Dame Kelly Holmes: ‘I’ve lived in fear of people knowing about my sexuality for 34 years’

Dame Kelly Holmes is a breath of fresh air. Open and honest, she has a warm smile, a twinkle in her eye and a cheeky shoulder tattoo on display. The Olympian is enjoying a second career as a motivational speaker and author – her searingly honest memoir Unique is out on 9 November. Yet her successes have been hard won.

From navigating the grief and bereavement of losing her “dear mum”, which had a devastating effect on her, to her struggle to come out as a gay woman, she is in a reflective mood when OK! caught up with her ahead of her book launch.

"It’s so important to tell my story," she says. "So many people knew me as an international athlete, but quite possibly more people know the real me now."

Kelly came out as gay last year at the age of 52, in a move that raised questions about how many older women are afraid to speak out about their sexuality. She admits that in her younger days, "sex education was blowing condoms up at the back of the class" and finding the same sex attractive was something that wasn’t talked about.

Today, though, she is in a loving relationship, more content than ever and ready to tackle life as her authentic self at last.

Congratulations on Unique. Can you tell us about writing it?

It’s a process, and I never imagined I’d be doing it again after my autobiography years ago and then my documentary last year. This time, it has extra details in since things have changed for me.

It’s jam-packed with honesty and a realness that fans will relate to…

It was so important for me to put how I felt about lots of different areas, like mental health, bereavement, the LGBTQIA+ community, coming out… I’m a motivational speaker by trade and I like to talk about all these layers. It’s just normalising that conversation.

Were there any areas you found particularly difficult to relive?

Losing my mum was massive, and that was hard to go back over. Lockdown was another tough period. It brought amazing times, like developing my fitness community within Military in Motion, and we all became great friends. At the time, they didn’t realise how important they were to my life. There was a night in 2021 when I really struggled, where I was contemplating either self-harming or worse. Everything could have become so different if I didn’t have the strength to get through the night with that community support. That night I realised I had to do something immediately, so I emailed a psychologist.

That must have been terrifying…

I’d always worried about opening up about my sexuality to anyone outside my circle. I worried that a psychologist would out me, as well. It’s really irrational because they’re professionals, but when you’re caught up in your own fears everything becomes a fear of the unknown. I’ve lived in fear of people knowing about my sexuality for 34 years.

What was the turning point for you?

I had to choose to live. It was a big turning point in my mindset where I knew I had to do something for me. I feel jealous of the younger generation and the freedom they have – they’re so open and transparent and can come out far more freely. Screaming out "I’m gay, look at me" at my age wasn’t an easy or natural conversation for me. I couldn’t just take away those layers of fear. I lived through the generation of Section 28 – the homophobic law in the UK, and worked in the military, where it was illegal to be
gay – so it’s hard to look away from the years of judgement, bigotry and bullying that was around me.

And losing your mother had a profound effect on you, both in the loss and the action it made you take, didn’t it?

You never really move on, just forward. When I lost Mum, part of my heart broke and was gone forever. But I still believe she’s around and can see me. She wasn’t there any more to live another day and yet I was there and not really living. Something had to change.
I can’t bring her back, but I can continue to do things that she would have liked. Not being happy is a very lonely life. But until I lost Mum I wasn’t ready mentally to show the world the authentic me.

Having the control to come out when you felt ready must have been a monumental moment…

Anyone who knows this process knows being "outed" is the worst thing you can do to someone. It was one of my biggest fears. Imagine this – I came back from the Summer Olympics in Athens and there were 80,000 people there to celebrate with me at my homecoming parade. While it was incredible and fulfilling, after 20 years of dreaming of that moment, in the background I was worrying about whether someone who I had a relationship with in the Army would go to the press and out me. Back in 2004, it wasn’t like it is now, we didn’t talk about it at all.

How has your life changed since coming out?

We have to embrace life when we can. It comes at you with a big sledgehammer sometimes. I’m always aware of that and prepared, but I’m not going to wait for it. Parts of me will always be closed off – but I’ve hit the f**k-it switch now. Before, I would avoid lunches or coffees through fears of certain conversations arising. But now these things are different experiences for me. I think because I’m a Dame, and because I would avoid personal questions before, people assumed I do things by the book and I was serious. But actually, I’m silly, ambitious and enjoy going out and having fun.

Speaking of fun, you went to Pride with Gok Wan…

Yes! I always said I would never go to a Pride. I didn’t want people to assume things about me and then have to feel the need to deny stories. But in 2022 I was there with a rainbow kimono on, creating empowering chants on the stage. It was London Pride and Gok Wan and Linda Robson had asked me on to go on the ITV bus. But it broke down, so it was me, Gok, Linda, Alison Hammond and Phillip Schofield walking through the streets of London. It was the most momentous moment, the energy was electric. I just couldn’t stop thinking, "How am I here?" I’ve known I was gay since I was 18 but being on stage 34 years later, what do you say to this incredible LGBTQIA+ community who have fought so hard for their rights for so long? My speech had the whole of Trafalgar Square chanting, "Freedom is my voice." I just knew I wasn’t willing to live behind a curtain any more.

Do you feel the world sees the most authentic version of you at last?

Absolutely. I’ve never lied or pretended to be someone different. I just didn’t tell my full story because I was scared to lose my job. I loved being in the Army. I’ve done a lot with my life. I can’t live with regret, but I’m now fulfilling my dreams and ambitions being truly me. If you can’t live your life authentically you don’t feel you have the freedom to live your life truly.

Looking to the future, where is your head at now?

I remind myself all the time that if people have an issue with me being a gay woman it has to be their issue. There’s a lot of hatred, bigotry and judgement in the world, we have to get to a place where we accept people for who they are and not put a cover on the book without knowing the content. We can get along with one another in this world, we’re all just human.

Kelly Holmes: Unique, published by Mirror Books, is on sale 9 November

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