Excitement doesn’t even describe how we felt when we were given the opportunity to interview one of the most inspirational and loveable public figures on British television: Gok Wan. We spoke with Gok about Ditch the Label, his experiences with bullying and the advice that has for young people being targeted by bullies. Here goes…
Ditch the Label: Hi Gok! Thank you so much for speaking with us today. It’s great to finally get you on board with our anti-bullying organisation.
Gok Wan: Not at all, I think it’s great what you are doing. I like that you are concentrating on topical issues such as online bullying. When I was younger there were no real services available and so I think that Ditch the Label is highly appropriate and a much-needed outreach for teens across the UK. There is an incredible sense of community and I like it a lot.
Ditch the Label: So we know that you were bullied at school for attitudes towards your weight, race and sexuality. Were there any particular instances that really left an impression with you?
Gok Wan: When you get bullied, I think it all leaves an impression. You should never underestimate any experience of bullying and all of it needs to be remembered because it gives you power when you are older. For me, it was just a constant barrage of stuff. It was never ‘Hollywood’ style, my bullies were very clever and so there was a lot of psychological abuse going on. The bullies would beat me down, I was never physically attacked – it was all verbal and psychological. I was a big guy and so kids were physically afraid of me.
Ditch the Label: How did you deal with the bullying at the time?
Gok Wan: Well I gave myself a makeover at 13, I reinvented myself and turned into someone else. I gave everyone a visual warning not to come near me. I became much “cooler” and fitted in. I slotted in by looking like the bullies which stopped the bullying for a while.
Ditch the Label: Why do you think the bullies targeted you? What do you think their motivation was?
Gok Wan: In a word: difference. You can’t beat bullies for bullying because they are all being bullied themselves. I do a lot of work with kids and have learnt that bullies go through extreme circumstances. Often there is neglect at home and they often want to vent an experience and believe that bullying is the right thing to do.
Ditch the Label: In our Annual Bullying Survey 2013, we found that 24% of young people who are bullied self-harm, 25% have suicidal thoughts and 17% truant from school or college. What kind of advice would you give to anyone in either situation?
Gok Wan: It is more about not getting to that stage. I would say that it is important to find a voice and to talk to someone you trust. Remember that you are not alone and you must never believe what bullies say to you. People will walk away from bullying you but the effect it has on you will be lasting. Do not harbour the experiences, they are a brief moment in time. You have the power to talk to someone, it’s illegal to bully people – they are in the wrong and you have no reason not to report it.
Ditch the Label: Our research also found that 21% of young people are bullied online. Obviously, cyberbullying was never around when you were at school but do you ever experience it as an adult? What kind of advice would you give to someone currently being targeted online?
Gok Wan: I occasionally get comments on Twitter, I simply don’t respond and just block the users. Often bullies just want a rise so they just provoke – this means that their attack is only valid if you retaliate. All social networking sites have a turn off switch, if you are being targeted online then stop people from following and friending you and block them from your networks. If it is within a community you need to evacuate yourself from it and report the bullying. The Internet is self-policing, nobody is going to pick up on it unless you police it yourself. People can, as we have recently seen, be prosecuted for cyberbullying. Report it.
Ditch the Label: We also found that eating disorders were frequently reported by young people who are bullied for their appearance. Working in the fashion industry, what is your take on it?
Gok Wan: Well I don’t think it’s fashion based, I think it’s humanely based. Regardless, people have no mind to bully anyone. It’s important to address eating disorders and mental health diseases and to seek advice and support as soon as you can.
Ditch the Label: You work with a lot of women who are unhappy with their appearance, do you think that anybody or anything, in particular, is to blame for that?
Gok Wan: I think that there are lots of contributing forces. The media and press have a responsibility, clothing stores have a responsibility – I think it is a collection of lots of different things. A lot of people have low self-esteem because of weight issues and so I think that it is important to be educated about healthy living and wellbeing because it can have a huge knock-on effect. People need more education and information about food, health and wellbeing.
Ditch the Label: So guys are increasingly being targeted with these “ideal” and unrealistic visions of beauty but there seems to be little recognition of the harmful effects or any support for guys with image issues. Do you think that this needs to be something that is addressed?
Gok Wan: Well it isn’t a new thing, guys have always been bombarded – look at the likes of James Dean and Clark Gabel and think of the characters they portrayed, it isn’t a modern thing. I think that the male community hasn’t really had a voice until recently and attitudes towards things such as grooming and clothing are changing but currently, men don’t really have a forum to talk about them because they don’t allow it. Women have a stronger sense of community with gossip magazines, websites, coffee mornings and websites like Mumsnet but guys don’t seem to give themselves the license to discuss it. There needs to be changed but how do we do it? It needs to be commercially and reader viable but it’s the whole chicken vs. egg debate; if there’s no demand, there’s no supply.
Ditch the Label: We recently found that 30% of bullied youths are targeted for their interests, do you have any interests that differ from the norm and were you ever bullied for them?
Gok Wan: I was always coined with the gay guy stereotype but I was, in fact, interested in music, fashion and the stereotypical interests and so I was never really bullied for any of it.
Ditch the Label: If you could turn back time and reverse your experiences of bullying, would you?
Gok Wan: No, never, ever. I wouldn’t be the person I am today. It was an incredible experience, it was awful and dreadful but it turned me into the person I am. If I lived life with regrets I’d be wasting time.
Ditch the Label: Do you ever feel marginalised by society and put into different boxes because of your sexuality and ethnicity?
Gok Wan: Absolutely. We are all pigeonholed and I work in a business where we do exactly just that. We create a character in a certain way and the branding of that character is incredibly important as it sends out thousands of messages that we read without even noticing. 1 thing we need is a community but then we fight against it to be unique. It’s a strange relationship.
Ditch the Label: Do you have any advice for anybody reading this who is currently going through bullying?
Gok Wan: Try to understand why people bully as best you can. Understanding the bullies will become your greatest power. Find your voice and the confidence to talk about it, you are not on your own with services like Ditch the Label around. Don’t feel like you can’t use Ditch the Label as a resource or to build your own community. Isolation is the biggest power for bullies but remember: it won’t last forever. Don’t worry about it, when you get to my age and look back you will regret worrying. Worry about stuff that is important and don’t waste time.
Ditch the Label: Thank you, Gok! Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
Gok Wan: After I wrote my autobiography, I vowed that I would never really talk about my experiences again and so the purpose of this interview isn’t to normalise bullying or to suggest that it is part of growing up because it absolutely isn’t. This interview is about empowering people and giving people the power and confidence to do something about it.