TO the outside world S Club 7 were the picture of pop band perfection – but away from the cameras, one of the stars had a dark secret.
Now for the first time, Jo O’Meara is speaking out about her gambling addiction after denying she had a problem for years.
She got hooked on “the thrill of the chase” while playing fruit machines ahead of S Club 7 performances and used it as a way to escape “the bad stuff” in her life.
“I don’t think it was even about the money side of it for me,” Jo, now 43, tells The Sun.
“It was just getting the three leprechauns up on the fruit machine and the buzz that would give to me when it went up the top and the lights flashing.
“All I could think about was what was going on right there and not having to worry about the stresses of the bad stuff, you know.”
Gambling became part of a pre-show ritual for Jo while waiting to catch the train to different venues.
It spiralled out of control to the point where Jo would arrive early so she could get her fix.
“I would always get to the station an hour, two hours before,” Jo explained.
“The press and the band would know where to find me because I’d be playing the scene in the station.
“But I didn’t think anything of that at all. I was just like, I got there early, put a pound in, put another pound in.
“Then you try to get £4 out and before you know it, you’re thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve done more money than I should have done here.’”
‘Thrill of the chase’
Jo bravely decided to speak out to mark the 25th anniversary GamCare – a charity that helps people with gambling problems.
The Don’t Stop Moving star talked candidly alongside former England goalkeeper Peter Shilton, who battled addiction for 45 years, and his wife Steph.
There, Jo admitted it was “the thrill of the chase” that led her to keep playing slot machines and when reports emerged about her problem, she was in denial.
“I was so annoyed I was like, ‘How dare they say I’ve got an addiction,” she said.
When asked if she recognised her gambling addiction at its height, the star replied: “I don’t think I ever did really and probably not until quite recently if I’m being honest.”
Jo has opened up in the hope it helps to raise awareness about this invisible addiction and how common it is.
She said: “This will be the first time that I’m speaking about my past gambling issues.
“Gambling issues don’t discriminate, anyone can be affected regardless of age, gender or background.
“The problems are only bound to increase with the use of smartphones and the rise of the cost of living.”
‘No shame in asking please help me!’
Fortunately for Jo, she claims to have been able to stop relatively easily but is fully aware of how different life could have been.
She explained: “I was very lucky, I just said, ‘No more’ and I was lucky enough that I was able to stop.”
For those who are concerned about gambling, Jo has a simple message: “Give yourself a break.
“There’s no shame in picking up that phone and saying, ‘Please help me!’ There is no shame in asking for help.”
She hopes others who have overcome the addiction will come out of the shadows to highlight that there is a way out.
Jo said: “If people like ourselves can just hold our hands up and say, ‘Look, it’s going to be okay, there is help out there,’ then that’s only a positive thing to do.”
To find out more, visit: GamCare.org.uk
Five warning signs that your loved one may be addicted to gambling
IS someone you know gambling more than they can afford to lose? Are you concerned they may be addicted? If so, read GamCare’s list of five signs to take more of.
1) Being withdrawn – Have they stopped socialising? Addicts can lose interest in their usual activities or hobbies. Often they choose not to spend time with family or friends – in favour of staying at home – and when they do they may constantly check their phone.
2) Mood change – Are they acting differently? There could be noticeable changes in their mood and behaviour, which could include looking worried, agitated or upset for no apparent reason.
3) Sleeping problems – Do they constantly seem tired? Chasing losses and losing money can cause sleeping issues. Anxiety or constant worry can lead plays to be up at all hours. Some gamblers play during the night, which can disturb their sleeping pattern.
4) Financial concerns – Has money gone missing from bank accounts or are they regularly short of money and need to borrow money? This could be a sign. Some feel pressure to take out loans to generate income.
5) Lying – Do they lie about what they do with their time? Many feel expected to provide for others. If they are hiding a gambling addiction they may be scared of their problem being found out and feel very low wrongly believing they have let people down.
Do these warning signs apply to your loved one? GamCare runs the National Gambling Helpline. Freephone 0808 8020 133 or talk via web chat at: www.gamcare.org.uk. They provide information, advice and support for anyone affected by gambling. Advisers are available 24/7, every day of the year.