'When the RTE exec said I was fat, I wanted to break his jaw'
Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30
Born in 1948 in post-war Britain, TV presenter Derek Davis got plenty of food from an early age. "The big shame was to have rickets. Orange juice came in medicine bottles, we were loaded with this stuff, and the butter rations were fed into the kids. Feeding kids up was a big thing," he says.
As he grew older, he says: "My mother was worried about me when I was 11-years-old and 11 stone, 12-years-old and 12 stone… and so on." And, through his school years and into his 20s, his weight brought out an aggressive and violent streak. "Being fat all your life, you end up either one of two or both: either entertaining and/or aggressive. You try to distract and you try to become invulnerable because somebody knows if they get really snippy with you, [then] you chin them. And I was relatively violent. Boarding school was a very violent society."
He explains: "You learn with the word 'fat' that, if it is said with an edge, it's a different thing. And that's when the fisticuffs started. If it's done with a smile and not intended to wound, I've no problem with it. If it is used as a put-down, I could get very aggressive."
Did the violence come about because he didn't want to let anyone in to cause hurt, or was he angry with himself? "A bit of both," he says. "There was an element of self-disgust. When you look at yourself and you are overweight, and you have tried everything - even virtual hunger strikes - and within months the weight climbs back up again. Or you spend your time full of pills and wired to the moon. It's a struggle."
But, he says, "the anger was metabolised by the time I was in my early 20s".
In college, his desire to find love led him down the road of fad dieting. "When I went to university and started to develop crushes, I began starvation diets to try to lose the weight. There were various diet pills that caused sweating, diarrhoea, insomnia, they were awful things. It was speed, basically. Grapefruit with every meal was another one. Then there were the exclusion diets, but they were unsustainable. I was constantly thinking about my weight, constantly struggling."
He describes living with obesity as "a constant denial".
"It is a denial of your own abnormality. If you were missing your limb, society extends sympathy. If you are in a wheelchair, no one says 'Would you look at that fecker', but because you are an object of contempt, you do your best to balance that."
In his 40s he hit 24 stone and was classed as 'morbidly obese'. "I was never a secret eater. I was a big portion eater. Chips with everything in the RTE canteen, I made a lot of programmes about food and drink. Rich reduction sauces. A good dinner earlier and a fish supper later or a couple of sandwiches."
He eventually received a wake-up call during an insurance medical, when he was told he had diabetes and he didn't have long before he went blind. He signed up to the gym that day, but then eventually swung back again.
Work was an issue too. There is a famous story about how he was called in by an RTE executive and told he was too fat for light entertainment. "I wanted to break his jaw," he said. "I think he got the message because he never met me in private again." He pointed his boss towards his contract and explained that he was on staff and, if they were going to take him off it, he said: "I'll see you in court, you son of a bitch."
Then last year, after years of battling the scales, it was two simple pounds that gave him the push he needed to take long-term action. "I became a granddad. He was born at two pounds and when he survived, I thought 'Someone needs to teach this boy the important things in life, like picking a decent bottle of wine and casting a fly'. It was really his coming into this world that made me want to cling on a bit longer. I reckon I had about two years to go."
He underwent bariatric surgery with Dr Carel le Roux last July and has lost 100lbs (over seven stone) since. "I don't feel hungry, ever. I can't physically overeat because I am eating a child-size portion, but my taste buds are grand."
Is he happier now? "Do you know what is missing? The guilt. Some people are very happy with their size, if you are happy and healthy, good luck to you. But surgery is serious. You don't do that because of your shape. It's because, if you don't do it, you will shorten your life.