TV presenter Gail Porter, 51, has been through everything from alopecia and mental health lows, to bankruptcy and homelessness. She spoke exclusively to Yahoo Life UK about how despite hitting rock bottom, she managed to rebuild her life and now finds fulfilment in helping others facing similar issues.
She is proudly fronting a new campaign for the Samaritans, a mission close to her heart as the helpline was there for her in her own hour of need many years ago.
The charity’s Small Talk, Saves Lives campaign – delivered in partnership with Network Rail, the British Transport Police and the wider rail industry – has been launched to empower the public to trust their instincts and start a conversation if they think someone needs help.
Its aptly named No Filter Cafe in Manchester's Piccadilly Station (opened for just today) asks rail users to simply have a quick chat with staff or customers in lieu of 'payment' for their coffee, in a bid to raise awareness of the power of conversation.
It hopes to improve current stats that only 50% of UK adults would feel confident approaching someone in need that they didn’t know. Many worry it wouldn’t be welcomed (44%) and they’d make things worse (29%), or just don’t know what to say (a quarter).
When we met Gail – complete with pet cat Ziggy Stardust crawling over her lap – we discovered someone resilient yet humble, with a healthy dose of dry wit. Here, she shares her fascinating life story, from sleeping on a park bench to winning a Bafta for her TV documentary.
You've experienced some difficult times over the years. How did you end up becoming homeless?
"It was just one thing after another. I'd lost my hair [around 2004/2005] and work was drying up. And I'd gone through a big divorce and money was going out, and nothing was coming in. Then you start to panic, and I was applying for jobs in bookshops and libraries and they’re going, 'Ah, you’re Gail Porter, you’ll be fine.' And I’m going, ‘No, you don’t understand, I've got no income coming in.’
"And then eventually, I just couldn’t afford the rent. So I packed up everything. I had a lovely friend who took in all my belongings in one of her rooms, bless her. I was staying in her spare room as much as she could have me because she had children. And then other friends let me stay in their flats or homes. But then it started getting a little bit embarrassing, because they had children and they were married.
"So I stayed outdoors a few times… because I didn't speak to anyone, which I should have done. But also I couldn't afford to pay my phone bill so I didn't have a phone, it was all a bit rubbish. Then I’d set up [to sleep] wherever, Hampstead Heath, or on the street."
Read more: How to help a homeless person this winter
What eventually saved you from homelessness?
"Luckily, one day, my lovely friend who had put me up said, 'Oh Big Brother want you to do the show'. I couldn't think of anything worse, but it meant I could put a deposit down on a flat, so I did it [Gail entered the Celebrity Big Brother house in August 2015].
"I was very fortunate to be in that situation. And then I got home after Big Brother and had nothing in my flat, but I'm still in the same one. And honestly, I love it so much. Just because it reminds me of being so happy having a roof over my head, and that’s it. Everyday I get up and I just think I’m so fortunate."
Tell me about the time back in 2011 when you ended up in hospital...
"I got sectioned. I was just having a really bad time with everything and was back [sleeping rough] in Hampstead again.
"I was having a proper breakdown, thinking I can't cope… I found out my phone was being hacked and there were people watching me decline and putting it in the papers. And I was thinking, ‘Why are you doing this?’
"So I phoned my ex and I was just like, ‘I don't know what to do. I'm really not thinking straight.’ And so instead of phoning for medical help or something, he phoned the police.
"And a police officer turned up. I'm only five foot one. And he turned up and they said, 'Right, are you okay?' And I was like 'not really'. And so four of them took me to hospital.
"Then I sat in a room for about 12 hours. Eventually a doctor came to see me who I’d never met before with an assistant who I’d never met before. I was kicking off by this time, my little Scottishness was getting the best of me. Then they said, ‘Well, we need signatures because we're going to section you.’
"Then they put me into a psychiatric unit. I was supposed to be there for 28 days... but then after 15 days a doctor turned up, and they said, 'Really sorry, you shouldn't have been here, you can go now.'
"It wasn't helpful. I try to make light of it [including in past stand-up shows] but it wasn't funny. I was traumatised for ages afterwards. But now I just think, ‘Okay, well, it's happened and there's nothing I can do about it now.'"
How does your lowest point compare to how far you've come?
"If I’m ever at Hampstead Heath and I look at that bench, I think, 'Oh my gosh. But then we did the documentary, Being Gail Porter , and we won a Bafta. I just think, ‘How did that even happen?’ The only thing I’ve ever really won in my life is a weetabix pencil case from ASDA when I was about 10!
"We went from nothing to suddenly sharing a story and having some people appreciate it. I always say to my friends, ‘This isn’t my Bafta, this is obviously everyone that's worked on the show's Bafta.' But it’s also for everybody that's gone through a problem."
At the time of your BBC documentary Being Gail Porter, you said, ‘It’s only now I feel able to face up to what I’ve been through’, can you tell me more about why that was?
"I took everything as it was coming, my hair falling out, bankruptcy, not getting any work, mum passing away, eventually being homeless. So all these little ups and downs were tricky at the time because you're not entirely sure how to deal with it. But I was always thinking, 'I can get through this. I don't know how though.'
"But now the older I've got and because I managed to get a roof over my head and I'm doing work that I love and I can [work with] charities that I completely 100% believe in, I’m just much more calm and not as stressed as I used to be, so it just feels like it can't get any worse [laughs].
"[I was once] in Hampstead Heath thinking, ‘I've got one bin bag full of some clothes, and that's it’. You've got to think, 'Right, I'm going to be positive from now on, because worse things have happened to other people.'"
How does what you've been through make you want to help others?
"I’ve gone through everything from being happy to being homeless, to losing my hair, and losing my parents. Granted, we all go through stuff, but I just feel that I can talk to people about so many different things. I don't feel sorry for myself, but I just think if I've gone through it, I'll share it, because somebody you know is going to have gone through one of the things too."
How does your bond with your daughter help you?
"My daughter [Honey, 20] is just the best human being in the world. She's put up with a lot with me because she was little when I was sectioned and she's dealt with everything. But she's so clever, so intelligent, and we do talk about everything.
"She might be a little bit embarrassed about me, I'm sure, but you know that’s what daughters do. She's my absolute rock, and I love her more than anything."
How are you now?
"I’m great. I go to my spin classes and I go running. I'm in a really good space. And I know now that the best thing for me to do is talk to people, which is what we're saying with the Samaritans and the No Filter Cafe. Come along, get a coffee, talk to us and just get the ball rolling. Everyone talk to each other. It’s not that hard."
Does a conversation have the potential to save a life?
"100% – I know of people, my friends, and things got really bad. And I'm glad they're still here. And it was all down to talking. We got there. So, yeah, it's so important.
"Even if you're walking up the street, and you see someone looking smiley, or something, I might say, 'You look lovely today', and walk past, and they probably go, ‘Is that that bald Scottish [lady]… who’s she talking to?’ But I don't care. I've said something nice."
Has a stranger ever approached you in your time of need?
"I was on the tube and a bit tearful a few years back, and this man came up to me and gave me a packet of handkerchiefs. He just patted my hand and then he went and sat down, and that made a massive difference. I had just been thinking, 'I can't talk to anybody, I don't know what to do.' And then, after I got those tissues, I phoned my friend and thought, ‘I can talk to someone, I know I can do this.'"
What's your advice for those who aren't sure whether to approach someone in need?
"I've done it many times if I’ve seen someone who looks distressed, after thinking, ‘Oh, should I, should I not?’ I always say, just do it. Because the worst thing that can happen is they say, 'We don't want to talk to you.'
"But there might be people who will be so thankful that you've said something, and opened up to them. It takes two seconds. All you have to say is, ‘Are you okay, do you want to talk about anything?’ If someone says they’re 'fine', just double-check – ‘fine’ is a really easy word to say."
If you need support you can call 116 123 to speak to a Samaritan any time, day or night, or see other ways to get in touch.