Twitter trolls made me hate my body: Former child star Dani Harmer reveals her secret battle with depression - and how cruel taunts drove her to liposuction
Dani Harmer has pulled down her jeans to show me the label, which says ‘UK size six’. Now Dani, who is one of the biggest children’s TV stars on the planet after appearing as CBBC’s Tracy Beaker since the age of 12, isn’t in the habit of flashing her knickers.
Yes, she says, like most 23-year-olds she likes to ‘go out at weekends and party but I don’t tend to vomit and flash my pants at everyone’.
She is, you see, too nice — genuinely nice — with a sweet smile and the sort of soft vulnerability that makes you want to mother her. She’s only flashing her pants now because, since appearing on BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, internet trolls have targeted her over her weight. Mean barbs like: ‘I can really see your belly sticking out when you’re doing the tango.’ Or, straight-to-the-point nastiness such as: ‘You’re a small fat person.’
Dance sensation: Dani dazzles the judging panel on last week's Strictly Come Dancing
Dani, who is little more than 5ft in her stockinged feet, says the taunts made her insecure about her looks for the first time in her life. ‘I’d always been so confident with my body,’ she says. ‘I’m a size six. But when you get tweets saying “you’re fat” it hurts your feelings — massively hurts them.
‘As a woman, you don’t want to be told that. You want to feel good, especially when you’re dancing and wearing those tiny costumes. I do, but now and again I get a little knocked back by someone saying something mean.
‘Obviously, if you’re trying to perform on a Saturday night and all you’re thinking is, “breathe in, suck in your stomach otherwise you’re going to get negative feedback” you’re not going to do a good performance.
‘Because you do think: “Oh, do I look that fat on the telly? What should I be doing? Should I be watching what I eat?” You start driving yourself a bit mad.’
So much so that last month, after scoring 29 in the third live show for a graceful foxtrot with her lovely partner Vincent Simone, she dashed into a Harley Street clinic for some non-invasive liposuction on her stomach.
Child star: Dani at the age of 13 as Tracy Beaker on CBBC
The treatment, called Lipoglaze, removes stubborn areas like muffin tops and flabby tummies by freezing fat cells.
‘I went to get my teeth whitened and they offered a service where they put a vaccum on your stomach, which makes it really hot and then it goes really cold. It’s meant to freeze off the fat cells or something like that,’ she says.
‘I thought: “As I’m here, I might as well try it.” I didn’t really see a massive difference, but it works for some people. Then, it got all blown out of proportion and suddenly I’d had liposuction.’
Which is, of course, nonsense, but I rather sense she wishes she’d stuck to Hoovering the carpet.
We’re more than halfway through the series now and the thousands of encouraging tweets she’s received, along with glowing comments from the judges — even misery-guts Craig Revel Horwood — have more than compensated for the handful of nasty ones.
But, says Dani, it’s the friendship of Strictly’s generously proportioned Lisa Riley, who’s become something of a standard-bearer for larger ladies everywhere that really helped her through those first difficult weeks.
‘I’m just from kids’ telly,’ says Dani. ‘I’m not used to 12 million people watching me at all. Lisa was in Emmerdale for God knows how many years so she’s used to being high profile and she’s older [Lisa is 36] so has a lot more experience. Because we get on so well, I finally said to her: “I don’t know how you cope with this all the time.”
‘She said: “Do you know what? Just ignore it. Not everyone’s going to like you. Look, you’re a size six. I’m not. I get loads of negative stuff, but I just focus on the people wishing me luck.”
‘That’s what I do now. I don’t even think about it any more.’
Well, given what she’s tucking into for tea — a plate of crisps and a Marmite and cheese toastie — Dani’s certainly not calorie-counting.
We meet in a leisure centre just off the M3, where Dani rehearses every day with Vincent. He calls her ‘Bella’ and makes her feel a million dollars, which is a good thing.
Dani, you see, is one of the best-known young actresses in TV history after starring in The Story Of Tracy Beaker and the Bafta-winning Tracy Beaker Returns.
But when you’ve spent most of your life playing a child, growing up can be a tricky thing. When she decided to leave the series earlier this year, she spiralled into depression.
‘I think I’ve been suffering for two years but without really knowing what it was,’ says Dani, whose mother also has a history of depression.
Tiny dancer: Dani Harmer and Strictly partner Vincent Simone on the show which she says has been the most enjoyable experience of her life
‘I’d played that part for 11 years and you do want to scream: “No, I’m an adult. Please treat me like one.” But when you leave a job, you don’t just leave people behind, you leave friends.
‘With Tracy Beaker, we’d be away filming for three months. It’s like a family you’ve created for a certain period. Then, when the job’s finished, within hours it’s completely gone.
‘I found that really difficult. If I’ve had a couple of days off I find those two days the worst ever because I don’t know what to do with myself. I can’t just sit and relax. I overthink things, which messes with your head.
‘I began to be unhappy about everything pretty much. I just wasn’t myself. I was irritated by the smallest of things and getting upset over really stupid stuff. I couldn’t figure out why I was randomly crying and not wanting to get out of bed and stuff.
‘Eventually, I spoke to my mum about it. She said: “Let’s take you to the doctor just to chat to him.”’
The doctor diagnosed depression. ‘He said: “Unfortunately, it’s hereditary so you can either go on some tablets to try to sort yourself out or you can try to do it yourself.” I went on the tablets for about two or three months. Then I thought: “You know what, I can do this myself.” Because I’ve watched my mum go on and off these tablets for ages and I had it in my head they don’t really work.
‘Then Strictly came about and that’s really taken my mind off everything.’
Dani glows when she talks about Strictly. ‘When Vincent called me Bella, at first I thought it was because he didn’t know my name,’ she giggles. ‘He is the nicest man in the world and I’m not ready to let go of him yet.
‘I do want to stay in as long as possible. I’m really close to Lisa and Denise [Van Outen]. Our personalities are quite similar so we’ll sit around and have a laugh.
‘They’re really long days on Strictly so you do end up sitting on the same sofa for hours just waiting for your turn to go on the dance floor.
‘We’ve all realised for us it’s a one-off experience. We do just laugh a lot.’
Laughter, I suspect, is just what she needs. Dani, who has a younger sister called Betsy, has worked since the age of five, when she appeared in the West End rock musical The Who’s Tommy.
Brought up in Bracknell, Berkshire, in a tiny two-bedroom house by her father, a mechanic, and mother, who recently divorced, she started at theatre school at seven, but never really fitted in.
‘I found it bizarre because I was still normal,’ she says. ‘I know that sounds weird, but at theatre school everyone’s very “jazz hands” and singing and tap-dancing constantly. That wasn’t me at all.’
Landing the role of Tracy Beaker at 12 isolated her from her classmates further. ‘When it started to take off, that’s when you saw the jealousy,’ she says. ‘We got nominated for a Bafta when I was about 13 and no one said “well done” or anything.
‘I suppose everyone’s there striving for the same thing, so if you’re doing slightly better . . .’ She pauses. ‘Everyone gets their moment and that just happened to be mine.’
Tough times: Dani, as Tracy Beaker on Tracy Beaker Returns, says going through puberty on screen was difficult
But growing up on television was never easy. ‘It sucks when you’re a teenager,’ she says. ‘All you want to do is hide away and never come out of your room, but there was me on the telly — frizzy hair, braces, spots — going through puberty.
‘I don’t know if I saw it when I was younger, but it was a lot of pressure. You’re in an adult environment even though you’re only 12 with an entire series resting on your shoulders.
‘That’s really young to have to learn ten pages of dialogue every night, go on set and do it properly otherwise the whole shoot goes belly up — but I wouldn’t swap it for anything.’
When she was 16, though, she decided to take a break from her on-screen character.
‘I really wanted to spread my wings and do something different. I felt as if we were just regurgitating what we used to do when I was younger. But I wasn’t younger any more, I was 16 and I was nearly a woman. It was hard.’
Dani desperately wanted her independence. She fought with her mother and, by the age of 18, had moved out of the family home and in with a boyfriend, who was a mechanic like her father. The relationship didn’t last.
‘He’s the one proper boyfriend I’ve had and I can honestly say I loved him,’ she says. ‘We were together for about two-and-a-half years, but I just realised I was too young for all of this and needed to live a bit more.
‘I found it really hard to split up with him because I had to move back in with my dad. When your parents say, “You’re too young to be moving out. Have you really thought about this?” and then for them to be proved right was hard to deal with.’
Soon after the relationship ended, Dani was on CBBC again in Tracy Beaker Returns. ‘I was just going back for one series but ended up signing contracts and staying there for the next three years,’ she says.
‘Then you think: “I’ve definitely outgrown this. Have I taken a step back? Have I done the right thing?” Who knows, I might have been in some film if I hadn’t done Beaker, but as an actress you think: “Oh God, what do I do?” Because you never know if you’re going to get another job.
‘Doing Strictly has really helped because you haven’t got a moment to think about anything — except dance steps.
‘You live in this little bubble and it completely takes over your life. I feel great at the moment. I’ve never enjoyed anything as much as Strictly.’
With which Vincent appears as if on cue. ‘Bella?’ He’s anxious to return to the studio to rehearse for tomorrow’s show.
‘Isn’t my Bella lovely?’ he says. Yes, she is — every tiny, gutsy inch of her.
Strictly Come Dancing is on BBC1 tomorrow at 6.50pm.
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