Flower power

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Award-winning blogger and author Chidera Eggerue has won legions of fans for her positive messages on female empowerment and body confidence. We caught up with the Peckham-born powerhouse as her first book is released

 Words Emma Finamore; Photo (c) Vicky Grout

The word “influencer” gets used a lot these days, whether it’s to describe people promoting brands on Instagram, beauty vloggers recommending the latest mascara on YouTube, or clean eating bloggers posting their favourite kale recipes. Chidera Eggerue, however, can genuinely claim the word as her own. And – more importantly – she uses her position as a force for good.

The 23-year-old from Peckham has been making waves in the blogging world for the past few years now, gaining a seriously high profile as a positive young voice when it comes to body confidence.

She has just been included in the Dazed 100 list (Dazed magazine’s annual list of “people whose time is now”), and is about to release her first book encouraging people to embrace solitude.

Chidera’s blog – The Slumflower – has grown from a fashion blog into a full-blown movement. It started in 2014, during a period when fashion blogging was becoming “the thing” among affluent (usually white) women.

“I could never be or feel like them”, says Chidera. “There were not enough black women in blogging, or students with no money, so I started doing it myself.”

The Slumflower was inspired by a short film of the same name by creative agency Street Etiquette, about the misconceptions about public housing. It centres around a 10-year-old boy who finds beauty and growth in the midst of concrete, taking inspiration from films like Spike Lee’s Clockers (1995) or seminal New York rapper Nas’ Nas is Like” (1999).

Chidera related to that idea, of a “a rose growing from concrete”. Her blog says: “This concept of beautifully growing, glowing and flourishing in an environment that mainly appears to promote the opposite, especially being a predominantly black neighbourhood which is currently undergoing heavy gentrification.”

Her first shoot was in Catford, put together with the help of a group of artistic friends who briefly formed a creative collective called Asylum 33. But as Chidera grew, she decided she had to strike out alone.

“I think becoming too reliant on other people in a group would be detrimental,” she says. “It was so scary but I’m glad I took all those risks, choosing to go with my gut.”

She was right to choose that way. Her hugely successful blog has gone on to address the subjects of female empowerment, self-confidence, self-love, black hair, fashion and self-exploration.

A post from last summer, titled “Letter to my future self” is not only a celebration of her own achievements and what she can look forward to, but is a must-read for any young person: a reflection on hard work, focusing on personal successes, a reminder to ignore negative forces, and motivation to work hard and work better.

The post reads: “You’re often told that you’re wise beyond your years but it took a lot of pain for you to get here. You’re scared of settling for a mediocre life so you live every single day loudly, fruitfully and proudly. Why? Because we are all dying slowly.

“You know what’s the biggest motivation? Leaving ungrateful people behind. There’s no greater teacher than loss. You’ve learnt to be confident enough to walk away from those who find it hard to make room for you. Because in the end, you’ll never miss what’s meant for you.

“You’ve decided that you want to stop repeating your toxic traits and instead, start making peace with your past. Less over-thinking, more water-drinking. Less cakes, more kale. If you learnt something, it was never a fail. Continue to be kind. Kindness never goes to waste.

“This time next year, you’ll be plotting world domination at the dinner table with Michelle Obama,” the last line of the post reads. “She doesn’t know it yet, but she needs your help.”

Chidera could have been looking into a crystal ball when she wrote this statement – the world seems to have been crying out for her assistance, and now they’ve got it they’re not letting go.

The Slumflower has featured on BBC News, BBC Three, ITV, CNN and Radio 4; and in magazines and websites like i-D, Glamour, Huffington Post, Stylist and Time Out. Chidera has appeared at Afropunk festival and Tate and has presented at the Mobo awards.

Elle magazine dubbed her the “Millennial mastermind”, while Dazed said: “The Peckham native is this generation’s agony aunt.” Teen Vogue said: “Chidera is most focused on getting a message of body positivity across to women.”

Cosmopolitan magazine shortlisted Chidera in its Cosmopolitan Influencer Awards in April as the year’s top “disruptor/changemaker”, alongside other high-profile and international names.

Asked why she thinks she was nominated for that particular award, she laughs: “Because I’ve been causing a lot of trouble… the good kind. Men feel uncomfortable about it.”

As well as empowering women to love their bodies (#saggyboobs and everything) Chidera has been vocal about women in straight relationships needing to be more comfortable and prioritise themselves.

She reaches people on a very personal level through her blog and various appearances, and due to social media (she has 153,000 followers on Instagram alone) her fans and followers are able to reach back to her.

As we chat, Chidera receives a direct message on Instagram from a follower, which says: “I was saving up for a boob job and after seeing your interview and listening to your words I spent it all on lingerie instead! You’re beautiful and inspiring.”

“This happens daily,” she says, and it clearly means a lot to her to hear from readers. “People are starting to view things in a different way, and actually it’s often older women.

“It just takes one person to do it and you start to deprogramme people, tip everything upside down. And it’s not about ‘fake boobs versus real boobs’ – everyone can be involved, any boob-bearing person can join in!”

Next on Chidera’s list of taboos to smash down is solitude, or rather the modern person’s fear of solitude. Her book, What a Time to be Alone: The Slumflower’s guide to why you are already enough, was published on July 26.

Taking its name from a play on the phrase “what a time to be alive”, it hopes to encourage readers not only to get over their fear of being alone, but to enjoy it, embrace it and use it.

“The Slumflower will be your life guru, confidante and best friend,” goes the blurb in the book. “She’ll show you that being alone is not just OK: it’s just about the best freaking thing that’s ever happened to you.”

“It’s about normalising solitude,” Chidera says. “Your company is just as important as anyone else’s. You should be your favourite person to hang out with, especially women.

“Smartphones make it harder to be alone now, we get a quick serotonin boost from them, but we end up checking our notifications rather than checking ourselves – everyone makes that mistake.

“Everything has a microwave solution, but what I’m trying to encourage is to work on yourself: push yourself to find answers by asking yourself the questions you’re afraid to ask.

“We often have so much angst and frustration, but people don’t know who to direct it at, we need to put things down and look at ourselves. My book is a mirror: it won’t do the work for you, but it will help you get there.”

The book features proverbs Chidera’s Nigerian mother has told her over the years, to help teach her solid life lessons. She says her favourite is one about a rat that sees a lizard happily running out into the rain, the drops of water running off its scaly skin.

The rat – thinking it will fare the same – eagerly follows the lizard out into the rain, but because it has fur, not scales, it gets soaked through and can’t move. The lesson? “Be mindful of the kind of people who influence you,” smiles Chidera.

It’s especially interesting when thinking about this from Chidera’s point of view as an influencer. “I do make an effort to live by example,” she says. “Be all the things I encourage people to be, literally using myself as a test. I put myself in certain scenarios.”

One place she never has to test herself though, where she always feels comfortable, is her hometown of Peckham. She has fond memories of Nunhead Cemetery, Kings on the Rye and getting penny sweets from Woolworths, where Sports Direct is now.

Chidera still spends a lot of time here, rating PeckhamPlex for its reasonable prices and friendly vibe, John the Unicorn as a good place to grab a drink, and all the hair and beauty shops – especially Pak’s for natural haircare products and hair extensions.

“I feel mainly positive about the changes in Peckham recently,” she says. “I feel like a bit of a veteran though, I miss when it wasn’t so hyped.”

Something Chidera is hyped about is her new book. “I’m so, so excited about it coming out,” she laughs. “I want to inspire a shift in the way people talk about mental health, and to make solitude great again.” And what better young woman to take up that mission.

 

 

A colourful life

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With its bright paintwork, eccentric plasterwork and front garden overflowing with flowers, the home of former Loampit Hill resident Mr Pink was a much-loved local landmark. Helena Appio tells our writer how she came to make a short film about its owner

Words by Colin Richardson; Photo by Lianne Harris

When I was young, growing up in Lewisham, there was one place that was so mind-bogglingly exotic, so other-worldly, that every time I passed it I could only stare in silent wonder.

It turns out that I was not alone. Countless numbers of people – and maybe you’re one of them – have gone past and wondered. All except one person, that is. Helena Appio stopped and knocked on the door.

Close to the top of Loampit Hill, on the corner of Somerset Gardens, stands a house quite unlike any other in the neighbourhood. It is a large, red-brick Victorian mansion. It has a flight of stone steps up to the front door in front of which is an ample porch, its stone roof supported by several sturdy columns.

So far, so standard-issue. But then the eye is caught by the corner tower, which rises a full storey above the rest of the house and things take a different turn. You start to notice the plasterwork. It is as if a pastry chef, driven mad by years of decorating wedding cakes, has run amok with a giant piping bag full of liquid plaster.

Swags of grape-laden vines are draped around the massive windows. Strange faces peer out from the foliage. A thousand flowers bloom under the eaves. Scrolls and twirls and curlicues run riot. Rococo would be one word for it.

But what made this already remarkable house so utterly arresting was that someone had attacked the eccentric plasterwork with a paintbrush, a brush dipped in shades of pink and blue and green and red, which brought it to the fore in eye-popping detail.

The same hand also painted the columns in vertical candy stripes and the steps to the front door a bright, pillar-box red. In monochrome 1970s Lewisham this house was full-on Technicolor. And the person who made it so was a truly extraordinary man by the name of Brenton Samuel Pink.

In the late 1990s, Helena Appio, a producer and director of documentaries at the BBC, decided to strike out on her own and try her hand at independent film-making. Her first project, for Channel 4, was The Windrush Years, 12 three-minute portraits of people who came from the Caribbean to the UK between 1948 and 1971.

Then she saw the Arts Council was inviting submissions for short films about local artists and she wondered who might fit the bill.

“At that point,” Helena recalls, “I was living in Brockley, in Montague Avenue, and Mr Pink lived literally minutes away. I passed his house every day and I thought, ‘Who lives here?’ so I went and knocked on the door.

“He opened the door about two inches wide and peered out and said hello. I said, ‘I wonder if I could talk to you about making a film’, and he said, ‘Come back in a week or so.’

“I went back and took a bottle of rum with me. He opened the door a little wider this time and took the rum and said to come back later. I went back a third time and he let me in. He started talking and I realised he was very interesting, an amazing character. Then we went back and filmed.”

The result is a touching and, at times, elegiac 15-minute film, A Portrait of Mr Pink. In it, Mr P explains that he was born in Jamaica in 1925 and came to the UK on July 11, 1957, just shy of his 32nd birthday.

He had already established himself as a singer and musician, but although he continued to perform and make recordings, he spent his working life as a refuse collector and street cleaner for Lewisham Council.

He loved his job, he says in the film. On the day that he retired – August 28, 1988 (he is very precise about dates) – he was, he says, “very upset, terribly upset. If I was younger,” he adds, laughing, “I’d go back there right away, right away.”

Mr Pink bought the house on Loampit Hill in 1967 and lived there until he died last year. He seems to have shared it with his wife and eight children, most of whom had left by the time the film was made.

He devoted much of his time to putting his stamp on the place. “I like beauty and I like prettiness,” he says in the film. “When I just bought it, well, it was not beautiful. But since I take it over and added myself towards it, I developed it to have a lightness. My additions make a difference, brighten it up.

“I’ve created a part of Jamaica here. Some like this house and some may not like it, I don’t know. But I know a lot of people like it and I like it myself.”

In the film, Mr Pink points proudly at a large plaster face, with long, flowing tresses, which adorns the front of the porch. He thought it ugly, so he set about “prettying it up and chiselling it down”.

He painted the face a pinky brown, the tresses sea green like seaweed and added a blue moustache and beard. “It looks like Jesus,” he says approvingly.

He continued the religious theme inside, where the colour scheme was, if anything, even more startling. A framed copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper was hung on a mustard yellow wall.

Wonky plaster mouldings had been applied to the bedroom walls by Mr P’s very own trowel, creating an intricate and slightly bonkers latticework, the spaces in between painted with bright colours so that the whole resembled a somewhat woozy stained-glass window.

Outside, Mr Pink created a beautiful garden that was intended as a reminder of Jamaica. He was often seen tending to it while wearing one of his many hats, some of which were adorned with greenery. “I always wear a hat,” says Mr Pink to camera. “It makes me feel good and feel lovely.”

Mr Pink created his dream of Jamaica against a less than dreamy backdrop. In 1977, riots broke out on Lewisham High Street when a march by the racist National Front (NF) was confronted by the Anti-Nazi League.

In local elections that year for the Greater London Council, the NF took a third of the vote in Lewisham. The following year, Mr Pink himself, returning from a “fantastic” holiday in Jamaica, was detained for some hours at Heathrow airport.

“It made me feel very sick, very dirty, very nasty, very ugly, not a pretty, happy person at the time at all,” he says in the film. He never went abroad again.

And while, arguably, Lewisham and the UK as a whole have changed for the better in so many ways since then, for people of the Windrush generation like Mr Pink, it seems that much has stayed the same.

Today, a year after Mr Pink’s death, his house is a shadow of its former glorious self. The colours have faded, the paint is peeling, the garden is unkempt. Jesus has lost his blue moustache and beard and now looks more like Ann Widdecombe. There is something of Bates Motel about the place; it is more English gothic than Caribbean rococo.

For all that, it remains an arresting sight. People still stop and look and wonder. The magic that Mr Pink wove has not entirely dissipated.

Earlier this year, Helena was contacted by two people who had heard about her film and were interested in seeing it. So she posted it on Facebook “in memory of Mr Pink, who died last year”. Then she went to bed and thought no more of it.

The next morning, she checked her phone and said to her husband, Tom, “That’s weird. I’ve got an awful lot of Facebook notifications.” The film had gone viral. It went from 1,000 views first thing to 4,000 after breakfast. By lunchtime, it was over 6,000.

“It just continued,” says Helena. “I think it’s now 530,000.” And that’s just the Facebook viewings. After Time Out put it up on their website and Helena posted it to YouTube, “there were something like a million views in about a month”.

“It had obviously touched people,” Helena says. “It was really lovely.”

Watch A Portrait of Mr Pink on YouTube at tinyurl.com/mrpinkfilm. The Windrush Years, directed by Helena Appio and Petal Felix, can be viewed on Vimeo at tinyurl.com/windrushfilm