A Big Brother winner with Tourette’s syndrome says Jim Carey’s funny faces and bodily contortions inspired him to “own his condition” causing symptoms like involuntary sounds and tics that remind him of the Hollywood star’s comedy.
Determined to raise awareness of Tourette’s as “not just the swearing condition,” Pete Bennett, 40, who became famous in 2006 when he won the reality TV show, is taking part in a BBC Radio 4 documentary highlighting the positives that come with having the syndrome.
Now based in Brighton, East Sussex, and working as an indie actor as well as running karaoke nights, songwriting and being frontman for the band LoveDogz, he said: “Before going on Big Brother I was depressed that I had Tourette’s.”
He added: “All the documentaries out there about it were so sad and depressing. There was nothing to show me I could have a good life.
“People would stare at me in the street. I was bullied. I didn’t know if I’d ever, ever fit in or even have a future.”
Pete, who entered the Big Brother house with the aim of raising awareness of Tourette’s, but who admits “there’s still so much to do,” found unlikely solace as a young man in watching Jim Carey perform.
While the comedian does not have the condition, Pete said: “I saw him pulling all these funny faces, contorting his body and doing all this crazy comedy. It kind of looked like Tourette’s.
“I couldn’t help pulling these silly faces, contorting and all that. But he was getting paid millions for doing it. He became my inspiration and helped me see that Tourette’s could be quite funny.
“He helped me to accept myself, released me from concern. One day I just stepped over these barriers in my head that were holding me back from life. I owned it and started to laugh at myself.”
He added: “I realised Tourette’s gave me loads of talents. I’ve always made music, loved to paint and draw and make use of this energy I have.
“That’s when I went on the telly. I went out there to do what Jim Carey had done for me and show the world a positive side of Tourette’s, so people could see it wasn’t something to be sad about.”
Pete, who met his former girlfriend Nikki Grahame on the show, romped to victory in the seventh series, when he won the nation’s hearts and gave people an insight into what living with Tourette’s was really like.
While there were concerns at the time that Pete’s inclusion could be seen as exploiting his Tourette’s, he actually feels he did much to destigmatise the condition.
“There is obviously a downside to reality TV. But it did so much for me,” he said.
“And I realise now that I helped other people, too. I still get people coming up to me in the sauna or when I’m out saying they have the condition and I’ve helped them get their heads around it.”
But, even 16 years after his win, Pete appreciates that there is still some stigma around Tourette’s, which impacts the nervous system and causes tics which manifest as sudden involuntary twitches, movements, vocalisations and sounds.
Pete said: “Going on Big Brother helped me to be accepted in the world.
“It changed my life so that I could walk down the street, made me accepted. It freed me from the hell I was in before when no one knew what Tourette’s was. I’m very proud of that.”
Going on Big Brother helped me to be accepted in the world.
He added: “But I still get people messaging me now saying their child has Tourette’s and there’s no one on telly showing them it can be cool.”
While he would love to be that person representing his community, Pete realises that having Tourette’s may impede his chances of landing regular work on TV.
He has found ways to control his tics and recently had a role that was sadly largely cut from the final film as someone with Tourette’s in Catherine Tate’s The Nan Movie, released nationwide this March, but said: “I guess people don’t want someone swearing on telly.”
But, one of the reasons why Pete was so keen to be involved in the upcoming Radio 4 documentary, The Truth About Tourette’s, hosted by TV presenter and journalist Aidy Smith, who has the condition, is that it gives factual information to dispel myths about the syndrome.
For example, it stresses that only 10 per cent of people with Tourette’s suffer with uncontrollable swearing, meaning that 90 per cent do not.
And Aidy said he himself was inspired by seeing Pete on television.
The radio documentary also looks at the positives of having Tourette’s instead of portraying it as a burden, which pleases Pete.
He said: “I love having Tourette’s. It’s been hard, but it’s a really funny illness. Swearing is fun. It’s my therapy.
“I reckon some people are actually jealous as I can say what I want where I want.”
He added: “I quite like being looked at now. When I twitch and people’s eyes shoot at me or they laugh, it’s fun.
“I am completely myself. I’m not embarrassed. I do not care. You’ve got to be yourself otherwise you haven’t truly lived.”
Pete is also a big believer that “Tourette’s is cool.”
He said: “With having Tourette’s, I could either have hidden away forever or just gone out and said this is who I am.
“I’m just trying to be positive and spread light in the world. It’s a big responsibility but I’m proud of what I’ve done for my condition.
“I now just want to do more. Get the word out there. Help other people accept themselves. Being different is cool.”
The Truth About Tourette’s airs on BBC Radio 4 on May 31st at 11am and can also be heard on BBC Sounds.