By Margarette Driscoll
TV presenter June Sarpong‘s world came crashing down when her beloved brother died in tragic circumstances two years ago. She explains how she is pulling through the darkest times – and why we would all benefit from learning to empathise with others.
June Sarpong is the last person you’d expect to make snap judgments about people or be anything less than open-minded. The TV presenter and writer grew up on a council estate in East London but as a modern celebrity – of African descent, working in Britain and America – she effortlessly crosses class, culture and continent boundaries.
Yet, a couple of years back, she caught herself falling into the trap of stereotyping. She was in Las Vegas filming a documentary when a tattooed young man appeared on set. An apprentice sound engineer, he looked as though he’d had a tough upbringing, maybe a few run-ins with the law, and June felt intimidated.
‘If he’d walked past me in Walthamstow I wouldn’t have flinched,’ she says, ‘but I wasn’t used to this on a TV set. My instinct was to exclude him – not overtly, I’m too polite and British for that; just to pretend he wasn’t there so I could feel comfortable.
‘Then it struck me. I thought “Oh, my God, this is it!’’’ She’s talking prejudice: ‘I’d only ever looked at it from one perspective: as a black woman used to other people making assumptions about me. You remember that story about Oprah Winfrey – a billionaire – going into a prestigious shop and being told she wouldn’t be able to afford a handbag she wanted to look at? Some version of that has happened to every black person I know.’
When June talked to the young man she discovered that he was determined to overcome his disadvantaged background. The crew’s sound man had given him a chance and he was brimming with enthusiasm at the prospect of a career in TV. That conversation was one of the most enlightening of her life, she says. It made her examine her attitude to people ‘different’ to herself and proved the trigger for a new crusade: she wants all of us to face up to our sometimes subconscious prejudices and overcome them to create a better society.
‘The politically correct brigade have won the day in that they have changed behaviour, but they have not changed beliefs,’ she says. ‘People aren’t allowed to say the things they did when my parents came to Britain and were openly abused in the street, but just tolerating people isn’t enough – and neither is the do-gooder pretence that we are all the same. We need to get to know people who are different from us, to acknowledge our differences and celebrate them.’
June’s new book, Diversify: Six Degrees of Integration, sets out the plan. It’s a passionately written polemic, weaving her own experience as a young black woman making her way in the world with research by academics on the social and economic benefits of a diverse and inclusive society. Interaction and understanding – everyone feeling included regardless of background – could help guard against home-grown terrorist attacks and the disengagement that leads to social unrest.
She thinks the terrible events of this year have, in some ways, brought us to a tipping point: ‘Tragedies like Grenfell Tower are bringing London together more. The haves are beginning to realise you cannot ignore the have nots, especially when you live side by side,’ she says.
June campaigned for Remain but now that Brexit is becoming a reality she says we need to be able to trade effectively with the emerging markets. Research has shown that companies with a diverse workforce are better able to attract customers from a variety of ethnic or LGBT groups. ‘Diversity is better for the bottom line, period,’ says June.
However liberal-minded we like to think we are, most of us live in a safe bubble surrounded by people who speak, look, think – and usually vote – the same way. Diversify encourages us to step outside that circle and get to know someone of another race or religion, perhaps by volunteering at a local school, or by joining an evening class where fellow pupils will be a bit different from your friends.
For June, growing up where she did, that came naturally: ‘My school was like a blue-collar version of the United Nations.’ Her Sikh friends brought in sweets on the Guru Nanak celebration day. At other friends’ houses she joined in Shabbat, Eid and Diwali. Her best friend was Chinese-Vietnamese, which meant ‘free Mandarin lessons and amazing [Chinese] New Year parties’.
Politics has been as much a passion as music for her ever since June began her TV career as a pop presenter on MTV and Channel 4. The two came together in 2008 when she hosted Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations with Will Smith in Hyde Park.
During a spell living in New York she co-founded the Women: Inspiration & Enterprise network, supported by Martha Lane Fox, Vivienne Westwood and Iman. She has interviewed Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Bill Clinton, and at 29 was appointed MBE for services to broadcasting and charity work. As well as having appeared regularly on ITV’s Loose Women, last year she became a panellist on Sky’s weekly political debate, The Pledge.
June turned 40 in May but looks much younger, with her rock-chick curtain of glossy hair and biker jacket. She lives in edgy King’s Cross, having returned to London in 2014 after eight years in the US. She has just been back there for a holiday with friends in Shelter Island, New York. ‘It’s part of the Hamptons but much less pretentious than some bits,’ she says.
Listen to her enthuse about America, or laugh over her love life, and you would think she hadn’t a care in the world, but June has suffered a series of emotional traumas that would have floored someone less grounded.
When she was a child, her family lost everything as they fled Ghana for London during the 1981 military coup. As a teenager, a road accident left her in hospital for more than a year. Two years ago, her beloved elder brother Sam took his own life. That event was the single most painful thing she has experienced, she says, but, ‘you only have two choices when stuff happens that’s outside your control: you give in and let it ruin your life or you think, “OK, how can I stay positive even in all of this darkness?”’
She was just four when the family was uprooted from its comfortable home in Accra, the Ghanaian capital. Her father was a bank executive and they were part of the elite: ‘We lived in the best part of town, went to international schools, had maids, European cars – all the things that Africans value as status symbols.’ That elite world came crumbling down – literally overnight – when armed militia, committed to overthrowing the government, broke into their house as they slept.
‘I don’t know how he managed it but my dad stayed calm,’ remembers June, ‘and said he could go to the bank to get them money and that they should come back later. Stupidly, they agreed, thank God. We fled to the UK with just our passports and ended up being given a house on a council estate in Walthamstow. Luckily my parents had spent time living in Britain [for her father’s job] and we children [June, Sam and elder sister Rebecca] had been born here so we were British citizens.
‘It was really hard for my mother to adjust. She wasn’t used to having no money, having to ask for help. My parents are proud people. They hated relying on the state. They never wanted to be “those” immigrants.’
After two years, their marriage buckled under the stress. Her father, unable to find work in Britain commensurate with his ability, left for a bank job in America. Sam went with him (‘In African families it’s very much the father who brings up the boys and the mother the girls’), while her mother supported the remaining family by working as a nurse. They eventually moved out of the council house and June’s mother remarried, giving her another sister, Gina, who is 14 years younger.
June spoke to her father and brother every week and, although their separation must have been hard, she spent her summer holidays in America and remembers it making her the cool kid at school as she always brought back the latest trainers.
‘Our parents were very aspirational, and as kids we knew we had to try to do well to make their struggle worth it,’ says June. They would have liked her to go to university but, like Rebecca, who became a chef, and Sam, who was forging a career in the US as an actor, she saw her future in the creative world. She got a job as a receptionist at Kiss FM, where she later ended up as a presenter.
It was her early experience of the unrest in Ghana that ignited her passion for politics. ‘The night the men broke in is one of my earliest memories. I still don’t like being in big houses on my own. When something like that happens, you see how quickly civil society can unravel.’
Her life was thrown into turmoil again at the age of 14, when she was hit by a car as she walked to school. After a year in traction with no improvement, ‘one of the technicians looked at my scan and realised it wasn’t just a dislocation, there was a crack in my spine’. She underwent surgery, but still had to wear a neck brace for two and a half years.
‘In hospital, the doctors didn’t know if I would walk again. I started to pray and to meditate – though I didn’t know what meditation was then – and that’s what got me through. I grew up in a Christian household though I had never really enjoyed going to church – but the hospital thing really cemented my belief in God.’ That faith has also given her something to cling to since her brother’s death in October 2015.
Sam’s suicide came out of the blue. A school basketball star who carved out a successful career as an actor and model, he appeared in more than 60 films and was the face of the Tommy Hilfiger brand. He had no history of depression or mental illness. That morning his flatmate in Los Angeles noted that he was in an ‘odd’ mood but thought nothing of it and went to work. Sam, 40, headed for a bridge in Pasadena and threw himself to his death.
‘It’s the worst, most painful thing,’ says June, who remembers playing doctors and nurses with Sam when they were small and driving him mad by ‘being the annoying little sister’ and borrowing his BMX bike without asking. ‘It will never make sense, not if you knew him. My brother was the one you went to if you had problems. I rack my brain constantly – what did we miss?
‘I think when people talk about having a moment of madness, that’s what it was. We assume mental illness is something that sets in over time and that there are warning signs, but it’s made me think that just as someone can seem perfectly healthy yet their heart suddenly gives out, you can wake up one day and your mind gives in.’
For a full year, she says, she woke every day with a feeling of anxiety. ‘I didn’t know how I was going to function. I don’t drink or do drugs, but I now understand why people do. When you experience something so painful you need something outside yourself to get through it. For me that’s prayer and God, for somebody else it’s a line of coke or a bottle.
The whole family has been deeply affected. ‘My dad was always gregarious and outgoing but now he’s a shadow of himself. Everyone heals at a different pace,’ she adds. ‘You intuitively learn how to deal with each other. It breaks you open in so many ways, which brings you closer, but you also need time apart to process everything, and it’s about understanding that. I recommend meditation, mindfulness – anything that gives you peace. I used to start the day with a five-minute meditation but now I need a good hour. I like to set an intention for how I would like my day to go and visualise it: that’s become very important for me.’
She doesn’t drink – ‘not because I disapprove, I just never started. Recovering from the accident meant I missed a lot of things you do as a teenager, although I keep loads of wine in my house for anyone who visits. I love cooking. It’s an African thing; everything happens around food. We have a family house in Ghana again, so I visit every year. I wonder sometimes: when you die, do you still get to eat?’ She’s laughing again. ‘In heaven do you get to have sex? Food? I’m choosing food…’
Relationships are not off the menu, though. She says she’s just met someone new but it’s ‘early days’. Many moons ago she had a two-year relationship with the MP David Lammy, but though she has had many boyfriends since then – ‘black, white, Indian, Jewish, atheist’ – she hasn’t found The One. Which is a surprise because she talked fervently in the press, when turning 30, about how much she wanted children. So much so, she reveals, that she froze her eggs with the help of fertility doctor Geeta Nargund, who has become a friend.
‘[Geeta] says that if your daughter isn’t in a serious relationship at 30 you should give her egg-freezing as a birthday present. We should make sure young women know that, although science is changing things, there is still a biological clock. If you want children, make it a priority.
‘I’m part of a generation that totally put work over relationships. I don’t think I regret that – I’ve enjoyed it – but the lie that was sold to us was that you can have it all. And I’ve realised there’s always compromise. What [egg-freezing] does is help to equalise things between men and women: if there were no biological clock there would be no difference between men and women ageing.
‘I’m 40 now, so who knows? But I won’t feel a sense of dread if I don’t have children. I want to be a mother but it doesn’t have to be biological. My sister has two teenage daughters I am close to. I have a friend who enjoys being a stepmum. I’m from an African tradition that says it takes a village to raise a child. I’m quite philosophical. I’m open to whatever my life is supposed to be.’
If her destiny is to be a mother by helping disadvantaged children when she’s older, she’s cool, she says. No rush: she’s busy right now making the world a better place.
Styling: Alexandria Reid at Frank Agency
Hair: Verona White using Instyler rotating iron
Make-up: Jessie Barker
junesarpong.com. Diversify: Six Degrees of Integration by June Sarpong will be published by HQ, HarperCollins on 19 October, price £16.99, to pre-order a copy for £13.59 (a 20 per cent discount) until 24 September, visit you-bookshop.co.uk or call 0844 571 0640; p&p is free on orders over £15. June will discuss her book at the Henley Literary Festival on 8 October. For details, visit henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk