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Gillian McKeith: Rumbled in the jungle

Does she really have a phobia of everything that crawls? Are the fainting episodes to be believed? And as for that PhD...Tim Walker gets to grips with the life story of reality TV's latest pantomime villain

Back in the bad old days of barely questioned televisual dietary advice, the nutritionist formerly known as "Dr Gillian McKeith, PhD" made a screen career of castigating the overweight for their eating habits, and persuading them to cry about it on Channel 4.

In the past week, she has managed to tease a tear or two from the slim and inoffensive Stacey Solomon, but on the whole, it's plain old Gillian McKeith herself who's been doing the weeping. And fainting. And miraculously adjusting her clothing while comatose. And squealing at bugs, real or imagined. And all of it, naturally, on national television.

"She's become public enemy number one," publicist Max Clifford told The Independent yesterday, speaking of his erstwhile client. She has become the panto villain of this year's I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here!. "I'm actually starting to feel a bit sorry for her, but she's got nobody to blame but herself. People had largely forgotten her for the last two years, and she obviously saw this as a way to get herself back on television, where she thinks she belongs. The opposite has been achieved – unless, that is, she plans to make a programme about how to faint in public."

Ah, the fainting: subject of late-night debates as to its veracity in ITV-viewing households up and down the land. Audiences seem sceptical, too, of her multiple phobias: of water, of spiders, of offal. Whether or not she truly is prone to sudden unconsciousness, sifting fact from fiction in the biography of Gillian McKeith – whose website optimistically describes her as a "World Renowned Holistic Nutritionist" – can be quite a task.

In 2007, for instance, she dropped the "Dr" from her name, after her distance-learning PhD in holistic nutrition from the American Holistic College of Nutrition was deemed insufficient to warrant the honorific: the aforementioned institution was not accredited by any recognised educational authority. Meanwhile, the journalist Dr Ben Goldacre called into question the merits of her membership of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants. He'd paid $60 to acquire identical certification in the name of his dead cat, Henrietta.

Her rolling spat with Goldacre came to a head again this July, when a Twitter feed under her name accused his best-selling book Bad Science (which devotes a whole chapter to her work) of containing "lies". The tweeter in question, whether or not it was McKeith herself, backtracked after the mercilessly accurate Goldacre threatened a libel suit. More recently, McKeith tried to secure her escape from the I'm a Celebrity... jungle jail with the dubious claims that she was pregnant (at 51), and that she had contracted rabies.

Still, there are a number of undisputed facts about her life. McKeith was born in September 1959 in Perth, Scotland, and raised on a council estate by her civil servant father and office worker mother. She grew up suffering from scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine that still causes her severe physical pain. The condition is to blame for her diminutive stature and, she believes, for the media's oft-repeated jibes on the topic. The regrettable gold lamé dress she wore to the Baftas in 2005, for example, was designed so as to disguise her "scary back". An unkind journalist, however, wrote that she resembled "a turkey wrapped in gold Bacofoil".

McKeith met her American husband, Howard Magaziner, while studying for her first degree (in linguistics) at Edinburgh University. At the time, she says, she was addicted to junk food, and afflicted by a series of mystery illnesses – which she attributes to her bad diet. Magaziner is now a lawyer, but his family ran a chain of health food shops in the US. When McKeith moved across the Atlantic to be with him, she also devoted herself to healthy eating.

After some years in America, where she may or may not have been a "celebrity health reporter" on behalf of The Joan Rivers Show, McKeith returned to the UK in the early 1990s to practise as a nutritionist. She spent some time presenting health segments on breakfast television, but lost her slot on the BBC's Good Morning after haranguing a producer who refused to let her host the show with Nick Owen when Anne Diamond was away.

In 2004, she was granted her own Channel 4 programme, You Are What You Eat, which, in her case, was seaweed and aduki beans with nettle tea – a diet she would then inflict on the obese unfortunates that agreed to appear with her on screen. Her USP was, quite literally, crap: she famously examined her victims' faeces and, from their poo alone, preposterously deduced such complex medical conditions as "liver imbalance".

At the time, Professor John Garrow – a human nutrition specialist at the University of London, and chairman of the anti-quack campaign group HealthWatch – called McKeith a "charlatan", and offered her £1,000 to subject one of her methods to clinical testing. She declined the offer, and her husband threatened Garrow with legal action. McKeith had little need for £1,000, in any case: her book had sold more than a million copies to those who bought into its promise to transform their diets, and thus their well-being.

The McKeith myth was shattered in 2007, when Goldacre published a lengthy article in The Guardian dismantling her claims and credentials piece by piece. The "Awful Poo Lady", he wrote, was "a menace to the public understanding of science" and "the unjustified, self-serving and unnecessary overcomplication of basic sensible dietary advice is ... one of the greatest crimes of the nutritionist movement". Channel 4, he went on, "should be ashamed of itself". You Are What You Eat was cancelled the same year.

When she was first inflicted on the public consciousness, it was Clifford's formidable PR firm that managed McKeith's profile. As part of their publicity strategy, she devised a diet plan for the then-married Brian McFadden and Kerry Katona, and their subsequent weight loss – trumpeted in the celebrity press – helped the Awful Poo Lady to become a household name. But, says Clifford, "We parted company about two years ago, because her husband thought he could do it instead."

Doubtless McKeith and Magaziner decided an appearance on I'm a Celebrity... would demonstrate that she was not, after all, the malign figure described by her critics. Not (by her own admission) having ever watched a complete episode of the programme, McKeith must have been unaware of how many phobia-inducing activities she would be asked to perform in the jungle – and how frequently she would have to faint (or feint?) to escape them.

Though Solomon remains favourite to emerge from the jungle as winner, bookies yesterday slashed the odds on a McKeith victory – a reflection, claimed William Hill's spokesman, that "the public are starting to see her as the star of the show rather than the madcap lunatic that she initially seemed". But even Clifford, a master of reputation rehabilitation, doubts there's a serious chance of that. "When Kerry Katona went into the jungle," he says, "her first few days were very iffy, and she turned it around into a huge success. So can it be done? Yes. Is Gillian capable of doing it? I'd be absolutely astonished."

A life in brief

Born: 28 September 1959, Perth, Scotland.

Family: The daughter of a civil servant and office worker, McKeith was raised on a council estate. She married the American lawyer Howard Magaziner and they have two daughters together.

Career: After working in marketing and business, she retrained as a nutritionist. She rose to prominence in 2004 with her You Are What You Eat Channel 4 series and best-selling book. She has released nine further books, television shows and a range of branded foods. In 2007, she agreed with the Advertising Standards Authority to remove the "Dr" from her advertising after complaints that her qualification was obtained via a correspondence course from an unaccredited institution.

She says: "If I'm stuck in a crate with some kind of thing I'm probably going to pass out. We all know I'm afraid of everything that is in this jungle."

They say: "She is crazy. She's eccentric. She's just mad." Sheryl Gascoigne, I'm a Celebrity... co-star