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 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