With painful honesty, Katie Piper, the former TV presenter tells why she has finally waived her right to anonymity – and reveals the awful events that changed her life for ever
However much she would like to forget them, the details of how she lost her dreams, her identity and very nearly her life will stay with Katie Piper for ever.
They are burned into both her memory and her face. Katie, 26, has remained fearful and anonymous in the 18 months since the man she met on the internet attempted to destroy her, so few will recognise her name.
Moving on: Katie Piper is learning to live with her rebuilt features and is exhausted by more than 30 operations following the acid attack by her former boyfriend
But the facts of the case – the rape, the vengeful boyfriend Daniel Lynch, the cup of industrial-strength sulphuric acid – are all too familiar, a cause of anger and revulsion when they were revealed in court earlier this year.
It was an added cruelty that Katie’s world had revolved around her beauty. She modelled for catalogues and magazines, presented television programmes and had dreamed of a full-time career in the media.
But on March 31, 2008, the old Katie Piper disappeared for ever. The acid, hurled into her face on a busy London street, disfigured her beyond recognition. Some slipped down her throat with further terrible consequences.
A vibrant Katie before the attack (left), and the mask she wears to help heal the wounds from the acid burns (right)
‘I could hear someone screaming and screaming and kept wishing they’d be quiet. Then I realised it was me,’ she recalls.
‘I was standing in the street with people walking past me and I could feel my face evaporating. I thought I was on fire as the acid ate at my skin.
‘In one of Danny’s calls he’d told me he’d got a present for me that would change my life for ever. I knew instantly that he was behind it.’
Afterwards, able to communicate only in writing, she gave her parents a note that said: ‘Kill me.’ Yet today, Katie is no longer in despair.
Beauty: Katie before the attack
Still learning to live with her rebuilt features and exhausted by more than 30 operations, she has agreed to waive her anonymity and speak in public. Her fightback will be featured in a Channel 4 documentary this month.
She hopes her bravery will help her regain some confidence. It is also a chance to insist – as she has discovered in the hardest way – that appearance cannot be the measure of human worth.
‘I’m never going to be the old Katie. She’s like a best friend I once had,’ she admits.
‘She’s gone and there’s a different one in her place. I’m not going to be a victim. I’m the woman who got through this. I’m full of life and looking forward to the future.’
At the beginning of last year, Katie was living in London for the first time and enjoying it. She was popular, particularly with men who were drawn to her blonde good looks and petite figure.
Like many young adults, she lived part of her hectic life through the pages of Facebook and it was not unusual for her to receive 80 emails in one day, many from admiring strangers.
Mostly, these were ignored. But when 33-year-old Daniel Lynch, a martial arts enthusiast, emailed Katie to say he’d been following her career, she admits she was instantly attracted.
‘He was wearing a martial arts suit in his picture and I’d been doing some promotional work for martial arts in the UK,’ she explains.
‘We seemed to have a lot in common and, to be honest, looking at his picture, I fancied him.’
A few days later Lynch turned up at a promotional event in Reading where Katie was working.
‘He seemed quite shy and nervous when we first met,’ she says. ‘We just had a nice, normal chat. He was 6ft 4in, quite macho-looking and handsome. I liked what I saw.’
Katie sent him her phone number and when they went on their first date, he met her with flowers and a teddy bear.
‘We liked each other and we had fun,’ she says. ‘He told me on our second date that he loved me. His arm was always around me and even when we were in the car and stopped at traffic lights, he would turn and kiss me.
Jailed for life: Ex-boyfriend Daniel Lynch left, and Stefan Sylvestre
‘He was attentive and showered me with affection. He rang me and emailed me constantly. At one point he’d sent so many messages he blocked my Facebook account. If I’m honest, I was flattered – at least at first.’
She soon got a very different view of her new boyfriend, though. Angered by a trivial slight when he was buying trainers, Lynch had exploded at a shop assistant, leaving Katie to pick up the pieces. This was at the end of March last year.
‘We were two weeks into our relationship and I’d started feeling stifled by his constant calls and emails. I didn’t say anything but I planned to break up with him,’ she says.
Scarred for life: Courageous Kate underwent pioneering surgery to treat her burns
If she had known his true background, she would never have been with him in the first place. Lynch, who lived in Shepherd’s Bush, West London, with his mother and brother, had convictions for violence and had served a jail sentence for throwing boiling water into the face of another man. But Katie knew none of this.
‘Later on the day of the incident in the shop, when he suggested we make a night of it and stay in a hotel in Bayswater, I agreed,’ she says.
‘It was a Thursday and I had an appointment in town the next day. We went for a meal, shared a bottle of wine and he seemed to be in a good mood again.’
What happened next was terrifying by anyone’s standards. To a young girl from a comfortable home in a South of England market town, it was unimaginable. Lynch raped her in the hotel room before holding her captive for eight hellish hours.
He smashed her head, beat her, threatened to slash her face with a razor and said he would hang her with a belt. Later he claimed to have been high on steroids.
Even now, the details of the rape are hard for Katie to recount. ‘One minute he’d tell me he loved me and the next he was shouting and swearing. His face was so contorted and I knew that I was dealing with a very sick person,’ she says. ‘I didn’t think he was going to let me leave that room alive.
‘The blood from my head wound was everywhere – on the bed, on the carpets, on the bathroom tiles. I told him the maids would be along soon and we had to clear up, otherwise they’d call the police.’
They drove back to Katie’s flat in Golders Green where, to her relief, he agreed to let her out of the car. It was 5pm on Friday.
If her brief affair with Lynch was a dreadful mistake, Katie’s next decision, too, might seem open to question. She decided not to go to the police, gripped by the fear that he would kill her if she put one foot wrong. Nor did she tell the truth to the doctors at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, where her head wound was glued.
‘I hated myself and what had happened to me,’ she says. ‘But I was terrified that he would hurt me or someone I loved. I kept thinking that as long as I played along and didn’t make him angry, he’d get fed up.’
Instead, the bombardment of phone calls continued. Lynch was full of apologies, she says, and the following Monday morning begged her to read an email he had written.
So, with her own internet line down, she agreed to leave her flat and walk to an internet cafe.
Katie admits: ‘I was nervous about leaving the flat but thought that I could end this thing if I read the email. The whole time Danny was on the phone to me, making conversation, asking me what I was wearing. I was exhausted so I told him.’
This was how her assailant, directed by Lynch, picked her out.
‘I saw a man in a hooded top walking towards me,’ she says. ‘He was carrying a cup. I assumed he was a beggar so I reached into my bag for some change. He came up close, like he was going to speak, and threw liquid from the cup at my face.
‘The pain was indescribable, but for a split second I remember thinking, “How rude to throw coffee when I was trying to help him.” I could feel my skin and clothes burning off me.’
The shocking attack can be seen on CCTV as Katie Piper (on the right), is attacked in broad daylight
Losing her vision and disorientated, Katie staggered across Golders Green High Road, dodging in and out of cars to get help. ‘I remember my Ugg boots slipped off and I just left them in the middle of the road,’ she says. ‘I could so easily have been knocked down.’
To make things worse, Katie had to wait more than an hour in agony before ambulance crews were given the all-clear to treat her, because they didn’t know what the substance was and whether there was a risk of her attacker being nearby.
Chillingly, she confides: ‘They zipped me up in a protective suit and I thought it must be a body bag and that I was dead and looking in on the scene around me. All I could hear were voices and I figured I must be in Heaven.’
David Piper, who runs a business, and his wife Diane took one look at their once beautiful daughter in hospital and silently believed she’d be better off dead, as Diane now admits. On one side, Katie’s face had been destroyed as far as the fat layer – the only thing beyond it was bone.
She had lost the sight in her left eye and, because of the damage to her oesophagus, was unable to eat.
‘I couldn’t see a way back for her,’ says Diane. ‘I couldn’t imagine what sort of future she’d have. Everything she’d hoped for and dreamed of depended on her face and it was gone. The thing that upset me most was when she wrote, “Kill me.” ’
So serious were the injuries that Katie’s surgeon at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, Mohammad Ali Jawad, resorted to pioneering techniques. In a single operation, the first of its kind ever to be performed, he removed Katie’s entire face, used a skin substitute, Matriderm (which provides a ‘scaffolding’ for grafts), to rebuild its foundations, then grafted skin from her lower back and buttocks on to her face.
After the operation, she was put into an induced coma for 12 days and kept in intensive care. Her weight plummeted to six stone and she had to be fed via a tube in her stomach.
Katie was given police protection even though Lynch and Stefan Sylvestre, now 21 and who threw the acid, had been arrested.
Her determination to recover astonished doctors but it was seven weeks before she knew and saw for herself the extent of the damage.
‘When I held the mirror up I thought someone had given me a broken one or put a silly face on it as a joke,’ she admits.
‘I knew that they’d taken my face away and that it was put somewhere in a bin in the hospital, but in my head I assumed I’d look like the old Katie, just with a few red blotches.
‘I was so embarrassed that people had seen me like this. I wanted to tear the whole thing off and make it go away. There was nothing about me that I recognised. My identity as I knew it had gone.’
Diane gave up her job as a classroom assistant in a primary school to look after her daughter full-time. As well as regular massage at home to keep her damaged skin supple, Katie attends a clinic in southern France that specialises in treating burn-damaged skin.
Eating remains a struggle. Just last week she had another operation to dilate her oesophagus because, every few weeks, scar tissue reforms, narrowing the passage to just a centimetre wide.
It is a measure of her progress that, a few hours later, she sat through a whole meal with her family to celebrate her 26th birthday. ‘I’m usually sick several times throughout a meal and prefer to eat alone,’ she explains.
‘To sit down with my family and friends, eat chicken and have a couple of glasses of wine was such a thrill that I felt I really had something to celebrate.’
The psychological damage has been enormous and it has taken months for Katie to go outside. She keeps all doors and windows locked, is terrified by unexpected callers and is frightened to make hot drinks because of the memories it revives. For months she couldn’t bear to have a shower because of the feeling of liquid moving across her body.
At night she has to wear a balaclava-style mask and a body suit to try to stretch her burned skin and during the day she wears a clear, plastic mask. Pam Warren, who had been terribly burned in the Paddington rail crash and also wore a mask, came to see Katie to advise her.
In May, at Wood Green Crown Court, North London, Lynch and his accomplice Sylvestre were told by the judge that they were ‘the face of pure evil’. Both were jailed for life and Lynch will serve a minimum of 16 years.
But Katie still has nightmares and fears Lynch’s release. When he obtained a phone illegally in jail he used it to post a message on the internet saying how much he missed her. She has now closed all of her social networking accounts.
Katie sounds remarkably well-adjusted despite what she has been through, and is full of praise for her treatment. In particular, she says that the specialist rehabilitation she received should be standard for burns victims.
‘I was fortunate to have a good surgeon and together with the correct aftercare I’ve achieved results that exceeded even my expectations,’ she says. ‘Although, yes, I’ve been scarred for life, I am extremely happy with my new beautiful face.
‘There were times when I was so depressed I wanted to hide from the world. Facing people looking like I do has been a huge ordeal for someone who lived her life to look beautiful. My family have been amazing and without their support and the support of Mr Jawad, I would never have got through this.
‘Now, though, I realise my life before was so superficial. I used to refuse to go out if I had a spot on my face. Now I wish a spot was all I had to worry about. There are people who point and stare. One man even knocked my sun hat off and laughed at me. Those times hurt, but I won’t let them get me down. I’d like to be able to have a husband and family one day. I can’t live a life of regret.’
And what of Lynch? ‘Danny was sick. He may have taken away what was once important to me but, cheesy as it sounds, I am a better person for it. And he couldn’t take away my spirit. I love my life and I know that I have a future now, and it’s a wonderful feeling.’
My Beautiful Face, a Cutting Edge programme for Channel 4 produced by Mentorn, will be shown on October 29 at 9pm.