Footballer’s wife, ex-model and mother to three gorgeous children—when it comes to having it all, Jessica Lemarié-Pires’ life looks pretty picture perfect. But, five years ago in the wake of her mother’s suicide, her life fell apart. Here Jess discusses for the first time what it was like to grow up with a parent suffering from mental health issues, how she struggled with her death and finally found her way back to herself.
I was born just outside of Paris, the eldest of ten siblings (though one of my brothers died of cot death). There are 22 years between my youngest sister and I, so I grew up feeling a huge responsibility for my younger siblings. From a really young age I had to clean, I had to cook. I helped them with their homework. I did everything that my mum couldn’t do, which was a lot. While she loved us, there were just so many of us and things weren’t helped by the fact that she was often unstable mentally.
One day she would be fine. Then the next she would be aggressive and totally unable to get out of bed. We still don’t know what the problem really was, because she would never see a psychologist, but she could be manic and obsessive about cleanliness: ‘look there is a small tiny piece of bread on the carpet,’ she would shout, ‘clean, clean, clean.’ If we had people coming over for lunch, she would be frenzied and we’d have to clear everything from the roof to the floor. There was never any question of medication, because she thought she was fine—in her mind we were the problem. No-one outside the family ever guessed what she was really like because she could be so good in a public environment. But once they left, it was straight back to normal—she was a great actress. Over the years she tried to kill herself five times, yet managed to fool all the doctors right to the end. She was that good.
The first time I found out that she wanted to kill herself I was 12 years old. I heard my dad speaking with a social worker, saying, ‘no don’t worry, she’ll be fine, she doesn’t need any help’. From then on, I always had this cloud over my head and felt one day the phone would ring and something would have happened. Her brother had killed himself—he had passed away when I was around 2 years old and while she never spoke about it, she always felt a deep sadness about his loss. That knowledge compounded the sense of fear and dread that she might do it too. Things were difficult when you were with her because you were afraid of talking about things that might make her angry or upset, so we were very, very careful around her. I think it’s why I’m such a diplomatic person now.
I left home at 17; I’d just had enough and my younger sister who was four years my junior took over. I’d decided that I wanted to do a fashion course like my mum at the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture and was interning at a couture house, when a third cousin invited me to a show at Paris Fashion Week. After the catwalk, a photographer approached me and asked if I’d considered modelling. He put me in touch with a small agency and everything just started from there. I think one of the reasons I liked being a model was because it made me feel special. While mum often said that she loved me, she couldn’t do the things that showed me she did, she didn’t know how to share love. Sometimes she would be all over you, almost suffocating you with kisses and affection. Then she wouldn’t touch you for a week. I think as a baby I didn’t receive that security and feeling of love and as an adult it made me desperate for adoration and for everyone to love me.
“While mum often said that she loved me, she couldn’t do the things that showed me she did, she didn’t know how to share love.”
Soon I was travelling around the world and I was making enough money to have a good life. I did editorials in magazines like Madame Figaro and Italian Grazia, catalogues and a lot of beauty shoots with Schwarzkopf, l’Oreal and Wella, as well as becoming the face of Pond’s cream in the U.S. I was always cutting or dying my hair which drove my agents crazy because they had to keep changing my book every six months. But aside from the attention, overall I’d say I enjoyed about 30% of my modelling career. I’m not going to lie, of course it’s great being on a beach wearing a bikini or in Morocco taking pictures and earning a lot of money. But I wasn’t present, it wasn’t living. It just felt like I existed through it. My love life was shit, I was travelling all the time and I was fighting with my parents. It wasn’t this dream at all. It actually felt I was looking down at my life from above, as if it was happening to someone else.
Meeting Robert was totally random. I’d been in a toxic relationship with a super jealous boyfriend, so my life outside work wasn’t exactly sex, drugs, rock & roll. I was 23 before I even stepped foot in a club so it was ironic that we would meet in a nightclub. He saw me and sent a friend to come and talk to me—I told his friend that he should come and talk to me himself. Nothing came of it. A few days later I saw the same friend and he asked me for my number, which I gave him, but again heard nothing. By this point I’d done my research and found out that Robert was this big football player—and worse, married. A week later I bumped into that guy again and he said, ‘Jess I lost my phone, but Robert, he still wants to speak with you.’ At this point I rolled my eyes and said, ‘look this guy is married, I’m not interested’. I’d just broken up with a boyfriend who has been cheating on me for two years and I certainly wasn’t doing that to another woman. But it then transpired that Robert was going through a divorce, so in the end I gave my number.
“I was 23 before I even stepped foot in a club so it was ironic that I’d meet my husband in a nightclub.”
One day he called. We spent two months speaking on the phone and texting without ever meeting–at which point, I said, come on, we have to see each other face to face now. I came to London for two days to spend time with him in November and by 3rd January I was moving to my own flat in Notting Hill. That was 15 years ago. It was a nice way to meet someone because really I fell in love with his voice, that’s the only way I can describe it. A year or so after I came to London, we moved in together and the rest, as they say, is history.
Motherhood & Middle Age Depression
Work was going really well and I was constantly getting booked. One morning I was on a shoot and I was trying to fasten the zip of my top and I couldn’t get it done up. I couldn’t work out why I’d gained weight, then realised: I was two months pregnant. I decided to stop working pretty much immediately. I’d always felt that I wanted to raise my kids the way I wish I had been raised—not like my mum did. If I was going to give birth I was going to devote myself to raising them entirely, especially because I was fortunate enough to be in the financial situation to do so. For me that meant no nanny, breastfeeding, the nights, the days, everything. I’ve done the same for each of my three children and have always been 100% focused on them. I always said to my parents that they were totally irresponsible and I wanted to be the exact opposite: it’s easy to have a baby, it’s much harder to raise them.
Though honestly even if I hadn’t felt that way, Robert left Arsenal and moved to Villareal [Ed’s note: Spanish football club, based in the province of Castellón, 70km north of Valencia] when Naia was just eight months old. When I arrived, I didn’t have a driving licence, I didn’t speak Spanish and I didn’t know anyone. Our house was so far away from everything, so I spent my whole days with the baby. Then I fell pregnant again. When Theo was born, I then had two kids, no car and still no way to communicate with people—but I always had my family around me so I never really felt lonely. At this point I knew I had to learn to drive, so made the decision and at the same time attempted to master Spanish—thankfully it only took two months and after that I ended up making lots of friends who are still in my life. But not everything came so easy. Once Theo went to school I felt so useless and went though a mini period of depression. Robert was always away, so I was alone with the kids most of the time and I’d spend my time watching soap operas crying. It definitely wasn’t the best time in my life.
Images from Jessica’s modelling days
While I was raising my young family, mum was getting older and things were deteriorating. One of the reasons was because she’d been such a beauty in her youth and couldn’t bear that her looks were fading. As I grew up and became a model, even though she was so proud, she developed a sense of competition with me. When I was 20, she was 40 and when we would down the street people thought we were sisters—at one point she was my best friend in the whole world, but as she grew older, something shifted. For me, she was this incredibly talented woman who had taught me everything: how to cook, how to make clothes, how to draw. I just looked up to her, but she felt that we were rivals in some way and there was a certain sense of bitterness. She would always say that I was living the life that she wished she’d had. During the last three years we argued a lot, because I was so sad that she was becoming this strange woman. Sometimes you could see in her eyes. She was fine, then you’d say a word and she’d switch.
She had wanted her freedom, so I rented her a flat in St Germain on Boulevard Raspail. She lived there three days a week because she wanted to be close to her mum—my grandmother—and her friend. Then one day she left the home that she shared with my dad and disappeared for three days. She didn’t answer the phone, we couldn’t contact her. Of course, we were all worried. My dad asked my brother to go to her flat in St Germain and see if she was ok, which is something that makes me feel pretty angry, because it should have been him that dealt with it. Anyway, my brother went there, knocked on the door and got no response, so he contacted the fire brigade and they broke the door and he saw. She had done it. I found out by text message. All it said was: ‘she succeeded.’
The first thing you think is, how could she abandon us? She’s a mother how could she do that to her children? You can’t understand why. Even though we knew that one day she would do it, we still couldn’t believe it. Then I felt incredibly guilty—I was the eldest, I should have protected her. Dad just couldn’t understand, for years he told people that she’d had a stroke because he was so ashamed. But if someone asked, I always told the truth. I didn’t feel shame—actually I wanted everyone to know. To see my pain, to see how much I was hurting. You get an entirely different reaction when you tell people that your mother has killed herself than if she’d died in another way, you can see it in the way that they look at you. Having your mum dying the way she died was even harder because she had chosen to leave me.
“The first thing you think is, how could she abandon us? She’s a mother how could she do that to her children? You can’t understand why.”
For three years things were really bad and I found it very hard to cope. It completely shook me. Now I can talk about it almost without crying, but if we had the same conversation three years ago? Impossible. There’s no way I could put these feelings into words. I used to cry all the time. Birthdays, New Year’s, Christmas. A Tuesday afternoon. After a lot of therapy, I started to see that in a way she did it for us. She knew that she was a huge strain on her children and often told us that if she were to go everyone would be happier. My psychologist helped me understand that her actions were actually proof of her courage–because she loved us so much, taking her life was the only way she could prove that. One of my sisters admitted that she felt a deep sense of relief after mum died and of course the burden and worry of it happening has now lifted from our lives. But of course, it still cuts deeply.
Life Cleanse & Reboot
When mum died, I realised that I wanted to restart my life. First of all, I deleted lots of people from my contact list. When you have a really bad experience, you truly see who is there for you. Some people I thought I could always rely on disappeared and the people sitting next to me weren’t the one I had expected to be there. I’ve had a lot of bad experiences in relationships in my life. Aside from the toxic cheater, one of my boyfriends died and another was an abuser who crushed my self-esteem, so I’ve seen a lot of darkness. But I said, now, this moment, that is all going to change.
Because of mum’s death I decided to be better. I drastically improved my diet and changed the way the whole family eats. We stopped going to big supermarkets and bringing processed food into the house and embarked on a macro-biotic diet—both Robert and I lost kilos. I then started to look for products for my skin and hair. Great organic skincare is pretty easy to find these days, but organic haircare? I just couldn’t find anything that felt premium, just something that smelt nice and was easy to use.
Because I’d always been so into my hair, discovering something which was both ecologically sound but that actually worked was really important to me. After doing a lot of research I realised there was a massive gap in the market and slowly I came up with the idea of launching my own organic haircare brand. After mum died, I had this huge sense that I wanted to achieve something more for myself—not as someone’s wife or as someone’s mother, but something for myself. So, after more research, I found a lab who helped formulate the line. My focus has always been about using the very finest ingredients and we’ve worked so hard to get it just right. It isn’t easy to go from silicon, paraben-heavy products to natural organic haircare. Your hair rebels—it’s so used to the chemicals and it definitely takes a while for it to respond as well to the organic products, but when it does, it is incredible—nothing can beat it.
My sister said to me the other day, ‘it’s so strange you’re launching a haircare brand, because mum was so obsessed with her hair’. Whenever I’d cut my hair she’d shout at me, because she loved beautiful long hair. Subconsciously there’s something there, maybe it’s that connection with her death and finally finding the confidence to start something and see it through to the end, or maybe it’s just I inherited my love of hair from her. Either way, I named the brand Onira which means ‘dream’ in Greek—mum was from Greece so it felt a good way to honour my roots.
More Than Just a WAG
I think that when I tell people about Onira they think it’s my toy, just something to fill my time until my husband comes home. But this is not vanity project for me, it’s about achieving something that I feel passionate about. I spent six months using the products every single day, trying this, testing that, before investing further into it—I knew that the products were so good and that the quality would help build the business, but now it’s time to get the message out there. Because I’m married to a footballer people can be very dismissive of my ambitions. People see me as the ‘wife of’, or more accurately, ‘French model wife of’. In some ways it’s good, because I have something to prove. I’m intelligent, I work really hard and I have sleepless nights thinking about things I haven’t done for the brand and what I’ve got to get through in the morning, it’s not just a game to me.
“Because I’m married to a footballer people can be very dismissive of my ambitions. People see me as the ‘wife of’, or more accurately, ‘French model wife of’.”
Look, I could sit here on my sofa all day long and do my nails and wait for the kids to finish school. I could go to lunches and hang out half of the day at the gym and go shopping. But that’s not my thing. To have the level of financial security that I do because I am married to Robert is an incredible blessing—I should know because I grew up poor, so I’ve experienced life both ways. And yes, one of the reasons I was able to build this brand is here because my husband is financially successful. But there are lots of ways that money could be spent and I’m dedicated to making it a profitable business and willing to put everything into it.
The truth is that being the ‘wife of’ isn’t all roses. Of course, I have lots of material things and I’m incredibly grateful for those, but it has its own challenges. Wherever we you go—a restaurant, a party, a holiday—everyone just looks at Robert and after a while, it starts to feel like you’re transparent. Sometimes I get pushed or shoved aside, people don’t even say hello. Recently we actually went out, which is a rarity as parents of three children, but it wasn’t a great fun night out with my husband, because Robert had to spend the entire night talking to everyone who wanted to speak with him. Meaning I spent the whole evening alone. Generally, the only time anyone speaks to me is when they want me to take a picture of them with Robert—I guess you have to try and see the funny side. So, that’s why Onira feels a little like a revenge. A revenge against all the people who think I’m just a WAG. But I also know that ultimately I’m the first person I need to prove myself to.
Images taken from @jessicalemariepires
My life does look great from the outside, on social media and beyond– and there are things that are amazing. But if anyone thinks it is perfect? I’d say come and live a week in my shoes, then you will understand that I have issues like everyone. I have a family and they have problems just like everyone else’s and I’ve also had a lot of not-so nice things happen in my life. I still crave love in a way that isn’t always healthy and I can’t bear it if someone doesn’t like me. Recently one of my husband’s friends came up to me and said he’d met a girl in a restaurant who’d complained that I’d acted rudely to her. I was like, ‘me? I’m always nice, what could have happened?’ It absolutely killed me and kept me awake all night. That constant need to please, to make people adore me is something I’m working on, but it’s definitely a struggle.
Having money and looking nice on Instagram doesn’t fix things or erase the problems. You don’t bounce out of bed ultra-happy every morning just because you go on lovely holidays or have money in your bank account. I can be so depressed sometimes, really, really depressed and it can be about so many things—some of them bullshit, some of them deep. But what I will say is that I’ve opened a new chapter in my life and it’s one which is the most positive so far. I have 20 tattoos now and one reads, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ As I enter my 40s, I’ve learnt that’s the only motto worth living by.
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