a good job. It’s always good to be on your toes!
Like many other DJs, you had to take your sets online during the pandemic. How did you find that?
I’ve done some really big online gigs during lockdown, like Victoria Beckham’s birthday, a Hollywood party with Mark Wahlberg on Zoom and a Glitterbox set. It’s really nerve-racking because it’s my job to feed off the energy of the crowd. I normally work by reading the room but when you’re at home and you’re playing to two palm trees and a yucca plant, you don’t get that.
Also, when you’re recording a set it’s going to be online on so many different platforms – and then it’s there for everyone to judge. Victoria Beckham’s birthday set was going out to 2 million people live on her Instagram! So for someone who suffers from low self-worth on a bad day, I find it really hard to do.
Lockdown has been challenging for all of us. How was it for you?
I spent lockdown at my home in the UK with my partner and my dog and we kind of took everything back to the basics. It made me appreciate what I’ve got and a lot of good things came from it – because I made it that way. If suddenly your world gets really small and you think, ‘I’m never going to work again’, you can go down a really bad route. I chose to see it as a bit of a respite; it was a time to breathe and I was quite content to be at home for those two months.
Did it make you evaluate your lifestyle?
Of course! Before lockdown, I spent a vast amount of money on taxis or buying the same pair of shoes, but in a different colour. I took so much for granted. Having all of this stuff taken away from me suddenly, it made me realise that I don’t actually need it.
Did you pick up any new skills in isolation?
It taught me the art of patience. As an addict, I don’t want to wait for things – I want instant gratification. So the pandemic really taught me to take a step back and realise, ‘Life is okay, I am where I am for a reason, and it’s alright.’ Patience and breathing are two really good things to learn.
You speak openly about the work you have done to keep your mental health in check. Do you have any tips for people who are struggling?
I think it’s important to check in on the people around you and become more observant of changes in their behaviour. If you notice your partner or a family member starting to act slightly differently, don’t just ignore it. And if someone tells you they’re ‘okay’, dig deeper. Because normally, if someone says they’re okay, they’re not. Talk to that person, but in a caring, loving way. And if you start to feel really flat or disjointed in your own head, talk about it. It’s okay to voice that stuff. The shame is in not mentioning it.
You admit that in the past, you used to push people away who were trying to help you…
Yes, because for me it was a way of not having to deal with anything. The thing about mental health is that we all go through it in one way or another. For example, if I have taken on too much work and I’m having a bad time at home with my partner, then that can become too much to cope with and I find myself wanting to get my head off the wall. That’s bad mental health, and that’s ill behaviour. Mental health comes in so many different packages.
Do you have any tips for how we can help ourselves as well as others?
I think it’s about connection. It’s about reaching out and making sure that someone is okay. Because when you’re talking to someone who is going through tough times and what they say resonates with you, that therapeutic value is second to none. But you also have to check in with yourself and make sure you’re okay on a daily basis.
It’s about self-loving instead of self-loathing. It’s about learning to love yourself; who you are and where you are. Life is f****ing hard; it’s really hard. It’s about thinking ‘Okay, I’ve taken too much on here; let me see how I can change this’. Step back from it. It’s not a race.
Your Instagram posts have been bringing us some much-needed joy during these challenging times. Are you happy you are brightening up people’s days with your sense of humour?
Of course! It has got to a point where I get stopped by six or seven people a day when I’m out and about who tell me how much they love my Instagram! But to me, my posts are not just random rubbish that I put out. There’s always a thought process behind everything.
People always say to me ‘Oh my God, you post so many drug and mental health jokes’ but I can laugh about that stuff because I have lived it. I have dealt with it, and it no longer controls me. I find humour in my mistakes and I can laugh about them – and people can identify with that! And I think laughter is a real gift.
Who do you follow?
I follow so many people; I’m obsessed with Instagram and I’m forever on there. I get sent a lot of stuff, although often they are my own posts from a few weeks ago. But that’s fine, I still say ‘thank you’. Everyone who reaches out to me gets a reply. Anyone who stops me in the street, I will talk to. It’s the only way – if someone takes the time to say hello to me then I talk to them back!
You also started your Recovery YouTube series during lockdown. Tell us more about that…
We started Recovery literally because alcoholism, addiction and mental health problems were on such an out-of-control increase during lockdown. I’m very blessed that I can go to an AA meeting, listen to other people and share my truth. So that’s what I wanted to do with Recovery, get lots of different people to come on and tell their story so viewers can identify with it and normalise their own problems.
Hearing others share their experiences makes you realise that you are not the only one, and that it doesn’t make you a bad person. Recovery is all about self-help and self-loving. And that is also what we wanted to achieve by releasing the video series with We are Hummingbird and Panic The Mother in the lead-up to World Suicide Prevention Day. We hope it’s going to resonate with a wide audience because we are all different people, from different walks of life, talking about how mental health and suicide has affected us.
Do you think the stigma surrounding mental health has started to lift slightly in recent years?
I think the more people like myself, who have some sort of platform, are encouraging others to talk about it the easier it becomes. The amount of messages I get from people telling me about their problems since we started Recovery is unreal. I must get around 150 messages a week. And that’s the first step, someone opening their mouth.
Especially with men, there’s a real sense of shame in admitting they have mental health problems and that they can’t cope. It’s perceived as a dent in their masculinity, when it’s not. Admitting you have a problem is the most important step, because from hope comes belief, and as soon as we start believing in ourselves other people will do too. That’s the start of the cycle of recovery, and it’s amazing.
As a DJ, you are well aware of the effects music can have on our mental wellbeing. Do you have a go-to artist or playlist to lift your spirits?
George Michael, every day! A little bit of George Michael soothes and calms me. It instantly takes me to a really uncomplicated, happy place. And we all need a happy place in life, a safe place.
Do you have a physical place that makes you feel that way?
I love New York and Ibiza. I love adventure and I love finding new places. Everywhere I go I fall in love with. For me, being able to travel and to learn is an incredible thing.
As we are based in Ibiza, we have to ask you what’s your favourite thing to do on the island?
I just love going to the beaches more than anything. The restaurant La Escollera by Es Cavallet is one of my favourite spots.
Apart from keeping us LOL-ing on Instagram, what else have you got coming up this year?
We just launched a new club night in London called ‘Social Discoing’, which has been a great success. It’s a sit-down meal with socially-distanced tables and people can chair-dance. The next one is on the 25th of September and then we’re doing a Halloween edition on the 30th of October. I’m also launching a new streetwear line called Arrogant Hypocrite and I’m writing a book, so there’s lots of stuff in the pipeline!
For more information and to watch the video series check out: