Gail Porter on comedy: 'Has anyone here been sectioned?'

Gail Porter speaking from behind a microphone
Gail Porter speaking from behind a microphone

"Has anyone here been sectioned?" TV presenter Gail Porter jokily asks her audience. Famed for her vibrancy as well as mental health struggles, she has turned to comedy to take control of her own story.

Comedy is a new venture for Gail. She has just concluded a run of her one-woman show Hung, Drawn and Portered at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The show documents her life experiences and appears to be liberating.

"If I've got a problem, I like to share it - whether it's homelessness or losing my hair," she tells the BBC Access All podcast. "I've been in a psychiatric unit and I just think 'you know what? I'll just tell you. What's the worst that could happen?'"

She got the taste for comedy last year after she teamed up with stand-ups John Bishop and Tony Pitts for their Fringe show, Three Little Words.

"We just did not stop laughing," she says. The duo made a throwaway comment that she should write her own show - so she did.

"It wasn't until it was all organised that I realised how much work goes into these things and how much money it costs and how much money you don't make."

Money is a bone of contention for Gail. Having risen to prominence as a lively 25-year-old in the 1990s she hosted TV programmes including Fully Booked, Top Of The Pops and Wish You Were Here.

But her pathway began to change tack in 1999 when she posed naked for FHM magazine. She was assured the image wouldn't go anywhere, but instead it was projected onto the Houses of Parliament, standing 18m (60ft) high. The first she knew of it was when she heard her name mentioned on the news.

LISTEN: You can hear the full interview with Gail Porter on the BBC Access All podcast.

Gail has previously spoken about what a devastating moment that was, and it preceded several mental health challenges and periods of homelessness that have been well-documented.

In 2005 she also developed alopecia and her TV career practically ended overnight.

"It was so quick," she says. "I had long blonde hair, and then four weeks later I was completely bald. People didn't want to go near me for television or anything because I looked different."

She decided early on that wearing a wig wasn't for her.

"My head's quite a good shape and I'm quite clumsy and I thought I'm the sort of person that would probably take my wig off in a bar, scratch my head, put it back on, and then everyone in the bar would be traumatized.

"I've been bald now for 18 years and I still get invited onto panel shows and they go: 'We can't pay you' - because all I was good for was talking about being bald and providing a sort of public service."

It's a scenario lots of disabled people in the media environment face and Gail is infuriated by it.

Gail Porter Fully Booked season four
Gail with Fully Booked hosts Chris Jarvis and Tim Vincent

The comedy seems to be a way of wrangling some of that control back. She is unafraid to mine her own experiences for the show in the hope it might help others in similar situations.

This is certainly true of her experience of being sectioned under the Mental Health Act in 2011.

She says, at the time, such units seemed to be used as holding pens while the authorities figured out what to do with the mix of individuals all there for different reasons.

"I was in there because I was depressed. There was a guy that was in there with me who they couldn't get into prison because the prison was full."

But it has also provided her with a wealth of amusing material.

"There were two guys who thought they were Jesus. So, you know, are we calling you Jesai? Do we use plurals? I can laugh about it now, but I didn't laugh at the time."

The Covid-19 pandemic was no different, thrusting hugely emotional challenges in her direction, which she is now able to see the lighter side of.

In 2020, just days before international borders closed for isolation purposes, Gail's father died while living in Spain.

"I got a phone call from my dad in the morning. He was totally fine. And then I got a phone call in the afternoon saying, 'Your dad's dead, he's had a massive brain haemorrhage'."

Gail was told she had one week to travel from Edinburgh to London, London to Spain, identify and cremate her father and then get back home.

With her father's ashes, "I got the last flight out of Spain," she says. "I put him in a bag that said 'happy' on it, because I didn't want people to ask me any questions" and she stowed him at her feet.

When a member of cabin crew offered her an upgrade - two seats in first class - she leapt at them. The bemused man next to her was quick to point out he was not connected to Gail and didn't need a seat.

"No," Gail said to him, pointing to her bag. "For my Dad."

Her father's legacy has provided some financial security and that, along with compensation for her phone being hacked, "keeps me ticking over", but she would rather be paid properly for her talents.

"If I was relying on TV or radio I would be bankrupt," she admits, highlighting the precarious nature of the celebrity world.

Money troubles was one of the reasons Gail entered the Big Brother House in 2015 for its UK vs USA series, moving in with supermodel Janice Dickinson, Atomic Kitten Natasha Hamilton and The Bill actor, Chris Ellison.

Gail Porter entering the Big Brother House
Gail Porter entering the Big Brother House

"I did that because I was skint and homeless," she admits. "I thought, 'I'll be out within the first week - I'll bore people'."

But despite begging viewers to vote her off - "if you walk, they don't pay you" - Gail remained until the final week.

When Gail did leave the house she headed directly for the exit, telling presenter Emma Willis: "Being sectioned was more fun than being in Big Brother!"

But there was an upside. The money she earned enabled her to rent a flat which became her oasis and enabled her to restore some equilibrium.

"I locked the door and I lay on the floor and I was like: 'Thank goodness'. I didn't leave the flat for about two months. I just didn't want to see anybody."

Gail's career has been a rollercoaster and at the moment she's enjoying a rising profile thanks to the comedy.

But after a month of performances she said she's keen to "hang out" with her cat and is having meetings about future writing projects too.

"I know what it's like. You can be right in the top of the wave and then suddenly you're dumped again. I'm just going to go with it and see what happens and just enjoy my life."

You can listen to the podcast and find information and support on the BBC Access All page. If you've got a story get in touch with Beth by emailing

Logo for BBC Access All with Nikki Fox
Logo for BBC Access All with Nikki Fox