Dr Christian Jessen: 'I am rather scraping the bottom of the barrel'
In the five years the Channel 4 programme Embarrassing Bodies has been running on television, I believe I have witnessed all of the following: asymmetrical breasts, hirsute nipples, lactating males, scalps spraying pus, extreme hernias, angry rashes, boils, rotting teeth, impacted ear wax, leaking bladders, monster-sized labias, rotting armpits, that woman who pushed her prolapsed rectum out of her anus – which has yet to catch on as a party trick, weirdly – vaginal tears, a massive vagina (with echo), asymmetrical testicles, penile warts, bent penises, buried penises, penises that popped to the corner shop for milk and were never seen again, which is always sad, and although there has yet to be a penis-shaped-like-balloon-art-sausage-dog, I'm secretly hoping it is only a matter of time.
And as I am watching this Generation Game-style conveyer belt of absolutely nothing I would care to win and take home, I am always thinking: 'There is no shame, we are all the same'. I most certainly hope not! And: what stops Dr Dawn and Dr Pixie and Dr Christian exclaiming "Fuck me" and running from the room, and retraining as bus drivers? I know I would. Heck, I can't even get up on the days I have to fill in my VAT return, so imagine if I knew I had to meet a man who's had an itchy bum for 22 years?
So this is what is preoccupying me when I meet my favourite EB doctor, Dr Christian (Jessen). I love Dr Christian. I adore Dr Christian. I worship Dr Christian. If he were ever to ask me to lean over for a rectal exam I would, like a shot. I'd consider it an honour, a privilege. He is a dish. He is buff. He always looks as if he is going to burst out of one of his amazingly loud Hawes & Curtis shirts, like a superhero. He seems to run the 'penis gallery', of which he is inordinately proud – possibly because it's the only one in the country – entirely on his own, which is enormously laudable. He has a chiselled jaw. He has a cute dimple on his chin. He has the most gallantly charming bedside manner. I am even praying that, in my excitement, I don't lean over spontaneously, and say: "Go on, then. Might as well, while we are both here". That said, I wouldn't be the first when it comes to this sort of thing.
He says he was once at The Wolseley and "having dinner with a friend I was at medical school with, and we don't see each other very often, so were having a catch-up, when this slightly drunk lady comes running over to my table and she hitches all her skirts up to show me her inner thighs and this stubbly, shaving rash thing, and wants advice. Well, of course, the whole Wolseley can see, and it goes quiet, and I just wanted to curl up and die, and my friend was like: 'Is this what life is like for you now?' and I said: 'Yes'." And did you offer her advice? Shaving rashes down there are no joke, you know. Itchy as hell. "Well, what do you do? You can't say: 'I'm sorry, go away', so you start giving her advice, then you think: 'Hang on, I don't have to do this'." You don't? A woman sticks her fanny in your face while you're eating, and you don't feel obliged to drop your fork and have a closer look? Isn't that against the Hippocratic Oath? He laughs, which is odd. You're not worried about being struck off, I ask. He says: "Of course, as a doctor, you're always on duty. So when I'm in the back of a cab it's always: 'My missus loves your show. Now you are here, what do you think of my knee?' You just can't avoid it, and I accept it."
We meet at a London hotel. He is 35, and wearing a red-and-blue, checked Hawes & Curtis shirt today. He is quite the gym bunny, and at one point I cop a feel of his biceps, and can report as follows: sensational. He is excited, he says, because he has tickets for Liza Minnelli tonight. I think even if you didn't know he was gay (drat!) you'd figure it out quite smartly. He loves Liza. He asks: "How old is she now?" One hundred and 10, I suggest. "She just gets it right in the way Madonna doesn't," he says, "although it's probably best to pretend David Gest never happened, and just move on." I thank him for taking time off from his penis gallery. Does it have a café? Are tips encouraged? Is a big tip better than a measly tip, or is it what you do with that tip that counts? "You're obsessed by the penis gallery!" he protests. I say I'll get round to the vulva and breast gallery, but they are newer, plus I can't spend all my time visiting galleries. I'm a busy person. He says the website is a phenomenon. It's had more than 100 million page views to date. "As a doctor, how many people do you ever get a chance to give advice to in your lifetime? And you've suddenly got this opportunity." He says the same of the show. "Only a few weeks ago, Dawn got a text from a radiologist saying that after we did a breast check special on the show, five women came in with lumps, of which three had breast cancer. These were discovered because they'd watched the breast check and done it. That, to me, justifies it all."
The show is, I think, properly Reithian. It informs, educates and entertains, if rather ghoulishly, and even if you can only watch it from behind your hands, or the sofa. I ask Dr Christian if he has his own particular hates. "Feet and snot," he says. And what's the worst case you have ever encountered on EB? "There was a chap called David who I'll never forget and who had a condition with his armpits. His armpits were literally rotting." Yet you didn't exclaim "Fuck me" and run from the room? How do you do that? The worst I've ever heard you say is: "Oh my word". He says: "It's such a boring answer and I'm really sorry to give you this, but this is what we do. It's not the first time we've seen it. Some of the things are pretty extreme, and we do acknowledge that, but I don't think it helps the patient to go 'Fuck me', does it?"
Fair enough, but one of the things that mystifies me is why these people haven't been to their GP and, if they have, why haven't they been urgently treated? "The truth is many have seen their GP, but we decide to cut out the whole 'I've been to my GP and he was flipping useless' type thing. We just can't get into that and legally it's dodgy and the show is not about that. I've had some real rants on camera along the lines of 'What the hell has your GP been doing?' but it's always cut out, and rightly so. David had been to his GP on multiple occasions and the GP had said: 'There is nothing I can do. Off you go'. Even when we got involved and started saying, 'Look you need to do this', the GP got very uppity and said, 'I am not going to be told what to do by TV doctors'. It was really difficult and I was furious."
He seems like a fantastic doctor; the kind of doctor who is actually interested in his patients which, in my experience, is a novelty. (I can scarcely keep my own GP awake.) And he is gloriously out there on Twitter, answering endless queries with his Caps Lock on, which is just so endearing somehow. Can mosquitoes spread HIV? NO! Can peeing with an erection cause any damage? ONLY TO THE BATHROOM FLOOR AND WALLS! What are you having for dinner? CHICKEN AND MUSHROOM PIE!
"I just love the whole concept of Twitter," he says, "but was, initially, very strict about not giving medical advice, as it's not the right forum, it's inappropriate, and I'd get in hot water for doing it, but then I thought: why not? No one else is doing it. So let's give it a go and bugger what the GMC think." He also likes the fame, I think. "You'd be amazed by the people who are fans of the show," he says. "I was walking down Marylebone High Street recently and I was getting a sandwich or something for lunch and this big chauffeur-driven car pulls up next to me and this door swings open and a bearded, long-haired chap leaps out and he's like, 'Oh mate, mate, I just wanted to say I fucking love your show'. It was Noel Gallagher and he said, 'Can I shake your hand?'. I was like, Noel Gallagher, sure you can shake my hand! That was a very surreal moment for me." I hope you had washed your hands? "I had!"
He never wanted to be a doctor. He actually wanted to be involved in music somehow. "I was musical at school. I'm an oboist and that's what I really wanted to do, or I wanted to direct opera, but I was never quite good enough to make it. However, I was also academic, loved sciences, and could pass exams easily. It is nothing to do with intelligence. I think it's technique. I just got exams and I just loved biology and chemistry and it was suggested to me that perhaps I might like to try medicine. I had never really thought about it before."
His father, Peter, who comes from a town on the German/Danish border, was a physicist and chemical engineer whose interest was burning flames, and who was Marketing Director for British Gas before his retirement. His mother, Lee, is a linguist. He was brought up in Hammersmith, west London, but dispatched to boarding school at seven, which seems awfully young. "Yes it was. I see that now but never saw it then. I remember being very, very homesick in the first few years. I remember going to the loo in the night and looking out of the window at the sky and obviously having very profound thoughts about loneliness and things like that." What was your parents' reasoning? "That I would get better opportunities and a better education."
He says he has always known he was gay. "I never went through a grim patch of wondering, which was quite lucky, although I did go through a patch of wishing I wasn't, because at school it just wasn't easy and I didn't fit in when all my friends were off having girlfriends and I was left out, thinking: 'This isn't much fun, I don't really want this'. At that time, gay people were portrayed as clowns." Like Larry Grayson, say? Or John Inman? "Yes, and they were rather tragic, lonely figures." But surely some of your fellow pupils were gay? "Yes, but you didn't talk about it that much. You didn't go around going, 'I think I might be gay. What about you? No? Oh well!'."
Did you ever have to sit your parents down? "They always knew. I was an only child and we were always open and there was very little doubt, I think." Because you loved Liza? "Exactly. My dad was a huge Liza Minnelli fan so he probably made me gay. It's probably his fault!" Were you taunted at school? "Ironically, I was taunted for liking girls and for hanging out with the girls and wanting to play with the girls. That was what I was teased for, a lot."
He has been open about suffering from body dysmorphia. I ask him to explain this to me. Is it a fear of people not thinking you're good looking? "No, that's not it at all. It has nothing to do with aesthetics. It's looking in the mirror and not seeing who you are. At school, I was a tall, lanky beanpole, and it's a reaction to that. That's what I see in the mirror on a bad day. So my constant gym work and everything is a fight against that. It's to put on weight, put on shape and be more masculine looking. It's not do with: 'Oh, I want to be beautiful'. It's, 'I want to be different from how I was'. You can't stop seeing the old you. And with gay men particularly, body dysmorphia is a massive issue. It's to do with being bullied at school, being the wimpy kid, the slightly effeminate kid who is never picked for sports teams. It's about wanting to be more manly than the guys who used to bully you."
I say I've got to that terrible age when I look in the mirror and I see my mother. "Ah, mother dysmorphia syndrome," he says, knowledgably. But if you have these insecurities, I ask, why would you choose to go into television? And why the... um... interesting shirts, which grab so much attention? "Good point. Never thought of that. I vary how comfortable I feel in the shirts. Some of them I will put them out and I'll go, 'Oh, I don't know, this is pushing it. This is bright. This is a bit Nigerian taxi driver'. They've now become a cult thing and people expect me to wear them."
He studied medicine at UCL, receiving a bachelor's degree in medicine and a master's degree in sexual health, bookended by stints in Kenya and Africa in clinics for infectious diseases. On his return he was put up for TV bits and bobs, and was then offered Embarrassing Bodies. I say it's the sort of show where it's easy to see what is in it for the viewer, particularly as it relies on that reality television staple, the makeover which, in this instance, means teeth are restored, breasts are evened out, armpits are de-rotted and the recipient is always satisfyingly grateful. But I'm still baffled. OK, the prospect of prompt, private treatment must be an incentive, but what about the woman with the massive vagina (with echo) who slept separately from her husband, but was happy to reveal all on television? What's the psychology behind that? "I don't know!" he exclaims. "It may be that showing a doctor is not the same as showing your husband." But she was also showing the whole nation. "Remember, when you do television, it's not really showing it to the nation. It's coming to see me and OK, there's a cameraman and a sound man and the director, but that's all." That would be more than enough for me, I say. "I am rather scraping at the bottom of the barrel here," he admits.
De-personalisation? "Maybe. Usually, people come on because they have watched the show and think, 'If anyone is going to fix it, you guys will'. Others believe firmly in what the show is trying to do, and want to raise awareness of their own condition." And what happens when a condition turns out to be too weighty for the programme? "We say no, and I have done that a few times. I had a case that was pitched to me as, 'This chap has been volunteering, clearing up bodies from the tsunami, and he now has a tropical disease'. I saw him. Aids! I instantly recognised it without a test. I told the execs: we are not going to film this. I need to take him off and have a chat." Did he receive treatment? "I sorted him out. HIV is what I do." He is totally in awe of the HIV virus: "It is genius. It is a virus that can't even replicate itself. It's essentially a non-living being, if you like, yet every single treatment we've devised against it, it has found a way around. It mutates, so we can't make a vaccine. It evades the body's immune system. It relies on us having sex, which we do. It is so, so clever."
He is not a good patient himself. He is scared of operations, "because I don't like being in the hands of someone and not having any control". Are you a control freak generally? "Yes," he says. "I am a nightmare to live with. Thankfully I have found someone who can put up with me, but I've had to learn to be less so, and it's not easy." He lives on the South Bank with his boyfriend of seven years, and his dog, a miniature pinscher, Bruno. I love dogs almost as much as I love Dr Christian. Does Bruno sleep in bed with you? "Of course. He snuggles up and that's the way it should be, I think."
I could sit and talk to Dr Christian all day. He has the arrogance required to be a doctor, but has retained his self-awareness. He is magnificently charming and, I think, compassionate. He also leads a full life. He still plays his oboe, and has taught himself the bagpipes. He enjoys world cinema. "Have you seen Festen?" he asks. "Ridicule?" The opera he would most like to direct is "one which you won't have heard of unless you're an opera buff, King Roger by Szymanowski. It's a Polish opera. It's fantastic. Simon Rattle did it once which was wonderful." But eventually he has to go, off to Harley Street, where he practises as a private doctor two days a week. I hug him goodbye (yum), and wish him luck with the penis gallery. I even say: I could man the café at weekends, if that would be helpful? As a rule, readers, I like a generous tip, but ultimately I'll leave that to you.
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