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5 February 2010

By Caroline Cardus

Gok Wan stands with his arms crossed, with two female participants

How to Look Good Naked … with a Difference. Tracy, Gok Wan and Di Photograph © Adam Lawrence/Tony Buckingham/ UNP.

For the last three weeks I’ve been watching Gok Wan’s somewhat awkwardly titled ‘How To Look Good Naked… With a Difference’.

I was dearly hoping the ‘difference’ would be that the programme didn’t include the more common gaffes some disability programmes make. Late last year, an email from the production company asking for disabled women to take part appeared in my inbox, but I chose not to go for it to avoid being caught up in said gaffes. Pleasingly, on the whole they didn’t materialise.

This overall lack of gaffes was a disappointment to friends on Facebook who’d challenged me to a drinking game - one shot downed for every time Gok said ‘brave’. (There were a couple of occasions when he did - although it was in a shopping centre full of screaming women when somebody was about to go starkers. So I was prepared to be ambiguous about the use of the word).

Despite my cynicism about HTLGN… With a Difference, Gok won my respect. He’s one of those people who is prepared to say ‘I haven’t done this before and I don’t know how we’re going to do it - but let’s try, because it needs to be addressed’. He’s a force of nature who disarms and charms you with his ebullient manner and genuine people skills.

He clearly respects his ‘girlfriends’, although refreshingly, he isn’t afraid to challenge and criticise deftly within his own specialism. Herein lies the way forward to comfortable inclusion: respect, confidence in your own expertise, willingness to listen and good ol’ openness and honesty. If more presenters working with disabled people had these skills then this emerging area would have an easier ride.

These three episodes packed a lot in. I understand there is much to do in fashion when it comes to accepting and representing difference regarding impairment, representation and body shape. But I also felt they would have benefited from dealing with less content in more depth.

Whilst I looked forward to comprehensive fashion advice, as the content whirled through the makeover, the campaign, the Q and A sessions, the photo session and finally, the naked unveiling, I found few tips that I hadn’t already sussed out and was left wanting more.

Issues are unfortunately part of everyday life for disabled people. Perhaps the disabled Cinderellas who like fluffy fashion telly might well be crying, "thank you for the acknowledgement, but can we have more frocks and shoes please?" The issue is that we want to know how to look good with our clothes on!

But these programmes are also a journey. Gok’s approach is that the dichotomy between confidence and fashion must be explored before his girl emerges as a princess and gets her bangers out. Add the disability ‘issue’ into the mix and it’s not surprising things got a little complicated. Luckily because the programme did make relatively few gaffes I was sober enough to take it all in.

It’s worth noting that some inspired moments came out of it too. In episode three, Gok presents Di Cram with a tactile and audio ‘style book’ to help her picture what shape of clothes suit her best. I’m willing to bet there were visually impaired people up and down the country wishing they could get their mitts on something like that too.

There were interesting statistics included throughout the programmes to underline the disability focus. They gave statistics on how many disabled consumers there are - and how many felt disability was not represented on the High Street.

I also felt the images that came out of Nikki Fox and Natasha Wood’s ad campaign would work well in the mainstream and promoted fashion and inclusion in a way the general public could digest. There’s still the whole ‘acceptably pretty slim girl sitting in a wheelchair’ fashion issue, but lets not pretend shows like this are meant for the serious emancipated feminist.

In conclusion, I hope the initiative shown doesn’t stop here with the production company ticking the equality box and never hereafter having a disabled person on the show.

Ideally, the next step would be to regularly see disabled people integrated into ‘Look Good Naked’, and for it to focus on disability fashion themes again in the future. Looking around the internet during the last three weeks has shown me the programmes were well received and even went beyond expectations, so it would be a step backwards if nothing more happens.

I’m willing to bet now there are plenty of disabled Cinderellas out there willing to get their bangers out for Gok Wan - and if I wasn’t posing for Tanya Raabe later on this month I might even be tempted myself.

To watch 'How to Look Good Naked... with a Difference' - go to the Channel 4 website