Dame Kelly Holmes has thanked well-wishers for their overwhelming support after she came out as gay at 52.
Today she tells how showbiz pals encouraged her as she prepared to speak out about her sexuality for the first time.
Interior designer Kelly Hoppen, comedian Alan Carr and singer Boy George were among those she confided in, with them urging her to “be herself”.
The athlete has revealed serving in the army in the 90s – when it was illegal for members of the forces to be gay –instilled in her a fear of living openly.
She is stunned by the outpouring of support after she told the Sunday Mirror how carrying the secret for years led to breakdowns and episodes of self-harm.
Dame Kelly said: “The response has been truly overwhelming. I never ever visualised this positivity and support.
“There’s been people from all walks of life, people who have followed me for years and new people who want to hear what I’ve got to say.
“People have come out in their droves. I feel overwhelmed – it hasn’t sunk in.”
The Olympic champ decided to come out after contracting Covid in October 2020 prompted a breakdown that made her realise: “I’m not living my life.”
And Kelly Hoppen was the first celeb she confided in after she received an invite to her CBE party last November.
“I wanted to feel like I could be me for once,” Kelly explained. “I found the guts to say, ‘I need to tell you this to get it off my shoulders’. She was awesome. It’s brought us closer.”
Boy George, 61, and Alan, 49, were also at the 62-year-old designer’s bash.
“They were good people to tell because I felt they’d understand,” Kelly explained.
“Boy George was very good – he said it’s your choice, everyone should have a right to talk when they’re ready. And Alan was so lovely. He said, ‘you deserve to be you’.
“He said the fear wouldn’t go overnight, but said you can’t live in this fear any more.”
Her terror was rooted in laws that meant LGBTQ+ servicemen and women faced losing medals, being court-martialled and jailed. It meant Kelly, who realised she was gay when a female soldier kissed her at 17, was forced to conduct relationships in secret during a 10-year army career from 1988.
Even after the law was abolished in 2000, she remained silent, terrified of being retrospectively punished. For much of her astonishing career, which included Olympic golds for the 800m and 1,500m in Athens in 2004, there were few gay role models.
“For me, there was fear about how it would affect my sport,” Kelly said. “Would I feel intimidated going out on the track instead of just thinking about winning medals?
“There was this fear of society generally putting me in this category as this gay woman as opposed to successful, world class athlete.
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“But the impact has been on my mental health. I wish I could have lived freer, because I’d have been better professionally, I’d have been more authentic. I could have spoken up about LGBT causes and not be misheard or misread.”
She is delighted to see more LGBTQ+ visibility within sport, with diver Tom Daley, rugby player Gareth Thomas and boxer Nicola Adams being open about their sexuality.
Last month, Blackpool forward Jake Daniels became the UK’s first active male professional footballer to come out publicly as gay.
Kelly said: “In the Olympic movement they’ve got an LGBT friendly movement now. It’s changed so much. Young athletes of today are changing things. I’ve looked at it and been jealous.”
The athlete, who explores the issues that haunted her in documentary Kelly Holmes: Being Me, has been encouraged to see other high-profile women come out.
In April, singer Emeli Sandé said she has fallen in love with a woman, and actress Rebel Wilson recently revealed she has met her “Disney Princess”.
“Seeing people who are in the public eye and at the top of their game, especially other women, is giving me role models and more confidence,” she said.
“Everybody who is coming out is much younger than me. They haven’t lived through the 80s with the stigmatisation, they weren’t in the army, it was never illegal for them to be gay. But seeing them did allow me to think, OK, they’re still being accepted now they’ve come out.”
She was horrified by reports that Bridesmaids star Rebel, 42, was forced to come out after an Australian newspaper approached her.
“It’s so wrong,” Kelly said. “People have to be ready to do it. It’s not a world everyone is yet comfortable with – some people’s friends, families, religions, cultures don’t allow it.”
Kelly admitted she is overwhelmed by the reaction to her story.
“I just want to say thank
you, thank you, thank you from the bottom of my heart to all the well-wishers,” she said.
“It means more to me than you’ll ever know and I’ll try to uphold the respect of all those who wrote to me and I’ll do my utmost to be a strong and determined voice in support of everyone’s cause.”
Speaking ahead of her ITV documentary, on Sunday at 9pm, she offered advice to anyone struggling to be open about their sexuality.
The athlete said: “If you can eliminate the fear by being you, talking to someone and saying what you need to say, half of you will start to live again. Then you can start remodelling your life.
“If you are scared of telling loved ones, make it their issue, not yours, if they don’t accept it.
“That’s what I’m going to try to do.”