Big Brother winner Josie Gibson on her battle with bullies and weight issues
One unflattering holiday snapshot was all it took. Pictured on a beach, 16 stone, a size 20 and 'daring' to wear a bikini, Josie Gibson was suddenly hounded by a barrage of vicious taunts, compared to a whale and told she was so 'disgusting she deserved to die'.
Perhaps inevitably, the Big Brother star was so traumatised, she contemplated jumping out of a window to end it all.
But three years on, the story has thankfully taken a very different turn. Now, brimming with confidence, the slim, leggy blonde has a new book, The Josie Gibson Diet, and two fitness DVDs to her name.
"That photo and the online bullying which followed actually turned out to be the boot up the backside I needed," Gibson insists, revealing her resulting remarkable transformation that saw her lose five stone to get to a size 10.
It turns out that she's no stranger to adversity, either. The 29-year-old grew up in Bristol as one of eight children "on a council estate, living on the breadline" and had to cope with tragedy at an early age – she was 10 when her father died from a stabbing during a family feud.
"There was a lot to deal with when I was a kid and I grew up eating a very unhealthy diet – fry-ups, pizzas, ice cream – and just eating more and more to comfort myself whenever I felt bad about life. I was overweight from the age of six and I now realise food for me was an emotional crutch."
Over the years she unsuccessfully tried multiple diets – everything from slimming pills to protein shakes.
"Outwardly, though, I'd pretend that being a heavy, big girl – I'm 5ft 11ins – meant I had a big personality to match. I hid my pain and tears with humour, making jokes about myself before others could," she says.
"But inside, I was deeply unhappy, convinced I would be obese for life and that no one could ever love me or want me."
Gibson would soon discover people did love and want her – in 2010, when she entered Channel Four's Big Brother.
She was working as a financial sales representative beforehand, and was only at the audition for the show to support a friend, but she was chosen as a contestant and soon emerged as a landslide winner, viewers responding to her irrepressibly chirpy, gutsy outlook on life.
Sadly, there was, for her, an unwelcome downside, too – life in the goldfish bowl of celebrity.
"Big Brother changed my life and I will always be grateful to it. I was stunned to win and think it was the best thing I ever did. But you do end up in this celebrity world and believe me, at times, it can feel like you've been chucked into a fish tank full of sharks," she says.
"I was so innocent and naive in the beginning and because I like everyone, I thought they'd like me. But I discovered people think you're fair game when they see you as 'famous' and they can say what they want about you – I don't honestly think they regard you as a person with feelings who can be hurt like anyone else." She discovered this more than ever following the publication of 'that' photo of her on holiday in 2011. "They didn't even use a picture of my face. One was just a photo of my fat behind with a caption, 'Which celebrity is this?'" she says ruefully.
"I know I looked a state – if you're a size 20 it's never advisable to wear a two-piece, let alone run in one – but the backlash was vicious and vitriolic.
"The depression and self-loathing that set in left me under the darkest cloud I've ever known. I was at rock bottom.
"I couldn't believe how nasty people could be. I drove myself mad trying to answer back to the hundreds of faceless, nameless and gutless cowards who'd spend hours abusing me from the safety of their computer screens. It took every ounce of my strength to get through it."
Gibson credits Luke Sanwo, her plumber fiance, for giving her that strength.
"I came very close one day to ending it all. But thank God, that night Luke, who loves me for what I am and doesn't care what size I am, came back from work and gave me a kiss.
"It literally reminded me of everything I had to live for, and how everyone who loved me would be heartbroken to know I'd let the bullies get the better of me.
"And the truth is, that photo even shocked me. I'd known all my life I had to do something about my weight, but those pictures brought it home – I hadn't actually realised I'd got that fat."
So, she embarked on six months of healthy eating and exercise, shedding five stone and losing 12 inches off that infamous behind.
She resolved not to suffer the fate of so many celebrities who follow extreme fad diets then quickly pile the pounds back on, and even qualified as a personal trainer and nutritionist to make sure she did it properly.
"Studying for that qualification helped me understand exactly what my sugar-laden diet was doing to me – I realise now I was so lucky not to have had a heart attack or developed diabetes – and I vowed to myself that I would never return to that nightmare situation again," she says.
There has been one blow recently that did dent Gibson's seemingly unshakeable happiness – her younger brother, Harry, who is deaf, was attacked while on a night out with her and their family.
Gibson, who's fluent in sign language, says: "It was a horrible shock, as I found him covered in blood and my first thought was, 'No, don't tell me this is happening to him like it did to my dad'. I'm his older sister and I've always been protective of Harry, who's the loveliest person."
Clearly lovely herself, Gibson is resolute that her aim in life is to help others fight obesity rather than win herself more celebrity headlines.
"I don't even really like the name celebrity – what does it mean? I'm just grateful that me being well-known means I can now reach out to people who need help with their weight problems. I tell them, 'If I can do it, so can you'. I'm the most content I've ever been in my life. It's so good that I can show those knockers that not only has the thin girl inside me emerged, but this isn't a five-minute wonder, I'm staying like this.
"It's funny though, that even when people compliment me on looking good or sexy I still have to think, 'do they really mean me?'. After all those years of negative attention it's taking time to get used to positive attention – but I will!"
Josie on those infamous pics ...
When those bikini pictures appeared everywhere, I didn't leave the house for four weeks. The first morning the pictures came out, I remember getting a call from my agent telling me I'd made it into the big league.
I thought some foreign executive had asked to see my showreel, or I'd been cherry-picked for a new presenting gig somewhere exciting. Instead, he told me I'd made newspaper headlines and magazine covers all over the world because I'd been papped in my two-piece on my holiday in Ibiza.
He thought any publicity was good publicity. Within days, everyone was mocking me, from New Zealand to New York. 'Looks Like Shamu Made It To Land' laughed an American blog. 'Quelle Horreur!' echoed a French one. Now, I don't speak the lingo, but I'm pretty sure that's not complimentary. I was called 'fat and ugly' every single day on Twitter and people went out of their way to tell me how disgusting I was. The pictures were used in every newspaper in the UK and in magazines all over the globe.
And, while the negative press attention was new to me, so was the trolling. You see, despite being big, I'd never been bullied at school.
Maybe I was left alone because I was always pretty hard, but whatever the reason, I preferred to knock people out with a punchline rather than a punch when they joked about my weight.
But as I learned, bullies aren't made like they used to be. These days, you can't just offer them out and come away with your pride intact – they've got laptops and fake IDs to hide behind.
I drove myself mad trying to answer back to the hundreds of faceless, nameless and gutless cowards who'd spend hours abusing me from the safety of their computer screens.
I'd sit for days, not showering, staring at my four walls and sucking my thumb – a habit I've never been able to break – before refreshing Twitter to see what other names I'd been called. I was helpless and couldn't do anything but take it. Answering back gave them the validation they were after; once they'd got my attention, the trolls' insults would get worse and come thicker and faster. Call me a fat disgusting mess once and I'll laugh it off and call you a liar.
Call me a fat disgusting mess hundreds of times a day and I'll start to believe you. I know I looked a state (if you're size 20, it's never advisable to wear a two-piece, let alone run in one), but the backlash was vicious and vitriolic. I'd never been attacked so remorselessly by so many complete strangers. The depression and self-loathing that set in left me under the darkest cloud I'd ever known.
* Extracted from The Josie Gibson Diet: Love Food, Get Slim, Stay Slim, by Josie Gibson, Macmillan, £12.99
One of Josie's top recipes
The ultimate crumble:
Prep 10 mins
Cook 30 mins
5 tbsp maple syrup or dark agave syrup
A splash of vanilla extract with seeds
50g ground almonds
50g macadamia nuts
50g pecan nuts
30g pumpkin seeds
4 Medjool dates
10g goji berries
80g quinoa flakes
10g flaked almonds
1. Preheat the oven to 200°C/gas mark 6.
2. Stone the fruit, chop into segments and put in a fairly deep baking tray. Pour over 3 tablespoons of the agave, add a splash of vanilla extract and the zest and juice of the lemon and mix together. Roast in oven for 10–15 minutes.
3. Chuck all the nuts (except the flaked almonds), seeds, dates, goji berries, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt into a blender and whizz up until crumbly but still a bit coarse to give it texture. If you don't have a blender, roll your sleeves up and get chopping!
4. Add the quinoa flakes and the remaining 2 tablespoons of syrup to the mix and whizz for a few seconds to blend it all together.
5. Sprinkle the crumble mix over the fruits in the baking tray, scatter the flaked almonds over the top and bake for 20-25 minutes.
The Rules: This is another sweet treat and tastes delicious. It's packed with goodness but shouldn't be eaten more than once or twice a week.
The Goodness: Almonds are the champions of fat-shedding nuts as they help regulate blood sugar and lower cholesterol, and not all the calories in them are absorbed. Apricots are packed with vitamin A to support your skin. You'll feel younger and healthier after one bowlful.