Heather Small Reveals How Allergies Almost Ruined Her Pop Career

Interview from the Mirror newspaper:

The M People star was first diagnosed with severe allergies aged just eight and they almost ended her career before it had begun. Heather Small shot to fame as lead singer of M People, which had hits in the 90s with Proud and Search For The Hero. But she suffered from terrible allergies as a child which later threatened to end her singing career. Here Heather, 51 – who has a son, James, 19 – tells how she’s learned to control her condition...

I was always a sickly child and was diagnosed with an allergy to feathers at eight years old. I had an eiderdown full of them and was really ill when I went to bed, but when I was in my mum’s room I was fine. The doctor told my mum, ‘you’re slowly killing your daughter’, so we realised that we had to get rid of the duvet quickly.

I also found out I was really allergic to animals when I went to my aunt’s. She had a cat and I would become poorly playing with it. But one day I sneaked out and played with it all afternoon without anyone knowing. When it was home time I had to be carried to the car as I couldn’t move. I was very ill, sneezing and finding it hard to breath. It wasn’t until much later in life that blood tests finally confirmed I was allergic to animals, dust and feathers.

I also suffered from asthma, and then I got eczema, which leads to itching and rashes in the backs of my knees and the creases of my arms. When it got bad I used steroid cream as a last resort. I also had to be really careful about my clothing – man-made fabrics don’t help. I’m still allergic to wool, and in the winter I have to wear cotton polo-necks to keep warm.

My allergies used to make me miss school but they were the most challenging when I was older and starting my singing career. The asthma played havoc with my breathing, making me short of breath and irritating my lungs. My chest would be so tight and I’d be wheezing so much I couldn’t sing.

When I first joined a band before M People, my symptoms would get so bad I would have to pull out of gigs as I felt so awful. And cancelling studio time is so expensive. It was then I realised I just had to find a way to sing on a regular basis without being ill. I also suffered from nerves before going on stage and I’d worry it would trigger an asthma attack so I’d try my hardest not to get too nervous.

Luckily, I found a solution before I got to the point of having to pull out of huge stadium gigs. When I was 29, one of my London neighbours at the time happened to be a holistic practitioner. I was pretty desperate so I asked if there was anything at all she could tell me that might help. She told me to try cutting out dairy products for six weeks. I couldn’t afford to miss any more gigs so I thought I’d give it a go. At the time, doctors were treating my symptoms – but nobody was really looking for a cause. I discovered dairy products such as milk and yoghurt were very mucus-forming, so that built up in my throat which would then affect my voice. Amazingly, the diet worked and it really helped with my asthma. Since then I haven’t had to cancel any shows. It’s been a revelation.

After cutting out dairy, I also cut out meat and fish. I find it easy now as I’ve done it for 21 years. When I first started, it was a lot harder. It was especially difficult because I like milk chocolate. But these days the choices for vegans have improved drastically. As a result it’s helped with my skin and my weight. I’ve never had to worry about those aspects of my life because they are covered by my diet. That’s why I stick to my diet and regime so strictly. I hate feeling ill so much. I haven’t had any episodes or breakouts because I’ve made it part of my routine.

For breakfast, I usually have fruit, like water melon and cherries. I always drink green tea or lemon and ginger when I’m working. I like organic granola or organic vegan yoghurt. I’ve got a little addiction to it. At 11am I’ll have lentil chips, and for lunch I have a bagel or salad. For my evening meal I keep it really light – rice and vegetables. I do like eating out, so I go to a Japanese place for vegetarian noodles. I don’t like alcohol. There’s nothing about it whatsoever that is for me. It’s not a moral thing. I can understand if you’re having a lovely evening and a glass of wine.

Now my allergies are under control I can perform more. I still tour the UK, singing at festivals and venues. I’m still allergic to cats and dogs but my allergies and asthma have improved so much aged 51 I’ve finally been able to get my first pet. I did some research and seven months ago I got a toy poodle, a breed that doesn’t have typical dog hair. It’s more woolly and she doesn’t moult so I’m not allergic to her. I’ve named her Nina, after Nina Simone. She’s even changed the way I work out. I used to do weights on the treadmill for 90 minutes at a time, but now I walk the dog a lot. My last asthma attack was so long ago I can’t even remember. 

When the seasons change I can get that niggly worry because of the pollen in the air, but it doesn’t go to anything full blown. People used to think my dedication to my diet was crazy, but now they realise that what you put in your body makes a difference. I would strongly recommend to anyone suffering with allergies to think about adjusting their diet, as I would never have had a singing career if I hadn’t.