Online bullies drove Big Brother winner Josie Gibson to the brink of suicide. But, she tells Gabrielle Fagan, their abuse inspired her to lose weight
One unflattering holiday snapshot was all it took.
Pictured on a beach, 16 stone, a size 20 and ‘daring’ to wear a bikini, Josie Gibson was suddenly hounded by a barrage of vicious taunts, compared to a whale and told she was so ‘disgusting she deserved to die’.
Perhaps inevitably, the Big Brother star was so traumatised, she contemplated jumping out of a window to end it all.
But three years on, the story has thankfully taken a very different turn. Now, brimming with confidence, the slim, leggy blonde brims has a new book, The Josie Gibson Diet and two fitness DVDs to her name.
“That photo and the online bullying which followed actually turned out to be the boot up the backside I needed,” Gibson insists, revealing her resulting remarkable transformation that saw her lose five stone to get to a size 10.
It turns out that she’s no stranger to adversity, either. The 29-year-old grew up in Bristol as one of eight children “on a council estate, living on the breadline” and had to cope with tragedy at an early age – she was 10 when her father died from a stabbing during a family feud.
“There was a lot to deal with when I was a kid and I grew up eating a very unhealthy diet – fry-ups, pizzas, ice cream – and just eating more and more to comfort myself whenever I felt bad about life. I was overweight from the age of six and I now realise food for me was an emotional crutch.”
Over the years she unsuccessfully tried multiple diets – everything from slimming pills to protein shakes.
“Outwardly, though, I’d pretend that being a heavy, big girl – I’m 5ft 11in – meant I had a big personality to match. I hid my pain and tears with humour, making jokes about myself before others could,” she says.
“But inside I was deeply unhappy, convinced I would be obese for life and that no-one could ever love me or want me.”
Gibson would soon discover people did love and want her, in 2010, when she entered Channel Four’s Big Brother. She was working as a financial sales representative beforehand, and was only at the audition for the show to support a friend, but she was chosen as a contestant and soon emerged as a landslide winner, viewers responding to her irrepressibly chirpy, gutsy outlook on life.
Sadly, there was, for her, an unwelcome downside, too – life in the goldfish bowl of celebrity.
“Big Brother changed my life and I will always be grateful to it. I was stunned to win and think it was the best thing I ever did. But you do end up in this celebrity world and, believe me at times, it can feel like you’ve been chucked into a fish tank full of sharks,” she says.
“I was so innocent and naive in the beginning and because I like everyone and I thought they’d like me. But I discovered people think you’re fair game when they see you as ‘famous’ and they can say what they want about you – I don’t honestly think they regard you as a person with feelings who can be hurt like anyone else.”
She discovered this more than ever following the publication of ‘that’ photo of her on holiday in 2011. “They didn’t even use a picture of my face. One was just a photo of my fat behind with a caption ‘which celebrity is this?’” she says ruefully.
“I know I looked a state – if you’re a size 20 it’s never advisable to wear a two-piece let alone run in one – but the backlash was vicious and vitriolic.
“The depression and self-loathing that set in left me under the darkest cloud I’ve ever know. I was at rock bottom.
“I couldn’t believe how nasty people could be. I drove myself mad trying to answer back to the hundreds of faceless, nameless and gutless cowards who’d spend hours abusing me from the safety of their computer screens. It took every ounce of my strength to get through it.”
Gibson credits Luke Sanwo, her plumber fiance, for giving her that strength.
“I came very close one day to ending it all. But thank God, that night Luke, who loves me for what I am and doesn’t care what size I am, came back from work and gave me a kiss.
“It literally reminded me of everything I had to live for, and how everyone who loved me would be heartbroken to know I’d let the bullies get the better of me.
“And the truth is, that photo even shocked me. I’d known all my life I had to do something about my weight but those pictures brought it home – I hadn’t actually realised I’d got that fat.”
There has been one blow recently that did dent Gibson’s seemingly unshakeable happiness – her younger brother, Harry, who is deaf, was attacked while on a night out with her and their family.
Gibson, who’s fluent in sign language, says: “It was a horrible shock as I found him covered in blood and my first thought was, ‘No, don’t tell me this is happening to him like it did to my dad’. I’m his older sister and I’ve always been protective of Harry, who’s the loveliest person.”
Clearly lovely herself, Gibson is resolute that her aim in life is to help others fight obesity rather than win herself more celebrity headlines.
“I don’t even really like the name celebrity – what does it mean? I’m just grateful that me being well-known means I can now reach out to people who need help with their weight problems. I tell them, ‘If I can do it, so can you’.