Gail Porter was someone you would see regularly on big TV shows such as Top Of The Pops and Live & Kicking in the 1990s and 2000s, as well as on the cover of lads mags – famously the FHM cover that saw her naked image projected, without her prior knowledge, on to the Houses of Parliament.
But when she was diagnosed with alopecia in the mid-2000s, after already suffering with mental health problems, her TV work dried up.
“My hair fell out, nobody wanted to touch me with a barge pole,” she tells Sky News. “I didn’t want to wear a wig because I find them uncomfortable. And then suddenly the only jobs you’re getting offered are to go on and talk about being bald.”
After bouts of depression, self-harm, anorexia and a breakdown – and at one point being sectioned – the star found herself with nowhere to go about eight years ago. She had no work, and an unexpected tax bill “completely scuppered me. I was done”.
Porter, 52, says she spent time moving between friends’ spare bedrooms and sofas. “And there were a couple of nights on Hampstead Heath, just sitting, thinking: ‘I’ve got no idea where to go’. It was a very long six months, but I managed to get back on my feet again.”
Porter entered the Celebrity Big Brother house in August 2015, appearing alongside stars including Janice Dickinson, Bobby Davro and Natasha Hamilton, and was able to rent the flat in London she is living in today. “I’m happy to have a roof over my head,” she says.
In recent years, the star has campaigned to raise awareness of those facing homelessness and is now working with the Good Things Foundation, a digital charity, and Virgin Media O2 to highlight The National Databank – described as similar to a foodbank, but for free mobile data, texts, and calls.
‘I never thought in a million years it would get this bad’
The charity says demand for the National Databank is increasing, with its website already receiving almost double the number of visits in 2023 compared to the same period in 2022, as the cost of living crisis continues.
Virgin Media O2 surveyed 2,000 adults in the UK, and say more than a third (35%) believe they are only one pay slip away from finding themselves in extremely difficult financial hardship.
“That is such a frightening statistic,” says Porter. “I never thought in a million years it would get to this bad with me. And then it was just spiralling out of control.
“I was trying to apply for jobs, but without my phone or a laptop… I was walking round with a black bin liner with my clothes. ‘Excuse me! You got any jobs going in the bookshop? Or you got any jobs going in the library?’ I just want to work anywhere, I don’t care. It was very difficult for me, traipsing around everywhere with a bag, just trying to get myself back on my feet.”
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Porter found herself struggling to access some of the everyday services most take for granted. “I did have a little bit of data on my phone… then when that ran out, suddenly I thought, my gosh, can someone help me get somewhere to stay? Can I go to the doctor’s to talk to somebody about how I’m feeling mentally? Can I contact a friend?”
Because of her fame, the assumption by those around her was that she would be okay.
“All those magazines I did, I never got a penny… not everything is as lucrative as it seems.”
Porter says she appeared on shows for minimum pay and even without payment. “So you’d see me doing lots and lots of things… that kind of went on for quite a long time. You can’t really work for free all the time.”
Moving to stand-up comedy
Life is great now, she says, and there’s a new challenge on the cards – Porter, who is Scottish, is due to launch her stand-up comedy career at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival later this year.
“I have good days and bad days,” she says when I ask if she’s feeling nervous. “Sometimes I think, this is going to be great, what could possibly go wrong? And then sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with the sweats. What was I thinking of? And it’s my hometown so my friends have said they’ll come.”
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Porter says she doesn’t want to give too much away, but the show will draw on her personal experiences of mental health struggles and her homelessness.
“Now that I’m on my feet again, I can laugh about certain things,” she says. “So, lots of little stories about losing my hair, being sectioned, all sorts of little funny things. Hopefully people will enjoy it.”
Before she goes, Porter offers advice to anyone who is going through similar experiences to hers – and urges people in need to find their local databank.
“You’re not on your own,” she says. “Don’t be proud. You just have to swallow that and say, you know what? It’s happened. The best thing I can do is go onwards and upwards – and keep asking for help.”