Biting my lip in concentration I carefully drew on one arch, then the other. Then I took a step back from the mirror to look at my reflection properly.
Sighing, I grabbed the make-up remover from the sink and started to scrub, tears prickling. I was going to be late. I’d been putting my make up on for over an hour now.
But I wasn’t vain. Just desperate to look normal, to fit in. Even though, as I slapped another thick layer of concealer over my raw, puckered skin, I knew I’d never be that.
I’d been living with being different for as long back as I could remember. I was just ten when, on holiday visiting family in India, the plane we were travelling in crashed on landing and burst into flames. I was dragged out clinging to life by a fellow passenger and flown back to Essex where I was treated.
For the next few weeks, I knew little about what had happened and drifted in and out of consciousness. Gradually though, I learned the horrifying news that my parents and little brother Kamlesh, four, had been killed.
And there was worse to come. Not only had I lost my family, my roots, but with 45 per cent burns to my body, my appearance had changed forever, too.
After a month, I was encouraged to look at myself for the first time.
‘Take your time,’ the nurse said gently as she handed me the mirror.
Taking a deep breath, I held it up to my face and gasped. It looked like I was looking at a child’s drawing
The outline of my face was all fuzzy and it looked like my face was covered in scratched red lines. My eyelids were puffy and sore and my eyelashes and eyebrows gone.
I blinked in childish confusion as to what had happened to me and tears rolled down my cheeks, pooling in the rivulets on my skin. I didn’t recognise myself. It was like I was looking at someone else.
‘Give yourself time,’ everyone said. ‘It’s a lot for you to take in.’
But even as a naïve ten-year-old I knew that time couldn’t heal this…
I moved in with my grandparents and returned to school but although staff from the hospital came into school to explain what had happened and everyone was kind and friendly to me, I found it impossible to be kind to myself.
‘Maybe it would have been better if you’d died too,’ a little voice inside my said as I struggled to come to terms with how different I looked from my classmates.
As I reached my teens the self-hatred only got worse. Burns to my face, chest and legs meant I grew up feeling like an ‘ugly freak’.
But as I got older I struggled more. Socially it was hard. I tried to wear make up like the other girls but nothing suited me. With my drawn on eyebrows and bright lipsticks I thought I looked like a clown from a horror film. I grew my fringe long to try and cover my high hairline caused by the burns, give me something else to hide behind.
‘You look just fine darling,’ my grandmother told me. But I knew she was lying. I could see the pity in her eyes as I shrunk back into myself.
Not wanting anyone to notice me, I put on weight and hid myself in dark, shapeless clothes. I struggled to feel good about myself or have any self worth. I spent my days looking at others and thinking: ‘I wish I could look like that.’
Then one day I was waiting at the bus stop when a car stopped at the traffic lights. Suddenly, of one the men inside wound down the window.
‘Oi!’ he said looking straight at me. ‘You’re so ugly you should die!’
It was a childish, throw away comment but his words, and the cruel laughter of him and his friends as the car sped off stuck with me. That’s what I was, I was ugly
Deciding I wanted to work in hospitality, I threw myself into my studies. But when I went on placements I wasn’t given the opportunity to work front of house. Instead, I was stuck with working behind the scenes. I knew it was because of my scars and that was hard to come to terms with. It made me feel insecure and unfulfilled.
Although I tried to be friendly and upbeat on the outside, inside I battled depression.
I tried to live as normal a life as possible, going on dates and even having relationships but deep down I felt a shame. Who was I trying to kid? I was too ugly to love.
‘What are you doing with me?’ I’d wonder, gradually pushing them away. Not only was I ugly, but comfort eating had made me overweight, too.
In my early twenties I tried to do something about it and joined a gym. I took up Pilates and watched as my size 24 heft dropped to a curvy size 16-18. But it was more than the change in my body that spurred me on. Pilates was giving me a positive mindset too. For the first time in my life I was aware of what my body could do.
I realised I could push myself further than I’d ever imagined. It gave me a new focus and in 2004, aged 24, I began a complimentary therapy degree specialising in Pilates.
Only then, two years into my course, I started to feel unwell. Shortly after my 26th birthday I went to see my doctor with symptoms of high blood pressure and discovered the reality was far worse.
‘I’m afraid you have end stage renal failure,’ the consultant told me, his lips a grim line.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked, confused as he explained that my kidneys were failing, and while I waited to see if a transplant was available, I’d need dialysis in order to stay alive.
Suddenly, for the first time in my life, I realised something: that my health and staying alive was far more important than my looks. It was a turning point.
I had to endure dialysis every night for three years before undergoing a kidney transplant in 2009, aged 29. It was a success, but the medication I was given to help improve my immune system wasn’t effective enough. I had so many constant urine and kidney infections, it was like fighting a losing battle.
In the past, I would have wondered what was the point in carrying on, but now, having almost died for a second time, I realised that actually, I had so much to live for.
In what could have been my darkest days, I made the decision to move on with my life and not let my scars define me.
But still, deep down I longed to be able to feel pretty.
With my health beginning to improve, I decided to get in touch with the Katie Piper Foundation. I’d seen the charity on a documentary and Katie’s story had really struck a chord. She was so young and I had gone through so much. I understood my struggles, I just wanted to wish her well. I wrote to the foundation to say what an inspirational woman I thought Katie was.
I didn’t hear back from them for a while and put it down to the volume of the emails they receive. But then, in January 2012, I received an email. It thanked me for getting in touch and enquired whether I would be interested in a variety of treatment, including hair restoration, medical tattooing and laser treatment.
I couldn’t believe it…. Of course I would be!
Excited, I took them up on the opportunity to undergo hair restoration and medical tattooing. And two months later, in July 2012 I awaited having my first proper set of eyebrows.
Despite having the area numbed with cream, the sensation felt a little uncomfortable but mostly it just felt strange. I was unused to feeling sensation on my scarred skin.
But within an hour: ‘All done!’
As I looked in the mirror, I remembered being ten again. But that was where the similarities ended.
‘Wow!’ I gasped.
They looked perfect. Absolutely symmetrical. For the first time in my life I had actual, proper eyebrows. It was an amazing feeling. They defined my face.
‘Thank you so much,’ I sobbed, overtaken with emotion.
I underwent hair restoration that same month. It took eight hours for them to lower my hairline but again, the results were worth it.
Still, it was eyebrow tattooing that marked the day my confidence finally started pushing through my insecurities. I finally felt…well, attractive and everything started to make sense.
That September I started laser treatment on my face with Dr Patel. I told myself to be realistic, they couldn’t work miracles. But he was so positive.
‘We can definitely help you,’ he beamed. ‘You’re going to feel amazing, I promise. ‘ And just like that, I believed him.
He explained how not only would I see an aesthetical difference to the smoothness of my skin, but an increased suppleness too. And he was right.
I have treatment three times a year and now, four years on, I can open my mouth so much wider, breathe from both my nostrils and can feel hot and cold on my face. As far as I’m concerned he’s a miracle worker.
In November 2014 I agreed to take part in a charity fashion show for the Katie Piper Foundation and got to know Katie personally. I now continue to work with the Foundation as a motivational speaker, representing the charity at various events, sharing my story with others who have been affected by burns.
Looking back, I can’t believe just how far I’ve come. My health is stable at the moment, I’m strong and able to maintain my Pilates. But my biggest achievement of all is the fact that I have finally accepted myself.
I’m literally covered in scars but I know I am beautiful and that is because I have finally realised that beauty comes from within. If you are beautiful on the inside you are beautiful on the outside. I never thought I would ever be able to use words like that about myself but it’s true, I honestly have never felt better.
My social media account is proof of how far I’ve come. Instead of hiding away I post pouting sexy selfies all the time to help empower other women.
‘You look amazing,’ people comment. And for the first time ever I actually believe them.
Snapping selfies proves I don’t want to hide my burns and scars, in fact I’m proud of each and every one. After all, they’re part of who I am.