Profile: TV’s Supernanny Jo Frost on Her Allergies

in Food Allergy
Published: July 16, 2013

newton_120504_1199Job: Parenting expert on TV
Lives with: multiple food allergies, environmental allergies and asthma

We know her best as Nanny Jo on the former “Supernanny” television show. From 2004 to late 2010, Jo Frost brought order to households where parents had lost control by helping moms and dads learn skills like discipline and follow-through.

But as viewers in almost 100 countries tuned in to see Frost bring peaceful resolution to yet another household gone wild, few realized that the world’s supernanny was having to do her own strict daily managing – of food, pet and environmental allergies.

In the summer of 2012, Jo Frost spoke to Allergic Living about how she juggles her busy lifestyle – including a new show for the TLC network and a lot of travel – while keeping her asthma and serious allergies under careful control. [Update: Supernanny USA relaunched in 2020 on the Lifetime Channel.]

Q&A with Supernanny

Allergic Living’s Gwen Smith: Jo, first, what allergies do you have?

Jo Frost: I’m allergic to all nuts, peanuts, crustaceans and rye. I have asthma and that’s triggered by tobacco, severe changes in weather, pollen, strong household cleaning products, mold, animal dander, lilies. And with perfumes, anything very flowery is a problem for me.

AL: As Nanny Jo, we think of you coming to the rescue of parents with serious discipline problems with young kids. But that meant going into other people’s homes. What challenges have you faced doing that?

JF: I’m really upfront with my allergies. So households remove all foods that could be dangerous for me. The main one is peanut butter – since you do love a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in this country! The PB&Js are out, the kids can’t eat nuts. If the parents do smoke, I ask them if they can refrain from smoking around me.

Pets get removed as well. A production company makes sure a house is cleaned before I go in it, in case there’s pet hair all over. I’ve had a couple of occasions where the kids got upset because the pets had to go to a friend’s house. But I say, “Nanny Jo has a severe allergy so if I’m near the animals, they will make me very ill, and I’ll end up in the hospital”. You talk to the children and they’ll say, “OK then, Nanny Jo”.

AL: When you’re helping families for TV, how long are you in a home?

JF: Just over two weeks, and I’m in their home for about 16 hours a day. Honestly though, [allergy accommodations] have never been an issue. I’ve been in my career as a parental expert for 25 years and have to say, I’ve been incredibly embraced by the American public. The families know I’m trying to help, so I’m given a lot of love.

When I go in and say, “I know the kids love peanut butter but I’m allergic to it and I want to be able to kiss and cuddle your kids freely.” They’ll say, “we want you hugging and loving our kids as well.”

Supernanny Rebukes Airline CEOs

AL: Beyond work, how do you find accommodations for allergies these days?

JF: I have to say that overall, this country lacks a compassion for those with severe allergies.

AL: Where do you feel that the most?

JF: I am somebody who’s tried very hard to have management of this [asthma and allergies] with the correct medications and awareness. My most unfortunate experience with my allergies has been with American Airlines. [She mentions good traveling experiences with both United and Virgin Airlines.]

My unfortunate experience was that I was met with a crew who had zero empathy toward my condition. When I offered as a solution that I could ask other passengers personally if they would refrain from eating nuts, they told me: “You cannot do that,” and that if I did they would have to get security to take me off the plane. At that point I had passengers who overheard and came up to me saying, “we totally understand and don’t worry, we won’t be eating nuts.”

The crew then said the only way I could fly on this aircraft was if I was to give up my first-class ticket and sit in the back cabin, as they wouldn’t be serving nuts there. It was like it was this self-indulgent fad, as if I’d invented it to maintain some kind of attention-seeking. It was awful. I was on my way to visit a family, who desperately needed help. I didn’t want a family to suffer as result, so I gave up my seat to this man [in economy]. We swapped seats.

But the crew continued gossiping about me. They looked at me as if I thought I was entitled. I’m just looking to be treated like anyone with a severe allergy: with dignity and compassion.

I felt that this situation had been handled appallingly so I asked if I could see a customer service representative once I got to the gate. I told them this story. They listened, and I got a lot of sympathy. They agreed it was unacceptable, apologized on behalf of the crew, and said they would follow up. But I’ve never heard from them. I’m a very solutions-oriented person, but I was met with this defensive attitude. It was: “no, no and that’s our policy, and no.”

AL: If you had the chance to speak to an airline CEO on this topic, what would you say?

JF: I would say I do understand that they want to accommodate light snacks on a flight. But I would really urge them to look at the many alternatives that there are as snacks. We’re talking about anaphylaxis here.

If we can become more aware in public places: airplanes, schools and with the labeling of products, maybe we can get America to look differently at those who have life-threatening medical conditions like anaphylaxis. We should look to prevent situations. We’re spending billions of dollars dealing with issues in the aftermath rather than looking at how we prevent.

Supernanny’s Reactions

AL: Have you experienced anaphylaxis?

JF: Yes, I have. The worst I’ve dealt with left me in hospital for a couple of days and my blood pressure went really low. [This incident happened three years ago, brought on by a restaurant meal.] I had been told, very confidently, that were no nuts in a particular meal, and there were. It left me never in the same place again.

I have allergies and asthma management under control; I carry auto-injectors, I have my inhalers for my asthma, which I take. What has changed is my ability to trust those who may not be fully informed. You have to read between the lines. At a restaurant if they say, “I think so,” that is not – “I know so”.

Now in a restaurant, I ask: “Are you sure?” and “Can I see the chef?” because I have to be in control of my life and responsible for my life, so I will do what’s necessary to do that.

I don’t see myself as a sufferer. I just know there are certain things that I can’t do. For instance, I would love to go horseback riding, but I can’t; it’s life or death. [As a child, Frost had a very bad reaction to horses that required emergency treatment.] So there are things you can do and things you can’t. For instance, I waterski and cycle, things like that.

AL: I’m not surprised to hear your attitude, as you always do seem like a positive person.

JF: I think it’s a mindset. From a very young age, I had eczema, allergy and asthma, and I was raised [in England] by parents who didn’t see this as a handicap. I was incredibly involved in sports. I had asthma, but I ran the 100-meter sprint at school and played nationally a game called netball – similar to basketball – I did the long jump. I still cycle and love swimming.

You say that I sound confident, but it does start young. It’s important for parents of allergic children to recognize the seriousness but to keep your explanations really simple and to teach your children to make decisions that impact their quality of life and the safety of their life.

AL: Supernanny, tell us a little about your 2012 show for the TLC network, “Family S.O.S. with Jo Frost”.

JF: People know me for dealing with [children’s] unruly behavior, discipline, implementing rules and following through. But the idea with this show is to take the focus to the whole family and how we how we can become more mindful as a family and help and support each other more. We’ve got women working, blended families, adoption, families in the military. And we’ve got 21st century issues like bullying, teens and technology.

Helping is what I’m really passionate about. I feel very blessed that we have families courageous enough to have me come into their homes and talk about their issues. If it wasn’t for those families, we would not be helping millions around the world. It’s very empowering when families realize that. It’s an emotional journey but it’s very fulfilling for everybody.

AL: You mention bullying. Two U.S. studies show that about one-third of kids with food allergies have faced teasing or bullying, including have allergens waved in front of them. What’s your advice for families in such circumstances?

JF: Bullying is bullying and all forms of harassment have to be taken to a school authority to take care of that. Bullying that involves peanut or another food that a child is allergic to is a life-threatening situation, and we need teachers to be more aware of this. We need for our children to feel they can go to the adults, who can be trusted to take care of this.

If we leave children feeling that things will not be handled, then children try to handle it themselves, in the best way they possibly can. That’s an enormous amount of stress and pressure on a child who actually doesn’t know what to do to make things better. If you’re waving [a food allergen] around, it’s bullying. There needs to be open dialogue at PTA meetings and parents and teachers coming together to understand the importance of it, as we would in any case where there’s bullying and harassment.

Jo’s Advice for Teens

AL: What would supernanny say to a teen refusing to carry an auto-injector or asthma inhaler for fear of seeming ‘different’?

JF: There are a lot of teens who feel that it’s not cool to carry an auto-injector or asthma meds. I would really talk to that teenager about responsibility and being accountable for your own life.

For parents, it’s about talking to your child on a level of gaining more maturity and understanding of the condition they have. Give them information to read; the more they know, the more it’s in their own hands. It will give them the confidence to brush off what somebody else is saying. Empower them, let them know that their medication is there as a backup plan, not as a hindrance.

AL: Do your staff or friends know what to do for you in an allergy emergency?

Yes. My executive assistant Cynthia knows how to administer my auto-injector and so does my significant other. In my very close circle, nobody eats peanuts, nuts, nobody has the enjoyment [laughs] of eating lobster or crab. I joke with Darrin [her boyfriend]: ‘If you’re going out with the lads after basketball, go for a Thai [meal]. He would love to own dogs, but sorry, no dogs. I often say, “I’m going to buy you a big tortoise”. [laughs]

Read more:
Allergic Living’s comparison chart of airline allergy policies.