'Hollyoaks' is first TV soap to highlight deadly risks of anorexia

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The Independent Online

They are two stunning teenage girls who should be arguing about their favourite bands, swapping clothes and discussing boys. Instead the pair are involved in a deadly game of competitive dieting that spirals into self-starvation. And by the end of the summer one of them will be dead.

For the first time a television soap, Hollyoaks, is taking on the subject of anorexia in its most extreme form. As the debate about size zero models rages, the Channel 4 show is to explore the consequences of the social pressure to lose weight.The series is likely to attract charges of exploitation and sensationalism to bolster its two million-strong audience.

Anorexia has been explored in the The Archers on Radio 4 and in BBC1's Australian soap Neighbours, though never before presented as a fatal illness. But the producers of the Chester-based series insist that raising awareness of the dangers is crucial to protect young people from a condition with the highest death rate of any mental illness.

One in five people diagnosed with anorexia dies from starvation or by suicide, according to Beat, formerly the Eating Disorders Association, which has advised Hollyoaks on its story. A disturbing feature of the condition is the rivalry that can develop between "anorexia buddies", who vie with each other to starve themselves to the point where their lives are in danger, the theme explored graphically in the series.

Anorexia usually begins in adolescence affecting 1 to 2 per cent of teenagers and university students, though it can occur at any age. It is defined as a bodyweight at least 15 per cent below that expected for the individual's height and weight.

At the centre of the Hollyoaks story is one of the show's most popular characters, the vivacious Hannah Ashworth, played by Emma Rigby. She forms a friendship with a model, Melissa, played by Carla Chase, who is suffering from anorexia.

Melissa recognises in Hannah someone who is going through a vulnerable phase with family problems whom she can control and manipulate. She encourages her to lose weight and shows her how to go about it.

They become classic anorexia buddies who develop a growing obsession with avoiding food while keeping friends and family in the dark. In the process Hannah metamorphoses into a withdrawn, deceitful girl who flies into sudden rages with her friends.

Both girls spend two hours in make-up before each shoot to accentuate bruised eyes and parchment skin, and to highlight the veins on the backs of their hands, which is a tell-tale sign of the condition.

Emma, 17, said: "My skin has a blue tinge to it, almost corpse-like. I have red and blue grease around my eyes to make them look tired and scars built up on my face from spots. I look really horrific." Playing Hannah's descent into anorexia had been her toughest challenge since arriving in the series two years ago, she said. But having known friends with the eating disorder, she was delighted to be involved because of the devastation the illness can cause.

"The magazines show the glossy side of size zero models but this shows the unglossy side, the reality of what being ultra-thin can lead to," she said.

Bryan Kirkwood, the producer, said the show was wary of giving a how-to guide to vulnerable viewers. "But we are telling a tough story and showing the consequences in every episode. I defy anyone to say we are glamorising itin the series," he said.

A questionnaire published on the Hollyoaks website had attracted more than 1,000 responses, he said. "If a single viewer gets help as a result of this storyline, it will have been worthwhile," he added.

Soap firsts

* Melanie Harper became soap's first regular black character when she arrived in 1970 as the adopted daughter of the Crossroads motel owner Meg.

* In 1972 Meg's son Sandy became soap's first paraplegic after a car accident left him in a wheelchair.

* The Brookside siblings Georgia and Nat sparked controversy when their 1996 affair made them the first case of soap incest.

* Hayley Patterson arrived on Coronation Street in 1998 as soap's first transsexual. In 1999 the one-time Harold became engaged to the Street's Roy Cropper.

* Mark Fowler of EastEnders became the first regular HIV-positive character following the death in 1991 of his wife Gill from an Aids-related illness.

* In 1993, Brookside's Beth Jordache and Margaret Clemence, left, shared television's first pre-watershed lesbian kiss.