I was born at 26 weeks weighing just 1lb 13oz and christened immediately because I wasn’t expected to survive. Mum was 18 when she had me and living with my grandparents. They looked after me until my grandma died and we were eventually thrown out of the family home by my granddad when I was four.
From there life became more chaotic. We moved around constantly, squatting, staying with friends and in different flats, always on the roughest estates, with blown up cars on the roads and drugs everywhere. There were times when we were stable, but there were a lot of times when we weren’t. I learnt how to stop an electric meter and how to turn a gas metre round so it went backwards. Fairy liquid was your best friend because if the gas was leaking the fairy liquid would bubble. This was the stuff I needed to know to survive.
In spite of it all, the bond between mum and me was so strong. I think it was created because of the adversity. Because we were always in it together.
Stolen sweets and shoplifting
I was sick a lot as a child – tonsillitis, chest infections and I’d have pneumonia pretty much every year and be really, really ill. But I had to keep going, doing what my mum needed me to. I was hospitalised once. Mum worked in a sweet shop at that point, and though she didn’t come and see me often, when she did she would nick loads of sweets from the shop and bring them with her. The other kids on the ward loved coming and helping themselves.
I was nine when my mother had my brother, Neil, and I was the one who looked after him, feeding him and changing his nappy. Mum would say she was going out for cigarettes then come back three days later. It was around then that mum started shoplifting. We’re not talking about one cashmere jumper at a time, we’re talking piles of jumpers and really expensive items. She took me with her from the age of about 11. My job would be to be the look out, to gather sizes (she often shoplifted to order) carry bags and occasionally try items on. She never once got caught (she was arrested, but it was for drink driving and fencing, never shoplifting).
I couldn’t read but I could fight back
Throughout my childhood I barely ever went to school. We moved and changed names so often it wasn’t possible and although I tried a few times, I stopped going because I was so far behind. I didn’t learn to read or write.
My sister Alexis was born when I was 16. Mum tried to make that family work. Alexis dad, Gary, was constantly on my case, being spiteful and nasty and fighting with me. I was never going to lie down and take that, so I would always fight back. Mum would take it because it was what she was used for. She’d always choose Gary over me and kick me out when we fought. Mum had a really good friend, Tracy, who was like a mother to me and who would take me in and feed me, give me kindness and support when that happened. Eventually Gary left her.
Longing for her love
When you live the way we did your life can take one of two directions. Either you sink or you become determined to swim. Neil’s life took a different direction to mine. He was a drug addict and a complete adrenalin junkie, like mum. He was so desperate for her love and approval, but never got it. I was with him when he died in 2020 aged 42. I often feel angry about what happened to him, because I could see what he wanted.
I never expected love from mum and I didn’t get it until she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, in June 2013 aged 65 (she died on Aug 9th). We were in the hospital and I said “what do you want me to do? Do you want me to find a second opinion? Is there somewhere you want to go?” But she said “no, I just want to die at home. And for you and Alexis to look after me if you can.” So I said OK.
And then I asked her if there was anything she wanted to say to me. And she said, “yes I just want to tell you I never ever gave you what you deserved and I want to say that I’m proud of you.” I was 47 and it was like I’d waited my whole life to hear her say that. I got into my car in the car park and just sobbed uncontrollably for hours. I loved her with all my heart and would have done anything to keep her on this earth. Alexis still lives in the flat where she died.
Finally learning to read and write
The sister of a friend got me my first job when I was 15, cleaning and unpacking boxes in a chemist shop. I realised the girls behind the counter were earning more than me but that I couldn’t do their work because I was still illiterate. It was Nana Mary, my brother’s grandma, who eventually taught me.
Shoplifting with mum I’d seen the girls behind the beauty counters and that’s what I set my heart on becoming. Mum’s friend Tracey took me to the interview for my first counter girl job, with Clinique. In those days, you mostly just needed to look good, so when you went for an interview, your make up needed to be well considered and applied and, of course, you had to be able to sell. One of the things I could do easily was to give off confidence and a bit of sass, because that’s what I’d been doing all my life. And I was always great at make up because I’d had to look older than my years for so long. Mum, who always smelt beautiful and looked fantastic, used to say, “if you want to succeed you’ve got to look like you belong.” That’s something that has stood me in good stead all my life.
Driven by determination….and fear
Driven by determination and incredibly hard work I pushed myself and learnt as I went along by not being afraid to ask for help when I needed or if there was something I didn’t understand, particularly on the business side of things.
I became the counter manager for Estee Lauder then department manager at Allders and later brand manager for Donna Karen and Director of Sales for Aveda. Before those, the only role I ever really chased was travel retail, so when I saw a beauty manager job advertised at Forte Retail Services I applied and started working at Terminal Four. I stopped all the nicking (by taking the staff’s handbags off the shop floor), improved customer service and increased profits by 25%. I was then offered Terminal One, which was the biggest beauty hall in the world at that time. In my first year there profits increased from £18 million to £21 million.
Everything I’ve done in my career I’ve thought, ‘how on earth did I get here? Even telling the story now I wonder how I got this far. In everything I did, fear was a huge driver for me. Fear of not being able to escape the life I’d had. Fear of not having a roof over my head. Of not having enough food in the fridge. It’s the reason my career has always been such a big priority in my life. And almost certainly part of the reason that my two marriages failed. I married both my husbands because I desperately wanted to have the sort of family life I’d missed out on. Although some of the time the marriages were bad, there was also an awful lot of good in both of them. And they gave me my two children, Ava and Josh.
Becoming a mother myself
I’m not sure I was the best mother – I worked so hard to keep a roof over our heads, that was my priority. That and to educate them, tell them I loved them, and for them not to have to worry about anything – like having enough food, or a warm house – like I did when I was a child. As they got older I discussed and negotiated everything with them which I think drove Josh a bit mad, but is probably why Ava is such a good debater today!
Having said which, I didn’t shield or lie to them, either about what happened to me in my childhood, or the reality of their background. I mean, my son once opened the airing cupboard at my mum’s flat and a load of guns fell out.
I was a very shouty mum with Josh and Ava, and I came to realise that the shoutiness was shame. I constantly felt I was going to be caught out. That someone was going to go “I know you, you used to steal from us.” Or “you unpacked boxes in a chemist and were illiterate.” I always felt I didn’t deserve to be here. I don’t have an MBA I don’t have a degree. I was ashamed of that and I slowly understood it was shame that was holding me back. Until eventually I thought if I talk about it, I release the shame. So I started telling people my story.
Telling my story
I also started working with Action for Children then became a Princes Trust mentor and went on to be on the Women’s Leadership Group for the Princes Trust, doing out-reach sessions and talking to children who had a similar life to me.
Having taken control over the narrative of my life, it took until I was in my late 40s to understand and take control, and better care, of my health and wellness, which I credit almost entirely to reading the book Inflammation Nation and learning about the triggers of all the different types of inflammation and what to do to tackle them.
A life changing experience
In the run up to my 50th birthday, I went for the first time to Buchinger Wilhelmi, the oldest fasting clinic in the world and it’s been life changing (I’ve been back every year since). Through a carefully supervised diet of just 180 calories a day – via clear vegetable broth and fresh juice – for as long as you’re able (I started only being able to do 6 days, now my longest has been 23), and their individually tailored programme of physical therapy I have finally learnt to pay attention to my body and what it, and vitally, my gut, needs to function optimally.
I have also come to believe we need to open our minds far more to how we feel about health and wellness, which is why when I was approached by Karen Ruimy a writer, dancer and spiritual healer who wanted to create a brand that talks to women differently about self care and wellbeing, it was a project I embraced.
My favourite project
The result is Kalmar, a beauty brand that focuses on discovering who you want to be and how you want to live. Where each of our painstakingly designed treatments and products has been created to identify and nurture what brings you joy, comfort, peace and love – the four soul states we all need in order to live our best life.
This has probably been the project I’ve loved bringing to fruition more than any other. Karen talks about confidence and spirituality and doing what you want to do, and for me that’s what beauty should be. It should be about personal empowerment, self confidence and a place to retreat when you need space to look after yourself and be able carry on in the most comfortable way possible.
It has taken me my whole adult life to understand that the only place you can be truly safe is within yourself, everything else is just space and you can work to find that.
I’ve come to realise that in the end the race is only with yourself. You’ve just got to feel good about yourself, what you’re doing and when you’re doing it. And that’s been my journey.
Kalmar are offering Noon followers 35% off any purchase from THEIR WEBSITE, and off your first 60 or 90 minute treatment at The House of Kalmar
Use the code NOON35 when you check out, or by adding NOON35 to the ‘how did you hear about us’ section when booking a treatment via this link https://calendly.com/d/dvg-f88-3qv
The discount will be applied on the day of treatment when the final payment is taken
Tracey was talking to Diane Kenwood