FOR a woman whose life seemed destroyed in an instant by a vengeful ex-lover when acid was thrown in her face, Katie Piper has a remarkably normal attitude to men.
We are sitting in a bar discussing secret crushes on pop stars and the perpetual female dilemma of attracting the wrong type of guy.
“Because of the way I looked before, people assume my life was perfect and that I attracted all the best men,” explains the former blonde model and TV presenter.
“Well, clearly I didn’t… an ex-boyfriend arranged to have my face burned off.
“When I started dating again afterwards I seemed to be attracting men who just wanted to talk about themselves and their problems.
“I’d get excited about a fun night out, get all dressed up then sit there listening while they told me all about their difficult childhoods and how unhappy they were.
“Now, I don’t mind helping people but I was hoping they saw me as a potential girlfriend, not just a shoulder to cry on!”
It’s something of an understatement that Katie “doesn’t mind helping people”.
Smiling: Katie Piper with our reporter RachaelRowan Griffith
After recovering from an attack that should have killed her, rebuilding her face and her life, Katie, 28, set up her own charity and, as the Mirror revealed yesterday, has written a self-help book.
With astonishing insight, compassion and humour she uses her own experiences to reassure people who are going through emotional and physical trauma that “things get better”.
And Katie herself is proof that even survivors of the most evil attacks can learn to smile, and love, again.
“I’ve had one serious boyfriend since,” she says. “Jonathan was a lovely, normal guy – a recruitment consultant from the same village as my parents.
“It was hard telling him what had happened – that I’d been raped – and it wasn’t easy being intimate.
"but I wanted a normal relationship and I trusted him. I felt safe and loved, and it helped me build my confidence.”
It was Katie who broke things off. A Channel 4 documentary about her life brought “fame” and the chance to start the Katie Piper Foundation to help other survivors of disfigurement.
“I wasn’t ready to settle down and I valued the independence I’d got back, and this big, new challenge.”
Katie recently met another man in a bar who, after chatting all night, asked for her number.
Carefree: Katie before the attackKatie Piper
“He started texting and chatting and, after a few days, asked what I did and I told him I ran a burns charity.
“He must have gone away and looked it up because he never texted again after that.
"That sort of thing could knock your self-esteem but then I think I wouldn’t have wanted to go out with someone only to realise they were shallow a few dates down the line.
“I am who I am and I don’t pretend not to be single or burned. And men might not fancy me because I’m too short or too thin.
“Of course, I’d like to fall in love and get married one day – my brother has just got engaged and I’m thrilled for him – but I’m not obsessing about meeting someone.
“I would love to have kids but I’m 29 in October and it might not happen. If I’m not blessed with children of my own then I’d like to adopt one day – possibly a child from Pakistan.”
Katie’s interest in that country has grown through the work of the brilliant pioneering surgeon Mohammed Jawad who rebuilt her face in more than 100 operations.
He is involved with a charity called Islamic help which works with acid-burn victims – women who have been cast out of society after so-called “honour attacks”.
Horror attack: the journey back begins for KatiePA
Katie hopes to visit the country one day but in the meantime is concentrating on improving treatment and rehab opportunities for burns survivors in the UK – getting them the same kind of care she received at a specialist clinic in France.
As Katie talks about the surgical procedures she’s endured and the “tweaks” she may need in future I am amazed that anyone could come out of such trauma such a beautiful human being.
After the attack her weight dropped to a skeletal 5st 7lb because she couldn’t eat – the acid had burned her oesophagus and plastic tubes had to be inserted to stop her throat sealing up.
Her eyelids were reconstructed using skin grafts from her groin and the inner membrane of her lips, and thanks to pioneering stem-cell surgery she has regained about 25% of the sight in her previously blind left eye.
Skin from Katie’s buttocks and lower back was grafted on to her face, she had to wear her hard plastic pressure mask for 23 hours a day and the skin on the front of her body is made up of grafts from elsewhere.
In fact, every part of her has been affected. she even had drips inserted between her toes when there was nowhere left to put them.
Mask: Katie undergoing treatmentPA
But, remarkably, Katie has never lost her sense of humour – as she reveals when she tells me about her new grooming and make-up issues.
“I must have had a very hairy bum because they used the skin from there to build my new face,” she says.
“Now I have to get the fuzz on my cheek – my face cheeks, not my bum cheeks – threaded off at the beauty salon.
“My eyelid isn’t straight, because it’s my groin, but I correct the look using eyeliner and false lashes.
“And I might need more work on this,” she says, pulling back her hair to show a tiny, very pretty, reconstructed left ear.
“I actually wish the other ear was more like this one. It’s cute – like Tinkerbell’s.
“I’m so lucky that I’ve always been able to laugh about things, even at my very lowest times.”
In a postscript to Katie’s new book mum Diane recalls one of those moments.
Scars: Recovery underwayPA
She tells how she and husband David first saw Katie lying in hospital after the attack, blind and disfigured.
Diane says: “As Katie lay with black, white and brown patches of skin from corpses draped all over her in order to preserve her face, she asked us how she looked.
“‘You have different patches all over you,’ I said nervously. but somehow she managed to laugh. ‘I’m like a patchwork doll!’ she said, trying to smile.
“Although Katie’s body was broken we soon discovered her spirit wasn’t.”
Katie adds: “Another time, soon after I came out of the coma, Mum brought in some clothes for me to wear.
“I was blind in one eye but I could still see what she was pulling out of the bag – a velour tracksuit and trainers with Velcro fastenings.
“OK, I’d nearly died… but I wouldn’t have been seen dead in those things! When I told her ‘I am NOT wearing that!’ we both laughed at my vanity.
“But things like that matter. I always painted my nails and did my hair, and I’d turn up to hospital appointments with my plastic face-mask on, a drip sticking out of my arm but wearing six-inch heels.
“People would sometimes say patronisingly ‘I think it’s great that you still do your hair and nails and wear nice clothes’ as if they expected me to go out looking like Stig of the Dump!”
Hero: Pioneering surgeon Mohammad JawadPA
Katie’s incredible determination and positivity also got her through the ordeal of the court trials of her ex-boyfriend and his accomplice – now jailed for life.
“If I hadn’t accepted my situation I would have been stuck on a treadmill of misery – and I didn’t want them to win,” she explains.
“Looking back, I was struggling to accept the fact my attackers never apologised.
"I was torturing myself, asking why they weren’t sorry for almost killing me… until I realised that there was no rational explanation.
“They just didn’t care – so I pitied them and decided to move on with my own life.”
Katie says she no longer suffers from the nightmares which haunted her for so long but fear can still strike her at unexpected moments.
She says: “I was on the Tube near Tottenham Court Road recently – on the day that man took people hostage.
“When I checked my phone messages I saw people saying it was a terror attack and there was a bomb.
"I panicked and thought I’d get burned again.”
Girls’ talk: Katie talks to our RachaelRowan Griffths / Daily Mirror
Katie admits she’s still on a journey of recovery. but the future is full of hope.
She is busy running her charity and holding make-up masterclasses for other people with facial burns and scars.
She has also started taking acting lessons and been signed to Channel 4 to present a series of hard-hitting documentaries.
And you just know that Katie Piper’s spirit and sense of humour will see her through anything.
As she leaves she says: “I expect I’ll get some funny looks on the Tube like I did this morning.”
I pause, unsure what to say.
Then she pulls out the book she was reading on her journey with the title HOOKERS emblazoned on the front.
“Do you think it was this that did it?”
Part one of our exclusive Katie Piper interview: "I'm no longer that blonde who had acid thrown in her face": Model's extraordinary story of survival and recovery
* Things get Better, by Katie Piper, will be published by Quercus on Thursday, priced £12.99.
To find out more about Katie’s work, visit her website at www.katiepiperfoundation.org.uk