Gail Porter: ‘Everyone saw me naked, inside I was breaking’

Being Gail Porter
Image caption Gail Porter’s mental health is the focus of a new BBC documentary

For Gail Porter, the late 90s were both the best and worst of times.

At age 21 she was a hallmark of British television – a young, smiling dynamo from Edinburgh’s Portobello who was perfectly at home leading daytime programmes such as Fully Booked, The Big Breakfast and Live and Kicking before landing a prime time slot hosting Friday night favourite Top of the Pops.

Her fan base was burgeoning and she often left the studio in a state of total euphoria.

But her seemingly unstoppable energy would deflate as she stepped inside her London flat – where loneliness, self-doubt and depression set in.

Image caption Gail in the late 90s after landing a role on Top of the Pops

Then one morning, an event unfolded that left her unable to get out of bed.

Gail had taken part in a nude photo shoot for men’s magazine FHM, which was projected onto the Houses of Parliament in a now infamous publicity stunt.

It helped sell more than one million copies of the magazine within two months.

Decades on, Gail maintains she had no idea the photo would be used in such a manner – and that she was never paid for the work.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption Gail Porter says she had no idea an image from a naked photo shoot would be beamed onto the House of Commons

Gail told BBC Scotland: “I’ve dealt with things since I was 18 but that knocked my confidence a lot – to think I had trusted someone and then to find my bottom on Big Ben.

“I had to deal with the backlash, some people were kind and some people were unkind. It made me stay in bed for quite a long time.”

Revisiting the past

The presenter’s mental health is the focal point of a new BBC Scotland documentary, which sees her retrace crucial points in her life and career while often hearing difficult truths from friends and family.

In the film’s opening scenes she revisits the Palace of Westminster and recalls the pressures she faced in the aftermath of the FHM media storm.

Criticism and jibes followed her around, occasionally in a very public way – including on an episode of Nevermind the Buzzcocks that same year.

Known for his acerbic wit, host Mark Lamarr joked he had seen “more than enough” of her topless – a comment which left Gail visibly upset on camera.

Image caption Gail faced often biting comments during the episode in 1999

She said: “We met up in the green room and I said he was extremely rude – he actually said sorry, that he thought it was a joke.

“Personally it just made me feel insignificant. This was a long time ago when you didn’t have the Me Too movement.

“Everyone was going out afterwards; I just wanted to stay home. I thought maybe it’s my fault and I deserve this sort of comment.”

Image caption Gail with Fully Booked hosts Chris Jarvis and Tim Vincent

Despite frequent bouts of unhappiness, keeping up the appearance of ‘wee smiley Gail’ was of utmost importance – though at the time Gail was unaware of the stress it placed on her mind and body.

After moving to London aged 19, there was rarely any food in her fridge – instead she survived on wine or Jelly Babies.

She developed anorexia nervosa – a condition she lived with for around nine years. But Gail only realised something was wrong when she was banned from her gym after fainting.

“People kept saying ‘oh wow, you’re looking great’,” she said. “I kept thinking every time I get thinner, someone said I looked great.

“I was enjoying the adoration and it got out of control, I couldn’t stop it. I thought if I could control my food and make myself look what I thought was better, then everything is going to be great in the world.

“But it wasn’t, I just ended up in the hospital very unwell.”

I don’t blame TV

What followed over the next two decades was a further polarising of highs and lows for Gail.

She married and celebrated the birth of her “miracle” daughter Honey, having been told by doctors she couldn’t have children.

A severe struggle with her mental health continued, and Gail developed alopecia, turned to self harm, was sectioned under the Mental Health Act (1983) and experienced a period of homelessness.

Image copyright Getty Images

She has no definitive answer for what went wrong for her, though she strongly suspects she developed an aversion to talking through her feelings in her early childhood.

And although she has watched her personal life splashed across headlines, Gail does not blame her career in television for any of her struggles.

She said: “Being a TV presenter was my favourite thing in the world, it was the most fun ever.

“I think there were a lot of deeper issues which came out at certain points.

“I know there’s something not quite right wired in my brain.

“It doesn’t make me a bad person, it doesn’t mean you can give me a badge and tell me what it is. I’d rather just be Gail.”

Being Gail Porter is available to watch on BBC iPlayer.