KATIE PIPER’s life was devastated by a horrific attack, but in her darkest days this former atheist found emotional solace in an unlikely place, as she tells Julia Llewellyn Smith.
At her lowest point, Katie Piper was in constant, agonising pain. She was just 24 when Danny Lynch – a man she’d dated for only two weeks – raped her then paid a hitman to attack her with sulphuric acid. Initially doctors doubted she’d survive. The acid had melted away her features, burnt her oesophagus and blinded her left eye. She spent 12 days in an induced coma followed by seven weeks in intensive care, and had to be fed through a tube for a year.
As doctors had to rebuild her face and vision, Katie, then an aspiring TV presenter and model, found herself facing a lifetime of ongoing treatment. Old friends shunned her when they went out partying. Isolated and depressed, she did something that by today’s standards seems astonishingly unusual: she turned to religion. ‘I started going to church twice a week because I was horribly lonely,’ she says. ‘It felt like a safe place. I felt I wouldn’t get abused or rejected and have nasty things said. And I was right – it was the first place after my injuries I could safely be in a crowd.’
It’s fascinating hearing Katie talk so openly about her faith. While no one bats an eyelid at celebrities who meditate or believe in the power of crystals or horoscopes, it’s rare to hear someone so young and glamorous praising old-fashioned church. ‘I think Christianity needs a new PR,’ she jokes. ‘There are so many misconceptions.’
Katie had never hidden her beliefs but no one paid much attention until she was appointed presenter of the BBC’s Songs of Praise last year. ‘Loads of people were shocked. I had lots of positive reactions but also some negative and I lost [social-media] followers. Some thought I shouldn’t be influencing people either way. A lot of my followers are like-minded individuals who’ve faced adversity. Some have come through the other side but others are still in a place of anger, asking, “Why has this happened?” and feel anti any kind of God.’ Katie understands this rage. Recalling her early days in hospital, she says, ‘My life was in tatters. I felt so empty, filled with nothing but fear and shame. How could I ever get through this?’ It took a nurse saying, ‘Things happen for a reason. God has great things in store for you’ to inspire Katie – who’d been brought up an atheist – to begin praying.
Still, she was so despairing she resolved that as soon as she left hospital she’d take her own life. Then ‘the weirdest feeling’ crept up on her. ‘I felt as if I was full of light,’ she recalled. She heard a voice in her head saying, ‘Everything’s going to be OK. Your journey’s just begun.’ Of course it took more than a few prayers for Katie to turn her life around, but her faith has been her bedrock.
Today, aged 38, she’s a panellist on Loose Women, an ambassador for haircare brand Pantene and the author of several bestselling books. More thana million people follow her on Instagram and, having feared her disfigurement would prevent her finding love or having children, she’s happily married to carpenter Richie Sutton and they have two daughters, Belle, seven, and Penelope, three.
Although Katie’s packed schedule means she can’t now get to church often, she still worships. ‘I do it in a very modern way with an app called Lectio 365 that every day sends you a prayer then a traditional scripture related to Bible reading, with advice on how you can apply them in a modern sense.’ There are some verses from the Bible included in her latest book A Little Bit of Faith, which gives a positive affirmation for every day of the year, but also thoughts from great authors and even Katie’s mum Diane, a retired primary school teacher (her father David is a barber), who, at one of Katie’s lowest points, firmly told her, ‘You’re just going to have to get on with it, dear.’
‘Mum’s very empathetic and soft, but she’s not gushy. Now if anything bad happens we all use that phrase as a joke in the family WhatsApp group,’ grins Katie, who grew up with elder brother Paul and younger sister Suzy in a Hampshire village. ‘But it was actually really good advice about living life as it is, rather than mourning what it isn’t. While sometimes you need to wallow, to be angry, to have self-pity, you also need to know when to put that behind you.’
Her way of doing that was to establish the Katie Piper Foundation to provide burns and scars victims with services such as physiotherapy and psychotherapy– areas where, as a patient, she’d felt the NHS was lacking. But as donations dried up during lockdowns, her rehab centre had to close and now consultations are only available online. ‘We got half of the money we had before, but the need for our services increased by five times during the pandemic.
Domestic violence has increased, as has self-harm and also accidents. Some data shows that’s because of hand gel – it’s very flammable, and people have been rubbing it all up their forearms then going out to use the barbecue, lighting cigarettes, getting too close to candles…’
It’s shocking to think that she has endured more than 400 operations, although she says she’s stopped counting: ‘I just accept that operations are part of my life and they’re a privilege. In a lot of countries people don’t have access to something like the NHS and get to a point where there’s no more that can be done for them. And actually,’ she continues mischievously, ‘an operation is a day off from the kids.’
She’s equally philosophical about the trolling she encounters on social media. ‘One of my best affirmations is “Hurt people hurt other people”,’ she says. ‘You always know trolling comes from a place of pain, so you try to take the stance “Thank God I’m not in that much pain because that would be horrible.”’
It’s hard not to be humbled by Katie’s grace but it’s something she shrugs off. ‘For lots of people, wisdom would come with age but I wasn’t afforded that luxury. In the early days I was getting by in 24-hour windows – seeing the physio, staying alive – rather than having big, long-term plans. Then I began writing [her autobiography Beautiful]. That was cathartic and healing and gave me a profession, which does a lot for you psychologically – gives you confidence and purpose and a distraction.”
Katie stresses that she’s not always in some Zen-like state of calm, though. ‘It’s an evolving thing. In the past 18 months, the most robust person might have struggled.’
It’s been especially tough for her seeing so little of her mum, who for the past seven years has suffered from bowel cancer, which spread to the liver, lungs, skin and lymph glands. ‘We didn’t see them for more than a year; Christmas on Zoom was s***. But now we can do a lateral-flow test and go to see them. We just don’t go to big events like we used to, but that’s fine; it’s not what you do together that’s important, it’s the time you spend together.’
Once again, it’s impossible not to be wowed by Katie’s positivity. ‘Nothing is ever put on to us that we can’t deal with. The toughest journeys are given to the strongest soldiers because they can do them,’ she says. ‘So when life gets really, really s***ty, I think, “Well, it must be because I can handle it.” Other people might have a breakdown – and I wouldn’t want that, so I’ll take the brunt, I’ll be fine.’
Katie’s new book A Little Bit of Faith is published by SPCK Publishing, price £14.99*. To donate to Katie’s charity, please visit katiepiperfoundation.org.uk