Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but that was no consolation to Constance Briscoe. David Whetstone meets the woman who came to Newcastle thinking she was ugly.
CONSTANCE BRISCOE is a London barrister and part-time judge, one of few black British women to hold that position.
But what also sets her apart is her bestselling autobiography, Ugly, which came out in January 2006, telling of a childhood of misery and abuse.
This heartrending tale, relating how she suffered at the hands of her mother and stepfather, spent six months on the bestseller lists, selling more than 500,000 copies.
As well as physical pain, Constance recalled her mother’s oft-repeated assertion that she was ugly.
Taking home her school photos, her mother apparently exclaimed: “Who would want to look at the photographs of an ugly child, who?” Constance was ordered to take the photos back to school and did so, making up some reason why her mother didn’t want them.
Now comes the sequel, Beyond Ugly, which begins in September 1979 with Constance taking the overnight train from London to the North-East, where she is to study law at Newcastle University (it had long been her ambition to be a barrister).
But not before she has been for a consultation at a Harley Street cosmetic clinic, having seen an advert in a magazine. Why, asked the well-spoken receptionist, would she require cosmetic surgery? “Because I’m ugly, ugly, ugly,” replied the 22-year-old Constance.
She travelled to Newcastle after receiving a letter explaining that an operation for her mouth would cost just under £1,000 per lip and an operation to reduce the “flare” of her nose would cost a further £1,500. Despite the huge sums, she determined to pay the deposit if she could. The new book relates her struggle to keep abreast of demanding course work while saving up for cosmetic surgery by working whenever possible as an auxiliary nurse at a London hospice.
As well as making patients comfortable, she had to prepare the bodies of the recently dead. “Making the dead attractive for their relatives is an art in itself,” she writes. “You must start as soon as life is gone.”
Even if you haven’t read the first book, you will have formed the opinion already that Constance Briscoe is a little bit out of the ordinary. On the telephone, she is bright, breezy, seemingly outgoing and good humoured. I prepare for a conversation in which we ponder the follies of youth. Now that she is a judge, a proud mother of two grown-up children and a bestselling author, surely she will look back and shake her head sadly at the memory of her young self harbouring even the merest thought of going under the surgeon’s knife – particularly since at the time she had little money and had been called ugly only by two people she loathed.
Well, Constance Briscoe is nothing if not surprising.
“Well, I was ugly,” she insists. “I was ugly. You didn’t know me then. I didn’t look too good and if someone keeps telling you you’re ugly, you believe it.”
Exactly, I say. Surely that’s the point, that the notion of being ugly was placed in her head by her abusive mother?
Even at that first consultation in the Harley Street Clinic nearly 30 years ago, the doctor had told Constance: “You are not ugly, you only think you are.” And she had replied: “No, doctor, you are wrong.”
And that is still her answer. And if you say that the photograph of her as she is today shows a rather attractive woman, she will say: “But I’ve had cosmetic surgery. I’ve had my nose done and my mouth done.”
And there was me thinking she would have given all that up. But no. “My last cosmetic surgery was in April last year, to have my feet shaved. You can only get that done in America. They won’t do it here.”
I’m thrown for a minute. Surely this is something you could achieve with a razor in the privacy of your bathroom. Then again, how many women have hairy feet? But no, Constance went under the knife again to have her feet surgically narrowed.
“My mother had an issue with my nose and my feet and my blackness, but this is something I did for me. I didn’t have a problem with the size exactly – I take a five – but it was the broadness. I just felt I needed a little more shaved off both feet. People do notice ladies’ feet.”
Constance says she was inundated with letters after Ugly came out. It has since been translated into 10 languages and the letters have come from all over the world. She says: “A lot of people have said, ‘I read your book and this is my story. I thought you were talking about me’. I am rather surprised by the amount of emotion the book has stirred up.”
Not everyone was impressed.
“My mother said it was all lies and was with the intention of making money,” says Constance. “She says none of the abuse happened and she has issued a writ.
“I wrote the book from memory and didn’t have my medical records when I wrote it, but I have them now and we have provided her with evidence in relation to what I was complaining about.”
The case could yet end up in court, agrees Constance. “I’m looking forward to it actually. I don’t have an issue with a jury deciding which of us is telling the truth.”
Constance says she wrote the book partly because she wanted her son and daughter to regard her as a successful mum and also because she bumped into John Grisham’s publisher, who expressed an interest in her Ugly manuscript. She says they told her there would be no sequel, but the success of the first book made a follow-up hard to resist.
So we can read what happened to Constance in Newcastle. It’s an idiosyncratic memoir, recalling a circle of girlfriends, a misfiring romance and her efforts to stay focused on course work in Newcastle while striving to banish ugliness with trips to Harley Street, for which she was forced to work herself to illness in the hospice.
“I loved Newcastle,” she says. “In many ways it was my first home and I have some fantastic memories of it, although it is too cold for me, I have to tell you.”
She stayed initially in Leazes Terrace, beside the football ground. One of the friends she mentions in the book is now a professor at the university.
Meanwhile, Constance has finished another volume of autobiography – not intended for publication – and a crime book. “I’d like to write crime, but whether or not I achieve that is not down to me,” she says.
If she wants it, my hunch is that it will happen.
Beyond Ugly by Constance Briscoe (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99).