In 2018, former Coronation Street star Melissa Johns’ iCloud was hacked and explicit photos of her were released online. A young disabled woman with a history of body dysmorphia, Melissa found herself having to come to terms with her body de ella becoming public property.
Four years on Melissa, who was born without her right forearm and hand, is taking ownership of her story with a one-woman show to fight back at ‘body shaming’ and ‘slut shaming’ within society. Her show de ella, Snatched, champions female sexuality and explores the taboo of sex and disability.
Melissa, who campaigns for better representation of disability in the arts, first approached The Lowry theater in Salford with the idea in 2019. But the show, which features a soundtrack to Melissa’s life with 90s and noughties bangers including Cher’s Believe, was delayed twice because of Covid 19.
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“For me the worst thing was to be seen without any clothes on and that’s exactly what happened,” she told us. “But if this does happen to someone else I want them to feel angry that it happened, but I don’t want them to feel ashamed about their body. The last thing I want is for them to feel ashamed.”
She said about her experience: “I had two choices. It was either hide away and pretend it didn’t happen, or for it to be a catalyst to speak out about slut shaming and body shaming.”
On dates she would excuse herself to use the bathroom but would slip into the kitchen to ask staff to cut up her food for her. “It became draining. I was choreographing dates,” she said. “I was hiding so much.”
Melissa, 31, says her view on her body only changed in her late 20s after she watched video footage of herself as a child captured by her grandad. She had the sharp realization that she deserved to be treated better by herself.
Melissa, who played Kate Connor’s ex-girlfriend Imogen Pascoe in Coronation Street in 2017 and Hannah Taylor in the BBC drama Life, was last year among the famous faces competing in Celebrity MasterChef. She also plays Miss Scott in ITV’s Granchester and made her West End debut earlier this year in Henry V at Donmar Warehouse, alongside Game of Thrones heartthrob Kit Harrington.
The BBC Radio 4 drama In My Own Skin was penned by Melissa and Coronation Street writer Debbie Oates based on Melissa’s experience of having her phone hacked. “There are things we can’t change and sometimes the only freedom we have is how we respond to it,” she said.
“I was in bits thinking ‘the world is going to see you naked.’ I thought I would lose my work. I forced myself to read the things written about me and I felt like I had to have the last word here. I’ll always be angry that my privacy was disrespected but I no longer have a feeling of shame.”
Melissa, who founded the pioneering drama project Triple C – The Creative Confidence Collective – with Corrie star Cherylee Houston, who plays Izzy Armstrong in the ITV soap, shared an inspirational message after her private photos of herself with her former partner were leaked.
She hit back on social media by saying: “It will take a lot more than a few leaked photos to stop me fighting for equality and the mainstream representation of women of all different shapes and sizes.” And sharing a carefree image of herself leaping into the air on a beach while making a peace sign, she said: “If any good has come out of this, it is to show that women with all different types of body shapes and sizes send photos , have sex lives, engage in intimate exchanges in the same way as everybody else.”
Four months after the hacking incident, Melissa posed for an empowering photo shoot to challenge perceptions of disability and to show people with disabilities are beautiful and sexy and should be used in fashion campaigns. She teamed up for the shoot with Models of Diversity the campaign for more diversity in modeling.
Speaking about her pride in the photo shoot, she said: “I am not a sexual fetish. I am not a tick box to provide equal opportunities. I am not even here just to show representation.
“I’m an individual that has a different body shape from the ‘norm’ and I have the right to so be raw, sexy, intimate and real. And most of all, I have the right to see myself that way.
“These images make me feel good. They allow me to feel empowered by my own body.”
Snatched, with Arts Council England and The Lowry, comes to Salford on Friday May 13 and Saturday May 14 before heading to Soho Theater London. And its UK tour arrives at the Bolton Octagon on Saturday June 18. The Lowry commissioned and supported Snatched from the first idea and throughout lockdown as part of its ‘Developed With’ artist development programme. To book tickets visit thelowry.com and octagonbolton.co.uk.