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Megan McKenna On Coping With Coeliac Disease, The Joy Of Cooking And Learning From Her Mistakes

megan mckenna

After winning The X-Factor: Celebrity at the end of 2019 and landing a deal with Simon Cowell’s record label, Megan McKenna was on the brink of taking her singing career to the next level. But then the pandemic hit.

Was the reality TV star – who found fame on shows like Ex On The Beach, Celebrity Big Brother and The Only Way Is Essex – gutted she had to put her music plans on hold?

“Everything happens in a weird way,” she says on a Zoom call from her home in Essex. “I’ve had time to do my writing and get all my material ready. It has held things back, but that’s fine – it held the whole world back, not just me.”

In fact, McKenna, who went to a performing arts school and released her debut album Story Of Me in 2018, relished the chance to slow down for once.

“I’ve been crazy for however many years I’ve been doing TV – seven or eight years. So to actually have time to do me… I was at home, I’m so lucky to have a lovely house with a garden.”

Passionate about cooking, the 29-year-old got busy in the kitchen instead. She shared cooking videos with her 2.4m Instagram followers, and found her gluten-free recipes struck a chord.

Diagnosed with coeliac disease – where your immune system attacks your own tissues when you eat gluten – and a wheat allergy in her teens, McKenna knows the stigma that can come with a gluten-free diet.

“People automatically think you’re fussy. They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re just one of them, you’re just gluten-free’. But no, actually, it can make me really, really ill,” says the London-born celeb.

“With wheat, I get hives, allergic reactions. With the coeliac, it’s more of a lifelong autoimmune disease. So if I keep eating [gluten], in later life it can cause complications.”

There’s no cure for the condition, but McKenna, who is in a relationship with business owner Josh Riley (“we’re very happy and he loves my cooking, which is always a bonus,” is all she’ll say on that matter), has learned to overcome the shame she used to feel about being different.

“I always used to say to my mum ‘I wish I was normal’. When you’re at school, you just want to have school dinners, you don’t really want to stand out, do you? I did feel a little bit like the odd one out.

“But my mum has always been the most incredible cook, and has been able to cook for me from scratch. This is what I wanted to put across in the book: you don’t have to eat a salad, you don’t have to eat boring [things]. You can eat pastries, you can eat cake.”

© Louise Hagger/PA

That book is Can You Make That Gluten-Free? – and the title is inspired by the culinary question McKenna gets asked the most.

In it, she shares the recipes she swears by, such as the fluffy, American-style pancakes that are her weekday breakfast go-to, the Sunday staple of beef and crispy roasties, and a host of colourful cakes and puds.

“The book isn’t just for allergy people,” she insists. “Some of the recipes in the book are naturally gluten-free anyway. That’s just how I cook.”

McKenna, who was known on reality TV for her fiery personality, showed off her skills on Celebrity Masterchef in 2021, making it to the final before being pipped to the post by Paralympian Kadeena Cox.

“Every single person on the judging panel said they would never know it was gluten-free,” she recalls. “I know I can make the food taste amazing, that’s why I’m so confident with this book. I honestly think it’s going to change people’s lives.”

Having guested on so many TV shows, would she like to front her own cooking series? “That would be amazing! I never know what’s in the pipeline, but being able to make people realise you can eat amazing [gluten-free food] is my goal.”

Music is her other big focus. After touring with Michael Ball and Alfie Boe in 2021, the singer is gearing up to release more music soon, and hints at some “really exciting big things coming up”.

And with a big 3-0 in September, she’s excited about what the future holds. “I feel like my 30s are going to be the best time of my life. I feel like my 20s were a learning curve. I’ve done a lot in my 20s – a lot – and I feel like I’ve moulded into who I am now.”

She continues: “I’ve learnt from all my mistakes, I’ve grown up, I’ve got my home. So I think my 30s will be about living my dream.”

Can You Make That Gluten Free? by Megan McKenna
(Louise Hagger/PA)

Can You Make That Gluten-Free? by Megan McKenna is published by Hamlyn, priced £20. Photography by Louise Hagger. Available now.