Through Thick and Thin by Gok Wan
The trouble with instantaneous fame is that if no one knows about the hard work, suffering and failure that preceded it, the new celebrity might not get due credit for their rise to the top.
It can help, in such instances, to release an autobiography in which you unflinchingly discuss your food addiction, anorexia, series of unsuccessful jobs, periodic flights back into the arms of loving family and friends, and eventual success as the host of a beloved personal-makeover TV show which helps raise the self-esteem of subject and viewer alike.
This would be the cynic’s interpretation of Gok Wan’s Through Thick and Thin, a raw, funny account of the first three-and-a-half decades of his life, beginning with his birth in 1974 in Leicester and culminating in success as a TV personality, stylist and all-around fashionista.
But the real story cannot but be admired for its candour and sincerity. Wan holds nothing back, and passages such as his excerpt from a food diary, recorded when his eating disorder was at its zenith in his early 20s, make for bracing reading: “Thursday, 14th March / 1 apple, 1 banana and 40 laxatives. Friday, 15th March / 2 apples, 1 Slimma soup and 40 laxatives. Saturday, 16th March / 2 teaspoons of honey, 40 laxatives. Sunday, 17th March / 1 crisp bread, 40 laxatives. Monday, 18th March / 1 teaspoon of honey, 50 laxatives.”
To this day, his adoring mother, who was instrumental in his recovery, won’t allow honey in the house.
He recounts with a hard-won clarity how his overeating began – with 2am family dinners after his parents returned from working in their Chinese restaurants; Gok and his siblings would sit down and feast on stuffed peppers, stewed bean-curd hot pot, Chinese mushrooms, noodles, fish, and bottomless bowls of boiled rice.
It was a mixed-race family (Gok’s father is Chinese, his mother white), in which food provided both financial and emotional sustenance. For young Gok, “. . . food came to mean too much to me. It became my best friend; it brought me happiness, warmth, security and comfort.”
By his teens he weighed 21 stone (133 kilograms), and his misery and feeling of ‘otherness’, dually compounded by the dawning realization that he was gay and a discomfiting move to London, away from his beloved family, to attend the Central School of Speech and Drama in pursuit of an acting career, proved the perfect storm. At 20, Gok developed anorexia, losing more than half his body weight in nine months.
His illness and recovery, slowly won as his career – as, variously, a shop assistant, make-up artist and stylist – progressed in fits and starts, is described with careful frankness. Early TV appearances eventually had the fortuitous outcome of How to Look Good Naked – and a star was born, as the show’s premise of encouraging women to make peace with their bodies hit home with a national audience.
However, as Gok writes, none of his colleagues were aware of his history of obesity, self-abuse and body hatred, and “[w]hat no one had thought to predict was how I would react to [the first guest]. [When] she told me that she hated her body . . . I knew exactly how she was feeling.”
Today, he has discovered a renewed appreciation for food, celebrated in his memoir with simple, nourishing recipes intended to be eaten with loved ones. And like Gok’s recipes, Through Thick and Thin is a story best shared.
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz