Gok Wan on working through his daily back pain misery
Published 24/10/2012 | 11:51
Fashion consultant and TV presenter Gok Wan talks about the daily pain he suffers from his back and how his pet puppy's helping him recover
Gok Wan's wrapped up against the cold, with his eyes shielded by sunglasses as he walks his dog, the flamboyantly-named Dolly Albertine Dishcloth.
He jokes that the French bulldog puppy insists he gets up early to go for a walk and he's clearly devoted to her.
"She makes me come out in the morning no matter what sort of shape I'm in or what aches and pains I'm suffering from," he says with an indulgent smile.
It would be all too easy to assume a high-octane celebrity lifestyle is taking its toll on the fashion consultant, author and TV presenter who seems to be rarely off our screens, but in fact he's currently suffering from a severe back problem, which means he sometimes has to use a walking stick.
"It's been a really tough year," he admits. "I've had to have seven operations on my back which was a real shock. It started in March when I went to the gym and felt this pain, which turned out to be slipped discs.
"I had physio treatment but one morning as I bent over in the shower I was plunged into absolute agony. I was losing the feeling in the lower part of my body because the pain was so intense."
Within a few hours he'd had the first of two discectomy operations, where the soft part of the damaged disc is removed to take pressure off the nerve in the back, and has subsequently had surgery five more times to treat the area.
"Most people recover within around five months, but mine is still a problem. The nerve canal in the spine is inflamed and hasn't settled so all sorts of doctors are looking at it trying to work out the mystery of how to sort it. Trust my back to be attention seeking!"
It's part of his style, and his charm, to dryly mock his trademark camp, gay persona but it's his prodigious talent which has helped to make him a household name.
A natural communicator and bubbly extrovert, he found fame as a consultant on TV shows encouraging women to love their bodies and dress with confidence no matter what their size. In 2006, he starred in the first of his own hugely successful shows in Channel 4's How To Look Good Naked.
He's since written books on style and fashion, launched his own clothes ranges, this year presented a cookery show, Gok Cooks Chinese and is currently hosting a dating show, Channel 4's Baggage.
Stoically, the 38-year-old refuses to see his back problem as anything more than a temporary set-back and won't scale down his workload.
"No way, I'm a proud workaholic. I love my life which goes at a million miles an hour and if I'm really busy it's not unusual for me to put in around 100 hours a week," he says.
"It's frustrating and has got me down if sometimes I haven't been able to go at that speed, because if I get very tired it can put the back out.
"But I'm so headstrong and tunnel visioned that even if I was in agony it wouldn't stop me doing what I do best - working - and I don't want people to feel sorry for me.
"Dolly's so helpful as she makes me focus on her needs and distracts me from focusing on being in low level daily pain."
Overcoming challenges is not unfamiliar to Gok, the son of an English mother, Myra, and Chinese father, John, who was brought up in Leicester.
In his autobiography, Through Thick And Thin, he revisited painful memories of being bullied at school because he was a gay, overweight teenager, and at his heaviest 21 stone.
Later, while he was at the Central School Of Speech And Drama in London he developed anorexia, losing 10 stone in months.
"You just have to come through these things," he says philosophically, and undoubtedly his experiences gave him his empathy with those who suffer from body image issues and low self-esteem over their appearance.
"I'm fine now and although anorexia is a disease which is with you forever I have developed the tools to deal with it.
"Most anorexics I've met have said that it can recur and you either just experience the very early stages of it or it blossoms fully. I've had both happen over the years but I've done enough work now to be able to work it out and take control."
He credits his family with helping him through the tough times in his life.
"My parents are incredible and have been so supportive of me all my life. My dad gave me this incredibly strong work ethic and so much drive.
"Having people in your life who boost your self-confidence and instil a sense of self-worth is vital and I'm always grateful for it."
It's partly in recognition of the key role support can play that for the third year running Gok's supporting the Vodafone World Of Difference Programme.
It gives 500 people from across the UK the opportunity to donate their time to a local charity and get paid.
"When I talk to the people who've got involved in this it's amazing the buzz that they get from it," he enthuses.
"It's a wonderful opportunity to benefit a charity, help others, as well as develop your own skills, meet new people and get a break away from the routine of regular life which we all need occasionally. It's a win for everyone and I feel honoured to be a part of it."
While his focus is continually on new career goals and challenges - "I'm never afraid of failure - I'm more afraid of regretting not giving something new a go" - he hopes one day to have a family.
"I'd love to have children and I'm hoping that will happen in the next five years, but I wouldn't have them on my own, because I'm too much of a child myself. There would definitely need to be at least one adult in the family!
"I'm in a very comfortable place with my job and financially and I just have to get everything else in place.
"But for the time being I'm just going to have to satisfy my paternal instincts by looking after Dolly."
INFORMATION: Charities and individuals wanting to take part in the Vodafone World Of Difference Programme should visit: www.vodafone.co.uk/worldofdifference. Entries close November 13, with placements starting in March 2013. The website also hosts a Charity Matchmaker tool for those wanting to participate who don't have a specific charity in mind.