Katie Piper reveals how writing has helped her deal with some of her most challenging moments
Words: Zoe Beaty
Photography: Squiz Hamilton
Set build: Rebel Rebel Flowers
There has never been a shortage of words to describe Katie Piper. Bold, brave, heroic, strong, confident and extraordinary are all up there. As is scarred. And beautiful. Over the years she’s been described by many people, in many different ways: a “courageous model”, an “inspirational TV presenter”. For the best part of a decade, despite the hundreds of column inches on the horrific acid attack that almost killed her and awe-struck reports on how she somehow found the strength to keep going, it’s actually been her own words – poetry, prose, letters and affirmations – that Katie has used to empower and push herself forward every single day. At Stylist Live in October, she read her first poem, My Old Face, to a visibly moved audience. And we were inspired to understand more about how a pen, paper and prose had given her additional strength to deal with the attack and its life-long consequences.
Katie’s not comparing herself to Sylvia Plath. She’s not billing herself as the next Margaret Atwood or Claudia Rankine. But she does know all too well the cathartic nature of writing, how even in the darkest of times, words can lift the way we feel. Over the past few years, she’s funnelled her feelings into poetry, essays and letters, as well as mantras that she lives by.
“I started writing when I was in a bad place,” says Katie of the aftermath of the 2008 acid attack when she was 24, which left her blind in one eye and effectively removed the skin on her face, leading her to have a full face skin graft – the first of its kind in the world.
“I was writing for myself, not to be published. I was writing diaries, even letters, to myself or to anyone I was angry at. Sometimes they weren’t to a person, they were just to the universe – a bit like penning daydreams or isolated thoughts. I’d write rhetorical questions about the situation I was in and why I was in it – why had it happened to me?”
It was words, she says – writing them, reading them, using them to remind her that there was a reason to keep living – which enabled her to take on the huge task of overhauling her life. For Katie, it proved to be an invaluable therapy.
“Writing has changed things for me,” she admits. “Whenever I used to see my story written by a journalist, it always read, ‘I got attacked, I’m really brave and inspirational, I overcame it’. The triumph over tragedy arc. That’s not actually true. I found it really hard and I fell down so many times. Writing my first book, Beautiful, was the time that I was able to write the truth of it – that I was despairing at times, that I got depressed and felt like I couldn’t cope. Writing became about being honest.”
As Hemingway famously advised, aspiring writers should begin with “one true sentence”. “I write a few times per week, but as much as I can,” says Katie. “If I’m thinking or feeling something, I have to record it somewhere. If I don’t, I worry the thought will be lost and I’ll never get it back again. I never self-edit and I don’t write in one place or in a special book. In fact, now I’m so busy I usually have to write on my phone, on the go.”
On meeting Katie, it’s difficult to believe she’s the same person we first saw on screen six years ago, during the documentary she filmed with Channel 4, Katie: My Beautiful Face. Back then, she was afraid to step outside of the house, lacking confidence and – understandably – often tearful. Today, at our shoot, Katie is self-assured, putting everyone else at ease. There’s barely a moment she’s not smiling, even though she is in recovery from another skin graft (she’s had over 250 in total) and still has tubes sewn into her nose to prevent the scar tissue from closing her nostrils.
She begins to read My Old Face to me and goes on to explain the thought process and emotion behind it. “I wrote this four years ago,” she explains. “Because I used to wonder what I would have done if I’d have known I was about to be attacked,” she explains. “Now I’ve forgotten what my face looked and felt like: where my freckles were, the position of my mouth and nose. I used to think – had I known that was my last day or week or month with my old face, would I have looked in the mirror at every angle, taken photos or tried harder to take mental snapshots? It’s not a perfect poem but, just as with everything I write, I wanted it to be honest.
Before I was attacked, I would write about the future – just goals, lists and plans. I’d scribble without depth or substance about the things I wanted to do with my life, whether short or long-term, and how I thought my future would be: a successful career in TV and modelling, marriage, a family. I didn’t reflect so much as I did after the attack and still do now.”
Katie has found many reasons to be happy now – over lunch she shows us Instagram pictures of her wedding last November to her new husband, Richard, and while having her make-up done she regales us with anecdotes about her daughter Belle, who’s nearly two, and her sister Suzy, with whom she’s very close. She’s excited about her busy year ahead. She’s filmed a new series of her Channel 4 show, Bodyshockers, and a brand new show, Should Have Seen A Doctor, Should Have Seen A Dentist. Later, during our chat, her positivity doesn’t waver even when recounting her blackest moments. It’s hard not to be impressed by her relentless optimism.
“I call it ‘survivor’s speak’,” she tells me. “I live by positive quotes and affirmations. Things like, ‘You may be climbing a mountain right now but look at the view when you get to the top’. It might be an obvious quote, but it reminds you that whatever struggle you’re going through, there has to be an end to it. I’ve had to learn to think that way. Now, I refuse to believe there’s not a purpose to any struggle.”
But to say that her words have always been positive would be a grave understatement. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Katie was left disorientated and unable to speak from her hospital bed. She wrote down her questions and thoughts to communicate with her distraught parents. “Am I dead?” one note asked. Another read, harrowingly, “Kill me.”
“In the months after the attack, I wrote a lot of dark things,” she says quietly. “Letters, angry thoughts. I kept them private. Ironically, it wasn’t the act of writing those things but later destroying them that I found most useful. When I read them back months or sometimes years later, I’ve felt ashamed of how I felt – of the words I put on the page.
“At the time I needed to offload my bad thoughts and feelings. But reading something back and not recognising yourself is hard. It’s like being filmed during an argument, when you say things you don’t necessarily mean that are hurtful or unkind, and then watching it back. I ripped up the thoughts I didn’t want to associate with myself any more – things that I wouldn’t want anyone else to read.”
What are the most difficult words she has put to paper? She replies without missing a beat: “My witness statement.”
In 2009, Katie’s attackers – Daniel Lynch, a man she had briefly been dating, and Stefan Sylvestre, who Lynch hired to carry out the attack – were each handed life sentences with the possibility of parole, with Lynch ordered to serve a minimum of 16 years. Sylvestre applied for parole last year but his application was denied. “After the attack, I started reading a lot – usually stories of survival from real people like Tulsi Vagjiani, who was burned in a plane crash,” says Katie. “I read anything which took away the feeling of isolation and used words, anywhere I could, to lift me.
“I used to write quotes or sayings on Post-it notes and put them around the house to remind me to feel better. I’d put them everywhere: on my bedside table for when I woke up, on the bathroom mirror, the cereal box, even the toilet lid. When I wrote my book of quotes – Start Your Day With Katie, one for every day of the year to help others stay positive – I went into my publisher with a shoe box full of all the Post-its I’d kept which I related to personally at the time. Now, the ones that resonate with me most are in the book of dates which shaped my life – my daughter’s birthday, my birthday, the day I was attacked and the day my attackers were finally dealt justice.”
I ask her if there are any words she hates being used to described her? “I don’t hate any words,” she says. “But sometimes I think words like ‘courageous’ and ‘inspirational’ are used too much in a gushy way. They lose meaning. It’s a funny label to call someone ‘brave’ because a lot of the time ‘brave’ isn’t a choice – it’s often the last option. I didn’t set out to be courageous, I just decided that I did not want to allow someone else to play god with my life. Why should they? I decided I needed to start again.”
Katie also uses words and aspirational quotes to help other burns survivors she works with via her charity, The Katie Piper Foundation, to stay positive, and says it has a great effect on their outlook. “Words are powerful,” she says, “they change how we feel. When people are unkind with words, when they label us, it can immediately change how you feel about yourself that day.
“We need to uplift each other and reject those labels, no matter what our story is. Positive words – writing and reading them – can make us feel more ambitious and able. They can make us happier.
“Writing, if not for anyone else to read, can help you gain a sense of having processed an emotion. It can release you from self-pity and help you move forward. Who doesn’t need that?”
As we conclude our chat, I realise there’s one word we keep coming back to which, more often than others, is fervently associated with Katie: beautiful. It’s how she admits she saw herself prior to the attack. It’s what the vitriolic Twitter users (who still troll her now) said had been permanently taken away from her that day. It was in the name of the 2009 Channel 4 documentary that made her a household name and catapulted her career, and is in the name of her first two books. Now, it’s also the name of her adored daughter, Belle.
“I chose the name carefully before I even met her,” Katie says. “It was sentimental – the French word for ‘beautiful’. I lived in France for a lot of my recovery and it became a special place for me. And I knew that Belle would bring beauty into my life and into my parents’ lives and replace bad images and bad memories of what happened to me with good ones.
“Even though Belle wasn’t here when I wrote it, my poem makes me think of her now, too. It reminds me of the sadness I feel that other people will never see the genetic resemblance between me and Belle – but I can see myself in her. And perhaps through her I’ll see something I thought I would never witness: how my old face would have grown with me and aged.”
My Old Face
by Katie Piper
“I miss you
I think about you every day
The fun we used to have, those memories I have of you,
I will always treasure.
I know, I know you are gone forever – but never forgotten
We were crazy together and I am glad, we really made the most of it.
I find it hard to think about the fact you don’t exist in this world any more.
Sometimes I wonder if we will be reunited in heaven?
I took care of you, all those expensive creams, if I close my eyes I can picture and feel all the contours as I would rub the face cream on, the flat wide nose, the perfect cupid’s bow. I spent so much time perfecting those unruly brows!
I’m sorry I sometimes put you through the sunbed that horrifies me now!
You’d be shocked, I’ve really changed. I’m kind to this face and I love it, but nothing will replace you. Sometimes I’m too hard on this face. If I had one wish I would see you again, for one day, wear you again, I would take you to the supermarket and walk you around, smiling, greeting everyone.
I’m sorry I let you down and let him take you away. I will never destroy your pictures. I’m scared as you fade in my mind and I accept this face more. But I’m sorry it’s the way it must be until we meet again.”
Stylist’s #PostAPoem week
Poetry and expressive writing is loaded with power. It can lift our moods, improve our mental health and challenge and inspire us in equal measure. So this week we’re celebrating poetry on social media and we want to hear from you. Using the hashtag #PostAPoem, Tweet, Facebook or Instagram us a passage from your favourite poem or, if you’re a budding poet, one of your own.
Flowers and set build: Rebel Rebel Flowers (rebelrebel.co.uk)
Fashion: Holly Welch
Hair: Kris Donnelly using Oribe and Kevin Murphy
Make-up: Toby Salvietto using High Definition Make-up
Nails: Sophia Stylianou at SixtyOne Productions using MAC Fashion
Assistant: Rachel Story