I have been thinking a lot about female role models recently, and so was drawn to the Daily Mail online article this week which reported an interview in Look magazine with Tulisa Contostavlos, singer and X Factor judge. In the interview, she described herself as an “inspiration for broken Britain”; I was intrigued. I was particularly interested in what Tulisa had to say because – as the Daily Mail article reminded its readers – I was quoted back in June as saying that her drunken rant on Twitter (which lost her thousands of followers) had set a bad example to young people, and that people in the public eye were de facto role models, and so had a responsibility to think about the consequences of their actions on impressionable young people. Was Tulisa putting this and her rather wild past behind her, recognising that she had the power and the influence to affect what her fans, followers and viewers did and how they acted? Was she determined to be a true role model and a true inspiration?
It seemed only fair to read the whole article in Look, which I dutifully did, although I struggled to make sense of the logic of parts of the interview, including her assertion that she was “not inspiration for upper-class kids whose parents don’t want them to listen to an Eminem album. I’m inspiration for broken Britain”. This aside, however, I was struck by a number of thoughts:-
- Tulisa is emphatic in making the point that “people are underestimating the kids of today – they’re not stupid.” This is very true – children and teenagers are often greatly underestimated. This occurs in families, at school, and in the community, and leads to them not being challenged and stretched enough – often not enough is demanded of them, either in thought or action. Just because we underestimate them, however, does not mean that we shouldn’t actively engage in guiding and leading them. This need too is often overlooked – it is the wider responsibility of all of us to enable young people to fulfil their potential, and we don’t do that by operating a neglectful ‘sink or swim’ approach. It is not fair to them, and it is not necessary – together we can help them grow.
- Many readers are going to find Tulisa’s expletives offensive (even when they are neatly starred out), and this won’t do much for her role model status. Free speech, a bedrock of our liberal society, is a misunderstood concept; people forget that it doesn’t mean permission to say just anything, regardless of consequences. Free speech is limited by the need not to offend or harm others, and a key word in its practical application is that of “respect”. Good role models will always, to my mind, exhibit this quality.
- My heart sank when I saw the glamour shots which accompanied the article. Our young people – and especially girls – are bombarded enough by images of glamorous women; they certainly don’t need any more. Such pictures form a uniform and ubiquitous backdrop to their lives, teaching them in effect that to be successful they also need to conform to an idealised norm of sexualised female beauty. Given that it is estimated that 95% of the female population would find it physically impossible to attain this ‘norm’, they are setting themselves up for disappointment and failure. No wonder that rates of body confidence are dropping drastically. People in the public eye – and especially women – would be doing girls and young women a real service (and would be real role models) if they could find a way to communicate that individuality and difference in physical shape, size and appearance is to be celebrated.
It is hard when you have come into the public eye young, as Tulisa has, especially when you enter into a pressurised and media/publicity-fuelled industry such as the world of music. At a young age, you are still finding your feet in life, and even if you do want to move on, the internet is unforgiving. Everything you have ever done in the past – sex tapes included, in Tulisa’s case – are still there, for all to see.
That said, none of us can go backwards. The past cannot be undone. What those in the public eye need to do, as they recognise their responsibility as role models, is to seek to make amends for some parts of their past but focus more specifically on making a positive impact on those with whom they now come into contact. In turn, the public need to learn to be forgiving, and to move on too.
I am an eternal optimist about people. I truly believe that every single human being has the potential to do tremendous good, and that it would have a hugely constructive effect on society and on our world if everyone adopted this approach.
My advice to Tulisa: take this on board. Recognise your power to do something amazing for the world, and be very discerning about the advice you are being given in how you present yourself. Look up, look out, and have the humility to seek to make a positive difference in the world.