Twenty years ago today

Tuesday 26th May 1992 was the day after the May Bank Holiday Monday, a quiet day in the newsrooms of London – and about 10 journalists and the BBC TV News team turned up for a press conference in the Kings Fund Centre in Camden Town to launch a new charity, Changing Faces. The TV news at lunchtime and at 6pm carried the news and that evening a short film by Martin Lucas appeared on ITV’s early evening news digest. The following day all the nationals carried items about the charity: “a new charity has been launched to develop new services to help people with disfigurements from any cause live full and confident lives and to challenge public attitudes”. In one or two, like The Guardian and The Times, there were longer pieces with interviews with the founder and his supporters.

That’s it in a paragraph! But what was it like? I can remember going early into our tiny and ill-equipped office behind Old Street station which I had sub-leased from a friend and leaving about 9.30am to get the tube up to Camden Town. Nervous, anxious to see if anyone would come.

The day was the culmination of about 8 months work since the previous September when I had decided, with my wife’s blessing, to have a go at creating the charity. We had raised a little money, found Trustees, registered with the Charity Commission, found the office and commissioned a PR company to create a launch.

More importantly, the ideas which I was determined to develop with academic evaluation had already been tested in three preliminary workshops – and the feedback had been very good. About 25 people, all with facial disfigurements from a variety of causes, had had the chance to meet each other, to share notes and feelings, to explore how they faced the world and to learn some new skills for doing so. They liked the experience and I had powerful quotes in my papers for the launch.

I also had the close support of an academic psychologist, Dr Nichola Rumsey, whose PhD thesis had become half of the seminal work, ‘The Social Psychology of Facial Appearance’ (Springer Verlag) with Ray Bull a few years earlier. She had endorsed my ideas, outlined in my 1990 Penguin book (Changing Faces: the Challenge of Facial Disfigurement), that people who acquire a disfigurement from any cause needed more help to live in a looks-obsessed culture – which also needed to change its attitudes. That help should not just be surgical and medical but needed to have a strong psycho-social component too which should strengthen their self-esteem and give them the social skills to manage other people’s reactions, thereby building confidence.

So we knew we had a case and there was a huge deficit in what help was available. Public attitudes would take years to shift but maybe… Could we get a new charity off the ground?

The Joan Scott PR team was certain we could – with luck! And we had it, I think, that day. The press release cited Simon Weston, the Falklands soldier, giving his strong support for the charity and seemingly suggested he would be at the press conference. He wasn’t. But we had a strong turn-out: Sir Campbell Adamson, our first Chairman and also Chairman of Abbey National, hosted the event inviting Dr Rumsey, plastic surgeon John Gowar FRCS, and me to speak and take questions. A leading medical journalist from the BBC, Barbara Myers, interviewed me very empathetically and I knew then we were in with a chance.

It was all over in a couple of hours and we all went our separate ways. I went back to my tiny room with a phone, a chair and a make-do desk… and the phone starting ringing… and it didn’t stop for days, weeks, months, years…

I have many many people to be grateful to – thank you all! Changing Faces today is strong, empathetic, determined, passionate about fairness and a voice that is being heard and listened to. And, despite all our efforts, there is so very much still to be done.

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8 thoughts on “Twenty years ago today

  1. And it has been a pleasure knowing you since about 1998! regards, Bronwen Jones, Director, Children of Fire, Johannesburg and London.

  2. Congratulations James and all of the CF team, present and past. I have been fortunate enough to have had four truly unique, supportive and inspiring bosses in my [now almost 20 year – yikes – can it really be that long?] research career, but you and Nix were the first two!! It was a privilege to work with you and I will forever look back fondly on the years spent working with you all. Every success James in continuing the work that you do. Emma

    • And we could not possibly have recruited a finer example of an exuberant and can-do spirit! How can we persuade you to get involved again??!! Thanks for all your support… vgw James

  3. James, you are one the people who have had an amazing influence on me over the years. I remember reading your book and thinking ,”YES! I can empathize with everything he says. These are the things I want to see happen too.” What an amazing man who can turn his own devastating experience into something that can and does change people’s lives. I wanted to meet you so arranged to meet you with a fellow Trustee of the Vitiligo Society of which I later became Chairman. I remember the leaky roof at the Old Street office and your optimism and commitment. I took part in one of the workshops and meeting people with a range of disfigurements and hearing their stories made me realise how much we had in common. I learnt a lot.

    Over the years I have watched the charity grow, following its progress and becoming a member of the Board of Trustees. I can hardly believe how much has been achieved with the help of so many people. So many lives have been changed for the better by the work of Changing Faces. You have been an inspiration, James, and I hope you realise the ambitious plans for the future. I am so glad I met you and am proud to have been a small part of the story of Changing Faces.

    Maxine

    • Maxine – you are very kind!… Thank you so much… and if I may say, you have given so much too in so many ways, especially to raising vitiligo and its treatment from a very low place… your energy, your determination, your insights… I salute you!

  4. Dear James,

    It has been a pleasure to see the Charity grow since I have known you
    Good luck with your continuing work.
    Regards
    Neville Forrest
    Senior Surveyor
    Jones Norris Adams

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