Adam Pear­son on chang­ing lives – and how you can help

Adam Pear­son tells Rosa Sil­ver­man about be­ing bul­lied, dat­ing and his ca­reer in TV

The Sunday Telegraph - - Features & Arts -

The first thing you no­tice about Adam Pear­son’s per­son­al­ity is his quick-fire sense of hu­mour. He is also a born racon­teur. So when his agent en­cour­ages him to tell the story of when he took a Swedish woman on a date to the cafe­te­ria in Ikea, I can tell it’s go­ing to be good.

“I thought she might be home­sick,” Pear­son of­fers by way of ex­pla­na­tion. “I’d run this by at least a dozen friends, all of whom thought it was hys­ter­i­cal and cute and that I should def­i­nitely do it.

“Then, when it hap­pened, she just glow­ered at me over meat­balls that I’d bloody paid for.”

It was his sec­ond date with the woman. Af­ter that, came a cin­ema date, which was at least more con­ven­tional. Yet, sadly, it wasn’t to be. “Date four was in the de­par­tures lounge at Gatwick Air­port,” he says. “She was go­ing back to Swe­den and she’s not replied to my texts. Five years is a lot of time to not re­ply for.”

This, de­spite the fact that the film they had been to see was Un­der

the Skin, Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 science-fic­tion movie, in which Pear­son him­self ap­pears op­po­site Scar­lett Jo­hans­son, play­ing a man whose vis­i­bly dif­fer­ent face helps to hu­man­ise Jo­hans­son’s alien.

“I thought if [she] saw me in a film with Scar­lett Jo­hans­son naked, it might jog her mind as to how lucky she was,” he says wryly.

Pear­son, 33, has an in­cur­able ge­netic con­di­tion, neu­rofi­bro­mato­sis (NF1), which causes be­nign tu­mours to grow along the nerves. In his case, the tu­mours are mostly on his face and, since early in pri­mary school, they have af­fected his phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance.

He never set out to be­come an ac­tor. As a teenager, he sim­ply wanted to get through his GCSEs and have sex, he says, like any other kid his age. And af­ter that, well the idea had been to “do the whole dis­abil­ity, di­ver­sity, equal­i­ties cam­paign­ing sort of thing.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from Brighton Uni­ver­sity, where he stud­ied busi­ness man­age­ment, Pear­son landed com­mis­sion­ing roles at the BBC and Chan­nel 4 be­fore find­ing work both be­hind the scenes and in front of the cam­era on the Chan­nel 4 se­ries Beauty & The Beast: The Ugly Face of Prej­u­dice in 2011. He has also fronted doc­u­men­taries and worked as a re­porter on Chan­nel 4’s Tricks of the Restau­rant Trade and BBC One’s The One Show.

His sec­ond fea­ture film role came ear­lier this year, in Aaron Schim­berg’s Chained for Life, in which he played an ac­tor with a vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence. Which is not bad go­ing for a Croy­don boy who has spent most of his life be­ing stared at for all the wrong rea­sons.

At the age of five, Pear­son bashed his head on a win­dowsill. When the bump re­fused to go down, his mother took him to the doc­tor, and even­tu­ally they re­ceived the NF1 di­ag­no­sis. Neil, his twin brother, has the same con­di­tion, but with a dif­fer­ence: he suf­fers from mem­ory loss, but has no vis­i­ble symp­toms.

Pear­son’s rec­ol­lec­tion of dis­cov­er­ing he had NF1 is char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally un­der­stated: “My par­ents are very much a ‘heads down, let’s get on with this’ kind of fam­ily, so I don’t think there was ever any cry­ing or sleep­less nights,” he ex­plains.

Still, grow­ing up came with its fair share of hard­ship. “I got called names in the play­ground… Quasi­modo, The Joker, the Ele­phant Man, Scar­face, Blofeld. eld. Those are the things that get thrown around. d. Cre­ativ­ity was sorely lack­ing in Croy­don in the Nineties,” he quips.

His wit made him more than a match for the bul­lies and, in­stead of run­ning to the teach­ers, he would shoot back sar­cas­tic re­torts, which of­ten landed him in trou­ble. Surely, the teach­ers should have been more sup­port­ive?

“Some were, some weren’t,” he shrugs. “There were a few who were re­ally sup­port­ive. But you didn’t have to be back then. It’s a whole dif­fer­ent ball game now.”

Pear­son also con­sid­ers him­self for­tu­nate to have come across an or­gan­i­sa­tion that has made a big dif­fer­ence to his life. On one of his many trips to Great Or­mond Street Hos­pi­tal as a child (he’s had 36 op­er­a­tions so far), he spot­ted a poster for Chang­ing Faces. Cam­paign­ing since 1992, it is now a lead­ing char­ity for the 1.3 mil­lion peo­ple in the UK with a vis­i­ble dif­fer­ence: a mark, scar or con­di­tion that sets them apart. This year, it is one of the cho­sen char­i­ties sup­ported by The Tele­graph’s Christ­mas ap­peal.

“They teach you all the cop­ing strate­gies and how to deal with the re­ac­tions, when they come,” says Pear­son. “It’s not a case of what to do if this hap­pens; it’s more: ‘This is go­ing to hap­pen, here’s how you can dif­fuse it and han­dle it in a way that’s safe and pro­duc­tive and will keep you sane.’”

As an adult, Pear­son went on to be­come one of the char­ity’s cham­pi­ons. And he’s learnt to feel com­fort­able in his own skin; to un­der­stand, as he puts it, that “it’s OK to not be OK.”

“It’s some­thing you’ve got to keep telling your­self reg­u­larly,” he says. “We all have good days and bad days. Be­ing happy isn’t the same as be­ing per­fect – it’s learn­ing to live with im­per­fec­tion.”

Dur­ing his TV ca­reer, he has worked be­hind the scenes on The Un­date­ables, the Chan­nel 4 re­al­ity show that fol­lows peo­ple liv­ing with chal­leng­ing con­di­tions as they at­tempt to find love. Pear­son him­self has had a num­ber of re­la­tion­ships, but says he is cur­rently sin­gle.

He long ago made peace with those who bul­lied him at school. But peo­ple still stare in the street.

“I wouldn’t say I’m used to it,” he says. “I have this chal­lenge now where I have to de­lin­eate who’s be­ing a d--- and who’s spot­ted the guy from the telly. But I don’t re­ally care what strangers think. You own it. Oth­er­wise it crushes you.”

Adam will be help­ing to an­swer the phones at The Tele­graph’s Christ­mas char­ity phone-in to­day. To do­nate, call 0800 117 118 from 10am to 6pm

‘I got called names in the play­ground… Quasi­modo, the Ele­phant Man…’

Adam Pear­son: with Jess Weixler in Chained for Life, be­low; and with Michelle Dock­ery, right, at a Chang­ing Faces gala din­ner in 2014

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