Katie Piper tells us about her new podcast and how we can learn from lockdown

PUBLISHED: 17:36 22 June 2020 | UPDATED: 17:42 22 June 2020

Katie Piper

Katie Piper

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Denise Marshall talks to model and television personality Katie Piper about missing loved ones during lockdown and how we can put the pandemic into perspective and learn from it | Photos: Dan Kennedy

Katie Piper captured the public consciousness back in 2008 when Channel 4 screened the harrowing, Bafta award-winning documentary, Katie: My Beautiful Face.

The programme gave an insight to her recovery from a brutal acid attack she suffered, aged just 24.

More than most celebrities, she has the challenge of balancing her presenting career with tremendous voluntary commitments, as trustee of The Katie Piper Foundation supporting burns victims nationwide.

Unsurprisingly, Katie was the last person to whinge about simply being asked to stay at home with her family as the country, and indeed the world, began the surreal onset of social distancing in March.

Unbeknown to her while filming, it was the first official lockdown Mother’s Day weekend when her appearance on BBC1’s Songs of Praise was screened and Katie’s revelations of finding faith put the experience firmly into perspective.

Filmed in her hometown church in Andover, Hampshire, Katie, now 36, spoke about a spiritual experience shortly after coming out of an induced coma following a vicious assault by her ex-boyfriend and a subsequent shocking sulphuric acid attack organised by him.

Katie PiperKatie Piper

‘Religion had been a big part of my life and my recovery,’ reveals Katie. ‘I didn’t have aspirations to go on the show, but they approached me and I thought, actually that’s really lovely and totally different for me. Why not? It was also a chance to talk about my charity.’

Katie explained that church was a place of safety where she could seek company and strength after months of being forced into isolation for health reasons, often in mental and physical anguish, adapting to reduced vision, undergoing gruelling skin treatments four times a day and unable to eat a normal diet due to damage to her oesophagus from the acid.

With her devoted family and mother Diane, who was by her side throughout more than 300 operations, Katie began a passionate journey.

In hospital at her lowest ebb, she had been overcome with reassuring warmth and a voice told her that in time everything would be okay and she had to trust that her life would have a purpose.

With a well-connected contacts book, including Simon Cowell as a patron of her charity, Katie’s life appears filled with much-deserved glamour, yet she is most comfortable mentoring fellow burns survivors and most proud of the opening of The Katie Piper Foundation Burns and Rehabilitation Centre in Merseyside last year.

The clinic is a lifeline helping victims lose the shackles of severe injuries and scars, but has a worrying new struggle due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Katie PiperKatie Piper

‘We quickly changed all our services from face to face to virtual. Burns survivors that were receiving physio from our burns specialist are still getting that on secure video calling.

‘I’m speaking to patients on the phone, but something as simple as a £30 donation would enable a physio to have a remote session with a patient.

‘We set up a survivor support line so we can support the NHS and take on their patients. We’ve had to shut the centre as some of our workers have been redeployed.

‘We’ve got some patients who are at their very worst who we can’t stop helping and we are still supporting them, but under crazy cuts.

‘We’re under real pressure, as we’ve lost a quarter of our funding from cancelled events and in desperate need of funds. It’s difficult, but every charity and business is trying to navigate a way forward at the moment.’

To describe Katie as inspiring doesn’t do her justice. Underneath the gloss of stylish events and fashion shoots where her natural beauty radiates, is a calm, powerful woman who has fiercely fought a long and incredibly brave journey to be in a position to fight for others.

Her recovery is well-documented, but the superhuman effort she invests for others isn’t always so clear.

Hearing parts of her trauma is heart-breaking, but self-pity is absent. She doesn’t waste a second of the new life she has built. One she once thought was impossible to reclaim.

‘I have two professional lives. My commercial life of TV, books and my podcast, and then for the charity I’m the founder and trustee, which I do voluntarily. I’ve had to step up my involvement at the moment because I can help bring in money.

‘I take on 20 patients a year who I mentor face to face. I go into hospitals and homes. Some people are getting really down in lockdown. They’re not just living with their injuries and disfigurement, they’re living alone.

‘They might have been burned in a house fire and their partner didn’t make it or they might have been burned as a child, lived as a recluse and never developed relationships. We’re having to up our contact with people, as we’re worried for them mentally.’

No stranger to a challenge, Katie has the support of her husband, carpenter Richard Sutton. The couple started a family while living in West Essex just before marrying in 2015, and recently moved to East London with daughters Belle, six and Penelope, two.

Katie PiperKatie Piper

Images of Katie cradling her newborns are particularly moving, as motherhood was one of many chances she thought she’d been robbed of.

‘My husband is from Loughton born and bred,’ laughs Katie. ‘He has a proper Cockney voice. We love Epping forest and we go for lots of bike rides where there’s lots of wildlife.

‘Because there’s so many designated walks, there’s all these little tea huts you can stop at. We have great memories of being there and exercising as a family.’

How has Katie and her girls coped without regular trips like these in lockdown?

‘We’re all healthy and we have a house and a garden, so I don’t think we’re in a position to complain.

‘There are a lot of positives to be had, it’s just that people aren’t focusing on them at the moment. This is temporary. We’re all doing it to get to a better place and that’s what we’ve got to hold on to.

Katie PiperKatie Piper

‘The most valuable thing we’re doing is giving the children our time with arts and crafts and painting. They don’t care about money or posh experiences.

‘Very early on you didn’t feel it was just your diary or career where things where cancelled, because it’s the whole world on pause. Again, it’s perspective. People are on ventilators.’

For the last year Katie has presented her podcast, Katie’s Extraordinary People. Now in its third series, it’s unique for its variety of guests, from sporting stars to selfless campaigners.

She is also working on a special NHS Heroes mini-series, reflecting how frontline services need to be valued.

‘I have people I admire from afar and think, they’ll never come on, but then you ask and they say they listen to it and would love to come on.

‘I didn’t want it to be a promo platform for people’s latest song. The beauty of a podcast is that it’s private and intimate.’

In between recording sessions, she flew to Pakistan for a procedure by her original NHS burns surgeon, Dr Muhammad Jawad, who had moved back home from the UK. She was eager to learn where the figure who had helped transform her life was from.

Katie PiperKatie Piper

It’s increasingly clear, as her daughters vie for her attention during our remote interview, that being pulled in so many directions must be overwhelming.

‘I’m a nightmare,’ she laughs. ‘That was one of the reasons behind the podcast. Sometimes you can get a bit burned out and you can’t help everybody all the time, so you have to pick who you turn down.

‘This was a platform to say, thank you for contacting me with your amazing story. I don’t have all the answers, but there’s this one episode I recorded about child rape and I’m sorry you’ve had that experience.

‘Please listen to the advice and there’s some charity contacts. It’s another tool that I can give out to people.’

I wonder how Katie, gentle and stoic, maintains such unshakeable confidence, an outlook that gives hope to so many.

‘I feel resilient and resilience makes you confident,’ she concludes. ‘I still feel like a bit of a minger sometimes and if things go wrong, I feel like a failure. I still experience the same emotions as everyone else.

‘There’s lots of memes on Instagram saying, “I hope we don’t go back to normal,” and I get that because for me I’ve already had a life-changing experience, so I wasn’t living with the same outlook as other people anyway.

‘That’s what I’ve built my career on. That’s what I talk about in motivational speeches. I felt slightly more enlightened than some people. There’s always light in the darkness. You’ve just got to look for it and find it.’ 

Find out more

Katie Piper’s Extraordinary People Podcast is available now.

For more information on Katie’s work supporting burns survivors, visit katiepiperfoundation.org.uk

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