A FORMER X Factor contestant who spent over £10,000 on weight loss surgery says her confidence soared after her body shrank from a size 20 to a size 10.
Lekenah Eccles was 20st and a size 22 when she auditioned for the TV talent show in 2011, aged 20, alongside her pal Leigh-Anne Pinnock who found fame with Little Mix.
She says her big voice was dwarfed by her self-consciousness over her size – and she was dropped after the first round.
Now a blogger and part-time model, Lekenah, 31, lives in Buckinghamshire, with her footballer partner Joshua Parker, 30, and their children Zenzae, 18 months, and Aieko, four.
She was 16st 13lb and a size 18 to 20 when she decided to spend £10,500 on gastric bypass surgery in January of this year.
Despite tackling her weight problem several times in the past with diet and exercise, Lekenah, who says she had a "binge-eating disorder," believes the surgery has given her a positive mindset.
She explained: "Now when I look in the mirror I feel grateful. When I lost weight on my own I wasn’t grateful. I continued to pick at my body and my flaws.
"When my weight went up and down in my 20s – once even getting down to 10st – I went to the GP and got a free pass to go to Weight Watchers (now WW). My best friend did it with me and we went to Zumba, too. Then I put weight back on.
"I tell people, ‘Never expect you’re going to instantly be happy with your body when you lose weight, as you’re not prepared for it.’
"Now I am prepared for this body. I’ve seen it fat and I’ve seen it slim. I’ve seen it from all angles and now I’m grateful."
Now Lekenah is a size 10 and weighs 10st 3lb and she says her confidence has soared.
"I went to Antigua not so long ago and put on a bikini without caring, which was amazing," she said.
"I’ve also started doing commercial modelling and just doing things I thought I could never do because of my body."
The mother has come a very long way since her X Factor audition when she felt "crushed" after being dropped and watching her friend achieve the dream she had so wanted to be part of.
She said: "I was very talented, but my body language in the audition wasn’t confident. At the time, I felt like no one wanted me because I was the fat girl.
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"And when Leigh-Anne got through and I didn’t, while I was pleased for her, I was gutted, as I was seeing my best friend living my dream.
"Still, it triggered me to lose weight for a while.
"But I felt like I wasn’t good enough if I didn’t look like Leigh-Anne or anyone else who got through on X Factor."
Lekenah says her weight problems began in childhood when well-meaning relatives from her mum's large Thai family showed their love by giving her food.
She also resented her mum's insistence on building exercise into her daily routine and started to hate it.
At the time, I felt like no one wanted me because I was the fat girl.
"I was eight when I first had puppy fat and just kept getting bigger," she said.
"I didn’t realise it then, but I had an eating disorder. My relationship with food just wasn’t great.
"Then, growing up, my aunties and uncles from Thailand showed their love by feeding me. They thought they were treating me, but there was no routine with my eating.
"Then, aware I was big, my mum used to tell me to exercise before I went to meet a friend. But it made me hate exercise and I just hated myself for being big.
"Knowing I was coming home from school for a lovely dinner, but that my mum would restrict me to something like one Milky Bar because of my weight, on the way back I’d buy a load of chocolate and binge on Galaxy bars and Snickers before I got there."
Always strong-willed, there were times when Lekenah managed to lose weight.
After her first daughter's birth, she shifted her 4st baby weight within a few months by going to the gym and controlling her diet. But, after having her second daughter, her will was not there.
She said: "I was in a very bad place mentally and had a binge eating disorder, where I would eat until I felt sick.
"It was like I had no other outlet for my feelings, so I would use food to my own detriment.
"My partner and I were having tough times with life. Suddenly we were adults and responsible for our finances and for little people.
"I lost control of my eating, as I didn’t feel good enough and I couldn’t get the control back.
"I reached a breaking point, where I thought, ‘I’m 30 this year on September 22, and if I don’t deal with it, I never will.’
"I was very anti-surgery, then I suddenly thought, ‘No, I’m doing this. I am going to change my whole life and I’m going to make it worth every penny. I’m going to make sure I have a career after it and change everything.’
"And I have. I had the surgery and changed drastically life-wise."
So, on January 12, 2021, Lekenah booked into the Transform Hospital in west Birmingham for a gastric bypass.
During the two hour operation, surgical staples are used to create a small pouch at the top of the stomach, which is then connected to the small intestine, bypassing the rest of the stomach – meaning less food is needed to feel full and fewer calories are absorbed.
Staying in hospital overnight, Lekenah said: "I recovered really quickly. After a week I was really back to normal.
"I didn't feel physical hunger, but I did have some ‘head hunger’ – what my brain fancied.
"But I was on a liquid diet so, in the first month I lost about a stone, then it was a few pounds a week."
"Sometimes people don’t even know their body is bloated. Now I do.
"I do think if you have an eating disorder, it could be even more triggered by having surgery like this, as you can obsess with being slim instead.
"But I am happy, as I want more for myself than just what I look like now."
Breakfast – cereal, then toast
Lunch – rice or noodle dish, or omelette
Dinner – noodles or a meal such as spaghetti bolognese
Snacks – KFC, fast food and chocolate, such as four Snickers bars
Breakfast and morning – lots of hydrating with fruit juice, like watermelon and lime. Follows an alkaline diet
Lunch – smoothies and juices
Dinner – only solid meal. A small portion of tapas or something similar
Impressed by the results and by her friend's swift recovery, Kylie Churchley, 33, a size 18 mum-of-one who weighed the same, spent £10,000 on a gastric sleeve a few weeks later in February.
Now a 12st 12lb size 12, Kylie, who has a son, Marcell, six, said: "When Lek told me at Christmas that she was having a gastric bypass, I started asking all about it.
"The recovery was what really worried me, but she was fine really quickly.
"I could see how well she was, as we were speaking on FaceTime every day. And we were in lockdown, so I wasn't going to work, making the timing perfect.
"I am very impulsive, so I decided to go for it and booked in on February 11.
"We compared notes all the time and I was always a stone behind her weight loss.
"I am a size 12 and I feel amazing now. My mindset is really good.
"My confidence has shot through the roof and I don’t feel when I go out to a bar like I have to hide away. I walk with my head held high now."
Picked on at school for being overweight, when she was older, Kylie was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, which can cause weight gain and is linked to hormone problems.
She said: "I think I comfort ate a bit at school, but never as an adult.
"I was the textbook yo-yo dieter. I’ve done Slimming World, Weight Watchers, LighterLife, the Cambridge diet. I’ve just spent lots of money pointlessly on diets that were never going to work for me."
While she took regular exercise – often running for five miles – and ate healthy food, her health condition made it very difficult to lose weight, which started to really affect her confidence.
Kylie said: "I was always active and very fit, while being overweight, and went to the gym.
Breakfast – porridge or homemade smoothies
Lunch – prawn salad
Dinner – chicken and rice, or lasagne, spaghetti bolognese or stir-fries
Breakfast – protein smoothie
Lunch – smoothies or small side plate of solid food, such as eggs, salad, meat, sweet potato or noodles
Dinner – side plate of the same food as before
"But if I went shopping it was always for clothes that would cover the problem areas rather than for clothes that reflected how I wanted to dress.
"Even at school, though, I always felt like the big girl. I've always been the big one in the picture or the big girl at the party."
Weight loss surgery has transformed Kylie's life and strengthened her bond with Lekenah.
She said: "I became mates with Lek through a mutual friend around six years ago, but we've definitely become closer through this whole process.
"It was so good to have her support. Now I'm really looking forward to the future.
"I can't wait to go on a girls' holiday and to dress up and feel sexy and wear things I wouldn’t usually wear like a body con dress.
"Friends who see me now go, ‘Wow! Lockdown has treated you well.' And it really has!"
Lekenah added: "Having Kylie to go through the process with me was so helpful.
"It was good to have someone to talk to about the struggles of over eating.
"When I had my surgery, she decided to be brave and do it too."
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