Katie Piper: 'True beauty is not confined to those who are tall and slim'
Former model Katie Piper has rebuilt her life after suffering horrific facial injuries following an acid attack. She tells Gabrielle Fagan of her joy in motherhood and marriage.
Eight years ago she was overwhelmed by feelings of anger, pain, and bitterness about an attack that disfigured her, but now Katie Piper is determined to only look forward.
"For the first couple of years I had feelings of anger, but not any more because I don't think you can live your life filled with resentment. I've come to an acceptance of what happened and that's helped set me free," reveals the courageous 32-year-old, whose life changed in March 2008 when her ex-boyfriend arranged for a hitman to hurl sulphuric acid in her face. The two men are serving life sentences and Piper, who was blinded in one eye, has endured more than 40 operations and her treatment is ongoing.
"My dad wrote me a card in the early stages of my recovery which said, 'you have to appreciate all the dark times as it's the only time you can look up and see the stars'. That was so inspiring and eventually helped me realise going through bad times allows you to compare and know when you're enjoying true happiness."
She's certainly enjoying that now. Piper, who's steadfastly refused to be defined by her burns, has built a career as an author and TV presenter, and last November married her boyfriend of five years, carpenter Richard Sutton, father of her two-year-old daughter Belle.
"At one stage, I didn't know whether I'd ever be privileged enough to have the sort of happiness I have now with Richard and our daughter," she says.
"Last year was so exciting. The unexpected things in life are the ones you treasure most. Falling in love, having Belle and our wedding are right up there. I believe you can get happiness in so many different ways. I think you're most happy when you don't depend on other people for fulfilment and contentment. I was happy when I was single, but being with Richie and getting married and having Belle is a marvellous bonus."
"Richard is my best friend. It's wonderful to have that amazing person who knows me so well, by my side, supporting me. He's not particularly focused on appearance, but then, it's a misconception that most men are.
"I think they're programmed to look at women as a whole and simply think: 'Do I find her attractive or not?' It's women who pick other women apart and focus on the finer detail."
While she's been a source of inspiration for many people across the world - and in 2009 gave up her anonymity to reveal her own struggle in a Channel 4 documentary, Katie: My Beautiful Face - she's also suffered over the years from cruel comments about her appearance on social media.
"I describe it as being your own kind of beautiful and recognising beauty truly isn't confined to those who are tall and slim," she says. That philosophy is at the heart of talks she'll give at the Ideal Home Show in Manchester (until tomorrow), in her role as fashion and beauty ambassador.
"Everyone's beautiful for different reasons and each of us have attractive qualities inside, maybe being a good friend, work colleague, partner, a whole host of things which makes us special.
"Of course, the unpleasant online comments I get sometimes are insulting, but worse has happened to me, although it's certainly not very nice to be called a 'monster' or a 'freak' when you go online.
"I believe they say more about the person making them than about the people receiving them. People act online in a way they'd never do in real life."
She admits her hard-won confidence wavers on occasions such as public appearances.
"It's hard to be consistently confident, especially if you're surrounded by good-looking women, but there's a saying: 'If the world was blind, how many people would you impress?' It puts into perspective our huge and often unhealthy obsession with appearance," declares Piper.
Although the former model avoids looking at photographs of herself from before the attack, she is "a massive believer in living in the present and aiming for the future".
"I don't properly remember my old face and although I still have childhood photos, I don't have any other photos I want to look back to," says Piper, whose charitable organisation, the Katie Piper Foundation, raises awareness of the plight of victims of burns and other disfigurement injuries.
"I compare what happened to me with bereavement. If you lose someone, you grieve, learn to live with that loss and move forward, and that's what I've had to do with my appearance. I'm glad I didn't hide away, even though it was hard because disfigurement, especially facial, can be isolating, as you can feel so rejected by society.
"I don't feel in any way special. There are many people out there who have inspirational stories, but they've just not been made public like mine, and as for being brave, well, sometimes it isn't a choice, it's literally the only thing you've got left."
Piper, who's presented Channel 4 shows Bodyshockers and Never Seen a Doctor, is sanguine about having to face her daughter's future questions about what happened to her.
"Belle's a lovely, lively, curious toddler and she's gradually becoming aware of my physical differences. I think her awareness will just grow and she'll learn about things over time rather than my having to sit her down and talk about it, which would make it into more of a big issue," she says philosophically.
"I have surgical stents in my nostrils, necessary to keep them open, and she thinks it's a huge joke to pull them out and run off with them. If I look in the mirror and think how my daughter sees me, I believe it's as someone who cares and provides for her and loves her unconditionally. I don't believe Belle sees me as someone with a strange nose and bad skin."
While she hopes for more children, problems following an operation last year meant the couple put plans on hold.
"I'm resigned to the fact that I have a permanent injury which will mean ongoing treatment for the foreseeable future. Skin and tissue on my face continually tightens, making it difficult to breathe, blink and swallow, so it's necessary to have skin constantly added," she explains.
"I was unlucky last year as a problem with an operation on my oesophagus resulted in my being unable to eat. My weight fell so low it wouldn't have been a good idea to get pregnant. Richie and I talked about adoption and we may look into that. If we did adopt, I'd adopt any child, but if it was a child with scars or burns, I'd definitely understand their journey. For the moment, we regard Belle as a blessing, who certainly keeps us fully occupied, so we'll just see what happens."