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Thursday, 31 July 2014

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Why Cumbrian gurner Tommy Mattinson is putting on a brave face

Brave is not the word usually associated with Tommy Mattinson’s face. Twisted and terrifying, yes. They are among the more flattering descriptions.

Tommy Mattinson photo
Tommy Mattinson gurns

But Tommy’s brave face is the one he has been wearing this week. He has had it on for the past year: a year and two days, since his mother Jean died at the age of 70.

“It’s probably been the most difficult year of my life,” says Tommy. “Mam was the head of the family. She did everything for her children. She brought six of us up with good standards and morals. By hook or by crook, she made sure we never wanted.

“Then you’ve suddenly lost someone like that.

“The family all met up at mam’s. She lived half a mile from me and I’d pop in most nights. I still think ‘I’ll just pop in and see mam.’ I’m in my van and I’m going to do a left and I realise she’s not there. Maybe it will never go away. I don’t want it to go away. She’s in my mind every day of my life.”

Certainly tomorrow, when Tommy’s brave face and all his others return to Egremont Crab Fair as he bids to reclaim his world gurning title.

He has won it 11 times, breaking the record set by his father Gordon and earning a place in the new Guinness Book of Records.

A run of eight consecutive titles ended last year, as the Crab Fair coincided with his mother’s funeral.

Whether or not Tommy is declared champion tomorrow night, his face will remain his fortune.

The transformation from tanned, toned Tommy – a good-looking chap, believe it or not – to Wayne Rooney sucking on a lemon has led to a glamorous second life for this self-employed builder from Aspatria.

He is good at the gurner’s staple: the puffed-out cheeks and crossed eyes, known in the trade as the Popeye.

But what sets him apart is the face referred to by some as the American werewolf: in which he contorts his nose into a snout and his mouth into an unappealing pout, becoming something not quite human.

Six billion faces on the planet, and only Tommy Mattinson’s can do this.

Those who know the value of a striking image have taken advantage. A few years ago Tommy was the face of Bonjela mouth ulcer cream; the unacceptable face if you were squeamish or about to eat.

Tommy advertised England’s new football strip: ‘For more great looks go to umbro.com/england’.

He has made international audiences shriek and squirm with guest slots on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, recorded in California, and other TV appearances in Italy, Germany and Japan.

In Tokyo he and his wife Mandy were put up in five-star luxury. With a smile in his voice Tommy describes gazing at a city of skyscrapers through the full-length window of his suite, thinking how strange life is, when pulling a face gets you here.

Sometimes the world stares back. Tommy has become an integral part of dance act Aphex Twin’s stage show. His contortions are projected onto big screens, sometimes while he’s dressed as a baby or a clown. Don’t have nightmares.

“I’m living the life of a rock star!” he laughs. “I’ve played at T in the Park and RockNess. It’s amazing when I get 15,000 people copying what I’m doing.

“You can get a phone call any time. You don’t know what’s coming next.”

A memorable example came in 2008 when Tommy was asked to gurn at the official reopening of Whitehaven’s Beacon museum.

“I was told there’d be a special guest doing the opening but I didn’t know who ’til the day before. Then they told me: ‘It’s the Queen.’ Oh my god! I was a bit worried then.”

A now famous photograph shows Tommy doing the American werewolf while Her Majesty pulls a face of her own.

“The photo went all around the world. She’s shocked, I think. I’ve got live footage and she does actually take a step back. I still can’t believe it – for gurning, I can get to be presented to the Queen.”

What Tommy calls his best gurn ever is one no photographer captured. It came 10 years ago, not on stage but during long, private hours of cancer treatment.

Tommy’s cancerous thyroid was removed. When he stopped taking thyroxin tablets to allow a scan to take place, his face swelled up. “I looked like a balloon with eye slits.

“To be told you have cancer at 38 is crucifying. You might think you’ll be able to handle it but when you’re actually told, the reality is like being hit with a hammer. If you’ve got plans, your plans just go. It takes over your whole life.

“Mandy was devastated but she was very, very strong for me. She kept the business going [Technique Hair Studio in Aspatria] and brought two kids up. Devonne was 10 years old. Ross was 13.

“Mandy told the kids. They were devastated, but they were great. Devonne used to write me letters saying ‘You’ll get better dad.’ Even now it’s too painful to look at them.”

Hopes of recovery lay in ruins when Tommy returned to the Cumberland Infirmary to be told the cancer had spread to his lungs and into his shoulder.

“That was the lowest point. I thought I’m a dead man, basically. I’m not going to be here. I remember standing there crying on Bonfire Night, thinking I’m not going to be with my family and children anymore.”

Tommy wanted a second opinion and paid to see a specialist at the Christie Hospital in Manchester. While waiting for the verdict, he and Mandy scraped together enough for a family holiday to Florida.

“I managed to have a good holiday, came back and got the results. That was when my life changed again.

“The specialist’s exact words were ‘As far as the activity is concerned, there is none in your body whatsoever at this moment.’ I couldn’t actually believe what I was hearing.

“A year later I went back to the gurning and won it. I know it’s just pulling a face, it’s summat daft. But I needed to win it. I didn’t think I’d be there.”

In January, Tommy will return to Christie’s for his annual check-up. As that will mark 10 cancer-free years, he will then be checked only every two years. Relief is reined in by caution.

“People think when the testing goes from three months to six months, it’s good. But having that extra three months, you start thinking ‘It’s too long. They aren’t checking me. What if it’s come back?’ It poisons your mind, basically.

“I’m a lot easier with it now but it never goes away. I take tablets every day to suppress the regrowth of thyroid tissue and to replace thyroxin. Without those tablets you die, basically.

“Because your thyroid runs your body temperature, your body doesn’t adjust. I’m really uncomfortable with indoor heat. First thing in the morning I can feel quite sickly and tired for an hour or so. The tiredness is probably one of the biggest things.”

But in Tommy’s case cancer’s legacy also includes more pleasant lasting effects.

“I wouldn’t have said I was always a positive person but now I try and live life to the full. You appreciate everything. Just being able to walk in the fields. Just being grateful that you’re still here. Life’s precious. I don’t eat meat anymore. I don’t like things being killed to be eaten. I don’t even like killing a fly.

“I try not to worry too much. I don’t make big issues out of things that aren’t big issues. I try and have as much leisure as I can. Family is everything to me.

“I’m a lucky person. Some people I met at the same time I was having treatment, out of four of five people, they’ve all died. I’m the only one that’s still here.”

Tommy says gurning is a weird sensation. Pushing your face as hard as you can until everything becomes a blur. Like when you’re a kid and you find yourself in a playground fight and the rest of the world melts away.

Tomorrow night Tommy will be back in that bubble. When he steps out of it, his brave face will be ready.

“Even though I’m looking forward to the Crab Fair, after last year I’ll always know it as the day we buried my mam.

“When I won I’d go round to mam’s the next day. She’d say ‘Well done, lad.’

It’s another chapter of your life now. But it’s a difficult chapter.”

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