How Tamsen Fadal Became a Menopause Tiktok Star
5 minute read
By now, anyone who’s doing anything to help solve the menopause care crisis knows Tamsen Fadal. You may have known Tamsen as the Emmy-winning TV news anchor who covered Hurricane Sandy here in New York City, or as the author of The New Single, her powerful memoir about life after her divorce at 40. She’s won 13 Emmys for her TV reporting on Sandy, the Columbia Shuttle Crash, and the Afghanistan War, and she travels around the globe with UNICEF, documenting the struggles faced by women and families in areas of the world most of us will never see for ourselves.
But lately, Tamsen has been working tirelessly to change the narrative when it comes to women, aging, and health. I got to know her personally when she hosted me on her podcast, “Coming Up Next…” the brilliant series she hosts about women moving through midlife changes, menopause, new career directions and the life pivots so many of us contemplate now that we’re all grown up.
Beyond her podcast, she’s currently working on a documentary about menopause, and has become a TikTok phenomenon. She's gone from listing the 34 symptoms of menopause to revealing her estrogen patch from her bathroom, and has been amazed by the reactions she's received. “As a journalist, you do your story and that story resonates, but never have I ever seen something resonate like this.”
Anne: So, how did you decide to start talking about menopause?
Tamsen: I didn't decide, that's the truth. It came to me--during a newscast actually. I had an epic hot flash. It was heart palpitations, I couldn't breathe, and I wasn't seeing the words properly on the teleprompter. And I thought Something is really wrong. I had gone through all of the other symptoms that I've since learned are due to menopause-- the weight gain was happening around my stomach, my arms. I didn't want to wear sleeveless, anchor girl dresses anymore! The mood swings, where I'd wake up crying for zero reason. And not being able to sleep, and the hot flashes. So this particular night, I remember it was around 10:30, we were in the commercial break and I thought I'm going to throw up or pass out. I could hear my heartbeat. And I said out loud “If I fall over somebody catch me!” And one of the guys goes, “Wait, are you being serious?” And I said, “I think I am.” And he said, “I think you need to step off the set.” And he walked me into the bathroom, and I just had to get to the floor. I didn't know if I was going to pass out or what, I just needed to get somewhere stable. And I remember lying there. My face was on this disgusting bathroom floor, looking at the toilet because I didn't know what was going to happen.
And that started me down this rabbit hole of research. I started trying to look for solutions. I went to the gynecologist and got my test results back. He had written in my patient portal “Menopause. Any questions?” and that was it. And it was just this whole emotional thing, like, it's all over. That was what my head said.
My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 44. So she went through surgical menopause, and I didn't even realize that until in the last few years. I remember we used to go in and out of restaurants, because it was too hot for her. I always attributed that to chemotherapy and now I realize, wow, she was going through chemotherapy and menopause at the same time. It makes me want to cry when I think about it.
And so I went down this road. I went to my gynecologist and I was never even offered estrogen or progesterone. Some people have asked me well, how did you not know you were in menopause when your period ended? But I had endometrium polyps, so I had a couple of different procedures to get those removed and with those comes a lot of bleeding. I was always bleeding, but I wasn't bleeding month to month. I'd bleed for a whole month and then it would stop when they were removed. And then I wouldn't bleed for six months, then it would start again. So I just thought my period was sporadic, but I had no idea that that was even one of the symptoms.
So I started doing what I know how to do best: Ask questions. I went to doctor after doctor after doctor. And I said to myself, I'm never going on hormones, because my mother died of breast cancer. And that didn't even come from any conversation I'd had. It was just sort of in the back of my brain somewhere, Estrogen equals breast cancer. Since then, I’ve learned all about the 2002 study. I went to a number of gynecologists and then I wound up finding a midlife specialist. And I said, I'm really scared of hormones but I'm feel like I'm going crazy. I had been put on Lexapro because they said I was depressed. I started doing one interview after another, and met incredible people like you. And I though, oh my gosh, there's this whole world out there. I didn't realize this whole secret society was operating, trying to help women in their lives.
AF: I feel the same way. It’s amazing to find this whole world of women improving our own healthcare.
TF: It’s amazing. And one person has led me to another and another and another. And then finally I said, I have to do something consistent about this. And I started working on a podcast to just do interviews about what's coming up next in people's lives. And it really has morphed to be more about menopause.
AF: And you're a TikTok star!
TF: When I first started talking about menopause I started talking very quietly. Like, “Hey, if you want to get your confidence, I'll show you how.” And then I kept upping the ante. And finally, I went into my bathroom, and I showed everyone my estrogen patch and people were like, “Ooh, a news anchor showing us her estrogen patch. This is amazing.” And more people liked it. One of the first videos I did that went viral was me listing 34 symptoms of menopause. It was super simple. And that really showed me there’s an audience there, and a community that I had never experienced before. As a journalist, you do your story and that story resonates, but never have I ever seen something resonate like this. So now, you know, by day, I'm a TikTok menopause creator, and by night, I'm doing the news.
AF: You’ve been one of the biggest debunkers of the menopause myths. I think there are two pieces here that are so important. One is the fact that there's so much misinformation. Just like you, I thought, even when I left Marie Claire to start a menopause company, I said to Monica, my co-founder, “Well, we can't sell hormones. Those cause breast cancer.” That was less than three years ago. And here I am with a digital health company selling hormones online because I’ve learned so much about what’s safe and effective versus what is old, outdated science. But the other piece, that is even bigger, which is one of the reasons TikTok is so fun, is the grandma stigma, that aging stigma. Do you think, in years to come, we could actually reverse the entire culture's aging-women problem?
TF: Look, I think it's going to be really hard, no matter that the numbers are in our favor, right? The number of women that are over 50 in the workplace, the fact that I'm on television at 51 years old, when I was told in my mid-thirties, “You're going to age out of TV.” I think that there’s a very strong unspoken bias about it. And we all have it, right? We all somewhere have the idea that age equals somewhere we don’t want to be. Youth is premium in our culture.
So I think it will happen. I don't know if it'll happen in our lifetime, but I'm hopeful in being one of those early pioneers of the conversation. Will the culture come around from the outside in? I have my doubts. It's ancient. I mean, it's just so ingrained in all of us. But from the inside out, starting with how women feel about themselves, I think that's where you're making such an impact. We're actually getting people to feel physically better. And to get over this fear of safe, effective treatment would be a start to make us feel better about being the age that we are and not feeling invisible. Right?
AF: Amen. Absolutely. What’s your favorite thing about being this age?
TF: I keep repeating this statement over and over again: Live your someday today. Because I keep thinking about the fact that I lost my mother at this age. My mom never saw past 52. I'm coming up on the anniversary of her death at 51. She died the day after Christmas and it was a traumatic turning point in my life, obviously as anybody that death of any parent would be, but in particular, because this is my 51st year. There’s so much more that I wish that she had seen. I feel appreciative for every minute past that, that she never got to. So I think my favorite part about it is the fact that I'm making every day really special.
And I have that “So-what” attitude. Like, if I say it and you don't like it, I don't care. We're not going to be here one day. I think I started that attitude during my divorce. I got divorced at 40, which is not a great time to be divorced, and I could never have told you before that that was going to happen. So I'm kind of excited. My favorite part of being this age is not knowing what's next. Like, what am I going to be when I'm 60? That could be really cool. So, I'm excited about that, but I think the only way that we're going to get there is to put health first and wellness first and make sure that we get there the right way.
AF: That’s so meaningful and I'm so sorry about your mom. I had that same realization when my mom died-- I was in my mid-forties when she died and I just thought, Whoah, that's all there is? What am I going to do for the next few years if we don't have that many? Like, if not now, when? I love your message to women about your divorce, and how you thought your life was over. I would love to talk a little bit about that personal pivot and how you came out of it—it seems like it was kind of a renaissance for you.
TF: It took a long time, but thank you. I got married when I was older and my husband and I had a business together-- a dating and a matchmaking business. I wanted help women find somebody. And then we went through a very public divorce that was embarrassing at best. It was very hard, and I was a hundred thousand dollars in debt as a result of that divorce. He just wasn't the guy I thought he was. And it played out in the press, in the gossip columns, in the New York Post on Page Six. I just remember going out every day, like, Oh my God, this is never going to be over. And I was so ashamed. I'm the first person in my family to be divorced. We were out there saying we're going to teach everyone how to fall in love, and then we can't keep our marriage together. As a journalist, what a great story. As somebody living through it, that sucks. It was a really tough year for me. I was on the air every day. I had severe debt. I was just petrified. And one day I had to go to this cocktail party for work and put on a smile and get dressed. And I ran into an old boss I’d had and I just hadn’t been his cup of tea. And I remember he had read about the divorce in the paper, which I was so shocked by because it seemed like such a silly thing for him to be reading about. And he put out his arms and he hugged me to say hello. And he said to me, “It's not going to be like this 365 days from now. However you feel right now.” And I never forgot that. When I went back and looked at it a year later, it wasn't. And I really took my time to learn who I was again. I stayed in and spent a lot of Saturday nights in my forties where I would want to be downtown in the village having drinks and going to dinner, sitting on my couch, trying to figure out who I was again.
AF: And how did you do that? How did you figure out who you were again?
TF: I spent a lot of quiet time with myself. Social media wasn't as big as it is right now, so I didn't have to do all that, but I did a lot of healing. I took up yoga. And I spent that quiet time with myself, which I had never been comfortable doing. When you're somebody that's on the go and always talking to people, being quiet is really scary. You hear things you don't want to hear. I did that, and I took care of myself and I kind of came inside. And five years later, when I finally had the courage to talk about, I wrote a book called The New Single.
AF: Amazing that you went from feeling so ashamed to writing a book telling the world about it.
TF: It’s funny. Everyone thought I was going to do this salacious tell-all, and I didn't. It was really just about, Here's what I did to find and fix and fall back in love with myself again. I felt like I owed it to people, to be honest about that, since I had gone so long saying, I know how to teach you fall in love. And basically in the book I talk about how I didn't know anything.
AF: And it was so well received. Women must have been so moved to hear all that. I think the more vulnerable we are, the more powerful we can be. There’s this old school idea that everything should be manicured and perfect and highly polished. Like, Get my hair and makeup done to look perfect and here's the perfect dress and now, roll camera. But no one likes the perfect person. It turns out that the less perfection-oriented you are, the more appealing you are.
TF: I think it's also our generation. Gen X was like, I don't have a problem. I went through an eating disorder when I was 26 years old. I was on TV, I was trying to get to New York, and I was binging and purging and binging and purging. My father finally had to stop the madness and took me to a doctor, and I remember thinking, My God, if anybody ever found this out, I would get fired. And to this day, I don't talk about that stuff. So, I agree with you. That's why I chose TikTok as a platform, because Instagram is still so perfect. It was like a mini TV, where you still have to look good. And then when I went on TikTok I was like, I'm going to do whatever I want. Here's my patch! And I felt such a freedom.
AF: And you do have that instinctive storytelling gene. Did you always know you wanted to be on TV? Tell me about your origin.
TF: Nope. Broadway. I thought I was going to sing and dance, but I always liked to teach and I always liked to tell stories. I would charge my parents to come to a show and I'd say, I'm going to teach you something today. I'd sell them tickets and sit in the garage with my brother. And then in college, I went into radio, and I fell in love. And then I interned at a television station in Tampa, Florida. And I remember I was at the assignment desk and the whole time I was thinking, please, I just want to go out and do a story. I wanted so badly to like talk to people and go out and do stories. So it was less about being on television and more about the interviewing. I followed this woman around for my internship and she would look at whatever was in front of us, and she would say, “Now, whatever you're looking at, I want you to turn around see what's behind you. And that's where the story is.” And I was like, what? But she was right. She taught me how to always find a story. I fell in love with that. And then I sent a bunch of tapes out and I ended up in Oak Hill, West Virginia. I packed up my car. My father said, you're going, where? And I said, I'm going to West Virginia. They're going to pay me like $14,000 or $15,000 a year. I went there as a producer first, and then I became a reporter, and then the main anchor, in a year. And then I got a phone call, literally on my one-year anniversary week, from a news director in Charleston, West Virginia. And she said, I'd love to bring you here, because I think you have good storytelling technique. So I went there and that’s what started my trajectory in television.
AF: What would you now tell that 24-year-old person?
TF: I think I would've done things a little bit differently. I think I would've traveled the world. I would've like really to have experienced life a little bit more first. I think I wouldn't have been quite as afraid of the consequences. I was always afraid to jump without a net and I'm happy that now I'm not. I jump without nets and it's scary and cool.
AF: Well, it looks really rewarding. I think that when we're younger, or when I was younger, I was so motivated by fear.
TF: We were taught that way. I don’t know if it's generational or what. I look at a 20-year-old or a 25-year-old now, and they just do it. I wish I had done that. I always wonder what would be different.
AF: So did you always have this inner confidence, the opposite of fear?
TF: I don't have inner confidence! I have moments of being bold and then I have a whole lot of moments of fear. I think I've always had external confidence, because I felt like if somebody didn't see that, they wouldn't trust you or believe you. But I think internally, I always second guess myself. I think we all have that, right? I've tried as I've gotten older to stop doing that because I've noticed that that just takes a lot of time and energy. And I wind up getting back to thinking, If I had listened to my gut. So, I feel like I now have more real confidence inside, and maybe less outside. I might have switched a little bit, but, I think the one thing I am confident about is that at the end of the day, we're pretty much all the same, and we pretty much all want the same thing. And that if we don't do it together, it's not going to work. We can be very competitive. I've been competitive in the news business. I mean, you know what media is like. And I don't feel like that now. And it's really kind of cool. That gives me confidence.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
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