I’ve never liked being kept in the dark when it comes to health. If I’m going to get sick, tell me. If someone’s ill, tell me. If my results are not normal, tell me; ever since I was young I have liked to know what is going on, so I can prepare and be strong to deal with it.
The very first time that something happened was when we were in Epping Forest. We were going back to the car after a day out and my dad said, ‘Race ya,’ so we started running but I collapsed.
Because I could be quite dramatic and silly, my dad thought. I was just messing about. But I couldn’t move and I couldn’t breathe.
On March 27, 1988, I was born on the floor, somewhere between my parents’ bed and the bedside table, at home in Seven Kings, Essex. I had the umbilical cord around my neck, so I was really purple when I came out.
My sisters, Hannah and Rachel, were both there – it was a full-on family experience – and I was named Jessica Ellen Cornish. To be honest, there’s no real reason for the ‘J’ in my stage name
(I always feel like I disappoint people when I say that).
Her heart condition
I had a happy, adventurous childhood – running around in the rain, stage school, sleepovers, and camping in the garden to ‘toughen us up’. My dad would take me and my sisters swimming, and we would go to Wimpy afterwards for chips and milkshakes. We’d go to Corfu or Majorca once every five years, maybe, but we’d go to Cornwall each year and stay in a caravan. I was around seven years old that day in Epping Forest with my dad. He realised it was serious, so he picked me up and we drove to the hospital. I was afraid and confused. When you’re fine and then all of a sudden something like that happens and you don’t know why, it can be terrifying.
My dad has a heart condition, Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, so he was always great at explaining what it was I was feeling when I first started to experience it. Like him, I have an irregular heartbeat. The worst thing when you’ve got a heart problem is having to do running tests with only a bra on when you’re just starting puberty. When you’re young and there are loads of doctors poking you and prodding you, embarrassment overtakes fear. There were times when it was painful though.
For a lot of my childhood I was on beta-blockers (drugs which try to help your heart get into a proper rhythm). But the side effects meant I had low blood pressure. I remember collapsing a lot and having seizures. I was a sickly, skinny girl who had a slight green tinge to her skin because of the drugs and who was always in and out of hospital. There would be times when I’d be acting normal and then I’d just collapse. It was only then that people would realise I wasn’t well. I suppose I was good at covering it up and I know I’m very good at that now.
Though I was in hospital often, I was always around kids who were way sicker than I was. Luckily, I suppose, I was never in long enough to have to make a life in hospital, to make friends and go to school there. I wrote Big White Room about a time when I was 11 years old and in Great Ormond Street Hospital opposite a boy about the same age. I remember waking up in the night and hearing him pray because he was having a heart transplant the next day.
It was the first time I’d really seen prayer or religion so close up and actually seen someone asking for his life to be saved. He was on his knees, with all these wires hanging out of him, praying. He passed away the next day. Every time I sing the song, in my head I dedicate it to that boy.
While most kids at primary school were fine with me, there were some who were horrible. My skin was green and I looked ill: I had sunken eyes and big teeth and a massive fringe. My ponytail was about four strands of hair. Sad times.
There was a handful of kids who were mean. Bullying became something I needed to write a song about. Who’s Laughing Now was honest: kids really did pull my chair out from under me, they did throw stones at my head. The bullying was never horrific; I’ve never been beaten up, for instance. Sometimes the words hurt more than the bruises.
But I had the most amazing mum and dad and family I could go home to. Not every kid does.
I went to Mayfield Secondary School, down the road from our house. Both my sisters were head girl. But certain things don’t soak into my brain. I’m intelligent, but I’m not academic. I’m not someone who can work out massive sums. I remember I got four per cent in my geography exam, and to this day I struggle to find London on the weather map.
I didn’t sing in secondary school because I didn’t feel supported by the school – which is why I guess I have never been invited back.
The music teacher in my opinion should not have been teaching. I feel he didn’t know what he was talking about. And he wasn’t a very nice guy.
I wasn’t allowed to be in the school choir, which he was in charge of. Some of the mums said I stuck out like a sore thumb because I was so loud – not the nicest thing to hear when you’re 11. I was so upset. I enjoyed secondary school, but if I’m honest I just wanted to get through it and do what I really loved.
The very first words I spoke were ‘jam hot’, from the Beats International song Dub Be Good To Me. I was just over a year old apparently. My sisters sang it constantly and I just picked up the easiest bit to sing back.
My first recorded performance was when I was three years old: I sang Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star on a tape recorder at a Cornish caravan park.
I never stopped singing – I sang everywhere I went.
The Wenn Stage School was at the end of our road in Seven Kings and I went there several times a week. I started with ballet but I ended up being there every day doing everything – drama, singing, jazz. The lot. I was also signed up to a theatrical agency, and got parts in adverts and, eventually, the West End. I got £50 for a matinee and £75 for an evening show.
When I was 11, I played Brat in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind. One night, I was in the middle of belting out my song When Children Rule the World and I tripped into the orchestra pit. I did the most amazing backflip – sheet music flew into the air and I fell onto the conductor, who just kept going through sheer shock. That’s how my theatre nickname was created: Brat Pitt.
But it was after getting that role that I realised my hobby could become my career. I didn’t feel my singing had been encouraged at the local secondary school, but when I auditioned for The BRIT School for performing arts in Croydon, I fell in love with the freedom of it all. I was so happy when I got in. I was ready to work hard and learn more about what I loved. I had all sorts of friends. I knew Adele; we were in the same year. We used to hang out at lunchtimes and have a little jam. We’d sing songs we’d written or perform whatever we were working on.
When Adele started to take off – BRIT old girl Amy Winehouse was already huge by then – it was amazing to have the opportunity to watch and learn.
After being spotted at London Bridge station on my way to The BRIT School I became a hair model for Vidal Sassoon. I had every style going – from a mohican to a mullet, blue, green, red, you name it. It was weird because there were buses going down Oxford Street with my big face on them. I might cringe a bit now, but I used that money for singing lessons and I got to see a lot of the world – Japan, Spain Germany – even if I did have silly hair.
I was working hard – travelling across London to do my A-levels, modelling, singing in a girl group. I even had a weekend job in Hamleys. And it was at Hamleys that I started to suffer with pins and needles in my right hand and foot. I ignored it for a few minutes, then realised it was getting worse.
I phoned my dad, and he told me to go straight to the hospital. I thought I’d be fine, but then I started getting pains in my right leg. I thought I was having a heart attack – a really slow one. I couldn’t breathe in. I don’t know how I did it, but I managed to get the train home and went to my local walk-in GP clinic. I’d started having really bad shooting pains in my chest, I couldn’t feel my right hand, my mouth wasn’t moving much on my right side and my right eye was going blurry. I sat with the doctor and he said: ‘I don’t want to scare you, but I’m calling an ambulance, because you’ve had a minor stroke.’
I was like, ‘F***, that’s dramatic! I thought I had a cold!’
At the hospital, doctors came in and prodded my leg, but I couldn’t feel a thing. It was really, really scary. I wasn’t a little girl any more, and at 18 I was a lot more aware of what was happening – very different from when I was young.
I was in hospital for about two and a half weeks. It meant I had to leave The BRIT School four months early. Thank God I’d worked my backside off before then, because I got three distinctions and didn’t need to retake any of my exams. It took months to recover from my stroke. Once I was up and about, the weight I had gained started to drop off. It just took a while for me to regain my strength and rebuild a lot of muscle loss.
Apart from my right side being achy when I am tired and a trapped nerve I have had under my arm ever since, I’m fine.
My health isn’t as bad now as it was before. Nowhere near. But there are still moments when I have to make sure I’m looking after myself and not pushing myself too hard. I have to be realistic. So now when I’m tired I have to rest, I take vitamins and look after myself as much as I can. It’s hard to remain well 24/7 and when I do get sick, I will always be letting people down because I have work booked in every day. It’s the pressure of knowing you can’t be replaced. If my drummer is ill, someone else can come in for a few shows.
If I get sick I can’t send in a lookalike!