'Ugly' author: I'm a work in progress
2 Sep 2009
Constance Briscoe, leading barrister and author of best-selling memoir Ugly, could have bought "a small house" with the amount of money she has so far spent on cosmetic surgery. "Let's see," she says, ticking off her operations one by one. "I've had my nose done, my lips - lower, not upper, and they still need work - the bit beneath my eyes, but not the lids. I've had my teeth whitened, and oh yeah, my feet ..."
She slips off her shoes underneath her desk in Bell Yard, next door to the High Court, and shows me a pair of perfectly normal-looking, well-manicured feet. Last year, she spent about £18,000 on them. "I had an operation in America to have them narrowed," she explains. "You can't get it done here because it might affect the way you walk or stand, but it's actually very simple. They just shave a piece of bone off each foot - about half an inch - though they can also take a little bone out of your toe to make it straighter, or chip out a bit of a big toe, then pull the toe back and insert a screw. All sorts of things."
She appraises her new feet critically: "When I look at them, I do think I could do with another half-inch off each one ..." She laughs, knowing (I think) how ridiculous it is to have screws inserted into your feet just so you can fit into a pair of Luc Berjens heels.
Briscoe is 52 and had her first operation - on her nose - at the age of 20. That initial op was a direct result of the horrific psychological abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother - recounted in the memoir Ugly - and it's tempting to conclude that her entire "cosmetic surgery voyage", as she calls it, has similarly been one long attempt to repair the deep-seated damage caused by her mother's extraordinary cruelty.
It was a miserable and dangerous childhood in Camberwell, south London. Briscoe's mother Carmen was hostile and cutting, repeatedly calling her "bitch" or "scarface" or a "dirty little whore". But it's the adjective "ugly" that truly peppers the memoir, with all its brutal power to destroy a child's confidence and dignity; it was Briscoe's "ugliness", she thinks, coupled with a bed-wetting habit that lasted well into secondary school, that caused her mother to treat her so viciously.
Then known as Clare or Clearie, Briscoe was beaten with a broken plank, had her arm sliced open with a knife, and was regularly punched in the head as she simply passed her mother in the house - all, she surmises, for "offending" the beautiful young Carmen with the plain looks she inherited from her absent father George. Of the many examples of plain nastiness in Ugly, it's Carmen's vicious laughter at the suggestion that she buy Briscoe's school photographs that most stick in my mind. "I've been telling you for years that you're ugly. Have you paid any attention? Have you listened to me? No. Not one word have you listened to. Instead you bring your ugly pictures home and ask me to pay for them."
Late last year, Briscoe hoped to learn in court why her mother behaved as she did. In a much-publicised libel case brought by Carmen against Briscoe and the publishers of Ugly, Constance's childhood was dissected and examined by lawyers, while her family - she has 10 siblings and half-siblings - lined up against her to give testimony on behalf of their mother (presumably, thinks Briscoe, for potential financial gain).
She has now updated Ugly with a near-verbatim account of the trial, a "farcical" case that sought to ruin her as a lawyer and "effectively erase my childhood altogether". Yet the jury, swayed particularly by social services files that proved abuse of other children in the family, refused to believe Carmen and her cohorts, and after two weeks of intense and often painful revelation awarded victory to Briscoe.
"If I'd lost that case, I might as well not have existed," she whispers. "It would have been as though I'd never mattered at all. My mother knew the truth, and so did my brothers and sisters. They came to court to lie. The result was a complete vindication of my struggle to be who I am."
She is, of course, much changed from that little girl over whom lawyers fought. Briscoe is amicably divorced from the father of her two grown-up children, Martin and Francesca, and now lives with her partner Tony Arlidge, QC.
She is frank yet proud, fully prepared to discuss intimate details but quick to disagree with my armchair theses. "Well, I can't begin to tell you how many female lawyers have asked me about it," she says, when I wince at her foot-surgery stories. "They come up to me very surreptitiously, even in court. There I am thinking they are going to talk about the case in hand, but not a bit of it. They want to ask me where they can get foot surgery, and whether they should have it, and I always say to them, absolutely, do it ..."
She is also, of course, much changed in appearance. "At the age of 18, say, I looked very different from the way I do now," she says.
Yet I'm amazed to discover that Briscoe has not had any talking therapy. "Some people might think I need therapy - and maybe I do," she concedes. Even odder, she seems still to feel guilt for what her mother did to her. Briscoe has a tendency to lapse into the third person when describing her childhood self: "I've moved away from that ugly little person over the years. I'm not her any more," she says.
But Clare wasn't really ugly. "Oh, I don't know about that," she says. "To some extent it was her fault, you know. Because she was a bit ugly and she wet the bed and she got in the way ... "
Instead, then, Briscoe has chosen to thoroughly "treat" her surface appearance. In the past, she has been criticised for being a highly successful woman in a deeply serious profession, but spending vast amounts of money on looking pretty.
But of course it goes deeper than mere prettiness: "My life relies on my looks," she replies baldly when I ask her to defend herself against the feminist critique. "Being comfortable with myself relies on my looks. If I'm not happy with the way I look, then I'm forever thinking, 'Oh God, I need to have this done.' There is a necessity for me to have work done. Until I feel comfortable with myself I will continue to have surgery."
It is a measure of the extraordinary self-confidence Briscoe somehow retained as a child that she pitched up at the door of a cosmetic surgeon in Harley Street as a mere teenager. She found him in the Yellow Pages ("I got very lucky indeed") and has used him ever since. Back then, of course, she could not afford the nose operation she so desperately wanted, and the surgeon himself "suggested my head needed looking at".
But it is in her nature to confront problems head-on, she says, and "I was going to have that surgery come what may". With stunning single-mindedness she did a series of jobs while studying law at Newcastle University - and simply saved up for it. "The more my mother put me down, the more I was determined to succeed, the more she isolated me, the more I relied on myself."
Since the libel case ended last November she has not seen or spoken to any member of her family. "That's it, and I think it's good this way," she says. "I was on my own in that trial - as always." Her sister Pauline, known as "Four Eyes", initially pledged to stand witness for her in court, but failed to show up.
Similarly, her mother, who owes her daughter's court costs, has now apparently vanished. "She was on a no-win, no-fee herself but Hodder [the publisher of Ugly] and I have between us had to pay more than £1 million. We should get that back from her but she has paid not one penny of it. She has effectively disappeared."
Meanwhile, Briscoe is turning her hand to crime fiction - and also plotting her next bout of cosmetic surgery. There is, she says, "unfinished business" with her nose and the corners of her lips; possibly more off her feet; and the prospect, obviously, of some form of anti-ageing surgery in the future. "If I thought I needed my face pulling up, I'd get in there quick ..."
Her partner Tony does not approve - "he thinks I'm on another planet when it comes to cosmetic surgery" - but mere disapproval has never stopped Constance Briscoe.
"I don't make any excuses for having had surgery, and I'm not going to pretend I haven't had it done. Do I regret it? Not for a single half a second. Would I have more done? Most definitely. It is extreme, though I'm not quite Michael Jackson. But does it make me feel better? Well, yes, it really does."
* The updated version of Ugly is published by Hodder
Reader views (17) Add your view
OMG how could a mother do that to a child? I can not get over this story. It has bought tears to my eyes. Im very proud of you Constance for not taking your life, that would have been one of the most hardest times in your life. As for Carmen, you need a bullet to your head lady, how the hell can you do such things to your own flesh and blood? Children are bought in to this world for a reason not to be abused especially from there own parents. We need to put a stop to people like this, maybe electric chair? bring it back i say!!!!!!
- NzMaori, Aotearoa New Zealand, 10/12/2011 03:26
AM SO PROUD CONSTANCE MADE THIS BOOK BECAUSE THE WORLD NEEDED TO KNOW HOW EVIL HER MOTHER AND STEP-DAD WAS TO HER, HER SIBLINGS DID NOTHING TO HELP I SAY THAT IS HEARTLESS AND CRUEL. HER MOTHER IS A EVIL WORK FROM THE DEVIL AND I PRAY GOD GIVES HER HER OWN PUNISHMENT FOR PUTTING THIS WONDERFUL WOMEN INTO HELL, THIS BOOK MADE ME SO SAD KNOWING YUR OWN MOTHER CAN DO THIS TO YOU. IF THAT WAS ME GOD KNOWS I WOULD KILL HER MYSELF CONSTANCE KEEP YOUR HEAD HIGH OVER HEAR WE LOVE YOU AND YOUR MOTHER WILL PAY FOR HER DISGUSTING DEEDS. IF I SAW HER NOW I WIIL HURT HER SO MUCH BECAUSE OF HOW SHE TREATED YOU SHE SHOULD BE LOCKED UP, SHE IS LUCKY STUPID WOMEN YOU ARE THE ONE WHO IS UGLY LOOK AT YOU FOOLISH OLD CRAP
- JJ, London, 31/10/2011 19:41
Ann of Norfolk, you are as monstrous, abusive and vicious as Constance's mother.
- Mitey, condom, france, 11/01/2010 23:28
I don't suppose for one moment that her mother has the money to pay her. What a nasty, vengeful nutter this woman is.
- Sue R, London, 11/01/2010 22:28
Stop whinging and moaning about your mother. That's an excuse because you despise yourself. Your kind can be seen frequently in the City of London with their weave-on (looking ridiculous) with tight skirts and cultivated accents. Thinking you are better than everyone else because you got through the net to higher education. Carry on in your futile dreamland. You will never ever look like your European peers, the ones that you envy. What a sad woman you are!
- Ann, Norfolk, 11/01/2010 22:28
Hey, you go girl!
Though I'm Nigerian I understand how cruel your Mum could have been to you as a child as I had a Jamaican babysitter who was very mean to me about my hair, etc.
You've done well so enjoy the fruits of your labour.x
- Danny Adigwe, London, 11/01/2010 22:28
Sue R, What a nasty piece of work you are. I am a white woman and I understand what this lady has been through. Constance hold your head high and ignore this unpleasant woman. It is your life, do what you want with it.
- Trisha Crawford, EAST CROYDON, 11/01/2010 22:28
Court case aside, your mum has clearly won, if at this age you are mutilating yourself because your mum said you are ugly and you concur that yes you were ugly.
I too am a black woman but no insecurities will make me alter my black features to that of a white idyll. A thin nose, slender lips narrow feet, long straight hair.
Your insecurities are no different to those of Michael Jackson, his father, your mum, the differences I see are that you are more educated than he but have less money to indulge in the ludicrous surgery excesses of MJ.
I read your book, but at what point will you exorcise your ghosts, or any accomplishments you achieve will be dwarfed by your abuse and you will be remembered for that only no matter how much else you achieve. Move forward and don't let your past define you, its a part of you, but you seem to be risking it being all encompassing. You let the abuse you suffered propel you and cause you to strive forward in life, but by dwelling on it now to so great an extent it diminishes personally and professionally from who you are today. When will it be time to put your ghosts bed before they haunt you forever.
- The Truthspeaker, Notting Hill, London, 11/01/2010 22:28
From what I'd read, Sue R, Miss Briscoe wasn't the only plaintiff in this case. Hodder and Stoughton, the Book's publisher, were also defending the action, and as such are entitled to recover their costs too. As I've also read, neither Miss Briscoe nor Hodder want Carmen put out of her home, so they would settle on her being allowed to keep the property, which will revert to the plaintiffs when she dies.
All things considered, I think this would be a fair settlement, don't you, Sue R?
- Nigel, Portsmouth UK, 11/01/2010 22:28
Constance Briscoe seems very full of herself. Her mother doesn't sound like a good mother, but there are better ways to deal with her tough childhood than wanting to be admired by the general public. Many children are now are having a tougher childhood than she ever had, and I bet they won't be writing books with there ego all over them.
- Ben S, London, 11/01/2010 22:28
Would she encourage/insinuate that her children change any features they have inherited from her? I wonder indeed if they have already.
- Sade, Lon UK, 11/01/2010 22:28
I am shocked by some of the nasty comments made above. What I see here is a strong woman with many issues that she has not yet dealt with- I think counselling may be what is required here. If she wants surgery, that's up to her, it's not about 'not looking black', it's about how she feels about herself. I think Constance is attractive but she obviously would not agree with me as she has had such a difficult childhood and being told you are ugly constantly would leave its mark on anyone! Writing her book has probably been cathartic for her, but it has obviously created more problems with her family. I wish her well.
- Lorraine, st albans, 11/01/2010 22:28
Pathetic. If you could change your skin colour you would do that as well. I do not have time for people such as this woman. They disgust me. You still do not have the ability to be you with your false hair and false face. You will live in a perpetual world of self loathing and discontentment. I am black and proud and no way would I walk around with a weave-on. As a child of African descent here I am happy in my skin and with my nose and lips as they are. I have far more important things to do than try to be European. Vive le difference! I once saw a black woman in Camden Lock with black skin whitened with baking powder, yes she hurled abuse at me as she could not bear to look in the mirror and see my black skin. I let her know yes I am black and proud get over it.
- Ann, Norfolk, 11/01/2010 22:28
So you took the easy option and let your mum win and have the satisfaction of being 'right' Her issues have become yours and you will never be free of them. You have to accept, deal with, love and allow who you really are to be your path to beauty and get a bit of help with health and how to dress and make up. You have chosen a catalogue of looks and you may find that beauty comes in colours sizes and is a fashion. You brought Michael Jackson up - how do you think it got that far Take care
- Amazonmothe, hasting, 11/01/2010 22:28
I actually know this lady, she seems like a pleasant person who has done well enough for herself despite her childhood.
- Miles T. Bunting, London, 11/01/2010 22:28
Your pathetic, she didn't 'get through the net', she worked hard and achieved what she did because she refused to believe that she could only achieve so much as a black woman. You only confirm the worst in society by identifying yourself with your features. I'm black as well but don't loathe other black achievers, maybe you think she should have remained in the 'ghetto' like you .... in Norfolk.
- Emmanuel, London, 11/01/2010 22:28
"The Truthspeaker, Notting Hill, London
I don't suppose for one moment that her mother has the money to pay her. What a nasty, vengeful nutter this woman is."
You obviously havent read the article properly, her mother initiated the case against her (Constance), if the mother is stiffed with a bill after trying to get cash out of her daughter then tough luck. You obviously havent read the book either this is not a case of a daughter not getting a pony when she was 12 it's the story of an abused child.
I dont think Constance is has truely dealt with her mother/childhood at all but to now have the choice and money to run away from the fresh hell that was Camberwell for this woman is her choice, weaves, plastic surgey, shaven feet she harms no one and has achieved plenty. Maybe go easy with your judgements??
- Ranger, london, 11/01/2010 22:28