As a self-confessed experience junkie, whenever I'm offered anything slightly dangerous or uncomfortable - count me in. So, when the Discovery Channel asked me to take part in a new series called Skin Deep, I jumped at it. I was asked to live as an obese woman, an elderly woman and as a homeless woman over the course of a month. The purpose of the films was to show responses and prejudices (including my own) to these three personae.
"Why bother?" someone said. Because I am always looking for ways of feeling alive and I thought these films would give me a chance to explore some of the big modern-day taboos. And to hear stories. Storytelling has always been the basis of education, and experiences have always changed my values. In short, it was a great way to spend a month.
Of the three issues we covered in the series, the hardest and most harrowing was undoubtedly the homeless programme. Discovery said to "sleep rough" for a week. Live on what you "earn" by begging . . . nothing more. I was asked to spend two days and two nights on the streets of London, one night in a hostel out of London and two days and nights in the country. Stupidly, I approached it like an adventure holiday, but the reality was different. What I discovered was more shocking than I ever anticipated. So here's my diary.
Day One: I meet up with Sam, a Big Issue vendor, who gives me a crash course on living on the streets. Ditch everything that is useless on the streets - my mobile phone (where would I charge it?), my credit cards (people would think I had stolen them and call the police) and don't bother with knickers (where would I wash them and hang them out to dry?). Sam advises me to remove any jewellery, as it will hamper my chances of begging. And, above all, "be perky!" Don't ask for change for a cup of coffee, ask for a million pounds. Make people smile or laugh. I am involved in a love story when I meet up with Sam's partner, Tom. They met on the streets when she fell for Tom (a juggler) and offered him her sleeping pitch; she is now pregnant, full of optimism and believes her life is about to change.
First things first, though, I have to look for bedding, so Sam and Tom take me on a hunt for cardboard. Next my pitch, which is outside the Drury Lane Theatre, under the arches. It's three in the morning and I am scared shitless. I watch a guy shooting up in the telephone box on the opposite side of the road. Then another homeless guy wants a chat, sits down next to me and offers me vodka and dope. I don't sleep a wink because of the lights illuminating the theatre, the noise of the road-cleaning trucks and the club down the road. I am warned by everyone on the streets to keep well away from anyone drinking, so now drunks petrify me. Tom tells me to keep alert all night - I can always sleep in the local library during the day.
Day two: A woman I meet on the streets tells me always to look clean, both for my own self-esteem and so as not to frighten the public. She says: "We are already frightening enough with all these layers of clothes", so I go to wash in the toilets in Covent Garden. I am now ready to begin begging.
I hate it, I hate it - begging, that is. I am deeply embarrassed. I feel like a major fraud, but if I don't beg, I don't eat. Reality sets in fast. Kindness is not evident anywhere, especially in young women. I am told to "piss off" by a young girl and to "shut up" by another. No one smiles, gives you eye contact or speaks to you. I am hoping that the film company runs out of money and they can't continue. My skin is sweaty and I keep falling asleep wherever I sit down.
Day three: I wait with scores of other homeless people in Lincoln's Inn for the food vans to arrive. I am shocked to discover how many of these men are ex-servicemen. I am told some 25 per cent of homeless people in London are ex-servicemen. They tell me they are given little help in adapting back into civvy street; they are screwed up by the drugs given to them during the Gulf war. I sleep in an archway in High Holborn, just outside the Institute of Chinese Medicine. Tonight I feel safe because others are also sleeping here. The street cleaners are deafening and drunks come into the archway to urinate next to us.
Day four: I am sent to a hostel for homeless people in Kent. The people I meet on the streets tell me to watch out for my belongings, tie my laces together so that my shoes aren't stolen, and tell me to put a cork up my bum! I am warned about violence and lack of control. I find everything to be the opposite. I am met with great humanity and I even bump into an old employee from the Body Shop, an ex-solicitor, an Irish journalist and an out-of-his-mind junkie who recites verse upon verse of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Day five: The worst day! I am told to walk into the countryside, find a lean-to and sleep the night. I walk into three local pubs asking for any used cardboard boxes. All the staff lie and say they have none. By the next morning, my mouth is covered in blood and I am incomprehensible with lack of sleep and overcome with lethargy. As I leave to return to London, I think what this country needs is a revolution in kindness.