Big country house, rolling acres, livestock, high-end interiors…Why would anyone swap that for a two-bed flat and barely any ‘stuff’? Julieanne Steel did. She tells Anna Moore why.
Julieanne Steel knows more than anyone that belongings don’t make you happy. Nine years ago, on Christmas Day, she stood at her red Aga in her 35ft gleaming granite kitchen and cried.
On the surface, she had everything. Her house on the edge of Cornwall’s Bodmin Moor (pictured above) was practically perfect. There were two Christmas trees, handmade stockings and mounds of presents. The table was laid for ten and the fridge overflowing with food, including eggs from the chickens that roamed on their five acres of land (along with pet horses, pigs, sheep, a goat and a peacock).
Life was full to the brim but Julieanne was suffocating under its weight. Her days were packed with cleaning, cooking, ferrying the children, feeding the animals and refilling the fridge. ‘I was a hamster on a wheel, running round and round, unable to get off because maintaining the life we’d made was never finished,’ she says. ‘I was a pressure cooker. I was gaunt and exhausted. I’d had three hernias.
‘The children were calling me to put batteries in their new toys and my husband had gone to open the pub, which we ran as it came with the house. I remember standing there, in the kitchen, feeling an overwhelming sense of grief but trying to hold everything in as I’d wanted the day to be special. I had what others aspire to, I’d been driven by the fairytale but it felt so different from the inside. I felt lonely and trapped.’
So she called her parents, who lived in Essex, and the next day Julieanne left her overflowing house and unhappy marriage, taking her three daughters – then aged six, 11 and 12 – and the few items that would fit in her dad’s van. The further they drove, the lighter she felt. ‘It was as though a weight had been lifted from my chest,’ she says. ‘From that point on, the less I had, the happier I became.’
Fast-forward to today and Julieanne, 49, is single, living the stripped-back life and, as a clutter therapist, has built a successful career helping others do the same. Her home now is a two-bedroom flat in West London where she lives with her youngest daughter Violet, now 14, and Winnie, their miniature dachshund. On her kitchen surfaces there’s just a kettle and a toaster; on the table, a single candle. There’s no mess. The place radiates peace and calm, as does Julieanne, who appears thoughtful, wise and a great listener. It’s not surprising that clients have spoken of the magic of her methods.
Decluttering is having a moment – partly due to Japanese organising guru Marie Kondo, whose books sell in the millions. Her Netflix show follows Kondo restoring order to cluttered American households through her KonMari method (throwing out items that don’t ‘spark joy’). But Julieanne remains politely sceptical.
‘In my experience, “tidying up” the external clutter isn’t enough because the client can’t maintain it,’ she says. ‘The primary issue is our “internal clutter” – the thought processes that create the chaos in the first place.’ According to Julieanne, the key to a lasting clear out is to understand what drove you to crowd your life with ‘stuff’. Only then can you begin to change.
Her own journey to chaos and back is proof. She grew up in Woodford, Northeast London, in a very happy, traditional setup – her father had a greengrocery business while her mother ran their home like a well-oiled machine. ‘We had a million-pound house with a sweeping driveway and high-end things,’ she says. ‘My dad was very ambitious, a workaholic. He’d say, “If you can match what we have now or better for your children, that’s what we aim for,” and, “You can do anything if you do enough.”’
As a child, Julieanne attended theatre school and played Dianne Cooney in BBC children’s drama Grange Hill. ‘My dad was an achiever, a yes man who took on everything, so I was a yes girl who wanted to please people, do everything and show my worth.’
But when she was 20, her whole world changed. ‘My dad had an affair, lost his business and went bankrupt. I thought my parents had the perfect life but we lost the home and everything with it. My parents got through it – they’re still together – but it destabilised me and gripped me with fear. I spent a few years drifting, renting a room in a house with some actors and doing some media jobs.’
From then on, Julieanne was on a mission to rebuild her vision of the perfect family home. ‘We all want to re-create things that have given us comfort – and I wanted that happy unit.’ A horse-riding accident where she broke her back only intensified that longing. ‘It was a slow recovery; I thought I might be in a wheelchair for good,’ she says. ‘I was single, with no children, and became grasping – “Where’s my knight in shining armour? Where’s the home I’m going to build? When is it going to happen?” ’ Desperate for her dream, she married impulsively. ‘At the time, my husband, who’d had a poor upbringing, was also in pursuit of money and things. Together, we got as much as we could.’
Her husband became very successful in IT. They had three daughters and ended up in that huge house in Cornwall. But Julieanne learned, slowly and painfully, that ‘having everything’ takes constant sacrifice. The price was happiness, freedom and time with the people she loved.
‘The only way I could do everything and keep the house looking how I thought it should was to get up at 5am,’ she says. She’d bake bread, lay out a tablecloth with fresh napkins, fetch the eggs from the chickens and feed the animals. Meanwhile, upstairs: ‘Having ten cushions on the bed looked lovely but it took time to make. I’d yell at the children if they messed it all up again.’
Her husband worked long hours to pay the mortgage and school fees. Then Julieanne opened a local clothes boutique that required frantic day trips to London to restock. Why did she take on so much? ‘I believed you can have everything “if you do enough”. I don’t think I ever felt good enough to stop. I wanted to be a great mum, career woman and wife. There was a bit of a buzz to keeping it all at that level – but there was also an emptiness inside, a dark hole. I was exhausted and very unhappy.’
The marriage buckled under the pressure. ‘My husband and I argued a lot. Our values were becoming completely different. When I left that Christmas, I rented a house near my parents’ bungalow. For the next few months, I remember waking up in the mornings with no animals to feed or garden to maintain. We couldn’t afford to go anywhere, so that summer my daughters and I made dens and had picnics. This was what I wanted – a calm life and time to spend with people I loved. I wanted memories, not things. I felt energised, focused and free.
‘I needed to make a living and my first job came by accident,’ she says. At the school gate, as she was describing her new clutter-free life, a local mum offered to pay her to clear out her own over-stuffed playroom. The job went well. She was asked to do more and word spread.
Understanding why we clutter is central to her work. For some of us, packed homes and busy lives are proof of our ‘success’; for others, it could be a way of signalling who we wish we were (for example, with books or magazines we never read). Holding on to a lifetime of stuff can be a way of clinging to happier times instead of focusing on how to create a happier future.
‘I’ve been in houses where someone’s asked me to categorise 500 Chanel handbags, many still in their wrappers,’ she says. ‘They may be in huge debt paying for that lifestyle and have no time to do anything they enjoy because they’re chained to this belief that they need to buy more.’
Decluttering requires organisational zeal but also kindness. Julieanne is often called on in times of upheaval: divorce, downsizing and bereavement. Clients talk and cry. For this reason, she’s now training to be a counsellor to underpin her work so that GPGPs can refer hoarders to her.
‘One recent client was 92,’ she says. ‘He’d lived in his house since he was 14 and it was packed – 50 old Yellow Pages, out-of-date maps. He had no family. He said, “This is my life. It’s what I am. I don’t want to be forgotten.”’ Over six weeks, Julieanne learned about the death of his father at an early age, the loss of his dog and never finding love. As the trust built, she removed basic rubbish – food wrappers and stacks of empty opened envelopes – with her client inspecting every item before allowing her to bin it. As the clutter reduced, they unearthed family photos, his mother’s clothes and father’s war medals. The man transformed. ‘He started to wash and shave, and one day he found a brand-new shirt in a packet and put on a tie.’
She continues, ‘Another client had 30 boxes of film, book and article ideas he’d wanted to write. In the past decade, he’d nursed his mother, lost his job and felt as though he hadn’t achieved anything. We had to go through every sheet, every Post-It note. It took time but the more we got through, the more energised he became.’
Jobs usually start in the bedroom. ‘It’s where we rest and rejuvenate,’ she says. The hallway is next. ‘It’s what people first see when they enter your home, where energy needs to flow freely.’ Then comes the bathroom. For Julieanne, it isn’t about expensive storage solutions, it’s talking about which items matter, helping clients part with ones that don’t and resetting their priorities to lead freer, easier lives.
Julieanne’s dream is to open her own charity outlet for selling clutter, with proceeds going to mental-health causes. She’s also writing a book, complete with an A to Z of clutter hacks. (N for ‘no white towels’ – it creates more washing. S for ‘stacking upright’ – when papers accumulate in piles, you can’t see what you’ve got.)
And she’s happy with her life. Her flat is rented, as is her car, and she has just the one wardrobe. Most importantly, she has what she once craved – time for the people she loves. ‘I’ve had it all and it didn’t work for me,’ she says. ‘Now I want to pass it on. We can make way for anything if we clear the deck.’
Your junk debunked
The stuff you keep says a lot about you. Julieanne defines five clutter types.
Ego: You’re a magnet for high-value objects, the latest ‘necessity’, most fashionable dog/dress/kitchen gadget. The message is, ‘If I’ve got all this, I must be doing well.’
Aspirational: Your clutter – paraphernalia for hobbies you didn’t start, unfinished coursework and unread books – reveals you’re aspiring to be someone you’re not at the moment. It says, ‘I’ll get back to that one day and prove I’m good enough.’
Inheritance: Dad’s train set, Mum’s crockery… you have no need for the items you keep but they were important to people you love so you feel too guilty to let them go. Taking a photo of them can help – for example, set the tea set for a last photo shoot – then find them the right home with someone who’ll love them.
Sentimental: From baby clothes including the stained bibs, to your wedding dress, even though you’re now divorced, you cling on to reminders of when you were happy – maybe because you are not happy now. Sort the truly meaningful items from the clutter into a keepsake box.
Fearful: You’re driven by a worry of running out so you buy in duplicate. One client bought nine pairs of identical boots because they fitted perfectly and she was worried they’d stop being made. When she realised that it was possible to find different boots that are just as comfortable, she gifted them to a woman’s refuge.
A place for everything…
Julieanne shares some of her clients’ stories.
‘I tidied this drawer unit for one of the time-poor school mums who worked full time. Excess was creeping everywhere and she needed to get her house ready for guests over Christmas. Out went duplicates and expired items; an Ikea tray kept it neat’
‘A divorcée had to sort out her husband’s clutter prior to selling the house. This cupboard alone took six hours to clear. I packed for another client who was downsizing – he was passionate about what he loves and wanted to keep it all’
‘A super-rich Knightsbridge couple had accumulated so much they asked me to categorise and pack clothing and accessories for storage. I stuck photos on to boxes so that their staff would be able to find any of her things easily’