The secret to success (well, some thoughts anyway…)

I once heard an anecdote from a famous literary agent’s assistant that made me laugh:

‘Every author wants a publishing deal. The authors who are critically acclaimed want to be commercially successful, and the authors who are commercially successful want to be critically acclaimed.

‘Every author is desperate to win an award. And those authors who win an award are most miserable of all, for they see the award as an albatross around their necks and fear nothing they ever do will scale those heights again.’

(Basically, every author is miserable!)

People definitely compare themselves upwards. None of these authors were thinking ‘It’s so great I have an agent!’ They were taking that for granted and wishing they were more successful. So there’s definitely something to be said for being extremely grateful for where you are now in life, rather than always striving for more.

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But if I had any advice for achieving your goals, it would be along the following lines:

Work out what you want to achieve. You can’t aim for a target you haven’t set. I know many people who want to lose weight, but that’s such a nebulous goal that it doesn’t focus the mind. In contrast, a goal to lose 4 stone is specific and measurable, and you know when you’ve achieved it.

Figure out the steps between you and your goal. Break it down into manageable chunks.

Recognise that you’ll fail before you succeed. You’ll take two steps forward, one step back. If we’re talking creativity, everyone gets rejected at times; everyone has to produce more than will ever be published or used. Just think of all the many drafts of novels. Remember Samuel Beckett’s quote: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’

Keep going. You’ll fall down, but make sure to keep getting up and attempting to succeed. You’ll be amazed by how many people fall by the wayside. The person who succeeds is often the last (wo)man standing. So keep your goal in mind when things get tough.

You never know when your luck will turn – when you’ll come to the attention of a gatekeeper who could change your life, or just get an exciting opportunity. Last week, I was headhunted for a role. It wasn’t right for me, but at least that person now knows I exist.

I also got invited to debate Brexit on Good Morning Britain. They went with another guest in the end, but I wasn’t expecting the invitation, and the randomness of it cheered me up. (Though I was also slightly relieved at being stood down to be honest – pretty sure Twitter would have been unusable for me for about two days afterwards thanks to angry Brexiteers!)

Writers: remember to preface harsh feedback with ‘in my opinion’. I’ve been told before by a literary agent that I can’t write. It floored me; I had to remind myself I’ve written endless columns for the Guardian, and lots for the Spectator and the Sunday Times. That knowledge helped to reframe this person’s opinion as ‘in my opinion, you can’t write’. And, in less polite terms: fuck ’em. Feedback should be constructive, and that wasn’t. Metaphorically kick them in the fanny and move on.

People who aren’t gatekeepers will also be shitty about your achievements. Look at the comments section of any comedy article. You’ll find ‘This isn’t funny’; ‘That’s five minutes of my life I’ll never get back’; ‘I can’t believe [publication] pays for this crap.’ That’s cool: you got paid and credited and you aren’t the person wasting your life leaving negative comments. Put it down to jealousy and don’t let it bother you. The publication wouldn’t have run the article if they didn’t like it.

Realise that you have to adapt to life’s changes. The Guardian stopped running me regularly in 2010; it hurt as it was the paper I grew up reading, and I still love it. I’d write for it again in a heartbeat, but if not, other publications are available. I also really enjoy writing for the Daily Mash and writing books for Little, Brown.

Sometimes things change because of you, not your employer. I realised I wasn’t enjoying writing for television in late 2007, and made the leap to journalism after six years of telly. I used to love going into the BBC and being the youngest person in writers’ rooms, but now I go into the BBC as an occasional commentator and am sometimes the oldest person on the panel, and that’s OK too. Life changes and you have to change with it rather than be depressed by it.

Oh, and lastly: never self-deprecate! As someone wiser than me once said, ‘People accept the value you place upon yourself’. Keep telling people you’re rubbish and they’ll eventually believe you.

Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

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I was a teenage beauty queen

I ran a Twitter poll yesterday asking what you’d like to see more of on this blog. The winner by a hair was true life stories, which is handy as my whole life has been crazy. Not sure how I’m going to break this result to the eight-year-old though.

Anyhow, here’s another true tale from my rather large arsenal…

I was such an ugly, geeky, friendless kid. I had big sticky-out buck teeth, a hairy face, and my mum cut my hair. The girls at secondary school said I’d have to have sex with an animal if I ever wanted to have sex, as ‘you’re so ugly no man will ever fuck you’.

This really upset me, and I vowed I’d never have sex with an animal. And ladies and gentlemen, to this day, I have kept that promise.

I was bullied at my primary school in Willesden Green, Malorees; then when I was eight, my family moved to Pinner in Harrow, Middlesex, where I was bullied at my new primary school, West Lodge Middle School (we used to call it Wet Splodge Piddle School); and then finally I was bullied at my secondary school, Watford Grammar School for Girls. It seems the saying is true that ‘wherever you go, there you are’.

I used to stare wistfully at the other girls at school in Games, and wish I had their perfect, hairless bodies. I used to cry thinking how ugly I was. Here I am, aged 11 in West Lodge uniform:


But within four years, my appearance had changed. When I blossomed at age 15, I could barely believe it. Suddenly, I wasn’t ugly any more, though I was still virtually friendless. I wore a brace for two years to fix my front teeth, learned how to bleach and pluck the hair on my face, and began shaving my body. I started wearing makeup, put my hair up in a ‘pineapple’ ponytail on top of my head, and got my first proper boyfriend. I remember him saying that if he had a wish from a genie, ‘I’d wish to make your tits bigger’. Charming.

Age 15

Then, when I was nearly 17, the local paper in my hometown of Harrow ran a beauty contest for the very first time: Miss Harrow. The main prizes were a £400 hifi and £100 in cash. I entered with this photo of me and Simon Le Bon, as we were friends (another story for another time). God knows what the staff thought at The Harrow Times if they recognised him! They probably didn’t get many photos of parochial beauty contest contestants with rock stars.


A few weeks later, I received a phone call to say I’d made it into the final five contestants. I had to come and meet the judges at the Harrow Times. Thankfully, I didn’t have to parade in a bikini, demonstrate a talent or make a speech about world peace.

A few days after the judging panel, I received another call to say that I had won, and was to be crowned the inaugural Miss Harrow! It felt amazing, but I’d left school by this point, so sadly didn’t get to feel vindicated in the face of the bullies. Though when I went to college in Stanmore the following year, a girl who had seen me in the paper told me, ‘If you’re Miss Harrow, I’m Miss Universe’ – to which I replied deadpan, ‘Congratulations, Miss Universe.’

I was crowned Miss Harrow at the Harrow Show in July 1997, just after my 17th birthday:

Age 17 (2)

Now this is where my own personal version of The Ugly Duckling gets a little surreal and funny. After my coronation, I had to have lunch with the dignitaries: the new mayor Keith Toms (above), whose wife had made my very fetching sash; the editor of the Harrow Times, Charlie Harris; and the sitting MPs.

The new MP for Harrow East at the time was Labour’s Tony McNulty. You may recognise his name, as he was later implicated in the expenses scandal and had to resign, though that doesn’t really narrow it down much.


Tony McNulty. Image credit: Press Association.

Anyhow, over lunch, Tony told Charlie, the editor of the Harrow Times, that he didn’t approve of the beauty contest – it was sexist, reductive and unreconstructed, he said. Charlie tried to argue that it was post-modern, but Tony said he didn’t want to see another contest being run.

So, for the next 15 years, I was still Miss Harrow.

Every year, the organisers would email me and ask if, as the reigning Miss Harrow, I would appear at the Harrow Show. By then, I was slightly embarrassed about my superficial accolade, so I always said no.

I only made one more appearance as Miss Harrow, which was soon after my coronation: I rode in an open-topped sports car through the spectator-lined streets at the Stanmore Carnival. I was told to wave to the crowds, but I’d forgotten to shave my armpits, so ended up waving at them with my left hand clamped to my right pit.

I know a lot of people don’t agree with beauty contests and would take Tony McNulty’s stance here, but in my defence, given that I was bullied for my looks for years, I kind of needed some official confirmation that I was no longer hideous.

This 1952 video of The Ugly Duckling is really lovely, and will leave you with a warm feeling in your heart. I hope you enjoy it.


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