Changing Faces is one of the Telegraph’s three chosen charities for our 2018 Christmas appeal There are only a few days left to donate please visit telegraph.ctdonate.org for details about how you can help someone today
‘The other day someone was staring at me and, before I had a chance to think anything negative, my daughter Honey said, “They’re probably looking because you used to be on the telly, Mum!”’ says Gail Porter, who lost her hair due to alopecia, more or less overnight, nearly 15 years ago. ‘I said, “OK, let’s go with that one!” Ever since I became bald, when Honey was about two, she has put a positive spin on things.’
Within a few minutes of talking to Gail it seems highly likely that Honey, now 16, is a chip off the old block. In fact, the phrase ‘taking it in her stride’ sums Gail right up. Now 47, she has survived anorexia, post-natal depression, bipolar disorder and a suicide attempt as well as losing her beloved mother to lung cancer in 2009. More recently, when work became thin on the ground, she was declared bankrupt and found herself homeless. Despite these challenges, she remains optimistic and energetic. And so it is perhaps no surprise that she’s always seen her alopecia as just another thing that life has thrown at her.
Nowadays, she’s so used to being bald that she forgets about it until someone points it out – which happens quite often. People tend to treat her like an old friend, so much so that she has to allow an hour for a 20-minute supermarket shop. ‘I think it’s because I look like the girl next door – but the bald girl next door. Every day someone will come up to me and either say, “My mum lost her hair,” or, “I don’t have any hair and you have made a huge difference for talking about it,”’ says Gail.
Being something of a poster girl for looking different makes Gail the perfect ambassador for Changing Faces, one of the charities supported by the Telegraph’s Christmas appeal. It provides support, advice and counselling for anyone who has a mark, scar or condition that makes them look different.
‘When Changing Faces contacted me, I knew immediately I wanted to get involved,’ Gail says. ‘I look different and I have embraced that. And if I can help other people feel more confident, then great – because the sad truth is that some people are on the receiving end of abuse just for looking different.’
And that includes her. Recently, a man leaned out of his van to shout ‘baldy!’ as he drove past. ‘The funny thing was that he was driving up towards a red traffic light so I walked up to his van, knocked on his window and said, “Do you want to say that to my face?” The colour drained from his face. He didn’t even acknowledge me and I could see him willing the light to go green. It was really easy for him to shout at me in front of his mates but he didn’t even have the courage to look me in the eye.’
She tells it almost as a joke but moments like that have a huge impact. ‘It knocked my confidence for about a week and although I put on a brave face, when Honey went to bed, I cried all night. But the next day, I pulled myself together and reminded myself that it’s not the end of the world. I don’t like feeling sorry for myself. Luckily, there are so many people who are wonderful compared to just a few who aren’t nice.’
Gail, who grew up in Edinburgh, became a household name when her nude image was projected on to the Houses of Parliament in 1999. At the height of her fame as a presenter she hosted some of the most popular shows on television, including Top of the Pops, The Big Breakfast and Live & Kicking. She married Honey’s father, musician Dan Hipgrave, in 2001 and Honey – who Gail refers to as her ‘miracle child’ – was born a year later. ‘I was told I couldn’t have children so when I got pregnant we went through seven or eight tests because I couldn’t believe it!’
Just before Gail and Dan separated, in 2004, Gail lost her hair when she was away working in America. It was a huge shock. ‘I did briefly think, “You’ve got to be having a laugh: I’ve got depression, now my hair’s gone.” But I thought either I get on with it or it will ruin my life.’
She did have one fear, though, and that was Honey’s reaction. She agonised over whether or not to get a wig but when she got home to the UK, Honey barely noticed. Gail says, ‘I phoned Dan and said, “I’ve got no hair, it’s all fallen out. Please prepare Honey because I wouldn’t know what to do if she rejects me when I come home.” And he obviously did a great job because Honey took one look at me and just said, “Rock and roll”. She was completely chilled out about it. It didn’t bother her in the slightest.’
That set the tone for the next 15 years, during which Gail’s alopecia has barely been a topic for discussion. ‘She immediately took it on board, and to this day has never really asked me any questions – it is just a fact of our lives. When I saw Honey’s reaction to me I thought, “If you can deal with it, then I can.”’
But not everyone is as accepting of hair loss. When her mother lost hers due to chemotherapy, Gail says that she found it extremely challenging to deal with.
‘Mum got used to the fact that she had terminal cancer but she was very upset about her hair. A lot of emphasis is put on hair – especially for women – and she was mortified by the way she looked when it fell out, which made me want to be strong for her. I’d say, “Mum take that wig off and embrace it!” But I only have one picture of her and me bald together,’ says Gail.
‘When your hair falls out, it affects your whole identity. So I completely understand why some people want to wear a wig or a headscarf and whatever makes someone feel comfortable is great.’
Although she has never worn one herself, lots of people write to ask her advice about wigs, which is what motivated her to try wearing one recently, for the first time. ‘I decided to give it a bash to see if I could recommend them,’ she says, but the wig only lasted a day.
‘Honey said, “It’s nice and you look lovely.” But when I took it off she said, “I much prefer you without it.”’
At the time Gail, who has been single for a few years, joked that she might try the wig look to go on dates. When I bring up the subject of dating, though, she laughs at the very idea.
‘I’m not going to go on a date!’ she scoffs. ‘I’m too old for dating and so shattered at the end of the day that I couldn’t think of anything worse than having a boyfriend. I’ve got Netflix instead!’
Now that Honey is a teenager growing up in a world where image and social media reign, how does Gail talk to Honey about her appearance? ‘She is far more focused on GCSEs and university than on her appearance – which is great,’ says Gail.
‘I mean, yes, she likes getting her hair done and make-up but she has a good balance. She isn’t on social media other than a private Instagram account for friends, but she is really mature and grown-up and I’m incredibly proud of her.’
In fact, she credits Honey for helping her to face all the adversity that life has thrown at her. ‘I’ve been homeless, I’ve lost my hair, I’ve lost my mum. But I’m a very lucky person. I’ve got back on my feet again and I have a healthy daughter. Honey is my everything and there is no way I could have survived this whole journey without her. And, when you have that, who cares about the other stuff – like hair?’