Making a documentary for BBC Scotland meant a journey into the past
Bonkers!’, ‘mental!’, ‘nuts’, TV and radio presenter Gail Porter litters her conversation with non-PC terms, especially when discussing herself and her emotional rollercoaster of a life and mental health, the subject of a documentary she’s made for BBC, screened this week. A revealing revisit of her past, it’s her bid to understand her rise to fame and fall into depression, anorexia, self-harming and homelessness, and hopefully help others along the way.
“But I’m using words in a fun way,” stresses the 48-year-old, laughing. “Everybody’s so serious! Someone asked me the other day about hair and make-up and I said are you serious, HAIR and make-up? They were so sorry, but I was only kidding, it was fine.”
Her perfectly made up eyes with the long fake lashes crinkle up at the corners as she laughs. Relaxed in jeans, an ET sweatshirt and trainers, she looks tanned and fit, pleased with the way the programme has turned out.
“I’m in a great place, and it’s all good, but I must admit I did cry when I watched the programme last night. Because there was a lot of stuff there and it went back in and covered things maybe I thought were OK that were not OK.”
At the end of the ‘90s Portobello-raised Porter was one of the country’s top TV presenters, having started in children’s TV then moving to mainstream and fronting Live & Kicking and Top of the Pops. With her long blonde hair and model figure, she became a lads’ mag pin up, her million selling naked cover shoot edition of FHM magazine ending up projected onto the Houses of Parliament. There was the rock star husband, Dan Hipgrave of Toploader, who she married in Edinburgh in 2001 and the birth of her longed-for daughter Honey in 2002. Porter was riding high.
Then it all went wrong and very publicly unravelled. Postnatal depression affected her marriage, which ended after three years, she developed alopecia in 2005 and an ex-boyfriend, fearing she would harm herself, had her sectioned in 2007. By 2014, financial problems saw her sleeping rough, and in 2017 she was declared bankrupt. Throughout it all, Porter has spoken publicly about her struggles.
Today she lives in a flat in London, with Honey, who lives with her dad most of the time, a frequent visitor. She’s a mental health campaigner, working alongside mental health charity Mind, Samaritans and Bipolar Scotland and a frequent TV celebrity guest and panellist, from Loose Women to The Wright Stuff. She’s worked on documentaries for Channel 4, Sky 1, and the BBC on inter-racial adoption, prostitution and nursing. She does voice work on audio books and commercials, and presents a show on WRS (Women’s Radio Station), having hosted shows for stations including Virgin, XFM, talkRADIO and Heart in the past.
She has hosted corporate events at Wembley Stadium and Old Trafford as well as various awards ceremonies including the Scottish BAFTAS and Anxiety Scotland at the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow last year. Ambassador for SSPCA and Shelter Scotland, she hosted last year’s women’s cycling tour of Scotland. She also recently visited leading addiction treatment provider The Cabin in Chiang Mai, Thailand to look at their new women’s programme Rise, a gender responsive trauma programme for those dealing with substance abuse, addiction, and mental health issues including anxiety and depression.
Currently writing her second autobiography – the first, Laid Bare, was published in 2007 and covered her anorexia, bipolar disorder, divorce and breakdown while the second explores losing her mum to cancer, being sectioned, rehabs and recovery – she has taken time out to make Being Gail Porter.
“When I first lost my hair I did a documentary about alopecia, and this time the BBC asked me to do something about mental health. I said absolutely, if it can help someone else. I knew it was going to be tough, but I didn’t know how tough,” she says.
Well there’s a lot of difficult stuff in there: anorexia, bulimia, self-harm, bipolar disorder, postnatal depression, alopecia, being sectioned…
Porter interrupts this list with an explosion of laughter...
“I’m sorry, just when you say it all at once. I’m like a go-to encyclopedia of mental health,” she says, keen to stress there are as many highs as lows.
“I’m like everyone else really. Just because you’re on the telly doesn’t mean your life is different. But if you’re in the public eye, everyone hears about your bad times. That’s why I’m very open about talking about it. I’m on Twitter 24/7, talking to the entire world,” she says.
Porter reasons that if she can help others, it’s worth baring her soul and using the job she loves to reach them.
“When things started to go wrong I thought I have a really great platform to say, ‘do you know what? It could happen to anybody’, to share that. When my hair fell out my mum was like ‘oh my god, you’ve got to be kidding me, not another thing! Wear a wig, wear a hat.’ But I said ‘there might be people out there who have alopecia or are going through chemotherapy and are embarrassed, so I want to be that person that goes, ‘yeah, I’ve got it, let’s just talk about it.’ I decided to be that open about everything. Why not?”
Given that she’s lived in the public eye for so long, Porter knows a lot of her struggles are public knowledge anyway, and for this reason she’s very open with her daughter Honey, now 17.
“I talk to her about everything. She’s seen her mum’s naked bottom on the Houses of Parliament, so...
How does Porter feel about that 1999 experience now?
“It was the biggest selling FMH ever and I didn’t get a penny, didn’t even get a copy,” she says, faux miffed.
“It was just meant to be a little picture in the magazine. I didn’t know they were going to do that with it. No one asked me, I didn’t give permission. I first saw it on the news, the same as everybody else. Trusting everyone, that’s one of my big downfalls,” she says.
“So everything I do now, Honey takes with a pinch of salt. She’s very grounded. I would never hold anything back from her. Kids nowadays just google things anyway, so I’d rather be completely out there and honest.”
With nothing to hide, Porter is a magnet for those who feel the need to unburden and talk about themselves or someone they know, or just say hello and give her a hug.
“It’s great, I love it. The only thing is when I go to the supermarket I have to go an hour earlier than I’d planned because everyone wants a wee chat. Everyone has something, or someone… which is brilliant. So I allow an extra hour. I think it’s a good thing. I love a hug. It’s just fitting them all in.”
Her Glasgow trip to publicise the show has seen her particularly busy in terms of chatting and hugging. She caught up with Mandy, who she meets in the documentary to discuss borderline personality disorder and took in the Christmas market and ‘had a bit of a dance’. She also bonded with a homeless man after sitting down next to him in the street while they talked.
“I had to sit down and talk to him. Then I ended up getting upset along with him. It’s just my nature,” she says.
Then there was the elderly man in the coffee shop in Sauchiehall Street who struck up conversation.
“I said ‘I’m Gail’ and he said ‘I never remember names’. So I said ‘like the wind’ and he said ‘oh, I’ll remember that because it obviously blew your hair away.’ When I was leaving he was telling everyone, ‘there’s Gail with no hair, because of the wind’. At least he remembered me,” she says, erupting in gales of laughter.
Another woman, emboldened by seeing Gail, who had forgotten to bring a hat and was walking along the street bare-headed, removed her wig for the first time.
“I’d just got off the train from London and met her and her friends, and she had a massive wig on. She wanted to hug me and take a photo. Her friends were like ‘dinnae take your wig off!’, but she did and was crying and saying I’ve never done this before and took a photo. Her friends were saying ‘put the wig on, you’re embarrassing yourself!’ I said ‘she’s fine, it’s OK.’ I felt for her.”
She wasn’t always this empathetic and amenable she tells me. Back when she was a teenager, she worked in hardware in B&Q when she was still at school.
“I had a red dress that said ‘Gail, happy to help’, which I wasn’t. They used to do this thing ‘ding dong, could someone from hardware please go to checkout number one’ and I’d think I’m not going. ‘Ding dong, could someone from hardware PLEASE go to checkout number one?’, ‘ding dong, GAIL PORTER we know you’re there, could you please go to checkout number one!’ It was like Kevin and Perry.”
In Being Gail Porter she revisits her past, including the nightmare of being sectioned, something she talks about calmly now, along with her other highs and lows.
“I’m just used to it now. Obviously when my hair fell out that was a shock. When I got sectioned that was a shock. It was like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t allowed out. No doctors came near, it was just a whole bunch of us nutters and security. Then eventually I was called into a room with about 15 doctors and they said ‘we’re sorry, you shouldn’t be in here, it’s a mistake, you can go.’
In a bid to get to the root of why she feels extremes of happiness and sadness, she speaks to experts and people with mental health issues in the programme. After being given conflicting diagnoses, she’s come to the conclusion there isn’t a single reason.
“I think it’s just my brain. I’m just a very emotional person and I take EVERYTHING personally. I don’t know where it’s come from because my brother is solid and stoic.
“I’ve had so many labels I don’t really care what anyone else thinks. I know when I’m good and I know when I’m bad and I feel that sometimes they need to give you a label so they feel they’ve done their job. I saw six or seven doctors for the documentary and every single one was different: you’re depressed, no you’re not, you’ve got bipolar one, you’ve got bipolar two, no you haven’t, you have borderline personality disorder, no you don’t. By the end of it I didn’t know what I’ve got.
“I think I’m just really sensitive. Like Honey says, ‘even when you watch Gogglebox you manage to cry! What’s wrong with you?’”
Whatever the reasons for her issues, whatever the labels she’s given, Porter is happy to roll with the emotions as they come, not taking any medication at the moment.
“I do martial arts, karate and kickboxing, dancing, running, cycling, anything where I’m doing something physical. I don’t want to take medication. I have done, I think I took everything at some point but not now. But I totally understand that a lot of people do. It’s a personal choice.”
Porter’s mum died of lung cancer ten years ago and according to her daughter didn’t know too much about her issues, but her dad, a former building contractor, made the journey from his home in Spain to meet up and discuss the causes of her anxiety and bouts of sadness.
“He went, ‘it’s because you went to London’. London? It’s my fault because I went to London. That’s it, that’ll do it,” she says and laughs.
“That’s my dad for you,” she says, happy for him to have his view. “This has been going on for a very long time and I know when to just shut up.”
She might know when to shut up, but she’ll never stop talking, and as we wind up, Porter wants to say something that she hopes will help anyone who needs it.
“Talk to people, just talk to people. Never be embarrassed. I was embarrassed for a long time about a lot of things. When you actually just open up and go ‘I’ve got no money, I’m homeless, my hair’s fallen out, I’m feeling a bit crazy’, people talk back and you realise you’re not on your own. That’s what I hope will happen with this documentary. That someone will watch it and go, ‘it can happen to anyone’. And it can, because it happened to me.”
Being Gail Porter is on BBC Scotland on Tuesday at 10pm
For a trailer of Being Gail Porter, click here https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07zxb9m