It’s the morning after the BBC documentary Being Gail Porter had its latest national screening on BBC Two but, marooned in her flat in London, Porter isn’t concerning herself with the public reaction. She has bigger lockdown fish to fry. Her Sky box is broken and, after days of waiting, the repairman has just arrived.
Reconvening later – “I’m so, so sorry about that, what a time for my TV to go on the blink!” – a very chipper Gail admits that she’s been missing her crime drama box sets, before launching into a request for recommendations. “I should maybe watch something more upbeat,” she jokes, telling me that she’d recently considered joining Tinder before her daughter warned her that, knowing her luck, she’d probably end up the subject of a crime drama herself.
TV (and dating) woes aside, Gail’s finding lockdown surprisingly bearable, making the most of social media to keep in constant contact with her friends and family, and running errands for neighbours to maintain her connection to her community. “You do have your bad days. For a lot of people who suffer from depression, I think getting out of bed is the hardest part, particularly at the moment when most of us don’t have jobs to go to.
“But I get up anyway, I shower, I do an online exercise class and then I call my friends, and all of that helps. I know some people are quite happy to stay in their PJs but I find that if I get up and get dressed, I can already give myself five out of ten. If I can call some friends, I’m on seven out of ten, and if I can drop some bits off to neighbours in my mask and gloves, I’m at ten out of ten. And I’m using every possible form of social media to keep myself feeling connected.
“It’s easy to wonder why we should bother getting up when there’s nowhere to go, but I think you need to get up for yourself. Don’t do it for anybody else, but get up for yourself and then, even if you don’t make it past the front room, be kind to yourself.”
She also highly recommends waving out of the window, and giggles that she’s prompted many a heart-warming conversation by “calling hello to random passers-by”.
Gail’s laugh is infectious, her dialogue a mile a minute, and it can be hard at times to believe she’s the same woman who, 24 hours ago, was breaking down in front of a nationwide TV audience while recounting the experience of being sectioned under the Mental Health Act.
She must have been scared about allowing the world into such a personal experience? “I think that, having worked with so many charities since my TV work dried up, I’ve found not enough people talk about this stuff,” she explains. “It’s very lonely to feel that you’re the only person dealing with these ups and downs, so I thought I’d bite the bullet. I must admit, I had wobbles during the filming. But I’m really pleased I did it because it’s had such an amazing response from people.”
Keeping up appearances
The documentary is, at times, a harrowing watch, dealing with everything from a famous young Porter’s self-harming and anorexia, through to her mental breakdown and sectioning, and later, after alopecia left her bald and her TV career disappeared, bankruptcy and a period of homelessness. But she insists it is exactly the extremes of that experience which make her ideally placed to talk about it now as “the poster girl for all sorts of problems.
“I think people thought that, because I had this amazing career presenting TV programmes, I was having the best time. But it wasn’t always the best, even when I was putting my smiley face on.”
Born and brought up in Joppa, a seaside suburb of Edinburgh, Porter made her start in Scottish children’s television but quickly rose to UK-wide fame, eventually landing one of the industry’s most sought after jobs hosting Top of The Pops. Known for her effervescent enthusiasm and raucous sense of humour on screen, behind the cameras, she was struggling with anxiety, anorexia, and self-harm – problems that were only exacerbated by her naked form being projected onto the side of the houses of parliament in 1999 as part of a guerrilla marketing stunt for lad’s mag FHM. Astonishingly, she had no idea it was going to happen.
“I wasn’t aware of the stunt until I saw it on BBC News. And then everyone responsible kind of went AWOL and I was just left thinking ‘oh my god, what now?’ I think it was the biggest selling FHM issue ever, but they ignored my calls and everyone was thinking that I had something to do with it. I didn’t. I didn’t even get paid for the shoot. And of course, it was illegal.”
For a while, she says, people would stop her in the street to make jokes about it while she battled to keep her anxiety at bay, though as is typical of her approach, she tries to make light of the ordeal today. “Now that I’m nearly 50, I look back on it and just think ‘wow, it’s amazing what they can do with Photoshop.’ Because I can assure you, my arse didn’t look like that.”
While it says little about Porter’s prodigious TV talent, the incident does serve to highlight the level of fame she had achieved, and lust she had inspired, before, in 2005, she began suffering from alopecia while filming the TV show Dead Famous.
“I lost my hair and then, suddenly, I had no work whatsoever. No-one wanted me, and I think that put me into a bit of depression. The only jobs I got asked to do were to talk about mental health and hair loss, and those jobs didn’t pay because they were for charity. I was happy to do them, but I needed to earn too, and I wasn’t. So, when I lost my house, I just couldn’t afford anywhere else to live.”
Homeless for months, Gail survived by sleeping on the couches of various friends and, for one night, on a park bench. “But then I got the call to do Big Brother and while it wasn’t a huge fee, it was enough that, if I stuck it out, I knew I’d be able to put down a deposit to rent a flat.”
These days, Gail says she’s proud to have kept that roof over her head and, even in lockdown, she’s feeling upbeat. Her primary focus now is the work she does unpaid with organisations including Shelter, Mind and Centre Point, and the talks she gives about her experiences to help draw attention to the fact that mental ill health and homelessness can affect anybody. “It was upsetting to be seen as a charity case because I’m not a stupid girl, but I lost everything. I wasn’t going on big holidays or driving around in a flash car. I have a bike with a basket on that I’d use to cycle to Sainsburys. I didn’t lose it all because I was being daft. I went bankrupt because I went from working on TV to being paid maybe £50 to do an advert voiceover in among free work for charity. Would it have been different if I was still tiny and 25-years-old? Maybe. But I was in my 40s and bald. It was like I was no use to anyone.”
Today, however, Gail is very busy indeed. Aside from planning her 50th birthday next year – “I’m going to have two parties I think, one in London and one in Edinburgh. Everybody will need a party by then” – her charity work makes her very happy, and she is delighted to have a busy work schedule again. A series of documentaries is under discussion, she is a sought-after voiceover artist, and she is writing a book, insisting “I don’t just want to be known as that depressed bald girl, because I’m not depressed in the slightest.
“I still have bad days. We all do. But I’ve got a lovely wee cat, a beautiful daughter, I get on like a house on fire with my ex-husband, I feel very lucky. I never like to say too many great things in case it all goes wrong again. But right now? I can’t complain.”
If you’re struggling with your mental health, or know someone who is, Gail says the most important message to remember is that no-one is ever alone. The following organisations can provide support to anyone struggling with the issues raised in this piece.
Samaritans offers a free, 24-hour helpline on 116 123.
Mind offers an anonymous online chat service for those in need of urgent mental health support.
Shelter can provide private and anonymous support to anyone facing the danger of homelessness. Visit the website to contact your nearest Shelter service, or read our article on the work the charity is currently carrying out here.
Gail also gives talks about mental health and recovery. If you are interested in booking Gail for an event, please contact Speaker Buzz.