“I just wish I was a better person.”
Gail Porter was a central part of my minds landscape from the moment she burst onto television in the nineties. She was everything I wished I was at that point; popular, attractive, successful and famous. For a while the nasty, vindictive, mean spirited little person who lives in the darkest chamber of my soul kept whispering to me that I hated Gail Porter, he tried to convince me that she wasn’t any good at the things she was doing and that it should have been me…but that wasn’t true, that was jealousy, because the truth was that Porter was a great presenter; full of vim and vigour, effervescent, engaging and, of course, beautiful. It couldn’t ever have been me because I wasn’t any of those things.
At the height of her fame she was invited along to a photo shoot for FHM magazine for their “100 Sexiest Women in the World Ever, Ever, Ever” issue (or something equally ridiculous) and, as part of that, she was photographed naked. Her back to the camera, her head turned to allow her to look over her shoulder and into the camera with “come hither” eyes…ot that’s what I told myself her eyes were saying…a sexy, and sexualised, image of a well known young woman. It would have found its way onto the bedroom walls of thousands of young men and been ignored by the wider public were it not for one thing…FHM decided to capitalise on Porter’s status as one of the best known women in the country by taking the image and projecting it onto Westminster Palace to raise publicity for the issue.
Things would never be the same again.
Things could never be the same again.
How could they?
The tabloids went to town, her face (and body) were all over newspapers, television and magazines. She had gone from girl next door to sex symbol in an instant and she became public enemy number one for the usual prudish, sexist, boors who litter public debate even now.
This, importantly, all happened without her knowledge of permission. She had done the photo shoot for the magazine but nobody had told her of the Westminster stunt and the first she knew of it was the following morning when she turned on the television to be confronted with her own naked body.
It takes a certain type of person to cope with that sort of drama.
You need a stable family background, good friends and, most importantly, good mental health.
Growing up in Joppa on the outskirts of Edinburgh Gail had a turbulent upbringing…loving parents for sure but the fact that they eventually separated tells a story about their relationship. Then when success arrived she found herself living in London, far from home and far from the friends she needed to keep her…sane?
She began to exercise control over her life by “restricting” her diet and, at one point in time, her fridge was stocked with champagne, wine and water but, in her own words, “Fuck all else”. This sounds like the dictionary definition of a rock and roll lifestyle…who needs food when their is champagne? But it wasn’t rock and roll, it was the beginnings of a slide towards something much darker. Eventually this “restricting” turned into anorexia and with Porter finding herself in hospital.
At the height of her success, hosting one of the biggest shows in the country Top of the Pops, surrounded by the glitter and glam of the music business and being the face of music fans across the country she was gripped by depression, anxiety, self-doubt, loneliness and an eating disorder. My own memories of her at this time were of how great she was at what she was doing, she was so comfortable in front of the camera, full of energy, excited and, to my eyes, happy. Then she got married to a pop-star and had a baby and her life was perfect.
I can remember very clearly how I felt the first time I self-harmed…good. I felt really good. I had taken back some control of my life at a time when it seemed very much not to be in control. One slice of a razor blade had rectified that. For about five minutes. Then feeling good was replaced first by blind panic and the realisation that I needed to get to a hospital and then a terrifying sense of shame. The panic passed once I had been assessed at the closest hospital I could drive to. The shame has never passed. Ever. Listening to Gail talk about her own feelings of shame around self-harm makes me feel…good. I’m not alone and I’m not a freak. She won’t read this but I hope someone else can help her to feel the same way…even if it is only for a moment.
In the early part of the noughties Porter suffered post-natal depression, endured a divorce and then developed alopecia totalis. All of her hair gone. In her words it was if it had been “…rubbed out”. That happened fifteen years ago and her hair has never grown back. It is, I think, a particularly awful thing for a woman to endure, society has built up a whole set of coping mechanisms around baldness in men from humour to tales of virility or sexual attractiveness. For women the story is very different and that makes accepting the loss of your hair much more difficult…particularly if your success is dependent, at least in part, on your appearance which, of course, was the case for Gail. “No hair meant no jobs…the ‘phone stopped ringing”. The ‘phone stopped ringing and the drinking started.
Eventually the drinking, the depression, the stress, the loneliness, the vulnerability, the self-doubt, the fragility, the self-harm, the divorce…all led to somewhere none of us would ever want to be. Porter was sectioned and spent 21 days in a psychiatric hospital. She was broken. Chaos reigned. Shortly after this she ended up living on the kindness of strangers with no home of her own and, for one night, she slept on a park bench.
This seems impossible.
How can kids TV presenter, host of Top of the Pops, one of the sexiest women in the world (thanks FHM), pop stars wife and star Gail Porter end up sleeping on a park bench? The answer to that question is the same as it would be for any of us…circumstances. That’s all it takes…the right, or wrong, circumstances and the right, or wrong, people could see any of us fall into the same chaotic place that Gail found herself in. If you add an emotionally unstable, or borderline, personality into the equation then the likelihood of such chaos is increased.
Watching Porter discuss all of these things I am struck by one recurring thought…”She is great.” As each tear falls, as each terrible story is told, as each break in “normality” is revisited I am left in awe of how sweet, gentle, open and honest Porter is. More than that her bravery is inspiring. Here is a woman who has experienced more pain and sadness than most but who is still capable of smiling, laughing and working towards something better.
“I’ve been called nuts, crazy, bonkers…I’ve been given all sorts of labels…if you want a label, take one but I don’t want it…I’m Gail.”
Yes you are Gail and I’m delighted that you are.
“Being Gail Porter” is available on iPlayer from the BBC now.