HuffPost UK recently caught up with the former bomb disposal worker about how ‘New Activists’ felt the like the right fit for her, why the refugee crisis means so much and what it’s like breaking the reality TV star mould…
What made you want to get involved with ‘New Activists’?
Having seen the other ‘New Activists’ and what they’d been working on, you could see that it was really opening people’s eyes to a whole different side of activism. Like, it was humanising the people involved.
In some instances there’s been a bit of a stigma attached to activism, and people would consider activists to be only a certain type of person. But actually this documentary series has really given an insight into the fact it’s just about normal people who feel very strongly, and there’s so many different sides to that person. It’s all about big ideas but with very real people.
People know you best from ‘Love Island’, and after being on a show like that, you get a lot of offers. How did you decide what to do next?
I think it’s all about authenticity, really, on that side of things, and I know what I think I’m good at, and it tends to be stuff that I feel passionately about. If I’m going to do something, I like to do it justice.
For me it was just important to find the right thing, and also to try and make sure that I was using any platform that I might have to raise awareness for certain issues that I don’t think necessarily always get seen.
It’s that thing, interestingly, of different horses for different courses. I have so much admiration for the other things that people have done, and this seemed like the right opportunity for me.
On ‘Love Island’, we saw how much you wanted to do more activism. Did you ever worry that being on a show like that would limit your options?
Of course there were concerns in my mind in terms of going back to the work that I did before, and I think obviously it’s always worth having those concerns and having a healthy level of worry about what you’re going to do next, because it makes you stay on the right track. So I guess I was worried to an extent, but I think it was the same for all of us who were in it from the beginning.
When we came out we just didn’t realise how successful the series had been, and how successful it had been across so many different demographics. It was really a very diverse audience and… I think there was definitely something in the timing, this summer was quite an interesting time on many different levels with domestic and foreign politics, and somehow in that. ‘Love Island’ became this really engaging escapism.
So I’ll say that I did have concerns, but in the same way I would have had concerns about many different things and how that could affect my work.
Do you hope that your involvement in ‘Love Island’ and ‘New Activists’ can possibly inspire a new breed of celebrities who start on reality shows?
I think the thing is, it’s really interesting because I feel like there are comparisons being drawn that aren’t as clear as it might appear. I don’t feel as different [to other reality stars] as sometimes people perceive it. I’m struggling to explain myself, but I think it’s very easy to label someone as a “typical reality TV star” but that person will have many other sides to them.
The only thing that I sort of hope will happen is that… if I can raise any awareness of the issues that are important to me, that will make me very happy.
What is it about the refugee crisis in particular that spoke to you?
I think part of it comes from my previous work, pre- ‘Love Island’.
When you go to an area where there’s been a conflict and you can see people have been forced to leave their homes behind, and then you’re involved in trying to make the area safe so they can come back… you start to think about what it must mean for that person. To have literally got to a point where they had no choice but to leave, but also what growing up against that backdrop of violence can do to a person.
Also, because I was on the EOD [explosive ordnance disposal] side, I wasn’t seeing much of the people who had been forced to leave, so it was really important to me to build up that whole picture of what the results of conflict are.
So, I initially took the trip to Greece with Jamie [Jewitt, her boyfriend and fellow ‘Love Island’ star] and that was certainly an eye-opener, from that point on we just realised how much we could be doing to help people, and i just wanted to be a part of that.
So how did your trip to Calais come about?
I spoke to Josie [Naughton], who’s the co-founder of Help Refugees about supporting them.
It’s been a year since the demolition of the Jungle camp in Calais, and since then, people have been homeless, living rough – not that they had homes before, but there was some form of camp, some form of protection, and they are now completely exposed. And that includes a number of unaccompanied children who are sleeping rough, completely unprotected, no one to stop anything happening to them.
The more I discussed it with her, the more I realised first of all that I needed to see it for myself, and secondly that I wanted to be a part of trying to highlight the fact that there is a legal route for these children to come here, there is a safe way and that needs to happen urgently. Especially now it’s coming up to winter.
In the year since the jungle camp closed, how has the situation in Calais changed?
I think it’s worse, for the people who are there at the moment. It would be wrong for me to draw any sort of straight of judgement, because I didn’t see it before. But we spoke to a gentleman called Stu in the distribution centre, and he had been in the jungle camp, and he said for him the conditions are worse.
Now, they’re not even allowed tents to sleep in, so now they get a sleeping bag and a blanket at best, and even those are often taken away by the police, so the conditions are really really bad. In terms of keeping track of people, in making sure that they haven’t been hurt or harmed, that they haven’t attempted to cross and then not made it back and they’re stranded somewhere on their own, it’s just so much harder when there’s no formalised systems.
What’s the reality like for the many unaccompanied minors you just mentioned?
The reality is that they are completely on their own. They are lucky if they have enough food and enough clothing to get through the day, and at night they’re having to sleep by themselves in the woods, which leaves them very vulnerable, not just to the elements, but to human trafficking and to abuse.
If you can imagine, you’re sleeping in the woods at night and maybe wandering around during the day, you don’t have access to finding out what your legal rights are.
They’re also not fully aware with what’s going on with their situation of coming to the UK, they’ve seen people leave the Jungle camp and be brought to the UK under the Dubs Amendment, but they don’t know when that’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen… that’s why organisations like Safe Passage are so important, because they can at least keep them updated.
Because the thing is, if they think there’s no movement, and they’re living in such dire conditions that they aren’t going to survive, that’s when there’s a potential for them to attempt something really really unsafe to come to the UK.
To people who want to help but maybe aren’t able to visit Calais in the way that you did, what practical advice can you offer them?
The first thing would be that awareness and advocating on behalf of the cause is incredibly important. So, sharing messages, staying up to date with what’s going on, it doesn’t sound like you’re doing a lot, but you’re doing so much by doing that, because you might then reach someone else, who hasn’t heard about what’s happening.
The second thing I’d say is donations, Help Refugees has a really good page which tells everyone exactly what they need in terms of items, clothing, sleeping bags and blankets, so people can donate that kind of thing.
Donating money is always a good option, but obviously particularly for young people it’s not always that easy.
And then if they do have an opportunity to volunteer, it doesn’t need to be now, but maybe in two years’ time… it might not be the same political climate or the same crisis, but they will at some point in the future have the opportunity to volunteer, and I would say have a go if you can. Find a little slot in your diary, because I cannot tell you how much it changes the way you see things and the way you think about things.
One of the criticisms of activism is that it doesn’t always bring about actual change. What are the things people can do to try and bridge that gap between ‘saying’ and ‘doing’?
That’s a really interesting question, because that’s obviously come up a lot in the last couple of decades because of the rise of internet activism. So we’ve seen a lot of strong online campaigns, but whether they’ve transferred into tangible gains has been a slightly different thing.
But I think we have to look at that side of things as a process, and part of that process is raising awareness. The more people you can reach with your message, the greater number of people who will be inclined to read a bit more, and find out something and start forming opinions, and then decide, ‘well, I’ve got two weeks this summer, I wasn’t planning on doing anything, I might go and volunteer’ or ‘I’m having a wardrobe clear-out this Saturday, instead of binning my clothes, I’m going to send them across or to a distribution centre’.
I think it’s very easy to say that people read something, might engage with it and then not do anything – but it doesn’t have to be immediate. It might take a bit of time for many people to have the opportunity to engage but the more the awareness is raised, the more likely it is that people will have the opportunity to be a pat of something. And even raising awareness and advocating on behalf of the cause that you’re interested in is a really important element.
I feel like the most important thing is that people feel like they can be a part of it, they don’t have to be a particular type of person or think a particular way, they can be a part of something in someway as long as they care about it.
‘New Activists’ is a daily docu-reality series following the lives of young people who are changing the world. They are loud on social media, they are marching on the streets and they are challenging the status quo. In this ten-week series, we’ll follow their lives as they campaign for the causes that matter to them.