Riding the Rollercoaster – Part 1

There are two sides to the entertainment industry – the glossy “Hello Magazine” front cover that gives the impression that things are great, everyone is happy and wow, look at our gleaming white smiles – aren’t we all so successful (and perfect). Then there is the hidden side, the personal side that only close friends and family (maybe not even them), get to see. There is always a back story to success and I wish that more people would fill in the gaps with theirs, instead of feeling that they have to put on a “face” all the time.

I’m from a working-class background, my mother and father both worked, didn’t have much money and we were brought up to get off our arses and do things ourselves. If you wanted to make something happen, find a way to do it. When I was in primary school, around 9 years old, I saw an advert on TV at Christmastime, with horrible images of starving children in Ethiopia. It hit me hard and I couldn’t sleep at night without seeing these images. I wanted to do something, but what? What could a 9-year-old do? My dad used to take us to jumble sales (much to my horror) and even though I was embarrassed and wanted sparkly new clothes, there was always a bargain to be found, I would look forward to getting home and dumping out the contents of the bin liners. I thought, why not hold a coffee morning / jumble sale? I set to work and managed to convince my best friend at the time, to help out. We took a wooden go-kart from the shed and wheeled it from door to door in the local village. We knocked on the doors of as many houses as we could, asking for donations. People were mostly kind and giving and soon we had a large stack of stuff. We also gave out hand drawn flyers about the event. It gave us a sense of momentum and purpose. It also introduced us to local people.

The word began to spread that an event was happening and before I knew it, adults were chipping in with donations and offering to make cakes and to provide tea and coffee. I booked the local village hall and drew a colourful poster advertising the event that I stuck up on the noticeboard. The day arrived and I had a whole team of helpers. Perhaps I was too young to worry about whether anyone would turn up or whether it would be a success. I just wanted to do something to raise money and was enjoying myself in the process. The day arrived and people did turn up, it wasn’t rammed but there was a steady trickle. It was lovely to watch everyone working together and I had a real sense of accomplishment. The event raised £67.00, which doesn’t seem like a huge amount now, but at the time it felt momentous. A representative from Save The Children came into school and presented me with a certificate to say thank you. I felt proud.

I had always struggled with being bullied as a child. On my first day at primary school, I arrived wearing a green rain mac, blonde plaits, brown chukka boots and stripy tights. A bit of a Pippi Longstocking if you will. I looked very different to the other kids and stood out like a sore thumb. I didn’t know this at the time, as I was dying to get to school as I really wanted to learn and to meet new friends. My parents weren’t Northerners – my dad is from Sussex and my mum is Swedish, so this meant that I didn’t have a Northern accent. I was constantly called “posh” and singled out for my slightly off the wall dress sense (lots of my clothes were jumble sale or hand made). Kids can be cruel and after a while it starts to wear you down. The coffee morning event was a bit of a boost for my confidence and made me feel capable and like I had approval.

I was a creative child, always dreaming, drawing, singing, making up songs. This didn’t fly very well in primary school. Thankfully my teacher Mrs Dronfield took me under her wing and saw that I had a talent for music and for singing. She was a massive theatre fan, and took me to see Joseph and His Technicolour Dreamcoat at the Theatre in the Round at Scarborough and it blew me away. I hadn’t seen anything like this, I was fully immersed and fell in love with the songs – especially Close Every Door, which I found profoundly moving! This was the start of my wanting to perform and it was a bug that just would not go away. My teacher suggested that I start piano and dance lessons and suddenly there I was, practicing piano every day and imagining how I would be on the stage. There weren’t many opportunities in my home town, there was a local dance school, which I joined, but again felt like I was on the outside. In my first ballet class a girl looked at me with distaste and said loudly “Urrgh, you’re wearing PLIMSOLES”. My parents hadn’t bought me ballet shoes yet, and this comment in front of the whole class devastated me so much that I didn’t go back for several years.

I always tried to fit in, but for whatever reason, I was pushed to the outside of social groups. I would try my best to dress like others, laugh at their jokes etc but it was as if there was some secret code that I didn’t understand and could never get right even if I did. This lead me to retreat into an ever more exotic and elaborate dream world, which lead to me writing my first fully fledged song at 12 years old. I had ideas of being a ballet dancer (yeah right!) but I was pretty terrible and my body just wouldn’t let me do the things I wanted to do. I remember once, every year the local dance school would hold auditions for dancers for the yearly pantomime. I’d only just moved up to the “senior” dancer bracket, I must have been 12. There was an odd number of girls in my group, which meant that one of us would not be in the show. Guess who that “one” was? Me of course. All the girls were chosen and began laughing and giggling (they were all friends), I sat on the floor on my own, looking forlorn and was told that I could join the amateur dramatics ensemble. I was mortified. The panto season arrived and I found however, that I loved being in the ensemble. I put my heart and soul into playing a “villager” and got mentioned by the director of the panto, apparently I had “great stage presence”. (note to self, there is always an upside to the downside). Another event at primary school that affected me profoundly, happened just before I was due to leave for secondary school. I noticed a few days before my last day (my school was so small that I was the only girl in my year), that groups of girls and boys were whispering to one another. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but as the days went by, I was aware that when I approached, the whispering would stop. The day before I was due to leave, I asked my best friend what was going on. She replied that “I shouldn’t really tell you but we’re having a surprise leaving party for you”. Wow I thought. Maybe I’m not such a weirdo after all? Maybe I’ve got these kids all wrong. However, the day that I was due to leave arrived and the “surprise” was that the whole school fell out with me. The whole school except one very shy reception kid called Jenny who held my hand for most of the day. She seemed too young to realise what was expected of her. This was one of the worst days of my life, as I was chased around the playground with kids shouting out horrible chants about my surname – “Bettsy Boo Boo” etc. It was the most alone I have ever felt and I never told a soul. Why? I was too embarrassed. Later that day, my best friend (who had been swept along with it) called me to apologise. She said that she felt devastated and that she had been pulled in by peer pressure. I accepted her apology and we have remained close friends ever since. It took me a long time to live with the after effects of this event (and others like it) and I believe that it had an ongoing impact to my self-esteem (which I will cover in later blogs).

During my childhood, I constantly felt like the ground beneath my feet was moving. It felt difficult at the time, but it gave me skills including self-motivation, independence and the ability to keep going no matter what. It also gave me an ability to detach myself from situations and to put on a “face” that said I wasn’t bothered and you can’t break me. This had its pros and cons and weirdly, lends itself well to performing arts and the creative industries. However, putting on a face is one thing, acknowledging the pain and upset you may be feeling is another and is very important. If you don’t feel the feelings, they will come back to haunt you.

At 13, I decided to leave the shitty local comprehensive I was going to, and move to a better and more specialised school in the city. I had to audition and give an interview but gained a place there. Things slowly started to improve, but here I encountered a very strange relationship with the music teacher who for some reason, either felt threatened by my talent or who just didn’t have the skills to teach me. Again, I was pushing on through to try and keep my dreams alive, whilst careers advisors were telling me to “forget music and to aim for a real job”.

At 15 I begged, borrowed and wrote letters to local businesses asking for help with funding to attend full-time training in music and performing arts. I was successful in my quest and boom! I moved closer to London to study full-time. It from this point that my passion for music and performing was supported fully and I could finally (breathing a long sigh of relief) be myself (or at least who I thought I was at 16!). My family were based up North, so weekends meant either hanging out with the borders at school, on the streets of London with the buskers, or staying at a rich friend’s flat in Knightsbridge. I always moved between rich and poor circles and had friends with not much money, living in council houses and friends with obscene amounts of money with holiday homes and multiple cars. This gave me a sense of observing others and also (unbeknownst to me at the time) an ability to get along with different kinds of people. It could however, at times make me feel insecure and like I did not really “fit” anywhere. Swings and roundabouts I guess.

I graduated at 18 and moved straight to London. A friend’s father had a rich friend who ran a posh pizza place on the King’s Road in Chelsea and he offered me a place to live at a discounted rate and a job as a waitress. I thought I had hit the jackpot, the tips were fantastic, I was hanging out with rich and famous people, and I played the part of the girl about town for a while. This cloud did not have a silver lining however, because the pizza place owner was a rich and powerful sleezebag who tried it on with all of his young waitresses. I left the job after a few months in a flurry, stuffed my meagre belongings into a black cab (at great expense) and escaped to my friend’s house in Kent. I stayed there for the next two years to get myself back together.

I had no job, no money, a bruised ego but still had this flicker of a dream. What now?

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