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Sunday September 9, 2007
She was the breezy, blonde TV presenter who lit up Parliament, but she was also a desperate self-harmer, dogged by binges and breakdowns, sleeping pills and Prozac. Still, this no-nonsense Edinburgh lass wouldn’t dream of therapy. And then there’s the baldness. Phil Hogan tries to fathom her.
There’s just one thing I’m fluttery about as I wait for Gail Porter to finish her session with The Observer’s photographer. How do you approach the subject of a woman’s baldness without seeming to sensationalise it or, worse, trivialise it, without making baldness too central to events, without reducing a woman to her baldness, indeed, ideally, without using the word baldness?
We have, after all, a whole book to go at this morning -Porter’s new autobiography, Laid Bare: My Story of Love, Fame and Survival – and yet, for all the memories in it, from her childhood, her angsty teens, her successful career via the tales of eating disorders, depression and self-harm avidly gobbled up down the years by the papers, all roads lead inescapably to a hotel in Las Vegas, where she woke up two years ago to find that most of her hair had fallen out.
She is resisting the temptation to see her condition, a form of alopecia that has left her body entirely hairless, as the crowning tragedy in a succession of joined-up traumas, this is surely the one that the book is really about.
I’m still fine-tuning my opening gambit (I’ve got as far as ‘So…’) when she emerges from her photo-session in a fluster. ‘My God, it’s so hot in there!’ she says. ‘Just feel my head…’
She tilts her dome towards me. Blimey, it is hot, I agree, warming my hands on it.
Yes, she says, because of course that’s where you lose all your body heat.
She asks if this is the first time I’ve touched a bald Scotswoman’s head (I’m afraid it is) and goes on to reveal with wide-eyed incredulity that her dog now has alopecia. ‘When the vet told me, I was, fuck off, you’re kidding me…’
The really weird thing, though, she continues, as we settle back into the room she’s just vacated, is not having any nasal hair. ‘So if I have a runny nose, it’s like turning a tap on. It’s quite bizarre. I’m like, ah, nasal hair, so that’s what’s it’s for.’
I think we may have broken the ice. Certainly I feel able to ask whether she would have written this book if she’d still had the full head of hair.
‘No,’ she says, twiddling with one of her false eyelashes, which has come unhinged. ‘When I first got approached, I was not interested. I’m so bored of all these girls who have written about 20 books by the time they’re 25. I didn’t want everybody to know about my sex life or who I fancied. But I thought this was a different take to the usual celebrity book. It wasn’t talking about my ex-husband or anything. And I’m 36 now – not ancient – but I’ve had my fair share of strange things happen.’
By this, she means her history of mood swings, anorexia, episodes of bingeing of one sort or another and self-harm (on holiday in the Maldives, she needed 10 stitches to repair a wound self-administered with the saw attachment of a Swiss Army knife). There’s a story about sleepwalking too (out of her flat on to the streets of Soho) and a terrible crisis point when she wakes up on ‘suicide watch’ in hospital after overdosing on sleeping pills and vodka.
It is obvious now that Porter was having less fun in life than she was on screen. Until the hair drama, she was most vivid in the public memory as the larky, likable young TV beauty whose naked image was projected on to the Houses of Parliament and thence, via The Nine O’Clock News, into Britain’s living rooms, in 1999. It was a promotional caper for a lads’ mag, a spin-off from one of the glamour shoots de rigueur for the spunky new breed of post-Loaded blondettes spilling out of pop, fashion, film and telly.
Porter wasn’t entirely happy about the stunt – it was news to her too when it happened – but as a result, she shot up the world ‘babe rankings’ (if there be such a thing) and the work poured in – Top of the Pops, The Big Breakfast, Wish You Were Here, quiz shows, chat shows, radio shows, mags. She was the girl who couldn’t say no, her days scheduled to bursting, starting at dawn with two hours at the gym and caning it half the night with colleagues at the Groucho or the Ivy.
A promising romance with Keith ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ Flint – wild man of hardcore techno ravers the Prodigy – foundered on her furious appetite for socialising (Keith preferred a quiet night in) and triggered her first bout of ‘cutting’, which left her with an arm ballooned from septicaemia.
After a couple more years of overdoing everything, she drifted into a marriage with Dan Hipgrave, guitarist with the now defunct Toploader. But the auguries were not favourable here either. Porter cancelled the honeymoon, curtailing even their wedding night, to do a show for BBC2. Then after the birth of their daughter, Honey, Dan disappeared on tour for three months. There were postnatal blues, more pressure and the couple eventually split. By then, Porter was two series into Dead Famous, a demanding, not to say demented, show that involved touring US cities trying to drum up the spirits of deceased celebrities.
She enjoyed the work and her love life was reignited when she met James Lloyd, a cameraman, but she was frequently crushed by her heavy moods (not helped by rumbling divorce proceedings and the wrench of being too often separated from her child) and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the new manic depression. Her ‘suicide’ episode followed, the result, she believes, of coming off Prozac too abruptly, and then in 2005, in Las Vegas, her hair started coming out in clumps.
Her condition is likely to be stress-related, she says, but no one has any proper answers. ‘I’ve been told it’s going to come back, that it’s not going to come back, that laser treatment’s going to work and then not, that if you drink goat’s blood…’ She laughs. ‘Don’t quote me on that one. The thing is, I’ve honestly got to the stage where I don’t care any more.’
I ask what kind of a grieving process you have to go through to reach the stage when you can joke about it.
‘None at all, really. It was made easier because I was working when it started – shooting a trailer for American TV – and it happened quite quickly.’ The production team improvised with hats and at the end of that day she just had it shaved it off. ‘Afterwards, we ended up in a Vegas nightclub, where everyone’s going, my God, you’re so cool – are you in a band?’
It was difficult going public with it back in Britain, a moment that came when she had to attend the launch of a new TV show. ‘There were all these people I knew or worked with. It was terrible. No one said anything. Or eventually they’d start chatting to me and say, “How’s the programme going?” And I thought, hello, I’ve got no hair… so, it took a couple of weeks to get used to it, readjust.’
I’m still surprised that she hasn’t felt the loss more keenly. It’s terrible enough for any woman to lose her hair, but in her case one recognises a particular sort of tragedy. I’m not suggesting her success was entirely paid for by those blonde good looks, but to see her so casually shorn of them seems like a punishment dreamed up by the Fates. It’s a bit like Christopher Reeve falling off his horse, I say. What I mean is that the level of popular sympathy was so strong because the reversal of fortunes seemed so, so…
‘What about the Daily Mail?’ she cries. ‘They had a piece saying, “Did she deserve it?” Did I deserve it? I know it’s not the worst illness you can possibly have, but it’s a horrible thing to say to anyone.’
As for her looks, she says: ‘It’s not as if I was going to get to do Newsnight with big eyes and blonde hair – I was going to get fluffy jobs. Which, you know, is great but it gets to a stage where you think, sigh, I’d love to do something more serious and then – hey – your hair falls out and you get invited to go to Cambodia to do a documentary on inter-country adoption.’
This is the sort of work she is now being asked to do, she says – serious documentaries, charitable projects for ActionAid, fair trade, World Vision, all things she can be passionate about. Not quite a stroke of luck, but you have to marvel at her quickness in finding a blessing where others might see only a curse. ‘I’m probably going to have a longer career now than I might have – because how long can you be blonde and pretty for? I keep seeing in the papers, “Oh, poor Gail, Gail’s gone mad.” Or if I walk down the street and I’m not smiling, like the other day, “Gail goes and buys vitamins because she’s depressed about her hair.” No. I buy vitamins because I take vitamins. Everyone wants to feel sorry for you, but I’m fine, I’m great.’
I find myself wanting to know how she got depressed in the first place. In vain, one scours the early years of her biography for hints of bad things. Her upbringing in a quiet Edinburgh suburb was surprisingly trouble-free (if extravagantly burdened with piano and ballet lessons, badminton practice, drama, martial arts – she’s a karate black belt). She worked hard at school, had friends. Her parents didn’t keep her locked up under the floorboards; she even liked her brother.
Two disquieting details stand out – the anguish caused by her mother neglecting to warn her about periods and the story of baby cousin David, who came with Gail’s uncle to live with the family and then died from the measles. The effect of these ordeals on the young Gail are hard to read against her general cheeriness, which swallows up traumas almost as soon as they appear.
Her revelations about anorexia when she was a student or, later, making her way in the media, seem similarly underpowered, the narrative returning to a major key (‘Och, you’re looking awfully skinny, Gail,’ notes her mother as her daughter’s weight crashes to six stone) before we’ve quite scratched the surface of her problems. Perhaps it is understandable that the book should be bipolar too, though it does leave you with a sense more of Porter’s jolly stoicism than her emotional state.
‘This is why I didn’t want to write it,’ she says. ‘I’ve got a lot of things I don’t want to talk about. If I talked about David who died, that’s going to hurt a lot of people, like my mother and my uncle. It’s understandable that people want to know about it. I had people from my publishers saying we need to know a little bit more about that, and I understand it’s the crux of the book, but I can’t deal with it, my mum can’t deal with it.’
One of the things I find puzzling, I say, is her resistance to professional help – doctors, therapists, counsellors are all given short shrift. ‘Going to a doctor as a Scottish girl – very Scottish – almost seems like a defeat, as if something’s got the better of me. James, my boyfriend, will say, “You’ve got to speak to someone”, but I just can’t. It’s too bizarre going into these innermost feelings with someone you don’t know from anybody. I have tried therapy a couple of times, but it hasn’t worked.’
So what does work?
‘Well, I have my medication, though I’m trying to come off it. And I still do kickboxing and boxing every day, but I’m trying to do something a bit more calming.’ She laughs. ‘My trainer says, “Must you kick the shit out of everything every day? Why don’t you try yoga?” But I’d get so bored, even if it’s probably what your mind needs, because otherwise you just keep going and going…’
Keeping going is her default mode. It’s when she stops, according to her book, that life starts turning black. Perhaps her over-timetabled adolescence is to blame – that nightly hothousing of karate, tapdancing and piano lessons. It seems to me that everything she has ever done – from media dogsbody to children’s ‘zoo’ TV to TFI Friday and its ilk – has frenzy at its heart.
The difference, she says, is that her packed schedule as a kid had routine, whereas what she does now has the opposite. ‘I like routine. But in this job, you don’t know what you’re doing from one day until the next and that makes me uncomfortable. I think that’s where the anorexia came from. It’s like… where are you going to be tomorrow? Glasgow? London? You’re not in control. But you can control what you’re eating.’
Obviously she’s not anorexic now, but what about the cutting?
‘It started when I was 26. I just remember feeling desperately upset one day. And I don’t know where the thought came from, but I got a razor and cut myself. It finished in February this year. I haven’t done it since then.’
Her left arm is crisscrossed with this record of unhappiness and I remind her of an interview last year in which she explained fresh abrasions by saying she’d fallen off her bike. Was that true?
‘No, I was just embarrassed. I didn’t know how to answer any questions without sounding like I was insane. It is quite bizarre to do it at my age. It doesn’t make sense. All you do is make yourself unattractive. There’s no point to it, though you think the pain you feel on the inside is eased by the pain on the outside.’
I ask how things are now. Her mother, whom she is close to, is fighting cancer. ‘She’s going through a much harder time than I am,’ she says. ‘But I’m feeling quite good at the moment.’
She has Honey, now five and ‘really into Mummy’s shoes at the moment’, to bring up. She has a good relationship with Dan, and James is still in the picture.
‘When you have children, that’s your main focus,’ she says. ‘I felt really happy yesterday. I was smiling away, walking my dog. The number of people who smiled back… I thought gosh, people really notice when you’re genuinely happy.’
· Laid Bare by Gail Porter is published by Ebury Press, £16.99. To order a copy for £15.99, inc. UK p&p, go to observer.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0885
Born 23 March 1971, Edinburgh.
Education HND in film studies.
Early career Worked for five years as a runner and production manager before her big break as a children’s TV presenter. Went on to present Fully Booked
1999 Her naked image was projected on to the Houses of Parliament for an FHM stunt. Presenting work on TOTP and The Big Breakfast followed.
2005 Alopecia caused her to lose all her body hair.
2007 Presents Dead Famous and charity documentaries.
Personal Divorced from former Toploader guitarist Dan Hipgrave, with whom she has one child, Honey, aged five.
She says ‘My confidence comes from inside. If I’m not confident, nothing I pop on my head is going to make me feel any different.’