Interview with Katie Piper: My Beautiful Face – Channel 4

by Lisa McGarry


Eighteen months ago, Katie Piper was a beautiful young woman with a burgeoning career as a model and TV presenter. Then she suffered a horrific attack, arranged by her erstwhile boyfriend, when acid was thrown in her face, causing extensive third degree burns and blindness in one eye. Since that day, Katie has had over 30 operations. Her life has changed beyond recognition.

Now, Katie’s story is to be told in a fascinating and intimate documentary, Katie: My Beautiful Face, to be shown on Channel 4 on Thursday 29th October. The film follows Katie at home and in hospital, as she receives treatment and tries to come to terms with her new face, and her new life, and as she waits to hear the verdict from the trial of her attackers. Here, Katie talks movingly and frankly about her recollections of the attack, her experiences of the last 18 months, and why she is looking forward to a bright future.

Where were you in your life before the attack took place in March 2008?
I was 24, living in North London, As a model and tv presenter. And I was going clubbing and enjoying being young and single.

How did you meet Danny Lynch?
Initially the first contact was on Facebook. And there was also a connection through the martial arts work that I was doing.

You started seeing him, and everything started off fine, didn’t it?
Yeah, it was just like whenever you first start dating someone, you go out for drinks and dinners, you chat on the phone. It was quite intense, but there weren’t any warning signs of what was to come.

When did things start to go wrong?
Well, we only dated for a few weeks, so it was quite early on. I saw a jealous streak, possessiveness, an anger problem, and little things about his life didn’t add up. He told me he was working, doing certain things, and yet he didn’t really have a job. Things weren’t adding up.

And then one night, in a London hotel, he raped you. Why didn’t you go to the police after that?
Because he held me in the room, all night, attacking me and threatening me that if I told anybody he would kill me, and kill my flatmates. He knew where I lived, where I parked my car. I was terrified.

What do you remember of 31st March 2008? What happened?
I remember everything. I remember walking out of my flat, and I was on the telephone to Danny, and he was getting me to come out of the house. So whilst on the phone to him I was walking across the balcony, down the communal stairs, and I opened the door and went out onto the street. I was still on the phone, and a guy started crossing the street towards me. And as he got closer to me, I thought “He’s not just crossing the street, he’s coming towards me.” He had made eye contact with me, and his arms were locked out in front of him, with a cup in his hands. I thought he was begging, so I said to Danny ‘Hold on a second’. I didn’t explain why, and he didn’t ask me why, and I put the phone to my ear and went to get money from my bag, and as I did, this guy threw the acid in my face.

What happened next?
Initially I just remember thinking “Oh my gosh, how terrible, this guy’s just thrown coffee at me, how rude!” I even thought things like “I’m going to have to go inside now and change my top.” Just stupid stuff. And then a few seconds after, the pain was just surging through my body, and I thought maybe it had been bleach. And then, when the pain just overtook, and started to reduce my vision, I knew it was acid. I thought perhaps I was on fire, because my whole body was in pain, not just the areas that are scarred. And I knew that I was in really serious trouble. Losing my vision made me feel really vulnerable, because I had no idea where he’d run off to. I didn’t know if Danny was there, I thought they were going to come and get me and take me away. Was he going to rape me again? And my screaming was so loud that it was deafening me. I remember thinking “I wish that noise would stop,” and then realising that it was me.

What happened over the next days and weeks?
It’s all a bit of a blur, really, because of the drugs that I was on, so things that I remember didn’t necessarily happen. I was in an induced coma for a while, because of the pain and mental trauma. And also because all the skin from my buttocks and back had been removed to graft onto my face, so I couldn’t have been conscious, I wouldn’t have been able to be comfortable in any position.

So you didn’t really know what was going on for a while. Do you remember coming out of that and starting to comprehend what was happening to you?
It happened bit by bit. The drugs would be reduced and then have to be increased again, and more surgery would happen, so it was really up and down. My parents said that sometimes I’d be up in bed talking to them, and they’d think I was totally normal, then I’d say stuff like “Danny’s behind you.” I was playing Connect 4 with my dad, and actually beating him, but then seeing monsters coming out of the ceiling. It was really strange. I never felt safe, I thought I was being attacked again, it was awful. I think some of that was the mental trauma rather than the drugs.

What do you remember about seeing yourself for the first time?
That’s a vivid memory, and I wasn’t on drugs then. I was due to be discharged, I’d been in hospital for nearly two months. And in the burns unit, they don’t have any mirrors in the bathrooms or anywhere. I’d started trying to catch a glimpse of my face in the back of spoons at meal times, but I couldn’t see properly. I could see my hand, and it was raw and red and lumpy, a bit like raw mincemeat. And I remember thinking “That must be my face.” After a while, I really wanted to look in the mirror, because my mind was going into overdrive. So, a week before I was discharged I went to see the burns psychologist.

With a view to seeing your face?
Yes, but only bit by bit. My dad sat in the room with me. And the psychologist said “Right, I’m going to give you a hand-mirror, and what I want you to do is look at a little bit, maybe on your chest. And we’ll look at a bit today, then tomorrow we’ll work our way up, and the next day we’ll do a bit more and talk about how you feel.” And in my head I thought “No way, I’m not doing that, I’m just going to go full whack and look at it all now.” So I got the mirror and just held it up, and initially I just thought “There’s been a massive mistake. There’s either someone stood behind me or they’ve stuck a picture on it, or the mirror’s broken, because that’s not me. That’s not even a woman.” It didn’t even look female. Then I got quite angry. I kept saying “It’s not working, I can’t see my face.” And they were trying to talk to me and explain. And then I remember wanting to blame the doctors, thinking “I should never have come to this hospital. What have they done to me? I can’t believe I’ve let them do this to me. I shouldn’t have signed the consent forms.” The biggest thing I remember looking at was my eyes, because they were dead. All the skin was pulled down, and you could see the circular shape of the eyeball. And the pupil had gone in the blind eye. My eyes were just completely dead. I remember thinking “I look like Freddy Kruger.” It sounds vain, but even things like the fact that they’d shaved my head, I was thinking “I’ve got no hair. I’ve got no ear!” I couldn’t accept that was my reflection.

Did you learn to accept it in time?
Not at first, it was hard when I went back home. The first time probably wasn’t the worst time of seeing my reflection. That was probably when I got home, and the burns started to shrivel up and get lumpier, and actually it got worse. As it was contracting and pulling down, I became more disfigured. I remember one time I was sat in my bedroom painting my toenails – because I still painted my toenails! – I had a little vanity box that I kept all my polishes in, and it had a tiny little mirror on the lid. And I had it on the floor, and I was sat on the floor painting my toenails, and out of the corner of my eye I saw this dreadful thing in my mirror. This big, red, shiny monster, all contorted, and I thought “Oh my Goodness, what on earth is that?” And I realised it was my reflection, and I just sat there and cried for an hour. I remember thinking “If my reflection shocks me, how will other people feel?”

How many operations have you had?
I’m not sure. Somewhere in the 30s. I had another one just this week – on my birthday would you believe?

There’s a surgeon who’s worked with you a lot. You’re very grateful to him, aren’t you?
Mr Jawad is amazing. At times he’s been my reason for carrying on. When I felt depressed, I’ve almost felt like I can’t let him down. He has been like a second dad to me, he’s been so amazing. Always been positive, always been optimistic. When I’ve felt like there’s no point, things aren’t going to get better, he’s researched new treatments, he’s shown me pictures of other people he’s treated, he’s introduced me to other people who have suffered injuries, for moral support. He’s gone beyond his job, he’s just been phenomenal. And to build up that relationship so that I trust him has made the surgery so much easier, it’s made me less frightened about the outcome. And to have someone believe in me and care about me has helped my confidence. It’s helped me feel worthwhile. And not just the acid attack, but the rape as well, made me hate myself. I respect him so much, and I think he’s such an amazing person, that to have him believe in me helped me believe in me, and made me feel like maybe I can do this. He’s been a massive influence in my life, and I don’t think I’d be here without him now. I wouldn’t be this strong.

Your throat was burned so badly you had to be fed by a tube into your stomach. Do you still have to use that?
I did have an external tube in my stomach, but that was removed about four months ago. I’ve been able to eat normally, but I have to drink eight of these special drinks-a-day, that have 200 calories in them, and proteins and things like that. They’re kind of meal substitutes, and then I eat for pleasure. I can’t eat enough to survive, because I’ve got scar tissue in the oesophagus. I’ve just had an operation to widen it, and then I’ll be able to eat to live for a while. But then it will start to close down again, and it’ll become too difficult to eat enough. I don’t know what will happen in the long term, but the length of time between me needing the operations is increasing.

What about the psychological injuries that you’ve suffered. How did you deal with them?
It’s very hard. I didn’t like people walking in my direction. In my own home, the noises of the pipes, or doors clicking shut, or someone dropping something – all of that would put me on edge. That’s subsided now a lot, thankfully, 18 months on. But I don’t like people shouting, I don’t like signs of aggression. But before it was ridiculous, I couldn’t go out of the house because I was so frightened. Now I can live a more normal life, but I perhaps wouldn’t now go out to a bar and leave and walk to get a taxi on my own at night. Before, I thought I was invincible, so I’m probably more risk-averse. But that may not be such a bad thing.

How low did you get? What was your lowest moment?
When I first got discharged from hospital, I would wake up believing that the whole thing had been a dream, and I still had my old face. I’d go to the bathroom to clean my teeth, and I’d be completely gutted. It felt so terrible knowing it was real. And also going to court, hearing what happened to me read out so factually, and realising it was true, and hearing how dreadful it was. I’d sometimes sit there and think “Goodness, that’s dreadful,” and then think “that’s me they’re talking about!” One time when I really cried was when I was at home, and there was some post for me, and it was my discharge summary from the burns unit. And it was all really factual, there in black-and-white: “Katie Piper has suffered extensive third-degree burns to the face and trunk and blindness to the left eye.” It was all there in print, and I just cried and thought “My life is finished. Everything I had has been destroyed, and there it is written for me in black-and-white.” It was hard.

Why did you want to make this film?
A number of reasons. I think, for me personally, I felt that it would make my life easier if people could see me, know what has happened to me, and know why I look the way I look. So that if people see me on the street they’ll think “Oh, I saw that girl in a documentary, I know why she’s wearing that mask.” And I also wanted to do it for other people who have been burned, to raise awareness of things like the masks, why people wear them, that it’s part of the treatment. I think that’s probably harder for people – not necessarily the scarring. It’s more “Look at that woman, she’s got a plastic face, that’s really weird!” That’s probably more the reason people look at me than the disfigurement. So I think it’d be good to get that more in the open. I’d never seen a plastic mask before, I never knew what they were for. And I also wanted to show people that I’m still a normal person, I can still laugh. And to show that people don’t have to be scared around me, or worried about saying the wrong thing. I can talk about my accident, it’s not a taboo subject. And I really enjoyed doing the documentary. It was good therapy for me.

You found it a therapeutic experience?
I found it liberating and confidence-building. I felt normal again. And I enjoyed making it. And I’m proud of it. I’m really glad I did it.

In practical terms, what was it like being followed around by a camera crew all of the time?
It was funny, because I could then tell myself that people weren’t staring at me because of my face, but because of the cameras. Sometimes it was fun, but sometimes it was a bit intense, like during the trial. At times it was difficult, but the film crew were really sensitive, and became friends, so they knew when to back off as well. And I’m glad that they filmed that part of my life, because what these guys did to me, and what I’ve been through, I think needs to be documented and shown as well.

Your family has been hugely supportive throughout the ordeal. Has it brought you closer together?
Definitely. I’ve always felt fortunate with my family, I had a really happy childhood and a great upbringing. But I probably did drift away from my family a bit when I moved to London. My priorities were probably quite selfish. I went home for Mother’s Day, Christmas, birthdays and stuff. I was caught up in my own life, a little bit self-important, and always keen to get back to London in time to go to a club and things like that. And this has made me re-evaluate my life, and who’s important to me, and who’s really there when everything goes completely wrong. It’s brought me closer to them in a great way, and I won’t lose that. No matter what happens in my life, I’ll keep that strong bond with my sister, my brother, my mum and dad. My mum’s like my best friend now.

And the police seem to have been really good.
Oh, they’re such lovely guys. Some people might say I’ve been unfortunate, but I’ve been so fortunate with Mr Jawad and the police. They were really great guys, they worked so hard on the case, they were so personal, they had such a human side. It must have been hard for them – especially Adam, the family liaison officer. He had to try and get statements from me and ask me about it when I was in intensive care, in and out of consciousness. He was a really sensitive guy, really nice.

How did it feel when your attackers were found guilty, and when they were sentenced?
Because it ended up going to a retrial, and I had a period of seven or eight months between the trials, I thought that when I got the verdict I’d be elated. I thought I’d be jumping for joy and having a party. But it’s actually not like that. It’s a feeling of: That is justice. That is what should happen. The right thing’s happened, and that’s good, but you don’t feel that everything’s okay all of a sudden. I’m still living my life injured and having to get on with things. I was glad that justice was done, and I was glad the way the trial went, but it’s not compensation for what happened. It’s just the right outcome following a terrible crime.

Has anything positive come out of this? Have you learned anything about yourself or life?
More positive things have come out of it than negative. So many positive things. I’ve changed as a person. I think I’ve matured, I know what and who is important in my life. I look back on my old life – and I enjoyed it and had fun, but it seems pretty pointless and empty, that existence. I felt it was full and I loved it at the time, and of course I miss aspects of it, but I’m happy with the life I’ve got now, I’m happy with the person I am and the relationships I’ve built. And it’s introduced me to some amazing people who I’d never have met, and I’m really glad that they’re part of my life. It sounds like a really odd thing to say, but it’s been a really positive experience. It started out terribly, but it’s proved to be a long journey with lots of great things on the way.

Did you realise what a strong person you were before all of this?
If you’d asked the old me what I’d do if I was disfigured and partly-blinded, I’d have said “I’ll just kill myself, because my looks are everything to me.” When I used to get spots I wouldn’t go out, I was that vain. I spent lots of money on looking good. So I’d have never imagined I could get through something like this. But people always think that, and then when you’re thrown into something, like a bereavement, you get through it and deal with it. I think the human spirit is an amazing thing.

So how do you feel now?
I love life. I’m really happy to be alive, I’m grateful to have a great family, and to live in a country that has the NHS – I’ve had all this treatment on the NHS. Medical treatment is fantastic, the things they can do these days are amazing. To be melted and rebuilt is quite phenomenal, really. I feel positive about my life. I want to go on and get married and have children. I want a normal life, and I feel excited about life. I still have a zest for life, I don’t feel broken or beaten in any way.

What are your other hopes for the future?
I’d like to return to work, and have a professional life. I don’t just want to recover and put it in a box and forget about it, I want to use my experience to help other people who have been burned. And I’d maybe like to raise awareness about having your life online. Everybody goes online, people date online and lots of success stories happen, but with things like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, so many of your personal details are online, and people can find out so much about you. I’m not trying to make some campaign against social networking sites, because they’re really useful, but I’d maybe like to raise awareness and get people to be a little vigilant.

Katie: My Beautiful Face is on Channel 4 on Thursday 29th October at 9pm.