"Youve done a lot of-a stupid things in-a your life, Anita," said my Mum, "But this is-a by far the stupidest." I knew when I invited the film crew for the Discovery Channels special "Skin Deep" into my mothers house in Littlehampton, I was inviting trouble like this. This week the first installment of the special -- in which I go undercover as a homeless person, an obese person, and an elderly woman -- airs on Discovery UK.
When I walked into Mums house, she didnt recognize me at first. And once she did, she could not fathom why I would add wrinkles to my face and dress in frumpy clothes. But my mother has always been especially good at humbling me. The experience of filming this show has been almost as good at it as she has been for the past 60 years.
The project, proposed to me and produced by acclaimed filmmaker Vadim Jean, has a simple concept: what is it like to belong to one of the disenfranchised, discriminated-against, and neglected classes of society? In the series, make-up geniuses turned me into a homeless woman sleeping rough on the streets of London, an old woman trying to find part-time work, and an obese lady looking for love. Humbling doesnt begin to capture it.
The first episode, airing on 25 November in the UK on Discovery, was the toughest. I spent dozens of hours over four days being made up with latex facial prostheses and shoved into a hot and heavy "fat-suit" in order to make me a convincing size 28. Everywhere, my new body was in my way; it was a foreign, uncomfortable physical feeling, but the most difficult challenge was not physical -- it was social and emotional. At one point, the producers had me attend a meeting party for singles in London. As I sat around the table with 7 others -- it was 4 men and 4 women, alternating according to gender -- I felt suddenly invisible. A few of the men spoke to me, but even as they did, I could sense that they did so only out of their own sense of guilt. None was keen on me, thats for sure. The women flatly ignored me. One man, a charming and dashing plastic surgeon, was friendly enough. When I told him I was Anita Roddick, he told me to my face I was lying. I had to produce a credit card and a business card to convince him, a plastic surgeon. Thats how good the make-up was.
But it was bloody hot. I was a Niagara Falls of perspiration under the padded suit. We were to shoot some footage of other passengers on the Tube reacting to me as I tried to sit next to them, my enormous, mountainous bum nearly knocking a young lad off his seat beside me. It was funny to the point of absurdity, especially when my face literally fell off in my lap at one point because the heat and sweat had melted the adhesive.
People stared in coffee shops. One fellow overweight woman explained that many obese people dont eat in public because of the stares. "If youre skinny and eat a 12-course meal, youre merely seen as hungry," she explained. "If youre fat and eat a celery stick, youre perceived to be greedy." I learned how brave these people are, how hard it is to live even four days -- let alone a lifetime -- as a person the general society sees as lazy, unhealthy, and worthless. They arent the ones with the problem; its a society with perverted aesthetics.
Then the crew made me up as an 80-year-old woman. I struggled to be acknowledged on the street, let alone helped across the street with my bags. I applied for part-time work, and was rejected (albeit politely) by all and sundry. And I met the most wonderful elderly ladies who, naturally, I asked about their sex lives. (For the record, they all said men were boring and useless after a certain age.)
The worst, the worst, was filming the homeless episode, which airs last in the series. I discovered, as I spent five days rough -- two of them in London -- that you are both invisible and reviled when you are homeless. Yet I also met some of the most inspiring people on the streets, full of optimism and good will and generosity. And thank God for them or I might have had it worse.
I discovered, to my dismay, that I was incapable of obtaining money. I meekly stood in doorways and asked for change, greeted only rarely with eye contact, and more often than not with a "fuck off" or "piss off." I managed just seven or eight pounds in a day, and had to make it last for four. I argued with the director, who refused to help and refused to provide pocket change; I was humiliated, exhausted, and conflicted: I didnt really need the money in a larger sense, as this was a contrived situation, but if I was going to eat or really understand what it is like to make your way sleeping out, Id have to do it authentically. Despite what you may have heard in the media, I never went home in those four-plus days. I lived out of that bin-liner 24 hours a day and slept on that cardboard every night.
The worst of it was when the rubbish truck pulled up into an alley where I was sleeping beside my new friends, a couple named Sam and Tom (Sam, I discovered shortly after I met her, was pregnant). The cleaners were noisy, and awakened me with crude talk and crashing bins. Then they walked up to us, and as I lay there pretending to sleep, they pissed on the wall beside us. Then laughed. How does one maintain a sense of humanity when rubbish men respect them less than the trash they collect?
Homelessness has always been an issue close to my heart, and not only because my husband founded The Big Issue. I admit that my curiosity was intense: Why were people homeless? Did they choose it? (I realized that no one truly sane possibly could; its too soul-destroying.) How do they escape? I didnt learn all the answers, or really any. But have new-found respect and awe and deep sadness for the homeless, and I hope viewers get a taste of this world and that it fuels some compassion, too.
And thats really what this project is all about: by living as these marginalized people, I got some shocks and a bloody good education about prejudice -- my own included. If by watching you do too, Ive done my job.
Read the press coverage of the special in: