Katie Piper: Mirror, mirror on the wall

Features

My skin was red, raw and weeping, like meat, from a butcher’s window. I reeled, unable to recognise the face peering back at me.

“No,” I whimpered, my chest heaving with sobs. But no tears came: my ravaged eyes couldn’t even cry.  “What have you done to me?” I wailed inside, “Where’s my face? Get it out of the bin and give it to me right now. I’ll fix it myself.”

She did.

In 2008 Katie Piper, an aspiring model and TV presenter, joined the unknown, unheard legion of burns and scars victims in the United Kingdom. A stranger had thrown a cup of industrial strength acid in her face, changing her appearance and her life forever. She penned the above extract, from her book Beautiful, during one of the most despondent periods of her life. Indeed, most young women – let alone a model – would never recover from such a fall. Never leave the house. Sink into a bizarre world of medical routines and shadows.

Yet Katie, after enduring over sixty operations, emerged triumphant- the victim became an author, celebrity, charity-founder and role model to thousands across the country.

She also took part in two documentaries exploring the aftermath of her attack. The first, My Beautiful Face, snatched a BAFTA and drew acclaim from the most cynical of silver screen critics. Earlier this year, My Beautiful Friends was also greeted with a hail of support and rave reviews. Both show the “raw, red and weeping” face of disfigurement, unflinchingly. But for Katie, this is a vital part of the process.

“I wanted the documentary to reveal disfigurement in the most realistic light possible, to society as a whole,” she says. “This issue was not getting enough attention in the past, and when it did, it wasn’t always done effectively, nor was it always tactful. This latest documentary has been a big success because it shows vividly what it’s like to have to live with disfigurement – these people are not outsiders, they are normal people trying to live normal lives.”

Channel 4 has shown a sometimes morbid fascination with unusual anatomies in the past – programmes such as Embarrassing Bodies spring to mind. But for the subjects of Katie’s documentary, embarrassment can quickly change to fear, pessimism or self-loathing.

“Understandably, for the contributors to come forward was a very daunting experience, and to appear on television could also be very difficult. I remember when I was filming my first documentary that it could be an extremely daunting at first. It’s hard for someone who isn’t disfigured to imagine what an enormous challenge it is.”

“But let’s remember,” She adds, “that a lot of the people who appeared on the documentary also show great courage. They have learned to be proud of themselves and the fact that they are different. This is no freak show. In fact, it’s actually the complete opposite. The portrayal of my friends in the documentary wasn’t just realistic, it was human. It avoided sensationalism at all costs, and that is very important if you’re handling this kind of sensitive topic. It certainly hasn’t exploited anyone – instead it’s led to the empowerment of people living with disfigurement. And that was one of the programme’s main goals all along.”

“Unfortunately, burns or scars have not always had a positive representation in mainstream media. With other issues, yes – for example, when watching a film, or soap, if you see a character in a wheelchair you don’t really stare at them, because it’s something which has been normalized in society. You have to normalize scarring or burns to see the real individual behind them, which is what the documentary does.”

The programme undeniably raises each individual above the stereotype of disfigurement. It also leaps across social boundaries, covering University students, ballet dancers, aspiring artists and much else in between.  That said, some of its scenes are likely to be beyond the pale for squeamish viewers. Towards the end of the first episode Chantelle, who suffers from large growths on her face, endured a drastic operation whereby leeches were attached to her nose. Internet forums grew feverish with messages of empathy and solidarity for her within hours of the programme being broadcast.  However, Katie reiterates that vast numbers of people like Chantelle used to suffer in silence.

“After the attack, I would meet people with a variety of conditions – not only burns or scars victims. I was getting enormous amounts of letters from people who had had similar experiences to mine.  But not all of them were willing to take part in this kind of documentary, or be filmed. Understandably, many would prefer to keep their privacy.”

Katie is determined to “empower” those living with disfigurement through her charity The Katie Piper Foundation. She’s seen significant progress already.

“I really notice it on Twitter, which is becoming something of an addiction for me, actually. I get a lot of messages from younger girls, teenagers, and they ask me questions about fashion. I think that’s really encouraging because, in the past, you certainly wouldn’t ask a burn or scars victim for tips or advice about hair and makeup.”

Tabloids have been uncharacteristically generous towards Katie. In the wake following the release of the first documentary, some began to revere her as the antidote to celebrity cultures – drawing direct contrasts against another prominent KP – Katie Price. But Piper is reluctant to take on this kind of role.

“I think it’s really silly for them to say that. You can’t really compare anyone to her, Katie’s unique. Katie and I are completely different, we do different things.  And, obviously, she hasn’t been a victim of an acid attack.

“The thing about this whole celebrity culture is…I don’t know…It’s just so strange, going from being where I was to this kind of celebrity figure. It’s quite disorientating. My life, before all this, a lot of it was spent in hospital. It was very isolated. Going from that to being in the public eye has been a huge, huge transition for me. But it’s all been for a good reason – this charity has been a new lease of life.”

The conversation is veering dangerously close to the attack itself. When she waived her anonymity in 2009, Katie had to relive the darkest episode of her life over and over and over again. Now, the horror of it all was rapidly becoming banal. So we left it there.

“I’m off to an Asian wedding in a bit,” she chirps, “not sure what to wear yet!”

She has to get going. More interviews beckon her, and then a photo shoot, and then an appearance on a chat show and then a column for Reveal magazine. They are a perpetual reminder of what might have been. But no matter – the past is dead and buried.