Katie Piper: 'People still stare at my face - but I don’t want them to feel sorry for me'
TV presenter Katie Piper tells Radhika Sanghani how she plans to tell her daughter about the acid attack that changed her life
Katie Piper (31) was the victim of an appalling attack. Back when she was 24 years old, her ex-boyfriend raped her. Later, he arranged for sulphuric acid to be thrown across her face.
The acid attack left Piper blind in one eye, with severe skin burns and shocking injuries.
Since then Piper has undergone numerous skin grafts, had her face rebuilt and worked incredibly hard to increase awareness about burn victims. She has her own charity, The Katie Piper Foundation, and she presents a Channel 4 show, Bodyshockers, about people who regret the body-altering procedures of their past.
But now she has some other big news – she’s recently become a mum and fiancée.
Piper gave birth to her first child Belle Elizabeth in March, and her boyfriend James proposed to her weeks ago. It’s exciting news, and she tells me: “There’s not a day when I don’t realise how lucky I am.”
Only now that Piper is a mum, she’s starting to worry that her acid attack will have an impact on Belle’s life: “I’m really conscious of not passing any anxieties into her. I don’t want to be like, this happened to me so you shouldn’t go on the train on your own. I think she has to have normal experiences otherwise I’m not living my own vision because I’m tainting her life a little bit. There’s nothing worse than saying the past is in the past, then dragging it into your kid’s life.
“For me it really is in the past and it’s up to me to keep it in my past. It shouldn’t really be part of her life at all – it should be something that happened to me before she was born.”
But at the same time she doesn’t want to hide what happened to her from her daughter – she wants to show her that people disabilities or disfigurements are just as capable of being as successful, strong and sexy as anyone else.
“I see it as someone who’s been burned doesn’t have to be put in this box where they can’t be glamorous – I try and live that vision all the time and push those stereotypes away. That’s all you can do. For Belle I can tell her I’m different looks wise but it doesn’t change my abilities. I have to prove that to her. You can’t just pay it lip service.”
It looks like Piper has already proven this, given her impressive track record with TV presenting, charity founding, book writing and general awareness raising. She’s pretty much a role model for most young women, though it’s not how she sees herself.
'I'm not just someone who got burnt'
“I’m just trying to live my life,” she says. “[Being a role model] is a big pedestal to be put on. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me or pity me – I want people to know that what got me through was human spirit and everyone has that in them. And anything’s possible if we take charge of our own destiny. We’re all capable of carrying on, and not feeling sorry for ourselves.”
Piper is very good at this – she refuses to let her attack take over her life. “You want it to be a small part of your life, rather than, hi, I’m someone who got burnt,” she explains. It’s something she learnt to do a couple of years ago, when she was first starting to date after recovering from her attack.
“It was like going back to being 12 or 13 because I’d been in recovery out of the loop,” she tells me. “My friends were getting engaged and getting mortgages, and I was learning to swallow and learning how to walk again out of coming out of a coma. I couldn’t relate to them anymore. I’d been wearing recovery garments and a mask so I didn’t even know what clothes were in fashion. I was a complete novice. A lot of times I really liked people and they didn’t fancy me. It was a bit difficult.”
She tells me about a time where a man guy came in to the restaurant and pretended to go and talk to someone else, then never came back. Piper told her mum she was convinced she’d never meet someone because of her looks, but her mum told her: “It might not be because of how you look – this guy might have just not fancied you, or you might have been boring, or he might have been on other dates.”
This advice is something she says gave her perspective, where she realised: “You can’t just blame it on being burnt, because then I’d turn into the type of person I don’t want to be which is bitter and negative. No one wants to be around someone like that whether you’re burnt or not.”
Disabled people are the same as anyone else
Her new attitude meant Piper didn’t retreat after a few bad dates – instead she kept going on dates with people her friends suggested, and eventually ended up with James. Her relationship is something she feels incredibly grateful for, and she tells me that it’s important for people to recognise that people with disabilities do still want love, and sex.
“Why would they not want to have a sex life? Why would they not want to have a relationship? That’s normal. Programmes like [The Undateables] show you do have the same hopes, dreams, aspirations to fall in love, of course you would.”
More than anything, she wants society to stop making people with disabilities feel different, whether it’s done by beauty assistants not knowing how to deal with burn scars, or companies not marketing their products towards burn victims or disabled people.
“Where is this woman represented?,” she says .”You’re represented as a victim. What is disability seen as? It’s not seen as glamorous or equal. The Paralympics were brilliant – they showed young people disabled people in a different light. Not to pity them or donate to them, but it was like wow, I want to be like him.
“We need to not leave that as a token gesture but to continue that and show disabled people as sexy, as strong, as high achievers, as sporty people, as CEOs of companies.”
It shouldn't be taboo to be burnt
One area where she thinks this is already starting to happen is with violence against women. “I don’t think there’s as much [of a stigma] anymore,” she says. “But Britain is still 'quite stiff upper lip' - we didnt used to talk about these things, or show emotion, but with lots of documentaries and misery memoirs coming out, it’s becoming more spoken about. Even the historic allegations that are coming out, people are coming forward.”
She tells me that people still stare at her in the street, but she tries not to let it bother her because “they might have a sister who’s a burn victim, or be burned under their T-shirt. You don’t know”. When it comes to this, she refuses to judge someone who stares at her – instead she wants society to get to a place where differences are normalised.
“I do get it and it doesn’t bother me all the time, but if you’re tired, had a late night, it can annoy you. You do have to remember if you’re in a minority group that’s going to happen. But continuously staring can make you feel uncomfortable.
“You can campaign and make something less taboo – we only stare because we’re curious about differences. I don’t think many people stare at people in wheelchairs because we see it regularly. I suppose if you see more in the media it will take away the curiosity.”
This is Piper’s big mission, to try and normalise differences and disabilities in our society. It’s also why so many people – from survivors of sexual violence to burn victims to the disabled – see her as a role model and keep putting her on that pedestal, whether Piper likes it or not.