Channel 4’s continuity announcer Jess Thom is known as ‘the biscuit lady’. Here she tells What’s on TV (opens in new tab) about working in telly while having Tourette’s syndrome, as she strives to make a difference by celebrating being different.
Tourette’s syndrome is a neuropsychiatric disorder causing those that have it to have uncontrollable tics. Jess’s personal tics include saying the word ‘biscuit’ thousands of times daily, repeatedly thumping her chest with her hand, and difficulties in walking.
Nevertheless Jess (opens in new tab), 34, has a career on the box, is making her Edinburgh Festival debut with stand-up show ‘Backstage in Biscuit Land (opens in new tab)’ and is the figure-head of Touretteshero.com. (opens in new tab)
Continuity isn’t the obvious job choice for someone with Tourette’s. How did you get into it?
“Channel 4 did a programme called Alternative Voices (opens in new tab) last December as part of their Born Risky season and recruited five people with audible disabilities – Tourette’s, Cerebral palsy, stammering and someone who was deaf – and trained us up. It’s a job I would have ruled out, along with butcher and living statue, as things I’m not naturally adept at. But I can deliver a clear message – just with added biscuits!”
What enticed you into taking part?
“The thing that attracted me to Alternative Voices and continuity announcing was the idea of difference being visible in the in-between area of programming, not just as the subject of a documentary. People sound different in loads of ways, and it’s important those differences are represented in the media. Disability is normal. Having Tourette’s is perfectly normal. It’s important for people growing up with the condition to know that it’s perfectly okay.”
What reactions have you had?
“Really positive. The first time I did it for a whole evening a couple of months ago ‘biscuit’ trended nationally on Twitter. Understandably people were confused by what was gong on so they went online to find out. Most people were really positive and understanding, which was amazing!”
Is there any particular reason why ‘biscuit’ is one of your vocal tics?
“I don’t have an answer for that – but it’s been a regular tic for about five years. I definitely don’t think about biscuits as much as you’d think! Any word I’ve ever known can become a vocal tic so why particular words stick around is a mystery.”
It’s a cute word – there are much worse you could use!
“It’s the luck of the draw, really. I’ve definitely had words that were a lot less cute! I went through a phase of saying ‘bin’, but I definitely prefer being known as ‘the biscuit lady’ to ‘the bin lady!’ Some tics are very regular, some are one-off phrases, and some collide strange ideas together. It was the humour [of this] that inspired Touretteshero. (opens in new tab)”
When and how did Touretteshero come about?
“Touretteshero (opens in new tab) came about when my friend said not doing something creative with my language-generating tics would be wasteful! That idea really took root and helped me transform how I thought about my life. Before I’d only seen my Tourette’s as a problem. Now think of it as my superpower! It’s been going about four years now. We’ve got a big online presence. Touretteshero celebrates the creativity and humour of Tourette’s, and it’s for people both with and without the condition.”
You’re also working on your debut comedy show. What can you tell us about ‘Backstage in Biscuit Land’?
“The idea with Backstage in Biscuit Land (opens in new tab) [more details below] is it will take audiences on a tour of the strange and surreal world my Tourette’s creates around me. Every show will be different because I’m neurologically incapable of doing the same show twice!”
You’ve turned your condition into something really positive. But what are the biggest day-to-day challenges you face?
“Personally I find the physical motor tics the most difficult to live with. They’re the hardest because they can’t be changed. But you’d be surprised by the resilience of your body. My chest has toughened up and I wear padded gloves to prevent my knuckles from becoming cracked and bloody. I also use a wheelchair because my tics make walking so chaotic.
"Vocal tics and the social aspects of Tourette’s, however, are something that can be changed and everyone can play a part in. It’s my mission to change the world, one tick at a time! And everyone can get on board.”
If a simple cure became available for the condition, would you be interested in taking it? Or would it mean giving up too much of who you are?
“Difficult question. There are so many elements of Tourette’s that are part of my character and life now. Tourette’s makes my life more challenging than I would choose it to be, and I miss things like being able to go for a walk, or spending time on my own. But I definitely wouldn’t want to give up all the laughter it adds to my life. Having a positive approach doesn’t always come easy… and that’s absolutely OK, too. I encourage people to ask questions and be curious. It’s also OK to laugh, if you’re laughing with someone.”
With twenty years of experience as an entertainment journalist, Elaine writes for What’s on TV, TV Times, TV & Satellite Week and (opens in new tab)www.whattowatch.com (opens in new tab) covering a variety of programs from gardening and wildlife to documentaries and drama.
As well as active involvement in the WTW family’s social media accounts, she has been known to get chatty on the red carpet and wander into the odd podcast.
After a day of previewing TV, writing about TV and interviewing TV stars, Elaine likes nothing than to relax… by watching TV.
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