TO the outside world S Club 7 was the picture of pop band perfection – but away from the cameras, one of its stars was harbouring 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.
“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 sevens or 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 used to use it as my way out of stress and being in the band," Jo explained.
"I’d just forget about everything when I was playing those fruit machines.
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"I would always get to the station an hour, two hours before.
“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.’”
As her gambling spiralled from a pastime to something she would do regularly between gigs, Jo's bandmates became concerned.
"When we used to travel around the country, it was like, 'Where's Jo?' and everyone would know, 'Oh, she's on the fruit machines' but it was just what I did," she told ITV's Lorraine today.
'Thrill of the chase'
Jo bravely decided to speak out to mark the 25th anniversary GamCare – a charity that helps people with gambling problems.
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.”
Now, Jo accepts the pastime that she thought was "just a bit of fun" was a problem and knows she "shouldn't really have been doing that".
She told Lorraine: "It was about beating the machine, getting the three sevens, the excitement of that was making me want to do it even more.
It was about beating the machine, getting the three sevens, the excitement of that was making me want to do it even moreJo O'Meara
"But what you learn as you get older is you never win and that's why I'm here today to highlight it because it's everywhere."
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 for help
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 haven't looked at a machine once.
"I was lucky enough that I was able to stop... but I understand it's not like that for everybody. You do get caught up in it but there's help there."
For those who are concerned about gambling, Jo has a simple message: “Give yourself a break."
She adds: "There’s no shame in picking up that phone and saying, ‘Please help me!’ There is no shame in asking for help.”
Gambling addiction: five warning signs
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 note 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.
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 .
‘I half my life on gambling & wife had to quit job to nurse me back to health,’ says England's Peter Shilton
HE’S among the top 10 goalkeepers of the 20th Century, remains England's most capped player and holds the world record for most appearances in football.
Peter Shilton, 72, has many incredible achievements to choose from when reflecting upon his life but his greatest of all was overcoming addiction.
“I stopped gambling and it was the best decision of my life, my life changed forever for the good,” he told The Sun.
At the height of Peter’s problem, he lost a staggering £20,000 in a day and frittered away £800,000 to one betting firm alone.
His 45-year addiction left his marriage to former Jazz singer Steph, who’s 21 years his junior, hanging in the balance.
“I had 20 plus years in the NHS as a manager. I gave that up to support my husband in his recovery and withdrawal,” she explained.
“People think that Peter woke up one morning and said, ‘I’m going to quit’ and we ran off into the sunset but we didn’t. We climbed a mountain and it was a long recovery.”
For decades, the retired footballer had managed to keep his addiction a secret and even hid it from his wife, who he married in 2016.
While he was away on a trip to India, Steph found a bank statement and after seeing how much he spent suffered a panic attack.
Out of “pure desperation”, she contacted one gambling firm - who she did not name - and “begged them for help” to no avail.
“They were fully aware but didn't put any markers on his account, they didn't act at all,” she told This Morning last year.
Peter hasn’t gambled for six years now and says there are countless “secret addicts out there” due to people having easy access to sites through their mobile phones.
The 72-year-old came to the realisation that it was “a waste of time” and “didn’t suit” him – and now proudly brands that moment “the best day of my life”.
Steph says there needs to be more help for those helping loved ones overcome addiction.
She said: “What would have helped me was for somebody to have been there and said, ‘I’ve been through this, I have got through it and you will get through it.’”
The couple, who are ambassadors for the Addiction Recovery Agency (ARA), want those in trouble to know that “there is life after recovery” – and Peter knows it all too well.
He told The Sun: “With gambling, you always want to be on top, so it's not always about winning the actual money, its about a false excitement
“Eventually, with gambling, you realise that you are wasting all this time and money you are never going to win.
“Don’t look for a false high, look for the real enjoyment out of life.”