Page last updated at 11:18 GMT, Monday, 30 March 2009 12:18 UK

Obese family in harsh spotlight

By Rowan Bridge
BBC Radio Five Live


The Chawner family describe the abuse they have had to contend with

They have been lambasted in the press and laughed at by neighbours. Here, the Chawner family, with a combined weight of 83 stones, describe their distress at unwanted attention and abuse.

Emma Chawner is responsible for one of the most famous (or infamous) renditions of Celine Dion's My Heart Will Go On.

The 19-year-old from Blackburn first came to the nation's attention two years ago when she first applied for The X Factor.

In a memorable audition, she was roundly condemned for both her dress sense and singing abilities by Simon Cowell.

He described the dress she was wearing as "like a wedding dress, and then you sang the song out of tune and a bit like a baby".

But Emma and her family say the criticism dished out by the judges is nothing compared to the abuse they have suffered since.


Sitting at her laptop, Emma shows me a Facebook group set up about the family.

The tone of the group - which has since been removed - is set by the title: "Get off your fat ass, Emma Chawner and your fat family, and get a job."

Audrey Chawner
Sometimes I sit there feeling quite hurt that they can't leave my daughters or any of my family alone
Audrey Chawner

It had more than 3,500 members, and contained a string of comments describing the family as fat, lazy and sponging off the state.

"It's disgusting, they need to get a life," Emma said.

"They just hate me because I was on The X Factor. They believe the papers which isn't true.

"There was a comment on there which said, 'If I see Emma Chawner, I'll kill her,' and that upset me and I ran upstairs crying."

The Chawner family say they have become so concerned about the abuse that they have contacted the police.

Emma's father Phillip pulls out a stack of newspapers to show me what has been written about them.

Flicking through the pages, the headlines all talk about their size and the fact that they are on benefits: Introducing the lardbuckets; All that is wrong with Britain; 83-stone family's too fat to work and too busy watching TV to diet; The real Tellytubbies.

But Mr Chawner insists that what has been in the papers is inaccurate. He says they have never asked for more money, with the four of them getting between £10,000 and £12,000 a year in benefits, not the £22,000 quoted in the press.

'Medical problems'

When we were at their house filming, they did not want to pour milk on a bowl of cereal for the cameras.

They were trying to make the packet last a bit longer and didn't want to throw any away.

What is beyond doubt is that the four members of the family are morbidly obese, with a combined weight of more than 80 stones.

But Mr Chawner insists that is down to medical problems, and not their diet.

"It's not what I have been eating. I was 27 stone and I am down to 22. I have actually lost weight. They [the family] don't eat a rubbish diet.

"Emma doesn't eat in the morning, she doesn't eat nothing. We just eat healthy foods, salads, and that's it really. I don't eat that much at all."

Emma's mum Audrey opens her kitchen cupboards. There are packets of crisps and biscuits, alongside packets of soup, tins of steak and kidney pie, ketchup and crispbreads.

The fridge has a whole chicken, carrots, lettuce and semi-skimmed milk in it.

"We have all tried dieting, even the girls. They don't gorge themselves on bars of chocolate.

"People look at me, they stare at you. It does still hurt deep down inside and, I am sorry, it is just making me feel really hurt and upset.

"Sometimes I sit there feeling quite hurt that they can't leave my daughters or any of my family alone.

"I hope people are going to listen to this. As I say, we do not scoff ourselves with chocolate or any fattening foods, we just eat what we enjoy and we only have one big meal a day."

The family say they are still pleased with their appearance on The X Factor and felt proud when Emma was invited back for the finale of the fourth season.

But while they may have enjoyed the fleeting fame of the show, the fallout from the publicity they have had since is proving much harder to handle.

Lancashire Police confirmed that they had received a complaint from the Chawner family about abuse directed at them on the Facebook site.

A spokeswoman said: "We investigated the allegation, but concluded that no offence has been committed. The matter is now closed."

Sue Steel, national manager of the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), described the online abuse of the Chawners as "unacceptable".

She said: "Bullying in any form is wrong and as a society we need to send out the message that it will not be tolerated.

"People may think cyber-bullying is funny but it can actually be very hurtful."

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