Gok Wan is best known as the presenter of How to Look Good Naked, and yet, behind his smiling facade, he was hiding his own eating disorder. He talks to Catherine Scott.
Fashion guru Gok Wan became a household name helping give women body confidence in his hit Channel 4 show How to Look Good Naked. But while Gok was helping women to feel better about their own bodies, no one knew that the television presenter was himself battling an eating disorder. His weight plummeted 11 stone in just eight months, endangering his health.
He says it was actually doing the show, which encouraged women and men who were insecure with their bodies to strip nude for the camera, that made him finally admit to his own demons.
“I suppose I knew that I had a real problem, but I lied to myself. I lied about a lot of things, it was just easier,” admits the 43-year-old, who is currently touring the UK with his one-man show in which he talks for the first time openly about his eating disorder.
“This show will be the first time I have ever discussed how having body confidence issues while filming How To Look Good Naked affected me – even to myself, let alone an audience,” said Gok.
“But I was really struggling. I was very much anorexic when I was still making that programme. I suddenly realised I needed a Gok,” he says. “I needed someone to help me understand why I had this dysfunctional relationship with food.”
He says it was making the programme that actually saved him.
“And so How To Look Good Naked wasn’t just an incredible programme that helped millions of people around the world, it really helped me. I went on those journeys with the women as much as they did and I think that is why the show was such a success. We were all going on a journey together.
“The producers didn’t know they were going to get that, Channel 4 didn’t know they were going to get that, I didn’t know I was going to get that; which is what I think the success of that programme was. It was real. It was the most real television that I can remember.”
In addition to body confidence issues, Gok will also discuss his struggle with realising and accepting his identity, as well as his tendency at a young age to make things up in an attempt to make his life more interesting.
“I always suffered with my identity from a really early age,” said Gok.
“Whether that was gaining weight or losing weight, or being effeminate, camp and stuff; always standing out from the crowd.”
Gok says it was his family who got him through the worst of his illness, although he says people can never be cured of an eating disorder.
“It is an illness, it is just that we don’t talk about like we do about cancer. I have an amazing family and they saved me. I did have the chance to have therapy when I was first diagnosed, but I didn’t want it.
“My family became my therapists although I don’t think they realised they were doing it.”
As well as being incredibly close to his mum and dad, Gok has an older sister, a solicitor and two brothers.
He was born on September 9, 1974 in Leicester to a Chinese father and British mother, who ran a local Chinese takeaway and lived on a council estate.
He’s described himself as “a fat kid, half Chinese and gay”, and until he was 20, he weighed 21 stone. The bullying he endured, he believes, resulted in his battle with anorexia.
“When I was growing up I was bullied and fat, not feeling like I fitted in. I never want to feel that way again.” However he says it wasn’t just the fact that he was ‘fat and Chinese’ it was also that he felt he wasn’t as bright as those around him.
It is ironic that a man so tormented by his own body image should end up in the ephemeral world of fashion and celebrity.
After studying at London’s prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama, he found himself drawn to hair and make-up over drama, prompting his entrée into the fashion industry and gaining him early work as a hair and make-up artist on titles such as The Sunday Times Style.
Finding himself dissatisfied with beauty alone, however, Gok decided to pursue his love of clothes as a fashion stylist for the rich and famous.
Television work soon followed as he became consultant to TV shows such as GMTV and Big Brother’s Little Brother.
It is 13 years ago that he was first approached by Channel 4 to present How to Look Good Naked.
It is the world of celebrity, which he says he hates, that he also talks about in his live 90-minute show which he says is part autobiographical, part audience participation and part holding a mirror up to the world of celebrity, but above all it is “a lot of fun”.
“The show is quite political and I talk about a lot of the things I have seen during my career.
“People think I just turned up on television presenting How to Look Good Naked in 2006 but many don’t realise that I had ten years dressing the rich and famous before that and I talk about that world.
“I despise the idea of celebrity and how it seems to have become something to strive for. It’s a real bugbear of mine.
“I grew in a house where skills were what was important. It was instilled in us that to have a craft was good thing and strive to be the best at whatever you chose. But how can you be the best celebrity?” he says.
“I hate being famous. I have seen how celebrity changes people – and not for the best.”
When Gok was approached by the producers and asked if he’d be interested in doing a one-man show he had no idea what it might be about.
“Then I went to see my old friend Dawn French in her one-woman show and it made me realise how little I really knew about her despite the fact we had been friends for years and had had many conversations about life.
“It made me think about my life. I have this career that has been very ‘out there’. I started making this list of things that I thought might be interesting, it grew to 108 and then 408 – and I suddenly realised there was a story there. Not just about me, but about the industry and fame. There is plenty of dark and shade, but above all I want to make people smile.”
He says the show’s format is very much led by the audience, which means he has no idea exactly what will happen on each night of the 50-date show.
“We give the audience the subject matters and let them decide what comes next. It’s dangerous but it’s really good.
“I have a really low attention span, just like my dad, and get bored very easily. When I get bored and get naughty and mischievous which can be dangerous with up to 2,000 people in the audience.
“I like danger and so for me this is perfect. It’s no more dangerous than live television or a makeover show but we never quite know what is going to happen, which I really like.”
Gok Wan Naked and Baring All is at Leeds City Varieties on Monday November 6. For tickets call the box office on 0113 243 0808 or online at cityvarieties.co.uk