Saturday 10 December 2016

Katie Hopkins... A woman running towards hatred

The reality TV star and columnist has mocked autism, but says her daughter is 'on the spectrum'. She derides the UK's 'National Hotel Service', but has epilepsy so severe it puts her in hospital. Is self-confessed husband-stealer Katie Hopkins for real

Jon Ronson

Published 27/07/2015 | 02:30

Katie Hopkins comments in her column in the Sun have seen her reviled by many. Some 300,000 people signed a Remove Katie Hopkins as a Columnist petition
Katie Hopkins comments in her column in the Sun have seen her reviled by many. Some 300,000 people signed a Remove Katie Hopkins as a Columnist petition
Katie Hopkins in her days on The Apprentice

Most people will do anything to avoid being hated, but Katie Hopkins seems to run frantically towards hatred. Take the 18 days of her life beginning on 29 March. She started with a series of tweets mocking depression: "UK has seen a 500% growth in anti-depressants since 1991. Like being bullied, being depressed is a fashionable thing to be… The ultimate passport to self-obsession." A week later, she moved on to dementia: "1 in 4 hospital beds are taken up by someone with dementia. The National Hotel Service."

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Ten days after that, she provoked an international incident. "Show me bodies floating in water… I still don't care." This is how her 17 April column for the Sun about migrants began. Migrants were "a plague of feral humans". And then: "Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches… They are built to survive a nuclear bomb." She suggested drilling holes in the bottom of their boats.

The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, released a statement urging regulators to curb Hopkins's "incitement to hatred". A petition, Remove Katie Hopkins as a Columnist, collected 300,000 signatures (including mine). The Society of Black Lawyers lodged a complaint with the police. Two days later, a migrant boat sank in the Mediterranean, killing 800 people.

I had just published a book about public shaming and people kept tweeting me: "Well, surely it's OK to shame Katie Hopkins?" She did seem very different from the people I had met, who had been pilloried across social media for some bad joke, and been crushed. Being disapproved of on such a massive scale can mangle a person's mental health. I was also tweeted to ask if Hopkins was a psychopath. (This wasn't random: I have written a book about psychopaths.) Could she be? There was the apparent lack of empathy and remorse, the irresponsibility, the grandiose self-worth. While it's irresponsible to diagnose someone from afar, I couldn't help wonder.

Back in 2007, when Hopkins was the breakout contestant on series three of The Apprentice , co-presenter Nick Hewer told her, "Here's what I think is going on. You've decided to create a new brand - Katie Hopkins. It's made you famous, but it's made you loathed. Where is it going to take you now?" She replied, "Oh, Nick, I'm not loathed." The audience shrieked with derisive laughter.

I loathed her. Well, I didn't loathe her, but her opinion that it was "fashionable" to be bullied and depressed made me very cross for several hours. Her migrant column was so extreme it read like an act of self-destruction, as if she was cutting the brakes of her own car. I read up on Hopkins and discovered a wholly unexpected and awful fact: she has epilepsy so severe she suspects she may not live much longer. Was this a clue? Was all this frantic outrage her way of stockpiling a nest egg for her children before it was too late? I suddenly found Hopkins intriguing. I wrote to her requesting an interview.

A week later, we are talking over Skype. We will eventually meet but for now it has to be on screen: I'm in New York and she's in Devon, in a plain attic room. She's not acting the way she does on TV, not pulling any villainous faces. Instead she's leaning forward into the camera as if to say, "I want to be helpful to you. I want to be obliging."

"Was there anything in that migrant column you regret writing?" I ask.

"Yeah," she says. "When the boat went down there was this weird journalistic thing that goes, 'Oh, my column's very topical.' That's the first thought: 'Oh, that's topical.' But then it got noisier. Russell Brand picked up on it, and that's when it kicked off. It was a perfect storm. Stick a leftwing lunatic in, sink a boat…" She pauses. "In hindsight there are a few lines - the whole 'feral animal' thing and the 'cockroach' thing. Those are words you wouldn't use again."

She adds that the word "cockroach" was actually intended as a kind of compliment: "The picture in my mind was these resilient creatures. But then people layered on those historical references… Argh! So of course we recognise those aren't great words."

"Do you think your editors owed you a duty of care to take those lines out before the column was published?" I ask.

"Um…" She looks briefly panicked. "The Sun has always looked out for me and are a fantastic family to be part of." She's keen to not speak ill of her employers. She "genuinely loves" writing her column and "would have felt very sad" if they'd bowed to the pressure and fired her. That was "the only terrifying thing - waiting to see whether my column could remain".

"Nothing else about the incident was alarming to you?" I ask.

"Not alarming," she replies. "Interesting. What was interesting," she continues, "was how things collide to make such a noise."

It's Sunday, and her husband Mark and three children are downstairs."What's Mark like?" I ask.

"He has a beard," she says. "He wears soft shoes. He has an earring. He has a skull for a wedding ring. People imagine I'm married to a fat banker. I'm actually married to a walking version of charity personified. Worse still, he works at the donkey sanctuary."

The next day I email Hopkins to ask if I can visit Mark at his donkey sanctuary. She says no. "He doesn't really get involved in any of my media projects unless it is specifically to our advantage. We work on the basis that a degree of separation is a wise thing when my life is so noisy."

"I think it would be to your advantage," I write back, "because it would show a likeable side to you."

"If people need to see my husband to understand I am a likeable character," she replies, "I am content for them to hold on to their prejudice."

We talk again a week later. I tell Hopkins I've been thinking about her use of the word "interesting" to describe the deafening response to her migrant column. "You wrote, 'Show me bodies in the water, I don't care,' " I say. "But lots of people do care about migrants dying on their way to trying to find a better life. Was there a moment when you felt empathy for the people who died?"

She thinks. "Not so much," she replies. Her tone of voice doesn't sound callous; it's more like she's searching around - making a proper stab at it and noting her absence of empathy with curiosity. "Sometimes, when the pictures are of very small children, you think, 'Oh, God,'" she adds. "But that's more anger at a parent for putting the child on the boat."

"Have you ever wondered if you might lie on the autism spectrum?" I ask.

"One of my daughters is diagnosed as being on the spectrum," she replies. "It's an awesome thing, to live with a child who can memorise a times table in two minutes. They don't get things emotionally. Like, when I fell off my bike, and I was lying on the floor, she was asking what was for tea. But they do connect brilliantly with facts and details. I consider it a kind of gift, because you can see the world differently."

This is the first time she's told a journalist that her daughter is autistic. It's surprising, especially since she recently infuriated the National Autistic Society by tweeting comments mocking a nine-year-old autistic girl from a reality TV show called Born Naughty. "If Katie wants to really understand autism," the charity replied, "we would like to invite her to come to meet some members of the National Autistic Society and hear about the challenges they face every day."

"Why didn't you tell them you have an autistic daughter?" I ask.

"Because if I did they'd think, 'Maybe Katie does get it then'. So I won't tell them. I know me. Let them find out for themselves." Katie pauses. "I often think I don't see the world on the same plane as everyone else, either. I feel like I'm 90pc off, and that's OK."

"Give me some examples of how you see the world differently," I say.

"Just today I was thinking that a lamp gets to stand and a toilet gets to roll," she says.

"Give me some more examples," I say.

"I'm just your dancing monkey now, aren't I?" she says. We laugh. I notice that I'm finding her more charming than I'd anticipated. Hopkins is funny and frequently complimentary, which might be manipulative but might just be niceness. I think she might be flirting with me, although I'm on shaky ground here because I am not good on flirty cues and may be misreading things horribly. But she is fluttering her eyes the way she did towards Alan Sugar in The Apprentice. ("Watching her dip her head and gaze adoringly at Sugar was agonising," wrote Hannah Pool in the Guardian at the time. "Not since Diana have we seen eyelash-fluttering on such a ridiculous scale.") I find this a little awkward but not agonising. Hopkins is easy company.

"OK," she says. "Today at the train station there was an old lady trying to get coffee. It was a place where people needed to get coffee quickly. So I felt like we should have a slow lane for slow people. That seems perfectly reasonable to me - a slow lane for slower people and thick people and old people. That's obviously incredibly offensive to most people but to me it's entirely efficient and logical."

"I wonder if you wrote that way about migrants because you literally don't feel as much empathy as other people do," I say.

"Oh, definitely, yes," she says. "But in other ways I'm quite soft. My mum's gone to a WI thing today, so I'll text her to check she's all right. I feel like I am quite emotional, but it's put away in a cupboard or something. Maybe I'm on the spectrum where I'm just a bit harder than most."

"Some people think you're a psychopath," I say.

"I'm not sure what the true definition is, but you know best," she says.

"Hang on!" I say.

I find a copy of the book I wrote about psychopaths and leaf through to the 20-point checklist that identifies psychopathic traits.

"Lack of empathy?" I begin.

The checklist is intended for trained professionals. Still, I like the idea of going through it with Hopkins - not for diagnostic reasons, but because it might take us somewhere unexpected.

"Yes," she says.

"Lack of remorse?" I ask.

"Oh, definitely," she says.

"Early behaviour problems?" I ask. "Were you really difficult around the age of 10 or 12 - to the extent that you could have got into trouble with the authorities?"

"Oh my God, no," she says. "My home was quite disciplinarian. My father was very strict." She grew up near where she still lives, in Bideford, Devon. "Methodist family," she says. "We had our roast dinner at midday on a Sunday. No washing on a Sunday. You wash on a Sunday, you wash your relatives away."

She was a bright and likeable child, by all accounts, popular and fun to be around, a star violinist and leader of her local youth orchestra.

"My friends were quite scared of my dad," she says. "He's really mellow now. It annoys me. I spent my whole life with a very strict father and he's suddenly turned into bloody Paul Daniels. My children think Grandma and Grandpa are the bee's knees because Grandma cooks cakes and Grandpa buys them trampolines, which I won't do because that's very council estate."

We continue down the Psychopath Checklist.

"Impulsivity?" I ask.

"I think I am," she says. "It's impulse stuff that usually gets me into trouble. I speak what I think when I think it. At 17 I went to Australia for a year ... I stole people's husbands. I suppose you could argue that isn't a very thoughtful approach to life, is it?"

"Wow," I find myself thinking. "She's saying yes to almost everything." But Early Behaviour Problems is a very telling one to have said no to. According to the experts, real psychopaths almost always start behaving abhorrently from around the age of 10.

"Many short-term marital relationships?" I ask.

"That's not me," she says. "No."

She's only been married twice. As she says, she stole both husbands. She met her first, Damian McKinney, in late 2000. She'd just been thrown out the army because of her epilepsy (she didn't tell them about her condition in her application form, but the truth emerged as she completed her training at Sandhurst), so she joined his business consultancy and moved to Manhattan to set up their US office, which was where they had their affair. She had two children with him, "then he left with the secretary and never came back".

A flash of annoyance crosses her face. "I rang her to ask if I could have him back, because it made more sense for my children that we were a couple and they had a mum and dad. She said, on the whole, she thought no, she wouldn't let me have him back." Hopkins shakes her head and laughs.

She returned to the UK and found a job at the Met Office, before taking leave to appear in The Apprentice. It was a disaster or a triumph, depending on how one perceives becoming massively hated across Britain. Newspapers called her "nauseating" and a "psychopath". She went back to the Met Office, where she met Mark.

"How did you steal him?" I ask her.

"Oh, it sounds terrible but it is a deliberate act. You can't lie," she says. "I can make people laugh and maybe I tried that trick. But I had two little girls - one and two - so it's not like I was an easy option. I'm a handful at best."

Her second stint at the Met Office didn't last long. Paparazzi photographers tried to break in to steal images of her, she says. The noise was too much and they fired her.

We return to the Psychopath Checklist.

"Irresponsibility?" I ask.

She says no - but she's referring specifically to her work, which she cares about a lot. "If people on Twitter say, 'She's got a horse face, I'm going to stab her in the middle of the night' - I don't mind any of that because that's irrelevant nonsense. But I would be brokenhearted if someone felt I hadn't delivered on a job."

"Another big psychopath thing…" I say.

"Jon!" she says. "You keep going back to the psychopath…"

"Do you mind?" I ask.

"No, it's therapeutic, bizarrely," she says. "I'm getting to talk about things I don't usually talk about."

"So another big psychopath thing is 'predators and prey'," I say. "Psychopaths see the world in terms of predators and prey, and think it would be foolish not to exploit weaknesses in others."

"Yeah, definitely, definitely," she says. "I'd say business teaches you this. But life teaches you this, too. I do see that predator-prey thing. I know I'm stronger than most people I know."

"Why do you think that is?" I ask.

"The army," she says, "and then being rejected from the army because of my epilepsy. These are the things that make the person. You get married and then your partner goes off into the distance, never to come back. Bang! You do The Apprentice. You think you're going to come out looking like a relatively smart kid, but you come out the biggest bitch in Britain. Bang! Your job fires you because of a security breach by the media. Oh, God! Bang! Every time you get banged back down it makes you tougher. It's just a relentless tidal wave. I think even Twitter does it to me on a daily basis. You're called so many things. It makes you stronger and more powerful. I don't know what could knock me now."

I ask Hopkins if I can talk to her again: I want to ask her about her epilepsy. She has about four violent fits each night, and frequently wakes up to find her shoulders have dislocated from the force. She was admitted to hospital 26 times in nine months. It's a particular and severe type - nocturnal epilepsy - and it happens whenever she falls asleep. She doesn't like talking about it, she says, because she sees it as a weakness.

Later I visit London, and we arrange to have a drink. I find that I am looking forward to it. Hopkins is waiting for me in the hotel lobby. I half expect her to be in disguise, such is the extent of the hate towards her, but she's just sitting there, on her own. She's is just as personable as our conversations on Skype. It's easy to forget that she's the person who writes the terrible things.

We head to the bar. She orders tap water - to annoy the waitress, she says, because she feels she was acting snootily towards us. (I didn't notice the waitress acting snootily.)

We talk about her new TV series: TLC has announced Hopkins will be presenting her own chat show, Katie Hopkins Rules The World.

"There was an article in the Mirror that said you've failed to sign any celebrity guests because no one wants to speak to you," I say.

"We have more guests than we can handle," she replies. "People are getting turned away. We've got comedians. We've got Germaine Greer, which I'm really excited about."

Otherwise this meeting turns out to be about her tying up loose ends. "I was thinking about our little chats, about the different labels I might fall under - psychopath or narcissist or autistic," she says. "I think I'm none - just tough."

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