The boys called me Cyclops or Popeye . . but I didn't care

WHEN she laughs, Kirsty Stewart throws back her head, and allows her tight titian-red curls to slide back from her face. Her giggles are infectious, and they fill the living room of her mum's Slateford home with her unselfconscious joy.

• Kirsty is all smiles with mum Moria

Even when mum Moira suddenly lets slip that, at 26, Kirsty still hasn't had a boyfriend, she simply shakes her head an gives an exasperated "Aw mum!" along with another burst of carefree laughter.

She also manages to laugh when she recalls the nasty comments she endured at school, mostly from teenage boys who couldn't see past her quirky imperfections and the slightly different outline of Kirsty's prosthetic eye, which took countless agonising operations to fit.

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"They called me things like Cyclops and Popeye," she says, still managing to smile. "They even called me One Eyed Willy. Ugh! It was just boys being boys, trying to be smart. I didn't care what they said. I'd just laugh or tell them to shut it and get a life."

Then she lets her long hair slip back to partially hide the white patch covering the empty socket where her left eye should be: a sign, maybe, that, in spite of the laughs and cheerful disposition, the facial disfigurement she's carried with stoicism since birth isn't as insignificant as she says.

Then, when her mum blurts out that, rather than face hostility or stares in the city's nightclubs, Kirsty instead goes clubbing in gay bars - "the people there are less judgmental," explains Kirsty. "They don't care what you look like" - and it begins to sound like her easy-going attitude may just mask a hurt that, like her sunken eye socket, lies carefully concealed.

"There are times when I'm out and I come across a group of young guys or teenagers, I'll just put my head down and try to walk past a bit quicker," she concedes.

"It wasn't that I really had any trouble in the straight clubs up town, and I'm not gay, but I felt I could enjoy myself more around people who kind of understand how it is to be a bit 'different'."

Kirsty has never known anything else. Born with devastating congenital facial defects, her mother held the baby she'd waited ten years for and saw her child's left eye looking back from the middle of her cheek. Kirsty's nose and mouth were badly disfigured, too. To this day, no-one knows exactly why.

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She had her first surgery to try to rectify her disfigurements when she was just three days old, eventually she'd go under the surgeon's knife almost 20 times.

Which is why she's paying particular interest to a new and controversial Channel 4 series which has inspired as much debate about its clumsy title - Beauty and the Beast - as its subject matter.

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In an attempt to highlight the yawning gap between attractive women and men who seek out painful plastic surgery in search of perfection and those, such as Kirsty, who bravely endure it to repair dreadful medical blips or horrendous accidents, it puts the two together on a journey aimed at questioning our concept of 'beauty'.

The aim of the programme may be, in the words of its subtitle, to force viewers to consider "the ugly face of prejudice", but it's yet to convince everyone. Leading Scottish plastic surgeon Ken Stewart - whose patients include those with facial deformities alongside others seeking to enhance their looks - describes producers' decision to use the word 'beast' as "utterly repugnant".

"I realise that TV producers have a duty to entertain and educate," he says. "However, to allude to any fellow humans as "beasts" is utterly repugnant and irresponsible.

"At the risk of generalising, individuals with facial difference, in my experience, have the most fantastic characters. Their humour, humility and bravery in facing the world is humbling."

Certainly his assessment could easily apply to Kirsty. At an age when she might be found planning her wedding day, or, at the very least, looking forward to a Valentine's Day card, she's painfully single.

"Looks are so important," says Moira. "Some people can't see beyond looks to the person.

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"When Kirsty was born, I was just delighted to have a baby. I didn't see her eye or how she looked as being a problem at all.

"I didn't know why it happened and I still don't - just bad luck, really. But given what she's been through, all the operations, it's amazing that she has this 'couldn't care less' attitude."

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The operations, some more major than others, became a way of life as plastic surgeons in Glasgow's Canniesburn hospital attempted to reconstruct her face, twice slicing her from ear to ear and pulling the skin down to create a new canvas and other times taking shards of bone from her skull to make a cheekbone and an eye socket to allow a prosthetic eye to be inserted.

That operation - one of the more painful, as Kirsty recalls, involved inserting long titanium implants into her bones to hold the eye and the skin-like patch it sat on.

For a little while she proudly showed it off, dashing out of the family home the day she arrived back from surgery desperate to meet someone she knew to let them see her.

Today though, the prosthetic has gone, a painful infection in the titanium rods meant more surgery and Kirsty, reluctant to endure that and desperate to ditch the now unfashionable big rimmed glasses she needed to disguise the join between the eye's false skin and her own, means what lies behind her eye pad is a deep, hollow socket.

No wonder, then, that having tolerated so much surgery, Kirsty, like her mum, finds it hard to understand why anyone who didn't drastically need plastic surgery would bother.

"I think it's a waste of money - why spend money on that?" says Kirsty, who now works in human resources at Sainsburys' Murrayfield supermarket.

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"I look at a lot of these people who are desperate for surgery and they all seem to fancy themselves, it's 'I love me', and they want everyone to look at them. It's all about them. Well I think there's better things to spend money on."

Mum Moira nods in agreement, then says: "People really ought to think of what they're doing to themselves. It's surgery and it's not nice to see your child go through it unless they really have to."

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They plan to watch the Channel 4 series together, even though the title leaves an unpleasant taste. "It's not nice, is it?," Moira says. "There are people who already feel they can't go outside because they fear how others will react.

"They don't deserve to be called 'beasts'."

Kirsty nods in agreement. Her cotton eye pad is far from unsightly or particularly unusual, yet even that can attract strangers' stares, she says.

"Even with an eye pad on, it's ridiculous, but people will stop me and ask what's wrong or what have I done. There are still people who stand and stare.

"No-one does a double take at someone with a stookie on their leg or their arm in a sling.

"But we all know why," she shrugs. "It's because looks are everything."

• Beauty and the Beast: The Ugly Face of Prejudice is on Channel 4 on Wednesday at 8pm

'No-one wants to be called a beast'

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FACIAL deformities campaigner Susan Campbell Duncan, 47, from Craigleith, appears on the Channel 4 programme Beauty and the Beast, alongside ex-Bunny girl and self-confessed plastic surgery addict Sarah Burge.

The pair spent four days together, surrounded by wall-to-wall mirrors and cameras with the aim of giving each an insight into the other's life.

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Susan was still a baby when an aggressive, sarcoma tumour on her face nearly killed her. She endured radiotherapy then, aged two, had surgery to remove most of the skin and bone on her left cheek.

The treatment stunted her growth - she is now just 4ft 6ins.

Susan, who works with charity Changing Faces, recently explained why she decided to appear on the programme. "No-one wants to be called a beast, so the show was a challenge - but it was something I needed to do.

"I'm not afraid to be on TV," she added. "But I knew there was a risk that someone who was obsessed with their beauty would tear me to pieces as I was their nemesis.

"I met someone who, on the face of it, was beautiful but wasn't actually confident.

"We'd both had plastic surgery. But, for me, it was never about Botox or nips and tucks, it was about saving my life then having a quality of life - that's something I tried to explain to Sarah."

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