By Victoria Woodhall
This summer, beauty vlogger Nic Chapman posted a very different kind of video on her YouTube channel Pixiwoo. In it, she shared that she has multiple sclerosis, the degenerative condition that also affected her estranged father. She tells Victoria Woodhall why she refuses to feel sorry for herself
It’s hard to look for the bright side when you’re diagnosed with a potentially life-shortening illness and you’ve grown up with a father who was violent, cruel and controlling. But Nic Chapman – who, with her sister Sam, comprises the stratospherically successful beauty vlogging duo Pixiwoo – has an astonishing and humbling talent for doing exactly that.
‘I was thinking the other day, I’ve had a pretty crappy life, but I’ve loved it. On paper, it has just been one thing after another, but it’s all life experience,’ insists the 36-year-old with a determined smile in her sparkling green eyes.
This June, Nic put out her weekly Pixiwoo video. But this one wasn’t about healthy-glow make-up or how to achieve Adele’s look; instead it centred on Nic’s ‘secret illness’. With hair scraped back into a simple knot and wearing what must have been her most waterproof mascara, she told the channel’s 2.1 million followers that her biological father, with whom she was no longer in contact, had recently died from complications arising from multiple sclerosis. ‘And he never gave me anything in my whole life – apart from MS,’ she told her viewers. It had taken her three years to reach a point where she felt ready to share her own diagnosis of the incurable neurological condition that can cause difficulty with movement and vision, and that has a small – but for Nic significant – genetic risk. After she drops that bombshell to her viewers, Nic immediately identifies a positive. ‘I don’t know why I’m crying because I don’t even feel sorry for myself. I live with it and I’m totally fine.’
‘Totally fine’ is her declaration of determination. Since her diagnosis, Nic has overhauled her diet and learned to listen to her body and rest when she needs to. Her focus is on staying well for her husband Ian, their two children, Harry, five, and Edie, four, and the rest of her tight-knit family.
The reaction to the video has been ‘amazing’, Nic says. While more than 100,000 people in the UK have MS, ‘many don’t talk about it. It has opened my eyes to how many young people have it, which was the biggest shock and quite heartbreaking. I feel very fortunate that I’ve already had two children, but I won’t have any more because of it. Childbirth is a massive stress on the body and I hope that enough can be done so that people with MS don’t miss out on the opportunity [to have children].’
Some viewers, however, criticised her for being disrespectful towards her father in the video, ‘because he gave me life. I replied, “Yes, my dad gave me life, but he also tortured me and my family for many years. Anyone can be a sperm donor; it takes a lot to be a dad.”’
John, who was 65 when he died, had been bedridden after many years of living with MS. Nic hadn’t seen him since her 16th birthday, when she accompanied her mother to court, where he was banned from seeking access to his four children. But she remembers the effects the illness had on him while she was growing up in Norwich with her elder sister Sam, 39, and younger twin brothers John and Jim, 29. ‘My dad limped on his left side and couldn’t write very well. He used to ask me to massage his leg and do exercises with him where he would push his leg against my hand to try to work the muscles. I would do anything to be with my dad. I was always daddy’s girl.’ John was a difficult father, though. At the time of Nic’s birth he was serving time in prison for armed robbery. Later he nicknamed her ‘tafsgel’, ‘which is fat legs backwards’. His hurtful parting words to her were: ‘You’re not my daughter.’
‘He would play us off against each other, promise something and then take it away. One time my sister was going to the school prom with her boyfriend. She came downstairs looking gorgeous and my dad said, “You’re not going to the prom – you haven’t asked my permission.” Sam sat on the stairs crying, but when her boyfriend arrived, our dad told her she could go. It was a control thing, to take away that pleasure, and then grant it back so you’d be really grateful. That’s what our entire upbringing was like and it’s probably why Sam and I don’t get excited about anything until it’s actually happening. I don’t think that’s necessarily a negative thing; it’s something we’ve learnt. But no child should have to live like that, being constantly picked on, and denied approval.’
Nic is surprised, and probably a little hurt, when people dismiss her and Sam as privileged as a result of their success. Their make-up brush brand Real Techniques is the UK’s biggest and is popular worldwide. The sisters are out of the country for around six months of the year meeting buyers and growing the brand.
They are part of a seemingly gilded circle of vloggers who have grown up with and made a living from YouTube – although Pixiwoo pretty much invented the make-up tutorial genre when they started vlogging nearly ten years ago. Zoe Sugg watched them before she started her own Zoella channel. Pixiwoo rarely feature sponsored posts, which have made millionaires of others, preferring to stay ‘a bit different’. Real Techniques is their primary income.
Both professional make-up artists who worked for the likes of Mac and Illamasqua, Sam and Nic ran courses from their studio in Norwich, where they now film their videos. They taught their brother’s then girlfriend Tanya Burr her craft, both as a make-up artist and YouTuber; today she has more followers than they do. Tanya is now married to their brother, the model and influencer Jim Chapman (YouTube following 2.5 million). Jim’s twin brother John is one half of personal training and nutrition YouTube duo The Lean Machines. Even their mother Judy had her own shopping channel Modern and Mature for a while, ‘but she didn’t like the lack of privacy’, says Nic. Judy had spent many years keeping her personal life – the rows, the beatings, the clumps of hair missing – hidden. Her new-found attention didn’t sit well.
‘I find it interesting when people comment on videos, “Oh, you’re privileged.” I think, “God, you don’t even know!” My mum had nothing – my dad destroyed it all – so we couldn’t take anything [when her parents split]. We had leather sofas and he put knives through them. He burned our photos.’
The marriage was violent for its entire 18 years. When Nic was 14, Judy had finally had enough. John had started to be violent towards the children: ‘He threw my brothers across the room.’ The police were called and took John into custody overnight, while Judy fled to a friend’s house with the children. She began divorce proceedings. But that wasn’t the end of it. ‘We went back to the house and had [intruder] alarms fitted, but he managed to cut the wires. One night he told my brothers to open the window and dragged Jim out, put him in the car and drove off. I rang the police and shouted upstairs, “Mum, he’s taken Jim!” The police were on high alert for our house anyway and they stopped our dad at the end of the road – he hadn’t got very far – and brought him back. My poor little brother! He was only seven; he didn’t know what was going on. I remember going out and saying, “Jim, open the door!” Our dad had locked him in the car while he was talking to the police. I was trying to rip the car to bits and a policeman said, “Calm down, young lady, or you’ll be in trouble.” But that was the life we led at the time, constant adrenalin. Later, when I was diagnosed with MS, I was, like, “Oh my God, another thing to remind me of my dad.” You know, I never wished him ill. I just vowed that I would never be put in that situation again or let my children be put in that situation.’
Nic has learnt enough about MS to know that genes play only a small part: the condition is not directly inherited, though there is a 1.5 per cent chance of a child developing it if their parent has it. But in Nic’s mind, the link to her father is clear. Environmental factors such as certain viruses and lack of vitamin D may play a part, as can smoking and obesity, which can affect the immune system (MS is an autoimmune condition). Sufferers usually start to experience symptoms – such as tingling and numbness in their limbs, blurred vision, difficulty with balance – in their 20s and 30s, and the condition is more common in women than men.
Nic believes the stress of her 55-hour labour with her first child was her tipping point. When Harry was a few months old, Nic’s vision began to blur in the corner of her left eye. ‘It was a bit like [the effects of] strobe lighting. I thought, “What’s that weird thing?” I still get it occasionally now.’
The doctors thought it was optic neuritis, inflammation of the optic nerve. Nic was also experiencing severe night sweats and was felled by tiredness, but put both down to having just had a baby. ‘Sweating is normal after childbirth because you sweat excess fluids out. But people with MS often sweat a lot more than other people. After Harry, it went on for a long time – months after his birth I’d still have to change the bed sheets regularly. I continue to have times like that when I wake up drenched in sweat.’
Six months after Edie was born, Nic was training hard in the gym, enjoying getting her body back into shape, but suddenly lost the sight in her right eye. The blindness went on for a couple of weeks. The doctors gave her an eye patch to wear while they did tests and, cheerily, she posted an image of herself wearing it on Instagram. ‘I just thought, “How bizarre,” and joked about it with my husband.’ A doctor friend saw the post and messaged her immediately. ‘She said, “Did you know that could be linked with MS?” When I told her my dad had it, she urged me to get an MRI scan.’ Lesions were found on Nic’s brain and a lumbar puncture was needed to confirm the diagnosis. ‘When the doctor told me I had MS, I already knew. I just remember thinking about Ian and wanting to check he was OK.’
She has by now become well-practised at explaining the condition. ‘Multiple sclerosis is caused by multiple scars on the brain that stop the signals going to the nervous system and prevent you being able to work certain parts of your body. The more scars you have, the more signals you lose.’ I sense the willpower required to keep her tone matter-of-fact.
There were times after Edie was born, during her biggest relapse, that were frightening. ‘I couldn’t get out of bed; I couldn’t even lift my children. I’d lose my vision; I’d feel really tired. I remember being at Mum’s house once and saying, “I don’t feel great.” She told me to sit down and I said, “I can’t sit down, Mum, because what if I can’t get up?” I had no feeling in my legs. It was like that for a long time.’
Unlike her father, whose MS was progressive, Nic has the ‘relapsing remitting’ type. She suffers relapses (so far only the two, one after the birth of each child) where symptoms become acute, followed by periods of near-normality. However, if relapses happen frequently with no time for recovery, relapsing and remitting MS can become progressive. ‘Right now, one eye is blurred and I don’t see colour the way I used to – and that will never come back. But luckily the other eye is super strong.’
Having not had a relapse for three years, Nic’s focus is on supporting her immune system and taking supplements – particularly vitamin D – in an effort to stave off another episode. For now, she is not on medication and her doctors are impressed with her progress. Her diet, she says, ‘is 90 per cent completely healthy and ten per cent fun. I think you need that to stay sane. I give myself a little bit of what I crave, whether that’s Lindt dark mint chocolate or the occasional glass of prosecco.’ Kale features heavily because ‘it’s brain food’.
MS gives Nic constant reminders – tingling and numbness in her limbs, sweating and forgetfulness. At times like these, she knows she has to stop and rest. ‘When I get tired or a bit forgetful, I’ll have a massive bowl of greens. I’m conscious that the condition is degenerative, that things are not going to be as sharp as they used to be, so I make sure I do activities that stimulate my brain. I’m not a big reader, but I listen to podcasts.’ She scrolls through her phone and shows me true crime and conspiracy podcasts Thinking Sideways and Generation Why, and one about the history of Hollywood, entitled You Must Remember This.
‘Sam has been supportive, but she said, “I can’t bring myself to watch the video. I see the first few seconds, then I have to turn it off.” I said, “You don’t have to watch it; you’ve lived through it.” My husband has watched it a couple of times and cried every time.’
The one family member Nic never told about her MS was her father. When they learned that he was dying, the siblings talked about visiting him. ‘It was around the time that I was diagnosed and I said no,’ says Nic. ‘I didn’t want to see my dad bedridden with a worse version of what I have, so we chose not to go. We discussed it again when news of the funeral came through and again I said no. I hope he didn’t suffer, but those doors were firmly shut.’
How does she feel now, after all she has had to process? ‘I’d say I’m more at one with myself; I know what’s important. I don’t care if I miss a party – I’d prefer to be with my children for another ten minutes. I feel happier. And I’m less afraid of death, weirdly enough. I am going to die, everyone is. Something is going to get us all at some point – it might be tomorrow, it might be in 30 or 40 years’ time, and I feel fine about it. I say that to Mum a lot because she worries: “I’m fine with life, Mum, I’ve had a good one.” I don’t think MS is going to take me. The worst time is when you’re first diagnosed. People tell you you’re so strong, but you have no option but to be strong. You’re the person who’s carrying you through it; you have to be strong for yourself and for your kids.
‘In any case,’ she adds, ‘life is really good now; I can’t fault it. I feel very blessed, I have two beautiful children, a lovely husband – it’s just that I have something that I deal with daily.’
In telling this to Pixiwoo’s millions of followers, Nic has made a point of doing what social media rarely does. ‘I’m telling the world that life isn’t through an Instagram filter; people have stuff that goes on behind it that you couldn’t even imagine.’