If you had to pick the two words most associated with Katie Piper, you’d go for ‘courage’ and ‘resilience’. But last week, Katie was the first to admit that, for all its glittery glamour, her experience of Strictly Come Dancing has been more than a little challenging.
‘I totally underestimated what it was going to be like,’ she says. ‘It’s such a clichéd word to use, but for me it really is a journey – probably a slower one than for some of the others who are a lot better than me.’ The 34-year-old campaigner describes her first two performances – including a paso doble that judge Craig Revel Horwood awarded a miserly two points – as ‘rubbish’. Viewers have been more forgiving, flooding social media with messages of support that branded the judges’ harsh comments unfair.
As they’ve pointed out, not only is Katie not a performer, unlike some other contestants, but her injuries make dancing live in front of millions even more difficult than it already sounds. They’re from the acid attack she suffered in 2008, which left her needing 250 operations. ‘I can’t do the ballroom holds very well because of the scarring on the left side of my neck, and I keep missing my step on that side because I’m blind in that eye,’ she says. ‘If you try to dance with one eye shut, it’s really difficult.’
Her attacker, Stefan Sylvestre, is soon to be released from prison, adding to the anxiety Katie still suffers from. It’s a testament to her strength that she insists, ‘I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. You’ve also got Lauren [Steadman, the Paralympian], and she’s really good.’
Katie’s working her hardest to improve, but admits Strictly’s been a test of her confidence. ‘At first I was making unhealthy comparisons between myself and the other girls in the competition,’ she says. ‘In my normal work I feel confident because I know what I’m doing, but put me in front of all these dancers and I feel like the runt of the litter.’
Her mantra, though, which stems from her years of recovery and mentoring others with burns and scars through The Katie Piper Foundation, is that self-belief ‘isn’t about having an aesthetically pleasing body, but comes from having a positive opinion about yourself and the reasons behind that’. She says she’s body confident because, ‘My body’s come out of a coma, it’s saved my life, it’s given me two kids, so I’m in awe of it and its ability to recover.’
Rather than hide her scars away, she makes the most of what she’s able to do. ‘I’ve been in positions where I couldn’t exercise, so when I can be free with my body and run and go to the gym and dance, I never take that for granted.’ Having her daughters, Belle, four, and Penelope, 10 months, has made her even more determined not to hold herself back, so they grow up seeing what’s possible.
She’s also passionate about being ‘truthful about what I put out there’ in a world in which we’re more used to seeing enhanced images than real ones. She doesn’t digitally alter the images she posts on social media because, she says, ‘I want to be open and transparent.’
Like increasing numbers of women, she’s had enough of Insta-fakeness. ‘I had a big detox a couple of months ago where I unfollowed loads of people on Instagram when I realised I was following too many artificial pages,’ she says. ‘Now I follow a lot of activists, mum bloggers, plus-size models and disability campaigners, so every day my feed is filled with real people doing important things. It’s a more rounded view of what’s really happening out there.’
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This week, she’s launching a podcast called Katie Piper’s Extraordinary People, in which she interviews people who’ve rebuilt their lives after life-changing events. ‘People like that come up to me in restaurants or in the street and tell me phenomenal things. So I decided to do a podcast about their stories, the emotions, the challenges and their advice about how to move on.’
She hopes her Strictly journey continues. ‘I joined because I wanted to feel sexier and freer and work on letting go,’ she says. ‘I think it’s going to be good for me.’ ‘
Strictly Come Dancing’ is on Saturdays and Sundays on BBC One