Katie Piper is a person who has dealt with more in the past 14 years than most people have to deal with in a lifetime. As she says herself, sometimes it can feel as though she has lived two lives. A before and an after. On a March day in 2008, everything changed. At just 24 years old, Piper was subjected to an acid attack, orchestrated by an ex-boyfriend and carried out by an accomplice.
er health, her plans for her future, and her appearance were taken from her in an instant. In the before, Piper was a beautician and model who had been pursuing a blossoming career in television. In the after, in order to deal with her extensive burn injuries and the loss of sight in one eye, she was forced to leave her London flat and return to her family home. In that moment, it might have seemed as though her dreams were forever out of her reach. But, survivor that she is, Piper never gave up.
Today, most people will know Piper as a TV presenter (she hosts Katie Piper’s Breakfast Show on ITV), inspirational speaker, author, podcaster, Strictly Come Dancing contestant and founder of The Katie Piper Foundation.
She is married to Richard Sutton, and they have two daughters. In February, she was awarded an OBE for her services to charity. I am meeting her over a video call, in her role as an ambassador for French skincare brand La Roche-Posay.
I can see why the dermatologist-led brand would choose to work with someone like Piper. Not only is she a shining light in sharing the message to love, care for and be kind to the skin that we’re in, but she is open about still having physical and emotional challenges of her own.
Social media played a big part in helping Piper through her recovery. The platforms provided a vital means of connection during painful times. As the numbers following her continued to grow — she has amassed a million Instagram followers, as well as 307k Twitter and 253k TikTok followers — she was keen to ensure her focus on being real remained.
“I have always been a people person,” she tells me. “I really enjoy connection with people. I love understanding and listening to people’s stories. I am passionate about storytelling. I try to be authentic; I try to sort of live online as I do in person. I don’t edit or Photoshop my photos, either — that is important to me. I tell stories about my own life and the way that it is. And, I think, sometimes just by showing up as you, you can help other people. I have really found that myself.”
Piper is very mindful to try and not cover up her scars, although she detailed her struggle with her physical appearance in her 2009 documentary, My Beautiful Face.
“Sometimes in life there is no end point and it is about acceptance, and it is about living with something,” she says now. “Scars are something that I live with. There is no skincare that removes a scar, but it is about learning to understand your new skin. I never want to put the message out there of, ‘I am fine, every day is a great day’, because I think that sets other people up to feel like they are failing.
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“I am passionate about being honest about how we are. Of course, we do feel fine some days, and then we might have weeks or months where we don’t feel like that consistently. And it’s about saying, ‘That is normal’.”
In the past, Piper has spoken about horrific moments in the early days of her recovery. She was asked to leave shops or shouted at in the street because of her appearance. Speaking to her today, I would have no idea that the confident, composed and self-assured woman before me ever had to deal with situations like that.
Does she find, that when it comes to physical difference, it can be less a case of changing how she feels about herself, and more to do with changing the negative attitudes of people in society?
“It can be complex because obviously in life we want people to learn, and we want progression. The thing is, if you just shut people down and cancel them… they can’t progress and learn. And then there is also an element of, it is not your job or my job to teach everybody how to be. It’s about picking your moments.”
Piper found some of those moments through her work with La Roche-Posay, she says. “Here is a safe space where I can tell my story, have my boundaries and say what’s OK and what’s not OK. La Roche-Posay want people to feel confident, they want people to feel good.”
She was introduced to the skincare line by her physiotherapist and dermatologist. “So to now be an ambassador for the brand is special for me. It was part of what helped me get better, and had a positive impact on my mental and physical health.”
In the early stages of her recovery, Piper established The Katie Piper Foundation, a charity that supports the rehabilitation of adult burns and scarring patients.
“I set the charity up a while ago now, over 12 or 13 years ago. As a burns and scars charity, we are set up to make it easier for those living with burns and scars. We concentrate on the quality of somebody’s life after they are injured.
“We provide numerous treatments, such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy and psychotherapy. We have our own rehab centre which is modelled on the one that I stayed at myself in France, which is where I first discovered La Roche-Posay. We have all kinds of different treatments. As well as this, we have a virtual service which we set up in lockdown to provide survivors with technology so they can have the support and treatments from their homes.”
These supports are vital for survivors to begin the next chapter of their lives, as Piper knows from personal experience. “Going back into society after your treatment is one thing, but living with a totally different shell — and with whole new identity — is a completely different thing. We help people go back to work, to form new relationships and repair old relationships. We like to think of ourselves as an extended arm of support after you are discharged from your acute care and before you go back to your real life.”
I’ve previously been struck by Piper’s assertion that, when faced with difficult situations, she chooses to say, ‘Bring it on’. Where does that inner strength come from?
“It sounds a bit cliche, but I think it is the difficult times that are character-building. When you are just sailing through life and everything is easy, you are not pushed to look within or do any kind of inner work on yourself. But I think when you are faced with those kinds of dark times — that, wrongly, we have been conditioned to fear — to me, those dark times are when you find out how resilient you can be.
“I think the times when we find ourselves really struggling can also be a catalyst for change. When things get difficult, instead of panicking, try to see it as, ‘Right, this is going to be an exercise. This is going to be an opportunity to really find out what I am made of and to really get to know myself’.”
Finding beauty even in those dark corners that life can fling us into sometimes is something she has continued to do on her podcast, Katie Piper’s Extraordinary People. The project was born from her real-world interactions.
“Everywhere I would go, people would come up to me and tell me their stories; whether it was in a restaurant, on a train, or in the street. Then there were tons and tons of emails to the charity — I’d even get bags full of handwritten letters. They would be from people who had also faced adversity and it was so wide-ranging.
“It wasn’t just burns. It was everything you can think of, and they had got through it somehow. And it wasn’t a happy ending — it was a real-life ending where they had made a success of their lives, but it had been difficult. Despite everything, they had gone on to do something amazing in their lives.
“And then there was other kinds of people who just felt so stuck that they couldn’t see a way forward. They were depressed. So, I found I was connecting with all these stories from different kinds of people, and I just thought, I am in this fortunate position where I get to hear the good and the bad times. It gives me that balance and it restores my faith in society and in humans. It reminds me of how indestructible we are and how resilient we are.
“I thought, ‘If I can get these two audiences together somehow, they could really help one another’. We have done over 100 episodes now. It’s not about having celebrities as guests — it’s about having normal people who have these incredible stories that are just hidden away. And we want to help them tell them.”
Is there a recurring message that shines through the episodes?
“They all have one thing in common — they never gave up. Even when it felt like everything was falling around them, they just continued, and they kept that self-belief. I think that ability is in each one of us — we just have to tap into it and believe it.”
It can be hard to tap into that belief, I suggest, when so often society still dictates a certain kind of physical aesthetic is the only acceptable one. “I think the world has changed for the better,” Piper responds. “If I think back to 15 years ago when I was burnt, you would never have seen a model like me in a skincare ad.
“I think the world is so much more diverse and inclusive. It really depends on what you seek out. On my Instagram feed, I only follow people I can relate to or brands that have the same ethos as me. I think, if you want it, there is so much more of a range and authenticity out there now. You just have to find it.”
Looking back at that young woman who, at just 24, had her life torn apart, what would she say to her?
“I think I would say, always remember that comparison is the thief of joy. For me, because I wasn’t born with this, I had my own comparison of a before and after. It was quite a long journey towards accepting and understanding this new identity and how to cope with it. Things like going into dating were a total minefield, and are a minefield whether you have a physical difference or not. I think the key thing to remember is, there is nobody out there who has the power to make it all OK. There is only you.
“In a way, that is reassuring — everything you need is within. It’s the knock-backs and the rejections that make you surer of yourself, they help you to understand who you are and who you are not. It’s not easy and it doesn’t happen overnight, but life experience only happens with leaving the house, putting yourself out there.”
https://www.independent.ie/style/beauty/model-and-tv-presenter-katie-piper-dark-times-are-when-you-find-out-how-resilient-you-can-be-42004045.html Model and TV presenter Katie Piper: ‘Dark times are when you find out how resilient you can be’