Obliterated by chemotherapy”: Sylvia Patterson on keeping face when your body says otherwise

In an exclusive extract from her brilliant new memoir about battling breast cancer, the legendary FACE writer asks: how do you wear mascara if you’ve lost your eyelashes?

Sylvia Patterson is a FACE OG. A titan of pop journalism. The consummate interviewer. A force-of-nature maestro of the vivid description, the hilarious question, the wayward-but-wonderful turn-of-phrase, the insightful big-up (and, occasionally, takedown). Her profiles for this magazine are the stuff of rightful legend.

Sylvia captured Crazy in Love-era Beyoncé in 2003, when Bey was already queen of all she surveyed, distilling her essence in the very first line: Beneath Beyoncé Knowles’ shining, golden exterior lies a heart which is… damn! It’s shiny and golden too.”

She portrayed Missy Elliot, as the supa dupa hip-hop trooper went from debut-album phenom to global force. A proper pop star, Missy understood from the off the importance of the high camp, high concept video,” wrote Sylvia in 1999. So she is less ass-aloft, fox-force pervstress in thigh-totin’ leatherette boots, more Bootsy Collins-style living cartoon in a fluorescent green jumpsuit and red plastic spectacles.”

When we needed someone to cut through the nonsense surrounding the rocketing ascent of Ewan Cock of the North” McGregor, Sylvia was Number One choice, and not just because she and the then-25-year-old actor both come from Perthshire. When, in summer 2001, we needed someone to coax eloquence and beyond-sports cultural relevance from David Beckham, a shy footballer whose magic was then confined solely to the pitch, there was only one person to call.

For more on these and her other (mis)adventures in pop, from Smash Hits to NME, Glamour to the Sunday Times, check out Sylvia’s riotous, critically acclaimed 2016 memoir I’m Not With the Band, which includes her perspective on those celebrity encounters for THE FACE. I’m proud to call Sylvia a colleague and was immensely privileged to be able to commission her to write those features. I’m even prouder to call her a mate.

Now comes her second memoir. Same Old Girl: Staying Alive, Staying Sane, Staying Myself is a very different book. In eye-watering, bone-shivering, soul-shaking and, yes, laugh-raising and spirit-lifting detail, Sylvia recounts her battle with breast cancer – a war on mutinous cells she was forced to wage across the darkest months of the pandemic.

Cancer: there’s a lot of it about. Cancer memoirs: there’s a lot of them about, too. But true to lifelong professional form, Sylvia takes the story, the narrative, the format we think we know, and tips it gloriously on its arse. Same Old Girl is a relatable read by a phenomenal writer.

The book opens in Aberdeen on 24th November 2019. Sylvia is at the city’s P&J Live arena to interview Glaswegian singer-songwriter Gerry Cinnamon for music monthly Q. I’m there, too, interviewing Ned Sheeran” for THE FACE. As I now know, Sylvia was carrying devastating news. For four days I’ve been inwardly churning with fear, a constant tension awaiting screening results which will tell me how long I have left to live. It might not be very long,” she writes in the opening chapter. Was the weight of that horrific secret apparent that night? Not for a nanosecond.

Spoiler alert: like Kylie Minogue, aka pop’s effervescent Tinker Bell”, the artist Sylvia has interviewed more than any other, she beat breast cancer. But the Scotswoman would need all her weapons-grade enthusiasm and nuclear-level positivity – not to mention the endless support of her partner, Simon Goddard (also no slouch as a journalist) – to get through it.

Those words again: we’re proud and privileged to be able to print here an extract from Same Old Girl. The chapter titled Dry Yer Eyes Mate’ is as moving as the killer Streets ballad that inspired its name. It’s also a clear-lensed look at the challenges of applying mascara when you’ve lost your eyelashes, and of keeping up beauty standards” when the advertising heavy hand of Big Cosmetics is all around.


[My oldest friend] Ali’s had a phrase for decades which translates as, Let’s go to the pub.’ She simply says, Put yer eyebrows on.’ When my eyebrows are on, I’m going OUT.

As eyebrows go, they aren’t especially shapely – fairly thinnish, average – but when I sharpen an eyebrow pencil and draw on a better pair – thicker, darker, with angled edges – they act as a kind of Superwoman Shield, or even antlers. Totems, however illusory, of confidence, maturity and being up for the fight and flight of everyday life. As a sometime natural blonde I’ve always had unusually dark brown eyebrows, easily exploited into cartoon-level contours. Siouxsie Sioux, of course, made me do it, back in 79 as a fledgling post-punk believer, even if her level of mythologically powerful, sphinx-like drama could never be reached by the likes of me.

Now, in 2020, I have no eyebrows. There’s a suggestion of eyebrows there, wispy, ghostly echoes of a lifetime’s facial characteristic, now all but obliterated by chemotherapy. But when I’m going out (which in Covid times means, glamorously, the hospital, park or supermarket), I still draw them on, even though the effect is less Siouxsie Sioux, more Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? With no guiding line and no sturdy hair for the crayon to build on, only the bare bump above the eye socket, it’s just a line drawn on skin over bone.

Mine is not a big head either, it’s curiously small and now the edges are all sticking out, the cheekbones, jaw and brow ridge. For the first time ever, I can clearly see that my head is a human skull. You don’t want to acknowledge that your head is a human skull because skulls, usually, are something dusty in the hand of an archaeologist or attached to a skeleton in a TV sitcom surgery or to someone who is definitely dead, already in their coffin and heading into the crematorium flames. This, surely, is how I’d look if I was on my deathbed today, at the age of fifty-five: identical to my mother on her deathbed, aged seventy-four.

I’ve no eyelashes either. Sometimes, walking in the park, a flying insect will hurtle into a lash-free open eye and drown, resulting in face-contorting eye-twitches and bending over double, trying to swill away the remnants with a dripping palmful of hastily poured drinking water. We know what eyelashes are primarily for – a barrier against incoming irritants, the eyes’ first line of defence – and yet we spend billions coating them in potential irritants, in the form of mascara (ingredients include iron oxide pigment, castor oil and paraffin) to achieve” the Bambi-eyed look, because we’re programmed to find it attractive, in ourselves and everyone else. To this end I’ve personally contributed to the beauty industry billions via the regular purchase of jet-black L’Oréal volumiser” mascaras for over forty years (even before I knew I was supposedly worth it”). But when you have no eyelashes, unlike eyebrows, you can’t draw them on. And false eyelashes on a skull only works for Halloween.

The good news is I don’t have to bother shaving my legs any more. There’s nothing there to shave. The pubic hair, too, in case you’re wondering”

In the bathroom mirror, post-shower, with what’s left of my hair swept back and damp, Edvard Munch’s The Scream stares back at me. The once regularly highlighted, shiny blonde hair is the most sparse, dull and shapeless it has ever been. Even with the rigours of the cold cap I’ve lost a third of my hair and it’s naturally thin anyway; today, a drab, unkempt, threadbare, mousy-brown ruin, bald at the sides where the cap couldn’t clamp, like the fright-wig of an itinerant Eighties’ crustie, with visible thinning on top. I’ve followed the instructions for months: wash sparingly, no colouring whatsoever until treatment is fully over. My nails are chemo-ruined, too, currently made of paper and painfully torn, deep into the quick (all Sellotape edge-finding endeavours, for several months, are impossible).

The good news is I don’t have to bother shaving my legs any more. There’s nothing there to shave. The pubic hair, too, in case you’re wondering (I really hope you’re not wondering), is barely there, at best a sorry combover like Archie Gemmill’s in the Scotland football team in 1978. Not that there’s much going on down there anyway: chemotherapy robs your libido, all right. No wonder: puckering up with a mouthful of fungal ulcerations, for a start, isn’t anyone’s idea of erotica (unless you’re seriously unhinged).

Watching TV at home one day an ad comes on for mascara. I blink with my lash-less eyes and wonder why it was that I used to care so much about the concept of luscious lashes. Did I care that much? I don’t think I really did, it’s just something we do, because we can, because attraction is central to the life-force. You just want to feel, you know, as reasonably attractive as you can with the raw materials given. Which has always made me feel sorry for (most) blokes, because the face they wake up with is as good as it’s going to get for the rest of the day.

I know now, though, that I do not care about my eyelashes or my eyebrows any more. I’m not crushed, depressed or bereft, grieving for any aspect of bodily hair. Yes, I look like an alien, but I won’t look like this forever, and without the science that’s making me look like an alien I would soon be dead instead. [My partner] Simon, who is not blind, doesn’t even mention the physical changes, other than the Boney P quip, but no eyebrows or eyelashes, mousy-brown hair and a sticky-out jawline is the least he’s had to feel sad about only a few months on from imagining scattering my ashes round the base of our” tree in Ally Pally Park [in North London].

As a word perfect’ should be binned, surely, from the context of human physicality”

Much more than chin-quivering nostalgia for what’s been lost, in fact, the mascara ad seems brazenly absurd, starring young women who are beautiful and almost certainly digitally enhanced, with lashes as lengthy as clothes poles. We’re all beautiful when we’re young anyway because youth is beautiful. We all know, when we see photos of our youthful selves, how it truly is wasted on the young.

All makeup, hair, skincare and beauty product ads, from this day on, appear as flagrant mockery to me, the multi-billion-pound global beauty industry so obviously toying with every one of us, so blatantly contributing to the sum of human misery, to the contemporary insecurity catastrophe, the one we’re more willing, every year, to both facilitate and spectacularly fund. Under the pretext of progressive science” – all state-of-the-art microbiomes, cryotherapy, prebiotics and cleanical skincare” – humanity has evolved” to psychologically obliterate itself with unfounded fears over the thinnest, outermost layer of ourselves when all we need is for our bodies to work. They know it. We know it. And yet, wilfully, we live in the age of Love Island, of Madonna’s new head, of cosmetic surgery clinics inundated with requests for extreme distortion maximalism” procedures, heart- shaped Russian lips” and the 2021-coined alienised” look – as artificially concocted for Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent character, with shelf-like cheekbones and abnormally arched eyebrows (save yourself a fortune, chums, and opt for a life- threatening disease instead).

A Marc Jacobs perfume ad champions the opposite of alien and disturbs me just as much, the one for Perfect, featuring today’s requisite diverse spectrum of what appears to be normal young women, which most of them are, chosen from a social media casting call alongside a few models, including Kate Moss’s daughter Lila. I’m perfect,” beams one, before everyone else joins in: I’m perfect”… I’m perfect”… I’m perfect”.

Not so very long ago, we grew up with a much kinder truism, and one which is actually true. Nobody’s perfect.” Because nobody is, and nobody ever was. As a word perfect” should be binned, surely, from the context of human physicality. I’ve never once believed I am or could be or even wanted to be perfect”. I don’t even know what perfect means. I do know it doesn’t exist, other than, er, in perfect numbers and something called perfect maths. It might be definable to some, of course, through the filtered illusions on their Instagram feeds, but we all know where that leads: demolished mental health.

This thing on the outside of ourselves, this swaddling cocoon of skin, all the stuff you can see, is only the human-shaped holdall that carries you”

I’ve spent decades in conversation with The Beautiful People, throughout music, film and TV, heard many testimonials on the nature of beauty from celebrated beauties themselves, female and male, from Beyoncé, Mel Gibson and Nicole Kidman, to Keira Knightley, Hugh Jackman and Mila Kunis. Every one of these disparate characters dismissed their own physical beauty as mere luck” and certainly no priority: they cared about the work, relationships, success, family, fulfilment. Of course, they would say that, to spare we mortals more neuroses, but the women especially would follow up such dismissals with a variation on this rueful snort, C’mon, what you’re looking at on-screen/in the magazines? Even can’t live up to that!”

In the mirror, Edvard Munch’s The Scream still stares back at me. I can’t say I’m thrilled, but I can’t say I’m heading for a PTSD diagnosis either. Or my own new head full of fillers (even if I could afford one). Maybe, I muse one day, it’s to do with having seen dead bodies. There’s nothing quite like the electrocuting sight of a dead body to make you profoundly realise what you thought you already knew, but you didn’t really, not for definite: that this thing on the outside of ourselves, this swaddling cocoon of skin, all the stuff you can see, is only the human-shaped holdall that carries you, nothing to do with what makes you you, in all your complicated, miraculous uniqueness.

In 2004, staring down at my white-haired mother’s alabaster body, translucent skin like parchment in her white floral nightie, she looked six hundred years old, a delicate, faded sketch from a Renaissance fresco, beautiful in its way and nothing to do with her. Nothing to do with her at all. This physical mass of skin and bone and muscle and water didn’t encase her any more, didn’t matter any more and ultimately never did. She just didn’t exist any more. Even if, when I got back to her deafeningly silent empty home that afternoon, a large golden can of L’Oréal’s Elnett hairspray, the kind she’d used for over forty years, still did.

But having no eyebrows, eyelashes, nails or a decent hairdo, is hardly a life-altering scenario. It’s temporary for a start. Unlike having a breast sliced off for ever.

Same Old Girl: Staying Alive, Staying Sane, Staying Myself by Sylvia Patterson is published by Fleet on 27th April, hardback RRP £20. Audio and eBook also available

More like this

The best of THE FACE. Straight to your inbox. 

00:00 / 00:00