In the past month, I have published my first book, tried my hand at designing clothes, travelled the length and breadth of England, nipped to New York and been announced as the new face of Hugo Boss’s watches. I’m totally aware of how bonkers that sounds and I’m not saying it to blow my own trumpet. In fact, I truly believe that a lot of the credit should be attributed to the women in my life who are, quite frankly, total badasses.
Eight years ago, when I graduated from the University of East Anglia with a degree in psychology, I was shy, had no idea what I wanted to do and was worried about the future. It was my mum, Judy, my big sisters, Sam and Nic, and my now wife, Tanya, who led by example and who really showed me what was possible.
When I was little I was a real daddy’s boy and remember relishing the time I spent with him when he was in a good mood. We’d play football and read magazines that came with a glow-in-the-dark T rex. Despite all the things he inflicted on her, Mum never spoke badly of Dad to me. She gave me enough credit to come to my own decision about him, in my own time.
At that age, the realisation that your home life is less than ideal doesn’t come easy. If it’s all you have ever experienced, how do you know it’s wrong? It’s easy to say, ‘Why didn’t she leave him earlier?’ but it’s not that simple (as I’m sure many equally strong women in similar circumstances can attest) when there are children involved and a man who will cross lines to maintain control. It wasn’t until I walked in on Dad on top of Mum, hitting her, that she realised she couldn’t protect us from it any more. Following this incident, the long and ugly process of their separation began.
I was about seven when this was going on and, because the police were involved and Dad was taken away, I stayed with Mum. I loved her but I remember always wanting to be with Dad. He had a charm about him that was hard to resist. He would take my twin brother and me to the cinema or the arcades, but he would also take us to the pub where he would drink all day before driving home much too fast and much too drunk. Whereas he would let us down, Mum was the constant in our lives – ever present and ever patient.
Her resilience and grit are two of the things that have inspired me most. She’s loving and nurturing in the way I think all mothers should be, but it’s her strength to push through when many others would crumble that I admire. It’s because of this that I believe Mum when she tells me to ‘keep plugging away and keep being nice to people’. Her advice has never led me astray – it’s amazing how far simply being decent to other people and trying your best will take you. Mum has also instilled in me the drive to keep working hard, even if there are others around me who are more naturally gifted.
It’s important to point out that I don’t hate my dad. I do, however, use him as a cautionary tale. If you behave as he did, you can end up losing everything. I was eight or nine when I last saw him, meaning the past 20 or so years of my life have been lived without him. I’ve done fine in his absence. My family is exceptional and he missed out on seeing us all come of age. He couldn’t be a part of what my mum, my siblings and I have become. It’s a real shame, but that’s the price he paid for his actions.
Meanwhile, my family has grown closer than ever. Sam and Nic are the coolest people in any room and they are my idols. They have gone from the big sisters who once locked me and my brother John in a cupboard when our parents were out so they could throw a party, to being YouTube powerhouses and owners of their own brand of make-up brushes. They’ve grafted for everything they’ve earned, they don’t suffer fools and they’re living proof that killer businesswomen can also be incredible mothers with brilliant families (they both have little ones – Sam two girls, Nic a boy and a girl) and that you don’t have to sacrifice one for the other. In the ‘man’s world’ we live in, they are shining examples of the equality women everywhere deserve. All that, plus they’re just really good fun to be around.
Sam and Nic are the grandmothers of social media. They started their YouTube channel nearly a decade ago and have provided me with many a word of wisdom. Sam taught me how to pose for photos (apparently, I have a short face, so I have to open my mouth a little while squinting ever so slightly), while Nic advised me on the most satisfying way to deal with haters (write a cutting response, but don’t send it; instead, delete it, safe in the knowledge that you are much wittier, then remove their comment and block them). The most humbling piece of advice they have given me is, ‘Don’t believe your own hype.’ With the social-media following I’ve garnered, it’s easy to get carried away with the attention. I’ve seen it happen to others, but my sisters keep me grounded and for that I thank them.
I was speaking with a female friend recently, who was explaining the casual sexism she is exposed to on a daily basis. Not necessarily cruelty, more an assumption that she isn’t as worthy as the men around her. I found this hard to get my head around. I figured sexism came from men of a certain generation who have had their way of life reinforced by a system set up in their favour, but that it was dying out. I suppose I was labouring under the illusion that all people wear my brain. I have a mum who is braver than any man I know, I have unstoppable big sisters who punch well above their weight and I have a team around me who do a lot of the heavy lifting that I can’t. All women. I pride myself on being good to work with, regardless of gender. I have total faith that everybody around me is an expert in their specific roles and, as a result, the people I work with are some of my best friends.
I guess it’s no coincidence then that the woman I married is also a complete legend. I met the author, vlogger and entrepreneur Tanya Burr when I was 18 at a house party in Norwich and we’ve become adults together. She sets herself a target (that I’m ashamed to admit, on more than one occasion, I thought to be a little unrealistic – I’ve since learnt not to doubt her, even for a second) and she will work tirelessly to achieve it. If she gets told ‘no’, she goes about it from a new angle until it becomes a ‘Yes, please, we need you and life isn’t complete without you.’ Everybody gets so swept up by her positivity that they want nothing more than to support her ventures.
As clichéd as it sounds (the older I get, the more I realise that clichés actually tend to be true), you get out of experiences only what you put in, and Tan puts in everything. The best piece of advice I have ever been given came on a scrappy little note that she had written when I was feeling a little sorry for myself. It was titled ‘DREAM BIG’, and it then told me to, ‘Stop asking, “What if?” and start doing what you love.’
I love the creativity my job offers but I overthink things and find myself worrying about the finished product. My book came out recently and I adored the year it took me to write it, but as soon as it actually existed, I had a moment of panic about people buying and enjoying it. It was Tan who nipped that in the bud. She supported me as much as she could on her social channels, but what was much more important to me was her counsel. She has just released her third book and knows the insecurity that goes with the territory. She also knows that I am prone to freaking at the best of times, and that when such a big project had just been set loose into the world, I would be feeling unsettled. She reminded me to take it all as it comes. To be proud of what I have achieved and to own it.
Doing the job I do can be scary sometimes; since I am among the first to do it, there is no blueprint to follow. I find myself straddling many roles – influencer (a word I hate, by the way), model, presenter, author, writer – which can mean it’s hard to know what to push for. Tan, though, has a ton of self-belief and enough left over to believe in me. Her note found me when I was having a particular struggle about what I would be doing in the following five years. Dreaming big has become a sentiment that I try to live by. Life is too short for ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ and if you don’t at least try to make things happen, invariably they never will.
Here’s to the exceptional women in my life. I’ve been fortunate enough to do some really amazing things in my career but, upon reflection, I guess there was never any doubt with them on my side.
Jim’s book 147 Things is published by Sidgwick & Jackson, price £16.99.
To order a copy for £13.59 (a 20 per cent discount) until 24 December, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15