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Gail Porter has spent most of the past 18 years talking about being bald.

The 1990s TV presenter lost all her hair to alopecia, a chronic condition which causes the immune system to attack hair follicles, in 2005. It came out of nowhere and happened in just four weeks, while she was away from home filming in the U.S.

Her long blonde locks fell out in clumps on her pillow while she slept, along with her eyelashes and eyebrows.

It felt, she reveals, ‘as if someone was physically rubbing me out’.

‘I remember calling my then husband and asking him to tell our daughter, who was two, that Mummy’s gone away with all her hair and she’s going to come back with nothing. I cried the whole way home.’

Gail has her first proper wig - a gorgeously glossy blonde number which looks remarkably like her own hair did at the peak of her TV fame

Gail has her first proper wig – a gorgeously glossy blonde number which looks remarkably like her own hair did at the peak of her TV fame

Gail lost all her hair to alopecia, a chronic condition which causes the immune system to attack hair follicles, in 2005

Gail lost all her hair to alopecia, a chronic condition which causes the immune system to attack hair follicles, in 2005 

Gail, now 52, became an ambassador for hair loss, a public beacon of support for men and women who had suffered the same life-changing experience.

‘The irony was, I didn’t know anything about being bald,’ she says. ‘I hadn’t even had time to get used to it. But suddenly it was all anyone wanted me to talk about.’

Today, Gail is on less familiar ground: she’s talking about having hair again. Not her own — despite some doctors’ predictions, her alopecia has proven irreversible — but her first proper wig: a gorgeously glossy blonde number which looks remarkably like her own hair did at the peak of her TV fame.

‘It takes me back,’ she admits. ‘I wore it to a restaurant in Soho the other day, and walked up to a table where my friends were having dinner, and they looked at me and went: ‘Oh my God, it’s Gail from 1999!’ Some people don’t recognise me. I’ve known one of the waitresses in that restaurant for years, and she came up to me and said: ‘Hi Ma’am, can I get you a table?’ ‘

The public has got used to Gail without hair: she is lucky, she says, to have ‘an OK-shaped head’, and is adept at accessorising with quirky glasses and colourful beanie hats.

The wig, made by her friend, wigmaker Amber Jean Rowan, comprises natural, ethically-sourced human hair and requires ‘no styling whatsoever — I just fling it on and go. I can flick it around a bit and it feels nice. But I can take it on or off whenever I fancy, and there’s something liberating in that.’

Her 21-year-old daughter, Honey, loves it — and Gail knows her mum, Sandra, who died of lung cancer in 2009, would have been a fan. ‘She never wanted my head to get cold,’ she says, smiling.

But Gail won’t be wearing it all the time: it’s reserved for special occasions or when she wants to go incognito. ‘It’s like a hat really. A long, swooshy hat.

‘Most of the time, ‘she’ stays in the house [the wig, Gail insists, is a ‘she’ but she hasn’t yet settled on a name for it]. Sometimes she comes out with me.

‘I won’t make the mistake of wearing her on the Tube again, though. The other day I was wearing the wig with a beanie on top, and it was so hot that I wanted to rip both of them off.

‘But there were children sitting opposite me and I didn’t want to traumatise them.’

Gail is disarmingly honest and self-deprecating. Though a laugh plays almost constantly on her lips, her eyes — huge green irises with not a scrap of make-up —shine with vulnerability. There’s no doubt she’s had a tough life, one she refers to in two halves: Before Hair Loss and After.

Before, she was at the pinnacle of her presenting career — a media student from Edinburgh, she’d worked her way through the ranks, from runner to children’s television, narrowly missing out on a slot on Blue Peter — to becoming a presenter on the most-watched shows of the era: Fully Booked, The Big Breakfast and Top Of The Pops.

It was, she says, ‘a proper nice time’: late nights at the pub, canteen lunches with top bands and misbehaving — ‘but not in a super-bad way’.

‘I ended up working with my friends and everyone was lovely to each other,’ she recalls. ‘We were non-stop laughing. It didn’t feel like work.’

But the bubbly, carefree persona Gail portrayed on screen masked a young woman grappling with the pressures of fame. Since her teenage years, she’d suffered from anorexia, sparked by cruel comments at school which first caused her to overeat, and then to stop eating altogether.

‘When I started losing weight, people would say: ‘Wow, you look great.’ So that encouraged me. I went down to 5½-6 st.’

Her hectic lifestyle — waking up at 2am for The Big Breakfast, getting home at midnight after Top Of The Pops — made it easy to skip meals, and for a time she survived on wine, sushi and handfuls of Jelly Babies.

‘On days off, I’d go to the gym at 6am,’ she says. ‘I’d go on the running machine or cross-trainer for an hour and then sweat it out in the sauna.

‘One day I passed out and my personal trainer took me to hospital. They banned me from the gym after that. It wasn’t until I stopped that I realised I was knackered and really hungry.’

An image of a naked Gail was projected on the Houses of Parliament in 1999 as a publicity stunt

An image of a naked Gail was projected on the Houses of Parliament in 1999 as a publicity stunt

Since her teenage years, Gail suffered from anorexia, sparked by cruel comments at school which first caused her to overeat, and then to stop eating altogether

Since her teenage years, Gail suffered from anorexia, sparked by cruel comments at school which first caused her to overeat, and then to stop eating altogether

In 1999, Gail was catapulted into the public eye when, having posed nude for lads’ magazine FHM, an image of her naked body was projected on to the Houses of Parliament as a publicity stunt.

She says the now-infamous incident — which she knew nothing about until the next day — was ‘horrible’. The magazine sold a million copies, while she was left to pick up the pieces.

‘I knew I’d done the shoot, but they never asked my permission to do that [project the image].

‘My mum was ringing asking: ‘What have you done?’ There were people outside my house day and night. It was really scary. The whole thing knocked my confidence. I didn’t get out of bed for a long time.’

Looking back, Gail adds: ‘I was naive and just going with the flow. I’d spoken to my Nan about it and she’d told me to go for it. I don’t think she realised I was going to get my a**e out.’

On the whole, Gail’s family —especially her mother, who was on the FHM set with her during the shoot — were very supportive, not just then but throughout her career.

Her Dad, Craig, who died in 2020, had separated from her mum when Gail was in her 20s and had moved to Spain.

‘He took it all with a pinch of salt,’ she says. ‘At his wake, all his friends kept coming up to me saying: ‘He was so proud. He talked about you all the time.’ Not to me, he didn’t. He was very Scottish, very stoical.’

TV in those days was a pretty sexist place, Gail admits: presenters were hired for their looks, lewd innuendos were rife and posing nude was par for the course. Jimmy Savile was still prowling prime-time shows and Gail recalls appearing alongside him on Top Of The Pops.

‘We didn’t know what he was like back then; we just thought he was a creepy old man,’ she says.

‘I remember they were introducing something, and there was a bunch of us huddled together on camera. He was really touchy-feely; his hands were everywhere. But it was just before we went live, so none of us could react.’

As the shiny world of youth TV began to tarnish, Gail moved on to more grown-up presenting roles, such as the travel series Wish You Were Here? — her favourite job to date.

Off screen, too, she started settling down. Having dated edgy Prodigy frontman Keith Flint, who died in 2019 and whom she’s described as ‘the love of my life’, she married another musician — Dan Hipgrave, the guitarist with the band Toploader — in 2001.

Their daughter, Honey, was born the following year — something Gail, who’d been told she couldn’t have children, never expected.

‘Because I wasn’t eating much, I didn’t have periods in my 20s,’ she explains. ‘But when I met my ex‑husband, I started to be a bit healthier, and then suddenly I got pregnant. It was a total, wonderful surprise.’

Gail went back to work just a week after Honey was born and seemed, initially, to be managing the chaotic juggle of work, fame and motherhood. But her husband was away a lot and she sank into post-natal depression.

Driven by anxiety, she was also self-harming and suffering extreme mood swings.

Eventually, her relationship became so acrimonious that she and Dan announced their separation in 2005 — the same year she was hit by alopecia.

Then, of course, came the After.

Doctors have never been able to explain the condition — which affects not only the hair on her head but her entire body — which may have been triggered by stress, hormones or something different. Gail is still baffled.

She had been filming Dead Famous, a paranormal TV series, and when she came back from the shoot her work seemed to evaporate overnight (although she is at pains to point out that Dead Famous kept her on — hair or no hair). Roles would come up, she’d audition — and then would come the inevitable question: how did she feel about wearing a wig?

‘I just thought: ‘No. This is me, and I want to get used to it.’

‘I met so many people going through all sorts of things, and then my mum died of cancer — and that put it all into perspective. Whether I had hair or not shouldn’t be important.’

The fickle world of showbusiness, however, was less understanding. Gail the 1990s pin-up didn’t look like she used to — and, to some, that mattered.

‘I went mad for a while,’ she says, flippantly. ‘I ended up in rehab. It was a mixture of mental health problems, and I was drinking too much to block everything out.’

In 2011, she was sectioned under the Mental Health Act after texting her boyfriend at the time: ‘I feel suicidal.’

She was taken to a psychiatric unit in London, and later a rehabilitation clinic, after which she found her work and finances in tatters. Things got so bad that, in 2014, she was briefly homeless, trudging round the capital with a binbag and, one awful night, sleeping on a park bench.

‘I was sofa-surfing, moving between friends’ houses,’ she says. ‘Honey was with her dad. The whole thing was embarrassing because I didn’t want to tell anyone I had nowhere to go.

‘I spent one night on Hampstead Heath. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. I was sitting on a bench where there were plenty of street lights, and it was getting later and later, and I knew there was a nice little shop that opened at 6am for Marmite and toast. So I thought: ‘You know what, I’ll stay.’

‘There were people wandering out of the pubs at 2am. I didn’t feel too scared.

‘But it was a real low point. I felt like the worst person: rehab, homelessness, not being a great mum. I hate myself for that.’

The following year, in what might seem a cynical casting decision, she was asked to appear on Celebrity Big Brother.

‘I said yes for the money,’ she admits. ‘It was unpleasant: lots of noise and game-playing, and they knew I was quite vulnerable.’

She spent 20 days in the house, desperately trying to get evicted (if she walked, she didn’t get the cash). ‘In the end I got enough to put down a deposit on a rental flat, which I’m still in and I love,’ she says. ‘And then I started doing little bits of work again.’

Indeed, since then, things have been on the up. She made a documentary about her mental health demons, called Being Gail Porter, for the BBC — and in 2020 it won a Bafta.

The experience boosted her confidence, and in 2022, after a few forays into stand-up, she started writing comedy. Hung, Drawn And Portered, her hour-long, deeply personal show, ran to great acclaim at Edinburgh Festival last summer, and she’s currently touring the UK with it.

‘It’s probably not the cleverest idea I’ve ever had for anxiety reasons, but I enjoy it once I get up on stage,’ she insists.

These days, she is defiantly single, declaring herself ‘too old and set in my ways to date’.

‘Plus,’ she adds, ‘I’ve got insomnia. I wake up at 3am and watch murder shows on the Crime channel. Can you imagine trying to do that with some bloke in my bed?’

When she’s not working, she likes the cinema — ‘I go alone’ — and SoulCycle spin classes, which pump her full of endorphins when she needs a boost.

She’s got a black belt in karate and kickboxing and wants to get back into those, too.

There’s also a book — or perhaps a screenplay; she hasn’t yet decided — in the offing.

‘It’s taken me years because I wrote it all by hand,’ says Gail. ‘Then I kept realising I didn’t like certain bits and setting the pages on fire in the garden.’

Fire-starting aside, Gail is enjoying her life being on a more even keel, devoting her time to things that matter, such as her daughter, who’s in a band and of whom she is ‘crazy proud’.

‘She is way cleverer than me,’ Gail says. ‘She knows exactly what she wants in life — she’s not a worry to me.’

Does Honey worry about her? ‘Probably. We have a nice relationship — at least I think so.

‘And I’m in a really good place now,’ Gail insists. ‘I’ve had some bad times, but most of them have been great. Looking back, even with all my problems, I don’t think I would change a thing.’

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Post sourceDaily mail

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